Buried Talents: Genesis, Part 2 (the meaning of “helper”)

What does “helper” really mean? The word translated “helper” is the Hebrew word ‘ezer. Following are all the other occurrences of the word in the Old Testament:

(Exo. 18:4) [T]he other was named Eliezer, for he said, “My father’s God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.”

(Deut. 33:7) “And this he said about Judah: “Hear, O LORD, the cry of Judah; bring him to his people. With his own hands he defends his cause. Oh, be his help against his foes!”

(Deut. 33:26) “There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty.”

(Deut. 33:29) “Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will trample down their high places.”

(Psa. 20:2) May he send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion.

(Psa. 33:20) We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.

(Psa. 70:5) Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay.

(Psa. 89:19) Once you spoke in a vision, to your faithful people you said: “I have bestowed strength on a warrior; I have exalted a young man from among the people.

(Psa. 115:9-11) O house of Israel, trust in the LORD-he is their help and shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD-he is their help and shield. You who fear him, trust in the LORD-he is their help and shield.

(Psa. 121:1-2) A song of ascents. I lift up my eyes to the hills-where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

(Psa. 124:8) Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.

(Psa. 146:5) Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,

(Isa. 30:5) [E]veryone will be put to shame because of a people useless to them, who bring neither help nor advantage, but only shame and disgrace.”

(Ezek. 12:14) I will scatter to the winds all those around him-his staff and all his troops-and I will pursue them with drawn sword.

(Dan. 11:34) When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them.

(Hosea 13:9) “You are destroyed, O Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.”

In the vast majority of cases, ‘ezer refers to God Himself. In a few cases, the enemies of God’s people are criticized as not being the helper that God is. Indeed, ‘ezer is seen as a central element of God’s relationship with His people.

Obviously, God’s calling Eve ‘ezer does not mean that Eve is subordinate to Adam or that women are subordinate to men. If that were so, then God’s inspiring Moses, David, and the prophets to call God ‘ezer would mean that God is subordinate to Israel! Calling Eve “helper” certainly means that Eve was Adam’s complement. She completed what was lacking in Adam. But there is no basis in the scriptures to find subordination or a principle of male leadership in this word.

Perhaps our difficulty in interpreting ‘ezer can be better seen by noticing how we use “helper” in English. We speak of “mother’s little helper,” a “plumber’s helper,” being a “good helper.” In current English, “helper” carries the connotation of a subordinate — even a child.

Roget’s International Thesaurus (5th ed., Harper Collins, New York, N.Y. 1992), page 919, lists “subordinate” as the first choice for synonyms for “helper.” The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2nd ed., Random House, Inc., New York, N.Y. 1993) lists as synonyms of “helper”: aid, assistant, supporter, backer, auxiliary, and ally. Of these, only “ally” does not connote inferiority.

Thus, if I were drowning, I’d call out, “Help!” But I wouldn’t refer to the person who rescued me as my “helper.” My rescuer truly helped me, but calling him “helper” would be too condescending — even belittling.

But these thoughts are utterly foreign to the Hebrew ‘ezer. There is no condescension in the Hebrew word at all, so that “helper” (or “help meet,” as in the King James Version) is truly a clumsy translation. In other verses, ‘ezer is used in the sense of “rescuer” or “liberator.” The word is also used in the sense of “one who fights alongside against a common foe.” “Comrade” or “ally” would come close to the sense in many contexts. Thus, the psalmist sings that God is Israel’s help, not a mere helper — but an ally so powerful that Israel must prevail.

When the United States’ armed forces came to the rescue of Kuwait, we were there to help, but we were not helpers — the U.S. military was an ally, a comrade, and an overwhelming superior to any military capability that Kuwait could have mustered. This is the sense ‘ezer used with respect to God and His relationship to His people.

Therefore, because Eve was unto Adam as God was unto Israel, ‘ezer carries with it no notion that a “helper” is inferior or subordinate. An ‘ezer is one who helps another, but not one who necessarily helps from a position of inferiority.

On the other hand, ‘ezer can refer to an inferior. In Ezekiel the “helpers” were the king’s staff-inferiors.

“Complement” is therefore a proper if not excellent translation. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines “complement” as –

1. something that completes or makes perfect: A good wine is a complement to a good meal. … 3. either of two parts or things needed to complete the whole; counterpart. … To complement is to provide something felt to be lacking or needed; it is often applied to putting together two things, each of which supplies what is lacking in the other, to make a complete whole.

[italics in original].

