You are currently viewing Promise and Exploitation: Marital Abuse in the Genesis Narrative

Promise and Exploitation: Marital Abuse in the Genesis Narrative

The sentence “marital abuse is anti-gospel” isn’t particularly controversial. God points to marriage as the lived-out picture of Christ’s love for the people he’s redeemed (Eph. 5:22–33). A spouse exploiting the one he or she has promised to love and to cherish paints a diffrent picture than the one marriage is meant to display.

But the anti-gospel nature of marital abuse is multilayered, stretching beyond the obvious. The book of Genesis, in particular, consistently juxtaposes marital abuse and the revelation of the gospel promise. God could have picked any number of sins to highlight at the beginning of his revelation, yet he consistently points us to how the exploitation of one’s spouse is antithetical to the promise of coming redemption.

Beautiful Hope, Ominous Shadow

Genesis 3 is dismal. Adam and Eve rupture the harmony all creation enjoyed, plunging themselves and the earth into ruin. Shame, guilt, alienation, and death become their lot. Then God meets them in their self-created misery and promises that one of the woman’s offspring will one day crush the Serpent’s offspring.

Right after this ray of hope in the darkness, dark clouds loom over the husband and wife’s relationship. Marriage would now be haunted by self-seeking. God tells the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you” (v. 16, CSB). The rest of Genesis is often depicted as a struggle between the woman’s offspring and the Serpent’s offspring. But it’s also an unfolding of the dire prediction that enmity would exist within the closest of human covenants.

We don’t have to wait long before threats and oppression enter marriage. Cain’s murder of Abel headlines Genesis 4, but his descendant Lamech rounds out the chapter bragging before his wives that he’s far more violent than Cain.

John Calvin commented that Lamech’s wives were “justly alarmed” on account of his boasts, and “when he saw his wives struck with terror, instead of becoming mild, he only sharpened and confirmed himself the more in cruelty.” Calvin’s reading implies Lamech’s wives must take care—lest Lamech end them like he did the young man who struck him (vv. 23–24).

Covenant Salvation, Covenant Harm

The ascendency of the Serpent’s seed over the woman’s seed appears complete by Genesis 6: “The wickedness of man was great in the earth, and . . . every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (v. 5). God destroys all humanity save one family. Noah and his kin depart the ark into a world washed clean of evil and hear the commands of Eden repeated: “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28; 8:17). Through that multiplication would come the Savior, the One who’d crush the Serpent.

Yet this harmony is again shattered by intimate trouble. Noah’s son Ham enters the tent of drunk and naked Noah. What exactly proceeds brings more questions than answers. But what’s clear is that some form of intimate violation occurred (cf. Lev. 18:7). Ham violates the Edenic one-flesh union, drawing out another manner in which discord and disorder have struck intimate human relationships. While Genesis 3:16 highlights the abuse that strikes marriage from within, Ham’s actions demonstrate that marital intimacy may also be harmed by outside abuse. The sad pattern holds as the gospel promise is clarified then followed by the specter of abuse.

Promised Seed, Exploited Marriage

In Genesis 12, God reveals himself to Abraham the idol worshiper and promises him that the One who’ll crush the Serpent’s head will be Abraham’s offspring. This promise is especially poignant for the still-childless Abraham. And once again, a restatement of the good news is followed in the next chapter by an incident of marital abuse.

The sad pattern holds as the gospel promise is clarified then followed by the specter of abuse.

Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are promised a child and then immediately travel to Egypt to escape a famine. There Abraham grows conspiratorial, convinced a local will kill him and take his wife. So he declares Sarah to be his sister and allows her to be taken from him and transferred to the royal harem. Immediately after receiving the gospel promise, Abraham forces his wife to submit to sexual exploitation. All to save his own skin. These actions threaten the promise because it’s through procreation that the promise was to advance. Sarah is spared only because of God’s kind intervention.

This isn’t the only time Sarah was rescued from her husband’s willingness to subject her to exploitation. Genesis 15 sees the strongest clarification of the gospel promise yet. Then God later declares Abraham will have a child with Sarah within a year (18:10), and with that promise in hand, Abraham again passes off his wife as his sister, allowing her to be taken into King Abimelech’s harem (20:1–17). Once again, God intervenes.

Abraham’s story brackets yet another awful example of abuse, with Lot offering his virgin daughters to a mob of would-be gang rapists in an attempt to prevent them from harming his male dinner guests (19:8). And in another grotesque account, these two daughters essentially rape their father by plying him with alcohol to the point he has no memory of their sexual encounter (vv. 30–38).

Pattern on Repeat

Isaac, the child promised to Abraham and Sarah, finally receives the gospel promise in Genesis 26:1–6. The very next story (vv. 7–11) finds him following his father’s example by exposing his wife to sexual exploitation to save his own life.

The second half of Genesis follows the same pattern. Jacob, son of the promise, is deceived into marrying a woman he never wanted (Gen. 29:21–27). Later, his daughter is raped by a prince, and his sons use the covenant’s sign as a weapon to destroy the perpetrator’s entire community (Gen. 34:1–31). Reuben seduces Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22), and he consequently forfeits the blessing of having the promised Savior come through his line (Gen. 49:3–4). Upright Joseph faces sexual harassment at the hands of a powerful official’s wife (Gen. 39:1–23) in Egypt—a nation whose king sits with a gold serpent perched on his crown. We see it again and again: the promise’s beauty side by side with abuse’s destruction.

So What?

Genesis consistently and repeatedly highlights marital (and other forms of intimate) abuse. These highlights follow along with the book’s advancing revelation of the gospel promise. Why is this the case, and what we can learn from it?

1. This pattern highlights the pernicious nature of intimate abuse.

To be a manipulative abuser is to act in league with the Serpent, the one whose aim is to ruin humanity. Those who persist in manipulative and abusive behaviors without repentance demonstrate they’re “of [their] father the devil” because their “will is to do [their] father’s desires” (John 8:44).

2. Genesis’s pattern warns us to take marital abuse seriously as one of the most gospel-undermining and human-damaging forms of sin.

When we see abuse within our congregations or in the lives of those we counsel, we should be moved to action. If we’re honest, the church hasn’t always taken abuse as seriously as the Scriptures show us we ought.

To be a manipulative abuser is to act in league with the Serpent, the one whose aim is to ruin humanity.

Revelations of this failure have often played out publicly, damaging our witness to the gospel’s truth and vitality. When Christian leaders defend abusers, hide claims of sexual abuse, or push abused spouses to quickly forgive and reconcile before enough time has passed for repentance to be tested as genuine, we’re in tacit alliance with the Serpent, supporting his destructive, anti-gospel mission.

The great struggle in Genesis between the woman’s offspring and the Serpent’s offspring isn’t a calm and dignified war. It’s the battle between good and evil, a drama within which evil often appears to have the upper hand. And as the pattern of Genesis clearly shows, this battle often plays out in the most intimate human relationship.


Leave a Reply