The Key to the Dreaded Ephesians’ Passage

We have to stop skirting Ephesians 5:21-33, once and for all, and give it its due.

Master Bertram (1345-1415), “Grabow Altarpiece”
Master Bertram (1345-1415), “Grabow Altarpiece” (photo: Public Domain)

You’ve been there, sitting uncomfortably in the pew, waiting for the lector to read the dreaded Ephesians passage, the one that speaks the culturally anathema, “Wives be subject to your husbands…”

Sometimes you notice that the offending passages have been delicately bracketed, so that only St. Paul’s admonitions to the husband are going to be read, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church…” The lector gladly takes the hint, and you sigh in relief.

Yet, sometimes the entire passage is read while everyone looks uncomfortably downward, counting the seconds until it’s over. Once it’s over, you know you’re home free. Happily, no priest will ever preach on the whole passage, but will slip into the culturally comfortable preface, “St. Paul says to all of us, ‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,’ and so we see…” Then follows a warm meal of platitudes served on a boilerplate, perhaps with a side of nervous humor.

But there is never any attempt to deal with the full passage—and I’m not talking about preaching full-throated subordination of women. I’m talking about the whole passage.

Well, that neglect made me want to figure out what’s really going on in the passage we dare not read aloud. I found the key in an odd place, the third chapter of Genesis, the Fall. As I finally realized after much puzzling, if we don’t understand the Fall, and especially its particular punishments, then we have no hope of grasping what St. Paul is actually saying. My hope in setting this all out is that those whose job it is to preach and teach will stop skirting the dreaded Ephesians passage, once and for all, and give it its due.

Before we get to the Fall, we need to recall some of the essentials of creation, shaking off the familiarity. Begin with this: in Genesis 1:27 we find the peculiar statement, “So God created man [Hebrew, adam] in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

If we think about this passage, with some help from ancient rabbis, we realize that male and female — the complementary union itself — is the image of God, not just either the male or the female. Not just the man, not just the woman, but the union of the two manifests the image of God.

This is reaffirmed when we get a second angle on the creation of human beings, where God takes the woman out of the man, and their re-union itself defines the essence of marriage, “Therefore, a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In becoming one flesh, they become the image of God.

So far, so good. No one is offended. Or at least very few. Let’s edge forward with a bit more edginess then, and look more carefully at the text.

As we just noted, the woman is taken from the man’s side, and she completes him as a re-union in one flesh. In this union, she is made by God to be a helper in the given task of tilling and watching over the garden. Importantly, there is no subordination here, but a common work (albeit, a work without toil).

But even though there is no subordination, the man and woman are not equal either. The woman is not another man, but a helper fit [Hebrew, neged] for him. The word neged actually means “to sit opposite of,” as in being a complement: the thing that one is not, but one needs for completion. This is not airy theological doctrine. It’s seen most obviously in the biological complementarity of male and female, but it goes far more deeply than the animal capacity to procreate. A sign of this is that, unlike the other animals made male and female, the creation of the human female comes from the male’s side, and, as noted above, the union of male and female itself is made in the image of God.

And now comes the Fall, and the key to the dreaded Ephesians passage. Again, we need to shake loose from our familiarity. To do so, read Genesis 3:16-19 and Ephesians 5:22-33 side-by-side and note several things.

First, the punishments of the man and woman in Genesis and the admonitions to husbands and wives in Ephesians have the same structure. In both, the woman is addressed first, then the man, and what is said to him is both much longer and much harsher than what is said to her. The reason for this is evident from what we’ve noticed about their creation. Male and female are not created as equals but complements, and so neither the punishments nor the admonitions are equal, but complementary as well, related to their distinct natures.

Second, and even more important, the complementary admonitions to the husband and wife in Ephesians are the redemptive form of the punishments of man and woman in Genesis. This will takes some effort on our part to see the full importance of this relationship.

The woman is punished with something only she can feel as the complement of the union who can bear children: God greatly multiplies both the toil/pain [Hebrew, itstsabon] in pregnancy and labor/pain [Hebrew, etseb] in childbirth. The woman’s complementary place in pro-creating images of God is now marked by work mixed with pain.

There is a second part to her punishment. She is told that her desire will be for her husband and “he shall rule [Hebrew, mashal] over you.” Recall that there was no subordination previously. She was a complementary helper in the common task of tilling and watching over the garden, but against that, freely chose to disobey God’s command — one of the most important things she was to help watch over.

Now, her punishment is that her husband rules over her, and she is therefore subordinate to him. This is not a harsh rule. Nor is it like their common dominion over the animals. The first use of the word mashal, the only one that occurs before the punishment, is in Gen 1:16-19, wherein the sun rules the day, and the moon the night; that is, they provide a benign order, dividing up creation according to time.

Nevertheless, since she was made to be his helper who was in no way subordinate, the punishment of being ruled over by her husband is painful as well, and somehow deeply strikes against her desire for him. This punishment is rooted in her created nature: she was made to be his helper, but acted directly against the one command God had given them, and so failed both God and adam. She must now submit to his rule.

Then God lets loose on the man. He was to till and watch over the Garden. How did the snake get in? Why was his wife alone? Why did he act against God’s commandment when she offered him the fruit?

A sign of the seriousness of the man’s fault is that there was no mention of a curse in the woman’s punishment. Only the snake and the man are cursed by God: the snake is cursed [Hebrew, arar] directly, and adam indirectly. He listened to his wife who failed as his helper, that is, as the very thing she was made for, and then he ate of the tree against the known direct, personal command of God.

Did the woman ever receive the command directly? One thinks perhaps not, because she reports to the snake something beyond what God said to the man—God said don’t eat of it, and then adds, “neither shall you touch it.” It sounds like something the husband said to ensure that his wife wouldn’t get anywhere near the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In any case, the man, not the woman, receives a curse, arar, one that hits his particular divinely ordained work as the tiller of the garden. Adam himself is not curse, but the ground [Hebrew, adamah] from which he was taken, so that the work for which he was created is now mixed with toil/pain. Further, the very ground itself will now produce thorns and thistles, as if nature itself were bent on cursing him as well, adding to his suffering.

Finally, the man himself is cursed with death — note that the woman was not. He must return to the ground, return to the very dust out of which he was made. The woman will die, but somehow, just as her life came through adam, so also the curse of death seems to be indirect for her, somehow likewise coming through her husband.

We need to keep all of this in mind in order to understand the dreaded Ephesians passage — and task to which we’ll turn in Part II.