Clearly, a complement may be the more important or less important of the two parts of the whole under consideration. God was the complement of the Israelites, in that He won battles for them that they could not have won without Him, and yet the Israelites also had to fight. Just so, a general’s aides may be considered his complement, as those whom he needs to perform his duties. Thus, the word connotes neither superiority nor inferiority. Accordingly, I will normally use “complement” when referring to Eve as Adam’s helper or helpmeet.

Now ‘ezer does have a deeper significance. God’s declaring Eve as complement means that God gave Eve a special role in relationship to the man. She is to complete, finish, and make God’s creation of man good. Clearly, therefore, a wife may not, consistent with her God-given role, belittle her husband or injure his reputation. Neither may she act as an independent agent, free of concerns for the impact of her behavior on her husband. She must act as part of a greater whole.

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  1. Since 'ezer so often means a power GREATER than the one to whom it is connected (like God being the 'ezer to Israel), the modifier "kenegdo" makes even more sense as "comparable" or "equal to".

    The problem for us, as I've mentioned before, is that kenegdo is a Biblical singleton. 'ezer kenegdo is the only time this word appears in the Hebrew Bible. So we must look to other literature to find its meaning. Alan has previously noted my preference for the rabbinic understanding of kenegdo as "equal". If anyone finds any other meanings in either Hebrew literature or the cognate Ancient Near Eastern languages, I would love to know about them. I want to get to the bottom of this issue as much as possible.

    Because if the creation narrative does not bestow authority upon the male, then when Paul refers to creation, he is not doing so to assert authority, and we must investigate more thoroughly to learn what he IS asserting.

  2. Clearly, a complement may be the more important or less important of the two parts of the whole under consideration.

    And therefore we cannot conclude from Genesis 2:18 whether or not woman is supposed to submit to man. The question is not answered either way.

    But Genesis 2 does clearly teach that woman was made *for* man. God made Adam. Then God observed that it was not good for Adam to be alone. None of the animals could satisfactorily meet Adam's need. For that reason, God made Eve. So Eve was made *for* Adam, as Paul states in 1 Cor 11:9.

    Paul also refers to the order of creation in 2 Tim 2:11-14. In verses 11-12 he says that woman is not to have authority over man, but rather she is to be in submission. The first reason he gives for that is that Adam was created before Eve. Perhaps implicit in that is what was said in 1 Cor 11:9 , and what is clear from the creation story– that Eve was created *for* Adam, to meet a need of Adam's. Adam existed first, had a need, and that need was met when God created Eve.

  3. Alan,

    I agree. Wives must be true to their purpose given them in God's creation. This is the essence, I think, of Paul's point regarding the order of creation: wives may not do things that violate their purpose as suitable complements.

  4. It sounds like we're on the same page on this. So I guess the main thing you are objecting to is what you've described as paternalism — the view that women are somehow inferior. That's a narrower objection than I had thought. And I also strongly object to that notion.

  5. Beat,

    It's an honor to have you as a reader. I've covered this material both as an ebook and a series of blog posts. The ebook, "Buried Talents" is posted at http://oneinjesus.info/books-by-jay-guin/buried-t…. The series, which is very nearly the same material, is indexed at http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/t…. The series has the advantage of being a little more recent and each post has extensive comments where the readers ask questions and I and others respond.

    May God bless you in his work among our sisters in Uganda.

    Readers,

    Mrs. Bisangwa is the founder of Rhema Ministries in Uganda, a non-denominational, Christian ministry supporting women in that nation. http://rhemaministriesltd.org/index.php?option=co….

  6. Thank you for this!!! I will include this in my write up!

    God has given me the task of expounding on the biblical concept of women’s rights in a very difficult cultural mindset. As such, I am looking for all possible answers and literature on the whole gender equality issue! I have refused to be boxed in believing concepts simple because some pastor interpreted the bible wrongs! So I appreciate these discussions!

    God bless you,

    Beat

  7. Thank you very much for the above. It comes as a great service seeing as I was just about to respond to a Muslim claim that the bible teaches that the woman is ontologically inferior to man. This is literally a godsend.

  8. Pingback: Re: Does the Bible recognize equality between men and women? « God Omnipotent

  9. I believe you are way off….. man and woman were made at the same time. WOman was not formed out of man at the same time. The best way is to study this out, go to Gods word to women.org and see extensive studies I believe over 150 years or older and historical teachings and writings that are centuries old.

    No person leads over another person, study out submission, head, leader etc., in the above mentioned website. Be free and enlightened. God did not make half of his people under the other half. THAT would be unequally yoked.

    There is so much in the Word, please take off the veils and man taught , religion taught ways, Gods ways are true.

  10. Raven,

    If you’d read the rest of the series, you’d see that I’m arguing against the idea that God made “half of his people under the other half.”

    But marriage is all about submission — by both spouses.