Genesis (Study 11)—Ezer Helper (Gen 2:18–25)

09/25/2022 07:17

After warning the human not to eat of the tree, we have a topic change. In verse 18, we learn that God didn’t think it good (or complete) that the human was alone (or one). He determined to provide a complement. To begin the process, God had all the animals file by for the adam to name. The naming exercise is not that God was simply curious as to what the adam would call them. Assigning names was not simply applying labels; rather, the adam was examining and giving names based on attributes. The names described the animals. God wanted Adam to examine every creature so that he would realize that there was not a single other creature like himself. No one had those image-bearing qualities the adamhad to relate personally with God. After the last animal passed and the adam had learned that lesson, God had the human go to sleep. From the adam, God formed a female. When Adam awoke, he recognized this other being now as one like himself. Adam (the male) called her “woman” (a slight change to the feminine in the Hebrew) based on their similarity and their difference. Verse 24, then, shows these two having had been separated from one, reuniting again as one in the marriage experience.

One of the main questions we may come away with from this passage is why God created the second person the same but different. Why not simply the same? Why not scoop up another handful of dirt to fashion another human? The point was image bearing; while with another handful of dirt, the idea of one physical essence with multiple persons would remain intact, as we have discussed, there is more to image bearing than merely the multiple-in-one construct.

But it seems as if verse 18 has, since centuries ago, created some confusion. God sought to resolve the problem of the adam being alone not by simply making another human, but by making one specifically designated as a helper. And it is from this starting designation that scholars seem to have interpreted most of the rest of the Bible’s comments about women in a particular way. Considering the woman only an assistant, many of the early church fathers seriously doubted the image of God in women. The lack of that image, they thought, devalued a woman and made her spiritually inferior. Thus, nothing compelled those early scholars to look beyond a superficial reading of the few New Testament passages that seemed to suggest a woman’s role should be limited. A logical progression was apparent that would hold through later generations: a presumed reason led to a related interpretation, which led to conduct. Women’s inferiority in image (the scholars’ presumed reason) led to understanding that certain passages limited women (their interpretation), which gave men authority in the home and church (their conduct). Even into the 1500s the same logical progression held. Although scholars came to accept that God created women in his image, reformation leaders believed that women were intellectually inferior. So, then, the intellectual superiority of men (the presumed reason) led to understanding that certain passages limited women (the interpretation), and that interpretation gave men authority in the home and church (conduct). 

Again time passed. Today’s Christians view women on equal footing with men not only in the possession of God’s image but also in intellect. This recognition of equality in their being destroyed the pattern previously relied on. No longer is there a reason of being to support the interpretation that women should not participate in roles of leadership in the home and the church. Without a reason of being, many conservative Christians have begun reinvestigating those passages previously thought to impose limitations on the leadership of women. However, those who want to maintain a hold on the submission role for females in contrast to a leadership role for males, maintain that in Genesis 2:18 they find their support. There need be no reason of being for the opposing authoritative and subordinate roles; they are simply mandated by God; he just wanted to assign roles to each. In other words, as Ray Ortlund states in Recognizing Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW), page 102, “She [woman/Eve] was his spiritual equal and, unlike the animals, ‘suitable for him.’ But she was not his equal in that she was his helper.’ . . . A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God.” Because so many force that kind of thought on the text, we need to examine the question of whether male authority and female subordination are actually in God’s design.

I am going to refer to the opposing opinions as patriarchal complementarianism (PC) and functional egalitarianism (FE). Although the one side that understands the Bible to teach authoritative and subordinate roles for the sexes prefers simply complementarianism, that word alone is not enough to describe the position. I am of the opposite view, yet I firmly believe that the sexes are complementary as well. But my understanding is that they are complementary based on their differences, not despite them. So simply using only the one word does not distinguish their position from mine. Adding patriarchal to the term helps to describe the position as one in which males are seen as having the role of authority complementing the females’ submission.

Likewise, most refer to the position which understands the Bible to teach equality of the sexes in both value (being) and opportunity (function or role) as egalitarianism. However, since patriarchal complementarians say they also believe the sexes are equal in value, the term egalitarian doesn’t seem to be descriptive enough. Calling it functional egalitarianism, therefore, specifies the point of difference.

