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Does It Really Mean “Helpmate”? – Shawna R. B. Atteberry
Apr 212010
 

I had just started working on my thesis in seminary. Tired of being asked if I was going to seminary to be a pastor’s wife, I decided to write a biblical theology of single women in ministry, showing that Godde’s calling for a woman was not dependent on her marital state. My thesis advisor, Dr. Joseph Coleson (professor of Old Testament Studies at Nazarene Theological Seminary), looked at my outline and thesis proposal and told me that I needed to add a chapter addressing the Creation Story in Genesis 1:1–2:25. He thought that I needed to deal with the second creation account found in Gen. 2:5-25, where woman is created to be an ezer cenegdo to the man. If the Hebrew phrase simply meant, “helper” then could a woman hold a leadership position in the church, let alone a single woman? But if that isn’t what ezer cenegdo meant, then that would open up the vistas I needed to write and successfully defend my thesis. Defend, not in front of the professors at seminary, but to defend against those who say woman was created to be a wife and mother, and only a helpmate for her husband. Dr. Coleson said the translators who translated our Bibles into English know that “helpmate” is a gross mistranslation of the Hebrew phrase, and he did not see how they could look themselves in the mirror day-to-day keeping that misintepretation in the Bible. It is the only time I saw him angry. So what does this little Hebrew phrase mean?

Ezer is used 20 times in the Old Testament: seventeen times to describe Godde and three times to describe a military ally or aide. “Help” or”helper” is an adequate translation, but English has different nuances than the Hebrew does. In English “helper” implies someone who is learning, or under a person in authority. In the Hebrew “help” comes from one who has the power to give help–it refers to someone in a superior position. That is why Godde can help Israel: Godde has the power to do so. Godde helps Israel because they do not have the power to help themselves.

There is another possible definition for ezer: “power” or “strength.” Both words are from the same Hebrew root and the nouns would be identical. We see this when ezer is translated as either “helper” or “power/strength” in the name of the the Judean king, Uzziah. Uzziah means “Godde is my strength.” The other spelling of his name, Azariah, means “Godde is my help.” There are also poetic passages where “power” or “strength” are the only logical translations of ezer. It is clear that in some passages the root for ezer is “helper,” and in others it is the root for “power.”

Cenegdo is two prepositions: together their literal meaning is “facing.” ke is the first preposition, and it means “like” or “corresponding to.” Negdo means to stand in someone’s presence. Paired with ke it means to be in the presence of an equal. Together these two prepositions show the relationship between two people: it means they are standing or sitting facing each other, which shows they are equals. Ezer cenegdo does not mean–or even imply to mean–that one who is subordinate or inferior in creation or in function. Woman was created to be a power equal to man; an autonomous being that God created so that the man would have someone like him, and equal to him, to share his life with.

The man acknowledged this when he saw the woman. In the second poetic passage in the Bible he proclaimed: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”! He knew at last an ezer cenegdo had been brought to him. His speech reinforces the woman as his equal. Unlike the animals she corresponds to him–she is like him; there is mutuality, unity and solidarity. The man recognized what Godde had done by calling her woman and saying she came from man. The narrator then stated, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). This seems odd saying considering that in all Near Eastern cultures it was the woman who left her family to live with her husband and his family. Again we see that one is not above the other. Flying in the face of patriarchal culture, the mandate for marriage is one where the man leaves his family and clings to his wife.

In the beginning men and women were both created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and they were created to be equals. They were both given the commands to be fruitful and to rule over the earth (Gen. 1:28-30). The woman was not created to be a subordinate helper to her husband. She was created as an autonomous being; she was a complete human being, just as the man was. Her existence was not dependent on him as his existence was not dependent on her: their existence depended on Godde alone who created them both.

