Part of the A Gender Study: The Real Lives of Women and Men in the Bible series

The Roots of Violence: Male Violence against Women in Genesis

When I first started penning thoughts on violence against women in Genesis 1–11, two mass shootings had taken place. One in El Paso and one in Dayton. These shootings ended 31 lives, and injured many more. As usual, analysts struggled to explain the prevalence of such mass shootings in the United States. Obviously, the epidemic availability of guns is a factor, but motivations for these shootings seem to run deeper.

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A 2019 New York Times article identified “hatred of women” as a common denominator among many mass shootings. Increased access to guns is now accompanied by increased access to misogynistic forums and websites.1Julie Bosman, Kate Taylor, and Tim Arango, “A Common Trait Among Mass Killings: Hatred of Women,” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/us/mass-shootings-misogyny-dayton.html. Accessed 08/14/2019. A study cited in the article also indicates that nearly half of all mass shooters have a history of domestic violence, particularly against women. Another in-depth study looked at 22 mass shootings since 2011 found that 86% of the shooters had a history of domestic violence. Thirty-two percent of the shooters had a history of stalking and harassment, and 50% specifically targeted women.2Mark Follman, “Armed and Misogynist: How Toxic Masculinity Fuels Mass Shootings,” https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2019/06/domestic-violence-misogyny-incels-mass-shootings/. Accessed 08/20/2019. Domestic violence fed public terrorism.3A 2015 Lancet study on intimate partner violence compiled data from 66 surveys in 44 countries and included the experiences of nearly half a million women. It found that the “greatest predictor of partner violence was social “environments that support male control,” especially “norms related to male authority over female behaviour.” https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028. Accessed 08/14/2019. For a link to the study, see https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(15)00013-3/fulltext.

Where Scripture Starts: Men and Women in Genesis

The link between male (domestic) control of women and public violence raises questions for Christians about how Scripture feeds or resists such trends. Unfortunately, many Christians begin their thinking about male-female power dynamics with texts that seem to support male control. They start with the “headship” or submission verses. This not only ignores where the Bible itself begins (Genesis 1–2). It also divorces such passages from the strong critiques of male control and violence that weave their way through the biblical story, especially at its beginning.

Unfortunately, many Christians begin their thinking about male-female power dynamics with texts that seem to support male control.

If we start where the Bible actually starts, our picture of male authority and violence changes significantly. By placing these chapters first, the writer of Genesis says, “Look through these lenses to understand the biblical story.” Genesis 1–2 begin with a compelling vision of male-female equality.4See Richard Hess, “Evidence for Equality in Genesis 1–3,” https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/other/evidence-equality-genesis-1-3. Accessed 08/23/2019, and recently, Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts (IVP, 2019). Men and women in Genesis are made in God’s image, called to rule in creation (Gen 1), and to share in the sacred task of keeping the garden (Gen 2). But once humanity rebels, male dominance enters the picture. As an awful consequence of sin, men would now “rule over” women (Gen 3:16). Male dominance and rule represented a distortion of God’s intention for men and women.

Read more about the biblical grammar of violence in Dr. Lynch’s recent book.

Recognizing the tragic emergence of male hierarchy over women in Genesis 3 helps us see its connection to three brief (but often ignored) vignettes woven through the Primeval History in Genesis 1–11. Each vignette foregrounds the link between the new forms of male dominance and violence. The vignettes show the emergence of public violence from its domestic environs, and suggest that male dominance is not just one of many contributing factors in the emergence of violence. It is a lead cause.

These short stories warrant our attention because they’re about beginnings. Beginnings in the Bible aren’t just FYI regarding when and where or even how things began. Beginnings are about the essential nature of things, about fundamental questions. They’re about diagnosing the fundamental problems that plague humanity. The short vignettes we explored tell us about three beginnings:

  1. The beginning of polygamy (domestic verbal violence): Lamech, the first polygamist tries to outdo God by exacting unjust vengeance and then taunting his wives.
  2. The beginning of the warrior kings (military violence): Divine beings seize women and surprise, surprise, their sons became warriors.
  3. The beginning of “great” cities (political and civic violence): One warrior named Nimrod was the first warrior-hunter, the “ideal (royal) male” in the ancient world. He founded the great Mesopotamian cities.

Each of these stories sits within the story of humanity’s “falling out” with God and each other. They help explain why the earth was filled with violence (Gen 6), and why it’s still filled with violence.

