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The Fall and Women – Shawna R. B. Atteberry
Feb 012007

In Does It Really Mean Helpmate? we saw that God created man and woman to be equals in every way. In Genesis 1 both male and female were given the mandates to procreate and to have dominion over the earth. The human had been placed in the garden to tend it and guard it, and one assumes the male and female continued to do what the human was created to do, and they fulfill the mandates given in chapter 1 together and as equals. There we saw that complementarians try to subordinate woman under man because man was created first, and she was created to be an ezer cenedgo, a word that is normally mistranslated “helpmate” instead of its literal meaning: a power equal to.

Another tactic complementarians use is that women’s subordination is due to the Fall. When God said that a woman’s desire would be for her husband, and he would rule over, God meant it for all time. It doesn’t matter that the rest of curse is not meant for all time: we have made farming easier through machinery, we have diminished labor pains with drugs, and we normally don’t actively look for snakes to mutilate. Complentarians seem to think that the only part of the Fall that is for all time is the a man ruling over his wife.

Genesis 2 leaves us with the mutuality, trust and innocence of the man and woman in stating they were naked but not ashamed. Genesis 3 jumps right into the question of how the world and relationship between the sexes changed so dramatically. A serpent started a conversation. It wanted to know if God really said they could not eat from any of the trees. At this point some complementarians like to overlook a little detail that we find in verse 6–the man was with the woman the whole time. “She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (emphasis mine). The serpent did not address the woman alone but the couple. If woman was created as subordinate then why was the woman the one who responded? If man was the superior then why didn’t he answer the serpent? Again their solidarity and mutuality is shown. Because they were equals the woman can speak for both of them.

Other complementarians acknowledge the couple is together. They say the woman overstepped her boundaries and usurped the role of her husband as being her head, and that is her sin. In fact, they interpret the story to say that the sin of the couple is not eating the forbidden fruit, but for not living in their God-ordained hierarchal roles. The woman’s sin was acting in her husband’s place. The man’s sin is passively letting his wife take the lead and not exerting his role as head of the woman in responding to the serpent. Their sin is role reversal and lies less with disobeying the only command Yahweh gave them.

The text does not support their interpretation or conclusions. Yahweh’s only command to the human (before the creation of woman) was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the penalty for eating from this tree was death (Genesis 2:17). Since the woman knew of the command and its consequences, we can assume that the man told her, or that Yahweh at some point gave the command again. The couple knew of the prohibition and its consequences.

The woman engaged the serpent in an intelligent theological discussion of the prohibition. There is much ado made over her addition “nor shall you touch it” (3:3). The accusations range from her making her own additions to the divine command to her not only usurping her husband’s role but also now usurping God by adding to his “law.” She could have added it for the simple reason Phyllis Trible cites: she was faithfully interpreting the command: she cannot eat what she does not touch; it is a safeguard to insure obedience (p. 110).

But she gave in to the temptation to be like God, knowing good and evil, and ate. The man who was with her does not say a thing or try to stop her, and when she offered him the fruit, he ate too. It is only then their eyes were opened, and they both knew they were naked, and they both were ashamed. Together they sewed fig leaves for clothes, and they hid from God together. The text never assigns more blame to the woman; both the man and woman sin, and the consequences affect them after they both have eaten.

Then God came to the garden and told the serpent, the woman, and the man what the world and relationships will now be like because of their disobedience. They have chosen separation from God, which will separate them from each other and shift all of their relationships. There will be enmity between the woman and the serpent; the ground will now be cursed and require great work and toil to bring forth the food they will need. The relationship between the man and the woman will no longer be one of equals. “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3:16). This is the first mention in the text of a hierarchal social pattern. It is here that the subordination of the woman under the man begins. It is not by divine design or judgment. The subordination of woman is a consequence of disobedience, and the result of the Fall.

In the beginning men and women were both created in the image of God, and they were created to be equals. They were both given the commands to be fruitful and to rule over the earth. The woman was not created to be a subordinate helper to her husband. She was created as an autonomous being; she was a complete human being, just as the man was. Her existence was not dependent on him as his existence was not dependent on her; their existence depended on God alone who created them both.

