Adam and Eve Didn’t Reverse Roles

Some of you who read my post A Bad Decision and the Fallacy of the Role Reversal Argument had questions about the whole idea of a role reversal. What I want to do today is explain how Genesis 3 is interpreted to get the idea and how this position misses the point.

In case you haven’t heard, “role reversal” is basically the idea that Adam and Eve sinned by reversing their God-ordained gender roles. Eve wanted to be in charge and Adam didn’t.

Bingo. Roles reversed.

To help you understand this perspective first-hand, I will refer to what is probably the most thorough defense of the position, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” by Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., commenting as I go along.[1] Ortlund’s article progresses in two phases: 1) Genesis 1-3 establishes male authority over women; and 2) Adam and Eve sinned by reversing their roles.

In this post I’m going to respond to the idea of role reversal. In my next I will rebut the perspective that headship means authority.

After arguing that male authority over women is part of the natural order, Ortlund says this explains how Adam and Eve sinned: At its most basic level, it was a sex role reversal. Why? Ortlund gives four reasons: 1) Eve usurped Adam’s headship by taking the lead; 2) Eve’s temptation had to do with gaining power over Adam; 3) Eve’s curse proves she was grasping for power; and 4) Adam sinned by listening to Eve.

Let’s look at how Ortlund deduces these ideas from Genesis 3:

Mark well what the text says and what it does not say… The text does not say, ‘…she took some and ate it. Her husband, who was with her, also took some and ate it.’ What actually happened is full of meaning. Eve usurped Adam’s headship and led the way into sin. And Adam, who (it seems) had stood by passively, allowing the deception to progress without decisive intervention – Adam, for his part, abandoned his post as head. …Isn’t it striking that we fell [into sin] upon an occasion of sex role reversal?[2]

Eve did lead the way into sin; that much I acknowledge. And Adam apparently did stand by passively, saying nothing when he could have spoken up. Yet how did Eve usurp Adam’s headship? By responding to temptation instead of saying, “Let me ask my husband”? By making a decision instead of waiting for Adam to do it? By giving Adam the fruit?

By this reasoning, a wife should not respond to temptation, should not make decisions, and should not feed her husband. She should wait for her man to act.

Another way to say this is that wives ought to comport themselves as children, not trusting themselves to make decisions. And what about single women? How ought they to respond to temptation? Ortlund never discusses how his ideas apply to singles.

The vast majority of people in the ancient world would have agreed that women cannot be trusted to make good decisions. Every intertestamental man worth his salt knew that women are constitutionally inferior and fundamentally immoral, needing the guidance of a man or two to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Make no bones about it, however. From Adam’s quick participation there is no reason to believe he would have resisted the temptation if the serpent had approached him first. And if Adam had been the one who was tempted, should Eve have intervened decisively? Should she have refused to follow Adam’s lead? And would that have been a reversal of roles?

This is the lose-lose situation the role reversal idea engenders: women are put in positions where they either sin by disobeying God or sin by reversing roles.

Back to Ortlund’s point, Eve only usurped Adam’s authority if in fact Adam was supposed to have authority over Eve. And Adam only abandoned this position of authority if, in fact, it was his in the first place. As my discussion of Ortlund’s views on male authority in my next post should make clear, I find the reasoning behind a God-ordained male-female hierarchy unconvincing.

Ortlund continues: Eve’s calling was “to help Adam as second-in-command in world rulership.”[3] In other words, God’s command to the man and woman to rule and subdue the earth was primarily directed toward Adam (Gen. 1:28). How Ortlund gets this from the text is difficult to discern, yet he provides no support for this assertion. Instead he argues that Eve, unhappy with her subordinate position, was tempted not to rebel against God, but to gain authority over Adam.

Satan struck at Adam’s headship. His words had the effect of inviting Eve to assume primary responsibility at the moment of temptation: ‘You decide, Eve. You lead the way. Wouldn’t you rather be exercising headship?’[4]

Here Ortlund explains how he believes the roles were reversed: Eve assumed “primary responsibility” at the moment of temptation because she wanted “headship.” This was Eve’s big sin. Adam’s big sin was letting her. In contrast to this, however, the passage itself states that the serpent tempted Eve with insubordination to God, not to Adam.

[The serpent] said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the tress in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’.” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. (Gen. 3:1-5)

The text does not say: “Eve, don’t you want to be in charge? Don’t you want to rule over Adam rather than being under his authority? Well, here is a way to do it: Make your own decision and then get Adam to follow you.”

No, Genesis doesn’t say that at all. Yet so much of Ortlund’s argument for role reversal rests upon the assertion that Eve took the fruit because she wanted to gain mastery over Adam.

For this transgression, this grasping of power from the man that was not rightly hers, Ortlund says that “God hands her over to the misery of competition with her rightful head. This is justice, a measure-for-measure response to her sin.”[5]

Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Gen. 3:16)

Ortlund then explains that the statement “he will rule over you” can be understood in two ways.

Either:

God may be saying, ‘You will have a desire, Eve. You will want to control your husband. But he will not allow you to have your way with him. He will rule over you.’

Or:

God is requiring the man to act as the head God made him to be, rather than knuckle under to ungodly pressure from his wife.[6] 

Either way, according to Ortlund, Eve gets what she deserves for putting “ungodly pressure” on Adam and wanting to control him. Now she will be controlled, she’ll be dominated, by her man.