Lamech Taunts His Wives

Our first vignette is about a man named Lamech (Gen 4:19–24). It offers us the first explicit link between patriarchy and violence.5It might be implied already in the man’s ruling over his wife (Gen 3:16). Lamech is Cain’s descendent and the seventh generation from Adam. Cain’s great-great-great grandson Lamech is the first polygamist in the Bible. This detail, mentioned in passing during the recitation of Cain’s genealogy (4:19), is deliberate.

We’re told that Lamech “took” wives for himself (4:19), an act that suggests forced marriage. As he begins to increase the territory of his matrimonial dominion, he utters this victory taunt to his wives:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice,

wives of Lamech, attune your ear to what I say;

For I have slain a man for bruising me;

a lad for wounding me.

If Cain is avenged sevenfold,

Lamech is avenged seventy-seven fold. (4:23–24)

The exact reasons that Lamech kills a young man are unclear. Perhaps he was Adah or Zillah’s former husband? Or perhaps he was jealous? In any case, Lamech felt the need to sing his victory song to his wives. It has the feel of a veiled threat, especially with implied divine backing. Just as God would avenge Cain’s killer seven-fold, Lamech avenges himself seventy-seven fold. Apparently his wives “needed” to hear about it. 

Lamech merges men-folk’s newfound dominance (Gen 3:16) with the murderous impulses of Cain (Gen 4:1–12). Violence against women hasn’t yet emerged. But its threat hangs in the domestic air.

Taking Wives and Becoming Warriors

Genesis 6:1–4 tells us a bizarre little story. Divine beings called “the sons of God” produce offspring with human women.6Identifying these “sons of god(s)” (benê hāelôhîm) is tricky. The most straightforward reading suggests that these are divine beings, known only elsewhere in the Old Testament from the books of Job (1:6; 2:1; 38:7), Deuteronomy (32:8) and Psalms (29:1; 89:7). Others have insisted that the “sons of god” refer to dynastic rulers, the despots of the ancient world. Yet as Clines points out, a purely human interpretation of the phrase “sons of god” is unlikely. While they are certainly portrayed as tyrants, the phrase “sons of god” rarely if ever refers to kings in general in the ancient world, much less so in the Bible. More likely these are despotic divine beings. For a discussion on the identity of the sons of God, see William A. Van Gemeren, “The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4: An Example of Evangelical Demythologization?” WTJ 43/2 (1981):320-48 [330-43]. These women then spawn a race of warriors. The story reads like a scrap of paper torn from a fantasy novel:

The [biblical] vignettes show the emergence of public violence from its domestic environs, and suggest that male dominance is not just one of many contributing factors in the emergence of violence. It is a lead cause.

When humans began to increase upon the earth’s surface, and daughters were born to them, the divine beings saw (*r’h) that they were pleasing (*ṭôb). So they took (*lqḥ) as wives from (min) any whom they wanted. Then Yahweh said, “My Spirit will not contend with humanity forever, for they are flesh. Their days will be a hundred and twenty years (yet).” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the divine beings went to the daughters of humanity and had children by them. They were the ancient warriors, men of status.7The mysterious nature of this passage has been cause for endless speculation and embellishment in Jewish and Christian traditions. Second only to the equally enigmatic Enoch fragment of Gen 5:24, Gen 6:1–4 has fuelled the apocalyptic imagination in works like the Third Century BCE “Book of Watchers” (1 Enoch 1–36), which fills in many of the gaps left by Genesis 6:1-4. See Archie T. Wright, The Origins of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1–4 in Early Jewish Literature (2nd Revised ed.; WUNT 2/198; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003).

In the immediate context of Genesis, this story about warriors precedes the account of the earth filling with violence. This connection may explain the placement of the story. Notice the coordinated references to humanity’s “increasing” (6:1) and its “increased” (6:5) wickedness.8Hendel, “Of Demigods and Deluge: Toward an Interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4,” JBL 106/1 (1987):13-26 [23]; Matthews, Genesis 1:1–11:26, 322. The early Jewish Book of Watchers also makes this connection. It explains how the offspring of the divine-human unions turn on humanity and fill the earth with violence (1 Enoch 7–9). In other words, the story wants us to draw a connection between the women-grabbing demigods (6:1–4) and the eruption of violence on earth (6:5ff).

