I was able to spend a little time with the Hebrew texts today, so here is a brief exegesis on which I based Part One. I did not try to put in the Hebrew characters, but have transliterated them for ease of reading.
God’s intention is to create woman equal with man – thus her definition is eisha, equivalent to male eish; the change in ending merely indicates gender. Adam calls Eve “flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2.23), Hebrew basar. There is an equivalency in usage; it is not “you are part of my flesh” but identified as a separate being – “the flesh of my flesh.”
At Genesis 3.16 and 3.17, the same word is used to describe the pain of labour in childbearing and the pain of labour in tillage: atseb. Again, there is an equivalency – woman is not punished more than man. Our post-Victorian minds see hard work as satisfying and rewarding while we see childbirth as frightening and punitive. Our ancestors did not see it this way. They worked very hard at physical labour, which was at times quite dangerous. Anyone who has done manual farming and worked with animals will know what that means. Hunting and fishing could be dangerous as well. It is only in recent times that we think of work as something done primarily indoors and sitting down, with the most common physical danger being carpal tunnel syndrome.
Childbirth was not always viewed with the dread we inherited from the Victorians. While complications made it life-threatening, women who worked physically and were in good strength managed it very easily, as is true today. Neither field work nor childbirth could be avoided in the context of family life, which was the heart of Israel’s culture.
Why is woman put under subjection to man? He will “rule”, mishel, over her. This is traditionally interpreted to mean that she is dependent on him because of his superior strength and size, that he is responsible for protecting her and their children and providing shelter and food for them. The “king” or ruler (melek) of a clan in Israel was paternal; he was father to his children and all members of the household, whether he was biological father or not. The dominion was not one of sitting on a throne and giving orders, but one of careful planning, hard work and great responsibility.
A woman had equal responsibilities in her own realm, within the tent and the garden, and with the small livestock kept close to home. She had her own authority in preparing food and making textiles. We rarely see signs of continuing domestic conflict between husbands and wives in the Five Books. Too much was at stake to risk the fallout of a power struggle in the household. Husband and wife had to work side by side and in the light of Torah; as a Hebrew commentator put it: “Obedience to the Torah…restores her (woman) to her former and proper status as the ‘crown of her husband’ and ‘pearl of his life.'” (Stone Tanach, notes to Gen 3.16 [Hirsch]).
Note: I have used the New Jerusalem Bible, The Stone Edition Tanach, and The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament in preparing these exegetical notes. The transliterations from Hebrew are my own.