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Topic 1: “A helper fit for him”: What does this mean?


“A helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18).

What does this mean? The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its September 1985 paper, “Women in the Church” (CTCR-WIC) concludes “woman is created to be helper for man. She is created from him and for him.  While the word ‘subordination’ is not actually used in Genesis 2, this account of the creation presents the foundation for 1 Corinthians” (CTCR-WIC, pgs. 23-24).

“It has been argued that the word ezer does not necessarily imply subordination in any way.  Sixteen of twenty-one uses of the word in the Old Testament refer to God as a superior helper to human beings.  The remaining three refer to men helping other men.  But ezer must be seen in context. The phrase says that God created woman to be help for man; that is to say, the purpose of her creation was to be a help to the man.  There is apparently some kind of subordination indicated by the phrase” (CTCR-WIC, Footnote 29, pg. 23).

This understanding is reflected by a comment by a lay person, “Everyone knows that a carpenter’s helper is subordinate to and lesser than the carpenter.  This is how we understanding the relation of man to woman.”  And Clark, in Man and Woman in Christ, reflects the same understanding: “In the narrative [of Genesis], then, the woman’s role is understood in relationship to the man, which indicates some kind of subordination” (Clark, pg. 25).

But is subordination implied?  No, the phrase “a helper fit for him” does not imply “some kind of subordination…”

(A) First, note that various biblical translations offer different nuances:

“I will make him an help meet for him” (KJV).

“I will make a helper comparable to him” (NKJV).

“I will provide a partner for him” (NEB).

“I will make a helper suitable for him” (NIV).

“I shall make him a helper” (New Jerusalem Bible).

“I will make a helper to suit him” (Moffatt).

“I will make a suitable companion to help him” (TEV).

(B) The biblical word translated “helper” is the Hebrew word ezer.

(1) Ezer is found twenty-one times in the Old Testament.

(2) Sixteen of these times the word refers to God or Yahweh who is a strong and superior helper or who supplies the help (Ex. 18:4, Deut. 33:7, 26, 29; Ps. 20:2, 33:20, 70:5; 89:19; 115:9, 10, 11; 121:1,2; 124:8; 146:5; Hosea 13:9).  Three of the others refer to people who receive no help (Is. 30:5, Ez. 12:14, Dan. 11:34), and the other two are in the Genesis 2 passage.

(3) The general sense of ezer is of a stronger helping or assisting the weaker: in most instances of Old Testament usage (e.g. Ps. 121:1-2; also compare 1 Sam. 7:12) the word refers to God.  God does not fit the description of a lesser assistant.

(4) “Thus, forms of cezer as used in the Bible can mean ‘to save’ or ‘to be strong.’ In Genesis 2:18b, when God speaks of the being He is to create to relieve the man’s loneliness, He is surely not creating this creature to be the man’s savior.  This makes no sense.  God creates this new creature to be, like the man, a power (or strength) superior to the animals.  This is the true meaning of cezer as used in this passage” (Freedman, “Woman, A Power Equal to Man,” Biblical Archeology Review (Jan/Feb 1983),  pgs. 56-58).  Freedman also notes that the Hebrew word ezer is a combination of two roots: `-z-r, meaning “to rescue, to save,” and g-z-r, meaning “to be strong.”

(5) Ezer is never used in the Old Testament to designate a subordinate.

(6) Consequently the word conveys no implication of subordination, weakness, inferiority, or lesser ranking.

(C) “…a helper fit for him…”

(1) “…kenegdo…appears in the Bible only once….In later Mishnaic Hebrew, the root keneged means ‘equal,’ as in the famous saying that ‘The study of the Torah is equal (keneged) to all the other commandments'”  (Freedman, pg. 57).

(2) The Hebrew negdo (“fit”) with the preposition ke (“a particle of comparison” Langenscheidt, pg. 139) means “corresponding to,” “equal and adequate to” (Langenscheidt, pg. 206), similarly, someone in front of or in the presence of another.