Notice also that the writer wants us to see that the divine beings are repeating the story of corruption in the Garden of Eden:

The divine beings saw (*r’h) that they were pleasing (*ṭôb), so they took (*lqḥ) as wives from (min) any whom they wanted. (Gen 6:2)

These divine beings set their sights on human daughters and had to have ‘em. They took whomever they wanted. Some scholars contest that the story reflects negatively on the daughters’ actions.9Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 141. Wenham argues strangely that the daughters consented and that their fathers gave approval (just as Adam consented to Eve’s transgression). This view lacks any support and misses the primary critique of the gods’ actions as a prelude to the “great” heroes of old. But the language of the passage is unambiguous. By deploying the keywords “saw (*r’h) . . . pleasing (*ṭôb) . . . took (*lqḥ) . . . from (min)” the writer draws our attention back to Genesis 3:6:

When the woman saw (*r’h) that the tree was pleasing (*ṭôb) for eating . . . she took (*lqḥ) from (min) its fruit and ate.

The divine beings replicate the original sin. They saw what was good to them. So they transgressed a creational boundary to take at will. This places their actions in a decidedly negative light. And like the original transgression it ushers in a new era of male domination (Gen 3:16) and violence (Gen 4). The divine beings take women as possessions and father renowned warriors (6:4).

Notice also that these divine beings act like entitled kings tended to act. They sound like the vengeful act of Lamech who “took for himself . . . wives” (4:19) and boasted of killing a boy who had wounded him. Later, King David “saw” (*r’h) the “pleasing” (*ṭôb) Bathsheba and sent officials to “take” (*lqḥ) her.10Cf. Gen 26:7; Est 1:11; 2:3.  To underwrite his theft, David then acted violently by having Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed (2 Sam 11). Notice a pattern? Martial and marital domination went hand-in-hand for kings.

Genesis 6:4 lingers on this point. Human warrior-rulers descend from illicit divine-human unions. Human warrior-rulers act like these divine beings. The divine beings are the ancestors of all warrior kings, so to speak. Genesis 6:4b tells us that the offspring of the sons of God were “warriors [gibbōrim] of old” and “men of renown.” The reference to “warriors” is significant, though the translation is not descriptive enough. These are super warriors, those with exceptional strength, as their descent from the divine beings tells us.11As Mark Smith notes, the range of applications for e’lōhîm ­ in the Old Testament suggests that the term basically denotes “power” that is “extraordinary,” though possessed in varying degrees by divinities. Smith, God in Translation, 11–15. On גבור, see Robin Wakely, ‘גָבַר,’ NIDOTTE ad loc, Westermann, Genesis, 363–83. Hence their association with the Nephilim, the ancestors of the Anakim who later terrorized the land of Canaan as warrior-kings.12Num 13:28, 33.

The warriors of old invert the life-promoting qualities of humanity portrayed in Genesis 1–2. Instead of recognizing that all humans image God, now a select group of warriors positioned themselves as gods on earth. Clines puts it well:

[W]e now have the presence of the divine on earth in a form that utterly misrepresents God through its exercise of royal violence and despotic authority over other humans.13Clines, “The ‘Sons of God’ Episode,” 37.

We can now step back to see Genesis 6:1–4 is a mocking-yet-sober “founding story” of the so-called “great” warrior kings. Genesis 6 grants kings this founding story (as the great stories did in the ancient world), but sets it within the framework of a tragic story about humanity’s embrace of violent male domination. Once again, domestic violence (taking women) gave birth to public violence (warrior-kings).  

Nimrod, the Man’s Man

Genesis 1–11 offers yet another vignette to demonstrate what these warrior-kings are really all about. It appears in the genealogy of nations (Gen 10). The writer slips this fragment story between names in a list:

And Cush gave birth to Nimrod.

He started becoming a warrior (gibbōr) on the earth.

He was a hunter-warrior (gibbōr) before Yhwh.

Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod, a hunter-warrior (gibbōr) before Yhwh.” (Gen 10:8–9)

Nimrod is the post-Flood equivalent of Cain. He’s violent and founds cities (4:17). A brief genealogical note tells us that he founds the great imperial centres of the ancient world, including Babylon and Nineveh (10:10–12). Though his story doesn’t focus on violence against women, he’s clearly cut from the same mold as the warriors in Genesis 6. Genesis uses the same term (gibbōr) to make the link (6:4; 10:8-9, 3x).