Those are the terms (and abbreviations) that will be used as we examine the question of whether male authority and female subordination are actually in God’s design. Specifically, we will ask whether this passage (Gen 2:18–24) teaches authority and subordination and also whether the rest of the Bible (especially the New Testament) supports the design of authority and subordination. In discussing this passage, three questions will frame our review:

1.     What does the term helper mean?

2.     Why did God create male and female?

3.     What should interaction between males and females look like?

First, then, what does the term helper mean? The Hebrew word here translated is ezer. The word occurs in the Old Testament 21 times, two of which are those in this passage referring to the woman. Of the other 19 occurrences, 16 refer to God as the one who helps, and the helping of God is not as an assistant simply aiding in getting the job done. It is a help because God accomplishes what Israel or some other person or group could not do or failed to do on their own. The word’s remaining three uses are in the following verses:

Isaiah 30:5 “Everyone will be ashamed because of a people who can’t help.”

Ezekiel 12:14 “And I will scatter toward every wind all who are around him, his helpers and all his troops. . . .”

Daniel 11:34 “When [the people of God] are defeated, they will be helped by some, but many others will join them insincerely.”

We find, then, in examination of these three verses and their contexts, that these instances join the other 16 occurrences showing help to indicate providing benefit that the one needing help cannot provide on his or her own. It would appear conclusive that we should not interpret the help in Genesis 2:18 as a mere assistance to some other authoritative human who is getting the job done but may need a little aid along the way.

It is therefore puzzling to read in RBMW (page 87) the opposite view proposed: 

The context [of Genesis 2] makes it very unlikely that helper should be read on the analogy of God’s help, because in Genesis 2:19–20 Adam is caused to seek his “helper” first among the animals. 

In other words, the fact that the adam looked first to the animals means that his helper must be in the same kind of subordinate position as an animal. Once over the shock of such a statement to equate a woman’s position with animals, we may also realize that the context actually teaches the exact opposite point. God has the adam review the animals to show that those creatures cannot provide the kind of help the adam requires. Almost backtracking, the authors seem to agree as they continue: 

But the animals will not do, because they are not ‘fit for him.’ So God makes woman ‘from man.’ Now there is a being who is ‘fit for him,’ sharing his human nature, equal to him in Godlike personhood. She is infinitely different from an animal, and God highlights her value to man by showing how no animal can fill her role. 

Are the authors reversing their prior implication? Well, no. Seemingly switching their logic again, they return to their puzzling contention in the very next line: 

Yet in passing through ‘helpful’ animals to woman, God teaches us that the woman is a man’s ‘helper’ in the sense of a loyal and suitable assistant in the life of the garden. 

Somehow the author wants us to presume that despite God’s direct activity to show that animals are not suitable helpers, God means by the exercise that the helper is supposed to be like the animals! The unsupported bias of that position is apparent.

Despite the attempt, PCs offer no actual support to the idea that ezer (helper) in this passage means anything other than what it means in 100% of its other uses in the OT—it indicates providing benefit that the one needing help cannot provide on his or her own.

Next we turn to the question of why God did create male and female. Both PCs and FEs believe the male-female relationship is either the image of or fulfilling the image of another relationship involving God. However, since the PCs see the marriage relationship as fulfilling the Christ-to-church relationship, we will put off that discussion until we get to the New Testament. Right now, we will stick to only arguments concerning our Genesis 2 passage. In Genesis 2, then, do we see any circumstances of the male-and-female-creation process that indicate authority and submission? The PCs answer yes.

First, they say, God used a male word to describe the human race as a whole; thus, by this, God demonstrated the leadership of males. However, this argument simply will not do. Adam means human, not male. Just because Hebrew is a language that assigns gender to nouns does not mean we ignore the definition to assume the gender category. What’s more, Hebrew has no neuter; therefore, all nouns are either male or female in gender, yet we are surely not to presume a hidden meaning for a noun that God intends as leadership qualification based on the gender assignment. For example, in Hebrew, bird is feminine. Should we presume leadership authority for female birds over their male counterparts because of the gender assignment to the group? 

More importantly, the argument draws connection between God’s choosing the word based on gender assignments. First, just because Genesis was written in Hebrew does not mean that Hebrew was the language of the Garden. Genesis was written thousands of years after the Garden—after the confusion of language at the tower of Babel. Furthermore, the Hebrew language at the time Moses wrote Genesis would also most likely not yet have had gender assignments made. The Hebrew of Moses’s time was very primitive compared to the Hebrew of later years (and especially now) even though the advanced Hebrew language we have now is still primitive compared to most. To rest an argument for male authority on the basis that God chose a word from a language that would be developed thousands of years later for the recording of the event (and then still later in the language development to create gender assignments to words) is no proof at all.

We will continue next time reviewing PC arguments for authority and subordination incorporation in Genesis 2.