What Did God Say? Gen 2.1b & Man’s "Helper"Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exegesis, Genesis, Hebrew Bible, Marriage, Ministry, Mission, Sexuality, Women
The Crux of the Question
Greetings from a very hot Milwaukee, WI. For sometime now I have been reflecting on various passages in Scripture that relate to women and have found the study to be very refreshing and enlightening. Thus in this installment of Texts and Contexts I have chosen to offer a mini-word study and exegetical reading of Genesis 2.18b . . . taking into account the dangers of word studies we examined in T & C #3. It is my prayer that you will find this to stimulating and will prompt you to do some examination of our thinking based on this passage.
Are women inferior to men? Are women designed, by creational intent, to be simply helpers to men? There are not a few men who think so and often these men will base their theology on a certain understanding of Genesis 2.18b. In the wider “cotext” of 2.18 we learn that Yahweh decided it was not a good thing for the Man to be alone. So the Creator causes a mysterious sleep come over the man and fashions another human being to be with him in this world.
But what does God say? Here are some English translations of the text:
“I will make a helpe meet for him” (KJV)
“I shall make him a helper fit for him” (RSV)
“I will make him a helpmate” (Jerusalem Bible)
“I will make a helper as his partner” (NRSV)
What we find in Genesis 2.18 is what is sometimes called “translation fossils.” Translation fossils refer to the power of tradition in the retention of renderings that have long been regarded as suspect because of new knowledge, yet do not make its way into the translation process. It is now commonly regarded by a growing number of scholars (“conservative” or “liberal”) who regard this basic translation tradition to be a mistranslation of the text.
There are two Hebrew words in this text that bear closer examination: ‘ezer kenegdo. I believe that the common translation (though moving in the right direction with the word “partner” in the NRSV) is not what the Hebrew text means at all. In fact the Hebrew text does not indicate the inferiority of women in the slightest but her full equality with the Man at creation.
The Hebrew word ‘ezer is a combination of two roots: one which means to “rescue,” ”to save” and the other meaning “to be strong.” The difference is in the first sign. The raised “c” refers to the letter “ayin.” The Ugaritic maintained a distinction between ayin and ghayyin but Hebrew lost the distinction. Scholars place a merger between these roots in the Hebrew language around 1200 B.C. Thus at the time of writing the word ‘ezer could mean either “to save” (c-z-r) or “to be strong” (g-z-r).
The noun ‘ezer occurs 21x in the Hebrew Bible. In eight of those instances the term clearly means “savior.” These are easily identified because they occur in parallel texts. For example:
“I am completely destitute;
O God, hurry to my rescue (‘ezri)
You are my deliverer (mefalleti)
O Lord do not delay.
The context and especially the parallel term mefalleti make the meaning of ‘ezri clear. That is one who comes to the aid, saves or rescues (for other examples see Exodus 18.4; Hosea 13.9; Pss 20.2; 121.1, 2; 124.8; 146.5).
In other examples the root means “strength.” For example in Deuteronomy 33.26
“There is none like God, O Jeshurun,
the Rider of the Sky in your strength (be ‘ezreka)
in the heavens in your majesty (ga’avah).
Just a few verses later we read
“Happy are you, Israel Who is like you,
A people delivered by the Lord,
the shield of your strength (‘ezreka)
and the sword of your majesty (ga’avah).
The conclusion of v.29 tells of the defeat of Israel’s enemies, a clear indication that ‘ezer in these examples means “strength.” Also in several of these examples the word is paralleled with the idea of majesty (see Pss 68.34 and 93.1)
The phrase in Deuteronomy 33.29 “The shield of your strength” must be compared to the phrase “the Lord is my strength and shield.” The juxtaposition of shield and strength suggest that the word (‘ezereka) juxtaposed with shield in Deuteronomy means “my strength” rather than “my savior.”
Thus, forms of ‘ezer in the Hebrew Bible can mean either “to save” or “to be strong” or have the idea of power and strength. In Genesis 2.18b, when God speaks of the one he is going to make he does not mean that he is forming one to be the Man’s “savior.” That makes no sense in the context. Rather, God creates this new creature to be, like the man, a power or strength, superior to the animals. This is, I believe the real meaning of the text.
The second word in Genesis 2.18b is kenegdo. This word is a hapax legomenon, that is a word that appears in the Bible a single time. In post biblical Hebrew (i.e. the Mishnah) the term simply means “equal” as in the famous saying “The study of the torah is equal (keneged) to all the other commandments.”
In my view, and most contemporary scholars, there is simply no justification whatsoever for the rendering “fit.” Context figures into determining the meaning. When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, his intent is that she will be different from the other animals, that is a strength or power that is like or equal to him. This is confirmed when the Man uses the idiomatic expression “this is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” This phrase simply means the woman is “one of us”, or “just like us” or simply “equal.”
God solved the loneliness of the Man by giving him, not an assistant, but giving him an equal companion in the journey of life. God gave him a strength or power that is equal to him.
Thus while the NRSV retains the translation fossil of “helper” it gets it correct with the rendering of “partner.” Interestingly enough, the old Catholic Douay version captures the meaning of keneged too with the rendering of “like unto himself.”
Thus in the future we may find translations of Genesis 2.18b that look like this: “I will make a power (or strength) corresponding to the man.” Or “a power equal to man.” As was stated at the beginning of this mini-essay this translation is being forced upon scholars due to the information from cognate languages and the linguistics of how ‘ezer is actually used in the Hebrew Bible. This is the view that conservative, evangelical scholar, Walter C. Kaiser takes in his Hard Sayings of the Old Testament.
If this translation is accurate, and I believe it is, then what does Genesis 2.18 say to husbands . . . there are some men that may need to do some serious rethinking of their view of women in general and their own wife in particular. Women are not mere “helpers” or “assistants.” They are, rather, fully human that is “like unto” or “equal to” the man. This is why she is a good companion for him. The equally image God as any man. This is significant for the whole Bible.
There is a wonderful article by R. David Freedman in Biblical Archaeology Review that explores the ancient near eastern background to these words (see Jan/Feb 1983, pp. 56-58)
Careful attention to the cotext (literary context) and the wider context (historical setting) can shed tremendous light on even those passages we think we have all figured out.