Nimrod’s name is ironic. The Hebrew name means “let us rebel” or “we rebel.” It is usually against the powerful and oppressive ruler that the oppressed rebel. For instance, just a few chapters downstream from this story we learn about several kings from the Jordan Valley who “rebelled” against the Elamite king Kedorlaomer, who had oppressed them for twelve years (Gen 14:4). But Nimrod is different. He is the mighty warrior. He’s the oppressor. Nimrod’s name ironically enshrines its own opposition.

As a hunter, Nimrod was at home among the great kings of Mesopotmia, but especially among the Assyrians—the most notoriously violent of Israel’s enemies. The prophet Micah even refers to Assyria as “the land of Nimrod” (Mic 5:6). The Assyrians—perhaps more than any others in the ancient world—connected human dominion over animals with dominion over human enemies. Rule was expressed and dramatized in the hunt, clearly not what Genesis 1:28 had in mind. To be a mighty ruler was to be a mighty hunter. Tiglath-Pilesar I (1114–1076) boasts:

By the command of the god Ninurta, who loves me, I killed on foot 120 lions with my wildly vigorous assault. . . . I have brought down every kind of wild beast and winged bird of the heavens whenever I have shot an arrow.14Grayson (1976:16), qtd., A. van der Kooij, “‘Nimrod, A Mighty Hunter Before the Lord!’ Assyrian Royal Ideology as Perceived in the Hebrew Bible,” JS 21/1 (2012):1–27[3–4].

In another instance, an Assyrian poet celebrates the king’s brutal slaughter of wild animals, women, and babies:

“Let us go and bring massacre upon the mountain beasts,

With our sharpened (?) weapons we will shed their blood.” . . .

A journey of three days he marched [in one].

Even without sunshine a fiery heat was among them,

He slashed the wombs of the pregnant, blinded the babies,

He cut the throats of the strong ones among them,

Their troops saw (?) the smoke of the (burning) land.15From “The Hunter,” translated by Benjamin R. Foster in Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (3d. ed.; Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2005), 336–37.

The king’s defeat of nature’s untamed animals creates the lens for interpreting his defeat of human enemies. Human enemies—whether pregnant women, babies, or strong opponents—were justifiably annihilated on the basis of their association with all that is “wild” in nature. The king subdues the earth through violent domination.

So when we hear that Nimrod was a mighty hunter, we’re probably not meant to imagine a bearded man donning his camos and orange for an early morning out with his buddies. The claim that Nimrod was a mighty hunter was linked clearly to his role as founder (and ruler) of empires, including the all-too-violent Assyrian Empire. These male warrior-rulers rule by conquering nature and conquering women.

A Pattern of Violence Throughout Genesis

Genesis traces sin from the emergence of male dominance (Gen 3:16) to the first murder (Gen 4), and from the emergence of polygamy (Gen 4) to the woman-acquiring warrior class (Gen 6). From these warriors, emerges Nimrod (Gen 10), an ideal warrior king—an inverted picture of Gen 1:28, with female co-ruler noticeably absent. 

These stories set the stage for a pattern of bravado and violence that weaves its way through Genesis and the rest of scripture. Abraham’s nephew Lot was willing to offer his violent male neighbors his two daughters bodies for a night’s peace (Gen 19). Shechem raped Leah’s daughter Dinah, which precipitated further violence as Simeon and Levi slaughtered all the inhabitants of Shechem’s city (Gen 34).

The important point for our study is that these stories of male dominance and violence against women in Genesis belong within the broader narrative portrait of humanity’s rebellion against God. From the beginning, Genesis draws a direct line of connection between male domination and violence. On the one hand, this isn’t new news. Sociologists and criminologists have long recognized the link between misogyny and violence. But the Old Testament might have a sharper challenge here than we think. Male dominion is not just one among many factors contributing to the problem of violence. It is a primary characteristic of violence.