(3) The particle of comparison admits no subordination.  “The root word neged, when used as noun, refers to rulers and leaders in the Old Testament” (Pareles, Hidden Voices: Biblical Women and Our Christian Heritage, pg. 3).

(D) If anything then, ezer suggests the woman is superordinate, not subordinate.

(1) “The two Hebrew words that describe the position of the to-be-created woman vis-à-vis the man are cezer kenegdo…They should be translated instead to mean approximately ‘a power equal to man.’  That is, when God concluded that he would create another creature so that man would not be alone, he decide to make ‘a power equal to him,’ someone whose strength was equal to man’s.  Woman was not intended to be merely man’s helper.  She was to be instead his partner” (Freedman, pg. 56).

(2) “When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, His intent is that she will be — unlike the animals — ‘a power (or strength) equal to him.’ I think that there is no other way of understanding the phrase cezer kenegdo that can be defended philologically” (Freedman, pg. 58).

(3) An intensive care unit nurse helping a patient, even if the patient is CEO of the hospital, does not imply subordination, but skill, strength, expertise, and even authority (“Here, swallow this pill!”).

(4) “It is not good that man should be alone”: The context of needing a “helper” or a “companion” is not a need for some one to till the garden or cook the man’s meals, but man’s “aloneness,” that fact that the animals cannot provide the kind of intimacy a human being needs.

(5) “However, if the woman is subordinate to the man simply because she was created to meet Adam’s need for a helpful assistant, then his authority over her should pertain only to those tasks with which he would have needed help before she was created.  Her helping tasks should concern only the sort of work for which the man would have had responsibility when he was working in the Garden alone” (Groothius, Good News for Women, pg. 130).

The context, which the CTCR-WIC document states as necessary for understanding the meaning of ezer, argues against the idea of subordination of women.

(A) “[vs 18]… It is not good that man should be alone“: God understands the male’s need as a need for companionship, something he cannot supply himself, something none of the animals could give him; animals certainly could help (note farm animals and their usage), but not to meet this need of the male.  The male’s need implies neither domination nor subordination on his part.  If anything, the need suggests incompleteness.

(B) “[vs 21] … the Lord … took one of his ribs … [vs 24] … he made into a woman …”: God’s creative action suggests parity.

(1) Adam and the animals were made from the dust.  Their origin and source was the dust.

(2) But the woman is different.  The man is the “source” of the woman.

(3) We do not assume the man was inferior to the ground.  Source or derivation does not translate into subordination.  One person has commented, “If being taken from Adam’s rib implies Eve is subordinate or inferior, then by the same logic Adam is inferior and subordinate to the dirt from which he was taken.”

(4) The man sleeps when God takes the rib; the man plays no part and has no claim to superiority through action.

(5) The context of “rib” implies relationship.  The Hebrew word for “rib” can also be translated “side” (BDB, pg. 854).

(C) “[vs 23]… bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh“: The male understands the relationship not as subordination but equity, parity, unity, oneness.

(1) The male expresses no understanding of the woman as being subordinate or inferior or ranked beneath him.

(2) “Eve was literally created from Adam’s bone and flesh.  But the idiomatic meaning in the Bible of ‘bone and flesh’ is ‘very close relative,’ ‘one of us’ – in effect, ‘our equal.’ For example, when Laban refers to Jacob as ‘my bone and flesh’ in Genesis 29:14, he provides Jacob with free hospitality.  But in verse 15, where Jacob is demoted to ah (brother, kinsman,’ he has to work for his keep” (Freedman, pg. 58).

(D) “[vs 24]…Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh“:  The divine writer understands that the relationship, even of marriage, is “one flesh,” a mutuality, partnership, equity, with neither greater or less than the other, neither subordinate nor superordinate in relation to the other.

(1)  The man’s “aloneness” need has been met by a partner equal to him.

(2) The same Hebrew verb is used for the “taking of man from the dust” as is used for “the taking of woman from the rib.”  The divine author suggests thereby that God is treating both equally.

We conclude that the phrase “a helper fit for him” does not imply “some kind of subordination.”