I now want to look at it in the broader biblical frame, particularly New Testament. First if all women are cursed through Eve disobedience then all women are blessed through Mary’s obedience. Mary trusted God and became the mother of the Messiah. She trusted God and obeyed God regardless of the cost. As Christians we also believe that Jesus Christ came to redeem all people–both men and women, and now “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). We also believe “in Him [Christ] you have been made complete” (Col. 2:10, NASB). The doctrine of salvation through Christ alone means that any hierarchal structure that is a result of the Fall is now done away with–all of us have equal standing before God. Our relationship with God through Christ is what completes us and makes us whole.

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled all the believers who had been gathered: both men and women. They went out to the streets proclaiming all the things that had happened in the last few weeks. It is reasonable to believe that the women who were at the foot of the Cross were in the upper room as well. It is possible that there were women proclaiming the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ on the day that 3,000 were saved.


Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Helpmate or Power Equal to Him?” 11-22.

Joseph Coleson, “Ezer Cenegdo”: A Power Like Him, Facing Him as Equal (Grantham, PA: Wesleyan/Holiness Women Clergy), 1996.

Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership (Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing), 2000.

J Lee. Grady, Ten Lies the Church Tells Women, How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House), 2000.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1992.

Aida Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 1985.

Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1978.

All biblical translations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

NASB: New American Standard Bible

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  8 Responses to “The Fall and Women”

  1. Wonderful post, Shawna; I’m permalinking to it. You should be writing for CBE constantly, you do a great job rebutting the complementarian stance.

  2. Thank you Hugo. Bill Spenser is supposed to be looking at several of my articles, but I haven’t heard anything, and I don’t know how much of a nuisance to make myself.

  3. Good job on this, just wanted to add that in the passage “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” the word “and” is also “but” in the Hebrew and the word for “rule” is that of a tyrant not a designated place of authority. So, you could translate this, “Your desire shall be for your husband, but he will dominate you.” God is not giving a new hierarchy but stating the consequences of the sin. The wife will now desire or long for her husband rather than God and he will dominate her now rather than be a co-ruler with her.

  4. Did the Hebrews have a notion of equality? I don’t feel comfortable reading that into the text, as it is a relatively recent idea.

  5. Actually the Hebrews did. See my post Does It Really Mean Helpmate?, which goes through Genesis 1—2. My series on Career Women of the Bible shows how this equality does come through time to time in the Bible, even with the patriarchal culture God and these women had to work with.

  6. Something still rubs me the wrong way about this. I’m not saying that I think the Hebrews didn’t have an appreciation for the role women played in their history (which was and is often a larger role than men). I’m just extremely weary of importing abstract liberal democratic ideals into the mouths of the biblical authors.

    I’m also not so sure that the word helper has the negative connotation in English that you suppose it has. If I ask someone for help with something it may be because the task is too large, so I need someone to pick up the slack, or I could ask someone to help so that they might learn from me, such as one does with children, or I could ask for help because the other person knows how to do the task better than me. So I’m not sure the word helper has any hierarchical connotation at all, unless the context makes it so. In Genesis 1-2 there doesn’t seem to be any hierarchy implied by the context to impose any negative connotation to the use of the word helper, which I find much less unwieldy and PC than “a power equal to.”

  7. Helper only has a negative connotation because it’s been given that by complementarians. I have heard this in sermons and in complentarian writings: women were created to help their husbands and be subordinate to them. And a “power equal to” is not PC–it is the literal translation first done by Old Testament scholar Dr. David Nolan Friedman in the 80s (he’s also the endowed chair of Hebrew Studies at University of California). The Old Testament Professor at Nazarene Theological Seminary, Dr. Joseph Coleson has also done a lot of work on this phrase, and he has come to the same conclusion. It’s not something that I came up, but an accepted translation of ezer cenedgo. They both agreed that since “helper” was used to subordinate women to men that the language should be changed. In fact as I said in the opening of “Does It Really Mean Helpmate?” the only time I saw Dr. Coleson mad was over the mistranslation of ezer cenedgo.

    God created men and women to be equal partners obeying him in their relationships, families, ministry, and anything else they do together. There’s nothing PC about it: it’s biblical. It’s also backed up by Jesus in the way he treated the women in his life. He always treated them as equal to men.

  8. […] that is a result of the Fall is now done away with (For more on what the Fall meant for women, see The Fall and Women). All of us have equal standing before God. Our relationship with God through Christ is what […]

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