The striking link between male domination and violence in these stories challenges us to consider the threads connecting male “rule” to violence, and specifically violence against women. It forces us to consider the domestic, cultural, spiritual, and political forms misogynistic violence takes. The fact that these challenges of male domination occur so prominently in Genesis 1–11 suggest that they have a kind of priority for us as readers. Challenges remain. The Old Testament offers some truly troubling depictions of women.16For resources on this subject, see Alice Bach, ed. Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader (Routledge, 2013); Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Engaging the Bible in a Gendered World: An Introduction to Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Honor of Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Presbyterian Publishing Corp, 2006). However, if Genesis 1–11 is the lens for reading the rest, its stories should lead us to become deeply suspicious of anything less than the pursuit of male-female equality envisioned in Genesis 1–2.

End Notes

1. Julie Bosman, Kate Taylor, and Tim Arango, “A Common Trait Among Mass Killings: Hatred of Women,” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/us/mass-shootings-misogyny-dayton.html. Accessed 08/14/2019.

2. Mark Follman, “Armed and Misogynist: How Toxic Masculinity Fuels Mass Shootings,” https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2019/06/domestic-violence-misogyny-incels-mass-shootings/. Accessed 08/20/2019.

3. A 2015 Lancet study on intimate partner violence compiled data from 66 surveys in 44 countries and included the experiences of nearly half a million women. It found that the “greatest predictor of partner violence was social “environments that support male control,” especially “norms related to male authority over female behaviour.” https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028. Accessed 08/14/2019. For a link to the study, see https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(15)00013-3/fulltext.

4. See Richard Hess, “Evidence for Equality in Genesis 1–3,” https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/other/evidence-equality-genesis-1-3. Accessed 08/23/2019, and recently, Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts (IVP, 2019).

5. It might be implied already in the man’s ruling over his wife (Gen 3:16).

6. Identifying these “sons of god(s)” (benê hāelôhîm) is tricky. The most straightforward reading suggests that these are divine beings, known only elsewhere in the Old Testament from the books of Job (1:6; 2:1; 38:7), Deuteronomy (32:8) and Psalms (29:1; 89:7). Others have insisted that the “sons of god” refer to dynastic rulers, the despots of the ancient world. Yet as Clines points out, a purely human interpretation of the phrase “sons of god” is unlikely. While they are certainly portrayed as tyrants, the phrase “sons of god” rarely if ever refers to kings in general in the ancient world, much less so in the Bible. More likely these are despotic divine beings. For a discussion on the identity of the sons of God, see William A. Van Gemeren, “The Sons of God in Genesis 6:1–4: An Example of Evangelical Demythologization?” WTJ 43/2 (1981):320-48 [330-43].

7. The mysterious nature of this passage has been cause for endless speculation and embellishment in Jewish and Christian traditions. Second only to the equally enigmatic Enoch fragment of Gen 5:24, Gen 6:1–4 has fuelled the apocalyptic imagination in works like the Third Century BCE “Book of Watchers” (1 Enoch 1–36), which fills in many of the gaps left by Genesis 6:1–4. See Archie T. Wright, The Origins of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1–4 in Early Jewish Literature (2nd Revised ed.; WUNT 2/198; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003).

8. Hendel, “Of Demigods and Deluge: Toward an Interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4,” JBL 106/1 (1987):13-26 [23]; Matthews, Genesis 1:1–11:26, 322.

9. Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 141. Wenham argues strangely that the daughters consented and that their fathers gave approval (just as Adam consented to Eve’s transgression). This view lacks any support and misses the primary critique of the gods’ actions as a prelude to the “great” heroes of old. 

10. Cf. Gen 26:7; Est 1:11; 2:3. 

11. As Mark Smith notes, the range of applications for e’lōhîm ­ in the Old Testament suggests that the term basically denotes “power” that is “extraordinary,” though possessed in varying degrees by divinities. Smith, God in Translation, 11–15. On גבור, see Robin Wakely, ‘גָבַר,’ NIDOTTE ad loc, Westermann, Genesis, 363–83.

12. Num 13:28, 33.

13. Clines, “The ‘Sons of God’ Episode,” 37.

14. Grayson (1976:16), qtd., A. van der Kooij, “‘Nimrod, A Mighty Hunter Before the Lord!’ Assyrian Royal Ideology as Perceived in the Hebrew Bible,” JS 21/1 (2012):1–27[3–4].

15. From “The Hunter,” translated by Benjamin R. Foster in Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (3d. ed.; Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2005), 336–37.

16. For resources on this subject, see Alice Bach, ed. Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader (Routledge, 2013); Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Engaging the Bible in a Gendered World: An Introduction to Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Honor of Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Presbyterian Publishing Corp, 2006).