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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“To the woman [God] said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’”
No one will say that we’re launching our “3:16” journey with one of the easy ones.
Genesis 3:16, in fact, just happens to be one of the most painful and controversial verses in all of Judeo-Christian history. It’s important for us to look at the wider context in which it sits.
Genesis three reports what has been called the Fall of Humanity. Or simply The Fall. But such language (which the Bible itself never uses) can be misleading. “The Fall” sounds like an oops, or a slip on an icy sidewalk. What a terrible accident. Adam and Eve should have been more careful.
The first human couple, however, do more than just stumble. They launch a full-scale rebellion. “We will not do what God wants us to do. Let’s overthrow the King and take charge of our own lives.”
Whatever they imagined might happen, the results are swift and devastating. “Then the eyes of both of them were opened…” From minute one, they are plunged into a whole new reality. At this point Adam and Eve cannot take a mulligan. There is no do-over. This isn’t like falling off the balance beam during an Olympic performance, after which you can always dream about doing better four years later.
Spiritually and relationally, this is a nuclear blast that vaporizes the integrity of everything they have ever known. Genesis three reports the demise of four primary relationships, which is why this chapter is foundational for everything else in the Bible. Let’s look at those relationships through Adam’s eyes.
The first is Adam’s relationship to himself. Genesis two had ended with this beautiful statement: “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” In the Hebrew mind, Adam and Eve were both nude and naked. The words don’t mean precisely the same thing. Nudity means to be unclothed. Nakedness means being revealed for who we really are.
The first effect of human rebellion is shame. It’s not as if, in verse seven, that Adam and Eve suddenly realize they haven’t spent a dime of their clothing allowance. They’ve always been nude. But now their nakedness with each other – the experience of looking into each other’s hearts – is dramatically uncomfortable. They’re broken and they know it, and they want to cover up and hide.
Ever since this moment, human beings have played hide and seek. We can be married to someone for decades and never fully see them for who they really are – or reveal the secrets of our own heart.
Second, Adam’s relationship with God is also now ruined. God comes walking in the Garden in the cool in the day, but all Adam wants to do is run. The first truly sad verse in the Bible is Genesis 3:10: “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” This is the legacy of the Fall. The God who created us to be in relationship with himself is now someone we’re no longer sure about. God has become someone to doubt, to fear, and to escape.
The third tragedy is Adam’s relationship with Eve. In verse eleven God says to Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Adam boldly steps up to the plate and says, “She did it!” Genesis 3:12: “The woman you put here with me – this defective, less-than-perfect Partner Version 1.0 for whom you Lord, as I recall, were the chief engineer – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Eve’s response to this cringeworthy moment is not recorded. But it’s a pretty good bet this was the first night Adam had the opportunity to sleep on the couch.
The fourth ruined relationship is Adam and creation, or, more to the point, human beings and everything around them. The consequences of disobedience painfully extend to all of reality, which is why Jews and Christians have always described God’s creation as matchlessly beautiful but tragically broken.
Beginning in verse 15, God takes on a new role. Up to this point he has been cosmic designer, matchmaker, landscape architect, provider, and love counselor. Now he acts as judge. “You want to decide what is good and evil? You want to be in charge of your own destinies? Here are the consequences.”
And that brings us to Genesis 3:16. God declares to Eve – and by extension, to every female of every succeeding generation – that two crucial aspects of her life are going to be painful.
Childbirth – the incredible joy of bringing a new human being into the world – will now be accompanied by great discomfort and great danger. In our own era, we may be tempted to believe that safe and effective painkillers of some sort have always been available to mothers-to-be. But this is far from the truth. Anesthesia during childbirth wasn’t widely available in the West until the mid-1800s. Tragically, Genesis 3:16 was one of the mitigating factors.
Preachers and theologians declared that since God had cursed the female half of humanity with the pains of childbirth, how could we stand against his righteous decree by providing relief?
The cruelty of this position is astonishing. It’s deeply ironic as well, especially in light of the fact that no one had ever thought twice about undoing the curse that falls upon Adam in the very next verse: “Cursed is the ground because of you. Through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.” If God’s people welcome the miracles of steel ploughs, crop rotation, and John Deere tractors, surely we should praise God for epidurals and labor delivery rooms.
Tellingly, it was English royalty rather than of a series of sermons that opened the door to merciful relief. In 1853, when Queen Victoria gave birth to Leopold, her eighth child, she was given chloroform. After she told the watching world that it was “delightful beyond measure,” women everywhere finally felt empowered to say, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
The second half of Genesis 3:16 is equally challenging.
“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” The underlying Hebrew words are notoriously difficult to translate. Is Eve being told that she will naturally desire Adam’s love, or that she will naturally desire to show him who’s boss? Is a husband’s “ruling over” his wife the curse itself, or a God-provided remedy for the curse? Rabbis, theologians, and pastors have never found consensus.
What seems clear from centuries of human experience is that marriage and family relationships, because of the Fall, will never be for cowards.
By the end of Genesis three, Adam and Eve look around and see in every direction the debris of their disobedience. Everything now is tainted. Can they ever be happy again? In verse 21 God does something that almost breaks our hearts: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” Where did these skins come from? Something had to die.
For the first time, innocent blood covers human sin. It won’t be the last time.
That’s because God is committed to rescuing the ones who bear his image. Adam and Eve could hardly have imagined it, but one day God would pull out all the stops through another human being named Jesus of Nazareth, so that women and men might once again have the chance to walk with him, forgiven and free.
That, in the end, is what Lent is all about – a vivid reminder that God has acted in history to begin the restoration of everything.
Our shame gives way to peace. Our uncertainties about God morph into assurance. Our estrangements from others are healed. Our misuse of creation is reversed by thoughtful stewardship.
And every step of the way, we make up our minds to do something that’s so simple, but so important:
By God’s grace, we must always use Bible verses to relieve suffering – not to prolong it.
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