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Language Studies

Difficult Sayings

 

Woman, a helpmate for man?
Genesis 2:18

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"And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him." (Genesis 2:18 - "...From where comes my help? My help comes from the Lord...". The older English term "meet", meant "appropriate" or "corresponding to".

The Hebrew is אזר 'ezer (Strong's 5828), as in 'eben-ezer, 'stone of help' or Ezra 'help'. It is a masculine noun, though used here of a woman, Phoebe in the New Testament was described as a male deacon. The LXX, Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, uses the word βοηθοσ boêthos (Strong's 998) to translate 'ezer. Of its 45 uses, boêthos is used 42 times to refer to help from a stronger one, from a more secure or strengthened position, without need of reciprocal help. This strengthens the idea of 'help' as equal or superior rather than inferior.

R. David FreedmanF1 notes that the possible root behind 'ezer may have been either '-z-r "to rescue, save" (as the Ugaritic) and or 'g-z-r meaning "to be strong". The Hebrew letter ghain probably, like Arabic, having previously had two forms implying two roots that may have later got confused when just one Phoenician sign served for both letters. The use of the root verb אזר 'âzar (Strong's 5826) in the Old Testament extends to some 80 occasions, generally of military aid, help from a position of supply or strength. Although the noun is also used of military aid (e.g., Isaiah 30:5; Ezekiel 12:14; Hosea 13:9F2), it does not always imply a victorious intervention or superior assistance. On one occasion it is paralleled with terms for salvation and support (Isaiah 63:5) in the sense of one being leant.

A survey of 'ezer's 20 or so uses reveals strong contexts and parallel terms for might or power, not one of service or slavery. Based on this some commentators have suggested a new translation: "I will make a power/strength corresponding to/equal to man." A relationship of equals.

The last part of v.18 reads literally as "I will make him for him a helper as in front of him." The phrase 'as in front of him', kenegdô, occurs only here and in v.20, and suggests correspondence, with the new creation (woman) being neither inferior nor superior, but equal. The substantive, neged, means 'that which is conspicuous, in full view of, in front of', the related noun, nagid, means a 'ruler' or 'prince', and the verb, nagad, means to 'declare, tell, expound, reveal, announce' (interesting in the light of the denial of women teachers by some) or 'go ahead'. This last one suggests 'achievement, pioneering, risk and deliberate thrust into the unknown'.F3 Thus anyone attempting to use v.18 to put women down or dismiss their ministry is in danger of having the Hebrew words thrown back at them as rather suggesting woman's superiority, ability to declare, teach, expound and reveal, and to be a pioneering leader out in front!

In Rabbinic Hebrew, kenegdô is translated as 'corresponding to'. Gretchen Gabelein Hull coins the helpful phrase of woman as "'completer', not his competitor."F4

Genesis 1:26-28 should be taken as an a priori interpreter of 2:18, as it precedes it, and both are pre-Fall statements. Here, dominion, image, and blessing are conferred upon man, but the text continues, 'let them have dominion ...', 'them' could conceivably refer to all 'male-kind' or the generic inclusive term, 'man-kind'. Since, literally speaking, only Adam and Eve then existed, and the creative blessing to 'go forth and multiply' needed to be spoken over the first couple in order to put the rest of us here on this planet, it would suggest that the 'them' referred to is Adam and Eve. Indeed 1:27-28 elucidates:

"male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion ..."

Thus, as Galatians 3:28 ("there is neither male nor female, all are one in Christ") interprets the other New Testament statements of Paul, so Genesis 1:28 interprets other Old Testament statements, for Scripture must interpret Scripture.

The idea of joint dominion as joint heirs is not alien to the rest of the Bible. In the Old Testament women could inherit in the absence of male heirs, and 1 Peter 3:7 speaks of "being heirs together of the grace of life."

Sonship, and its companion ideas of inheritance and access to God as Father, is a privilege of both men and women in Christ (cf. John 1:12; Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Though the politically incorrect use of a male term to describe a male and female privilege does not deny its 'equal opportunities' application (cf. later, where bishop, elder and particularly, deacon, were male terms but could include females such as Phoebe). Further, sonship also implies the priesthood and ministry of all believers (1 Peter 2:9), male and female alike.

So we should neither make man superior nor woman inferior. She corresponds to man as left is to right, different yet equal, taken from his side, not his head nor his foot. The argument made here about her as a superior helper is deliberately pedantic and shows the dangers of bad exegesis. It is meant as a humorous riposte to all those that suggest woman is lesser and only fit for 'helper' duties. Just as 'God is my helper' I would not consign him only to the kitchen sink!


FOOTNOTES:
F1. Freedman, D., "Woman, a Power Equal to a Man", Biblical Archaeological Review 9 (1983), pp.56-58
F2.Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 1: Genesis 1-15, (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publisher) 1998.
F3. Terrien, S., Till the Heart Sings, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985, p.11
F4. Gretchen Gabelein Hull, Equal to Serve, SU, 1987/89, p.182


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KJ Went has taught biblical Hebrew, hermeneutics and Jewish background to early Christianity. The "Biblical Hebrew made easy" course can be found at www.biblicalhebrew.com.

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