History attests to the sad truth of this prediction, but that doesn’t prove it was punishment for a desire to dominate Adam.

I agree with Ortlund that the battle of the sexes is a misery, the cause of a great deal of heartache over the course of human history. The predicted outcome of this battle, male dominance, has also been a misery, the source of much suffering.

Yet all of this, as seen in v. 16, is part of the curse, part of everything that is not right in the world, rather than part of the created order.

Verse 16 doesn’t prove that Eve was grasping for power, that she had reversed her role with Adam’s. It is quite possible to understand Adam and Eve’s descent into sin as a failure to work together as co-rulers. Adam had first-hand knowledge of God’s will, while Eve did not. He could have spoken up. And Eve could have consulted with Adam before moving forward.

Instead of conferring with one another, speaking truth to one another, holding one another accountable, they silently agreed to sin.

Sometimes when we want to do the wrong thing, it’s easier to skip the discussion. Easier on our conscience, that is.

Eve’s judgment in v. 16, then, does fit the crime. The first man and woman didn’t bother to work together in ruling the garden; from now on it would become even more difficult for men and women to collaborate.

“Male headship” wouldn’t have solved their sin problem, however, since Adam clearly wanted to eat the fruit.

Male authority won’t solve our sin problems either. For one thing, it’s not always the man who wants to do the right thing.[7] Nor is it always the man who has first-hand knowledge of God’s will. Sometimes it’s the woman.[8] So a man’s “decisive intervention” might lead the way into sin, rather than lead the way out.

We have to be humble enough to acknowledge that avoiding sin is not as simple as putting a man in charge, and that male authority is simply not the point.

In discussing Adam’s part in the role reversal Ortlund states:

Adam sinned at two levels. At one level, he defied the plain and simple command of 2:17. That is obvious. But God goes deeper. At another level, Adam sinned by ‘listening to his wife.’ He abandoned his headship. According to God’s assessment, this moral failure in Adam led to his ruination.[9]

Apparently, guys, listening to your wife is equivalent to abandoning your headship. In the end it will probably lead to your ruination.

Ortlund finds the listening/headship-abandonment connection in v. 17-19. Here’s a refresher if you’ve forgotten what it says.

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen. 3:17-19)

Gen. 3:17 is an important verse that needs to be understood; that is true The question is whether the point is that men shouldn’t listen to women, or if God was simply responding to the way Adam attempted to deflect blame for his own choice, his own action.

Because Genesis 3 is composed using an ancient literary device that in this case divides each conversation into separate parts,[10] we tend to forget that in v. 17 God is answering Adam’s statement in v. 12. If we put them together you’ll see what I mean.

The man said, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.”  (Gen. 3:12)

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree….” (Gen. 3:17)

Not only did Adam blame Eve, he also blamed God for putting that seductive temptress right there with him. God is simply countering Adam’s excuses: “Yes, she gave you the fruit, but you didn’t have to take it. You’re the one who listened to a sinful suggestion and ate; it’s not Eve’s fault that you sinned. Her sin is hers, and your sin is yours.”

Listening to his wife wasn’t the problem; listening to her when she suggested a sinful course of action was.

Ortlund’s reading of v. 17 arrives at an impossible conclusion: It is wrong, an abdication of male authority, for a man to listen to a woman.This is the only way the Fall can be understood as a sex role reversal. On the other hand, if Adam’s error was a matter of listening to Eve when she suggested a sinful course of action, then the principle remains the same for men and women alike. As we all know, Sapphira listened to her husband and it led to her ruination.

Immediately, as it turned out.

As I discuss in Should Men Listen to Women? the Bible validates a man listening to a woman, even following her lead. Men should not, of course, follow women into sin. But this applies across the board; women should not follow men into sin either.

Near the end of his essay Ortlund gives a summary of his views, revealing his fundamental misunderstanding of the egalitarian position. Thinking it posits women’s rivalry with men, Ortlund states:

Nothing can change the fact that God created male headship as one aspect of our pre-fall perfection. Therefore, while many women today need release from male domination, the liberating alternative is not female rivalry or autonomy but male headship wedded to female help.[11]

This is perhaps the most unfortunate of Ortlund’s statements, for egalitarianism promotes neither rivalry between the sexes nor autonomy. Instead, a true egalitarian position presupposes a beautiful harmony, a working together, a mutuality of the sexes that is more satisfying to women and, importantly, to men, than the vain promise of hierarchy.

Even if this were not the case, the point is that the role reversal argument is hard to support from Genesis itself without making assumptions that are not in the text. I hope I have convinced you of that by now.


[1] In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Crossway: 1991/2006), 95-112.

[2] Ortlund, 107.

[3] Ibid., 108.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 109.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Consider David when he seduced Bathsheba, Ananias, and David’s men in 1 Samuel 24 and 26, especially in contrast to Abigail in 1 Samuel 25.

[8] Consider, for example, that Rebekah knew God’s will for their children while Isaac, at least by his actions, did not. Other examples include Deborah, Huldah and Abigail, who all discerned God’s will before the men around them.

[9] Ibid., 110.

[10] Chiasm, a device that parallels ideas in an A-B-C-C1-B1-A1 pattern, where A goes with A1, B goes with B1, and C goes with C1.

[11] Ibid., 109.

[12] Ibid., 110.

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