The significance of “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife” (Genesis 3:17) for a theology of gender

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Within evangelicalism over the past couple decades, much ink has been spilled over the debate between so-called “complementarians” and egalitarians. Both groups have debated and sought different answers to the question, what is Biblical manhood and womanhood? One crucial area, if not the fundamental place, for sorting out a Biblically accurate response to this question is the opening chapters of scripture, Genesis 1-3. As Ortlund explains,

“Why go all the way back to the first three chapters of the Bible, if our concern is with manhood and womanhood today? Because as Genesis 1-3 go, so goes the whole Biblical debate. One way or the other, all the additional Biblical texts on manhood and womanhood must be interpreted consistently with these” (Ortlund, Kindle Locations 2146-2148).

This paper in particular seeks to examine the phrase כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ (Gen 3:17) and determine its potential significance for a theology of gender.

As introduced by a כִּי conjunction, כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ provides the reason or grounds for Adam’s punishment—Adam listened to his wife. The crucial question for this paper’s concern is whether issues of differing gender roles are being addressed, assumed, or alluded to in this clause. (1) Is this mention of Adam’s “listening” (idiomatic for “obeying”; Wenham, 82) to his wife meant to communicate his failure to “listen” to God? In other words, is כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ a rhetorical way of referring to Adam’s disobedience as spelled out in the following phrase (וַתֹּ֨אכַל֙ מִן־הָעֵ֔ץ)? Or, (2) does כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ reflect a complementary male-female creation design that was subverted in this original sin (i.e., man not only sinned, but was lead into sin by woman)?[1] If the former option—a rhetorical use—is accurate, then this phrase may contribute very little (if anything) to the debate concerning biblical manhood and womanhood. And, as indicated by וַתֹּ֨אכַל֙ מִן־הָעֵ֔ץ, the rhetorical meaning is clearly present. In fact, Wenham (82) and Westermann (264) seem to assume that a rhetorical use is the sole significance of this phrase.[2] However, that “listened to the voice of your wife” is rhetorically equivalent to “and you ate from the tree” does not preclude the reality that creation-established gender roles may also be assumed here.

In fact, several reasons indicate creation-designed gender roles are assumed behind כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒. First, if God was merely addressing Adam’s disobedience (i.e., וַתֹּ֨אכַל֙ מִן־הָעֵ֔ץ), the addition of כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ would be superfluous and unnecessary. As Ortlund states, “Adam sinned at two levels. At one level, he defied the plain and simple command of 2:17. That is obvious. . . . At another level, Adam sinned by ‘listening to his wife.’ He abandoned his headship” (Kindle Locations 2559-2560). Second, the immediate context of 3:16 addresses the relationship between man and woman; therefore, the presence of כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ is likely not coincidental but deliberately addressing the subversion of that relationship in this original sin. Third, although Eve takes of the fruit first, Adam is addressed for the sin. Adam was “with her” (3:6) and is ultimately held responsible for their disobedience (cf. Rom 5:12-21). It is because of Adam (“you,” 3:17), and his eating of the fruit, that the ground is cursed. And fourth, this last point is consistent with the larger context of chapters 1-2, where the woman is created subsequent to man and, therefore, as man’s helpmeet (2:18-25). Correspondingly, man is to serve as the leader of the family. In sum, although כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ clearly refers to Adam’s act of eating from the tree (וַתֹּ֨אכַל֙ מִן־הָעֵ֔ץ), this phrase also assumes the complementary relationship between man and women—ontologically equal (i.e., both fully created in the image of God) yet different in regards to relational roles (i.e., headship and subordination).

[1] Of course to say that this phrase has reference to the established male-female relationship is not to claim that Adam is rebuked for letting his wife influence him, as if man may never listen to his wife. On the contrary, God chastises Adam for his failure to lead his wife (note: Adam was “with her,” 3:6) and demonstrate the headship to which he was called.

[2] And interestingly, some commentators make absolutely no comment on this phrase whatsoever, e.g., Hamilton.