This leads next to the assumption that since woman was made because it was “not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18), and the first marriage covenant comes after man’s declaration of woman being “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23), that a woman’s primary purpose is marriage and that should be her primary goal in life as well. Even though woman was created to alleviate the man’s loneliness and provide him an ezer cenegdo, men are not raised to believe that marriage should be their primary purpose and goal in life. For men their main purpose is a career. How are single women with a call to ministry to react to the attitude that they are just “playing ministry” until Mr. Right comes along? What are married women with a vocation outside of the home or a call to lead in church to do? After all isn’t Genesis 2 clear that marriage is the God-ordained, and therefore, the “natural” state to be in, and that is what woman was created for?

Many women have been counseled to put off their dreams of continuing their education or pursuing a time-consuming career because what happens when they meet their “perfect husband” who will be “Godde’s perfect plan” for them? If the women are more educated or make more money how will their potential spouses feel? Women have been told “you are called to be a wife first,” based on Genesis 2. Whether or not they want to marry is irrelevant–they will, that is Godde’s plan for every woman. Is this what Genesis 2 says?

Could the comment that it is not good for man to be alone simply be an admission that human beings are meant to live in community? Scanzoni and Hardesty note that marriage isn’t the only relationship possible where human beings are concerned. No one person is self-sufficient–we are dependent on Godde and on each other. Human beings were created to have relationships with Godde and with one another. We are designed to be in community, and no one person can be whole and complete apart from communion with Godde and one another.

Certainly marriage is a part of Godde’s design, and marriage is to be the ultimate expression of love, fidelity, and sexuality, but it is just one of many relationships. As Christians we must remember that marriage is not the supreme relationship: the supreme relationship of any believer’s life is with Godde; our relationship with Godde is what makes us whole and complete.

Although I began this with Genesis, I would like to end with what the New Testament has to say about women and ministry. Christians believe that Jesus Christ came to redeem all people–both men and women–and now “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We also believe “in [Christ] you have been made complete” (Col. 2:10, NASB). The doctrine of salvation through Christ means that any hierarchical structure that is a result of the Fall is now done away with (For more on what the Fall meant for women, see The Fall and Women). All of us have equal standing before God. Our relationship with God through Christ is what completes us and makes us whole. All women, including single women, do have a place in the church because God created us, redeemed us, and made us to be complete and whole persons in Christ.

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled all the believers gathered in the Upper Room–both men and women–and they went out to the streets proclaiming everything they saw in the last few weeks. It is reasonable to believe that the women who were at the foot of the Cross were in the upper room as well (It is worth noting that only the women could give eye witness account to both the burial and resurrection of Jesus). In the Synoptic Gospels, those women are all identified by their sons, not their husbands. This leads me to believe that they were widowed; they were single. It is possible single women proclaimed the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ on the day that 3,000 were saved. When the Holy Spirit came, she came to all: men, women, married, single, old, and young alike, which Peter affirmed in his sermon. All that Godde required of those believers was obedience: they stayed in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came, and then they all went out and proclaimed what Godde had done. Whether one is married or single, male or female, is irrelevant in the Kingdom of Godde. All that is required is obedience to the call and the will of Godde.

Sources:

Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Helpmate or Power Equal to Him?” 11-22.

Joseph Coleson, Ezer Cenegdo: A Power Like Him, Facing Him as Equal (Grantham, PA: Wesleyan/Holiness Women Clergy), 1996.

Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women : A Biblical Study of Women in Missions, Ministry, and LeadershipTen Lies the Church Tells Women, How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House), 2000.*

Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for TodayGod and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1978.*

All biblical translations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

* Affiliate links

This article was originally posted on May 25, 2007.

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Did you know there are only eight verses in the Bible that discourage women from speaking and holding leadership positions in the church? Did you know there are thousands of verses in the Bible that tell the stories of women who were leaders in their homes, towns, and religious circles? Meet the women in the Bible who were religious & civic leaders, business women, & women who challenged both Jesus and Moses in What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School. What else didn’t you learn in Sunday School? Find out when you buy What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up & Sit Down from Wipf and Stock Publishers or Amazon.com today.

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  34 Responses to “Does It Really Mean “Helpmate”?”

  1. A fabulous explication of ezer, very good for the layperson. A nice corrective, to, to the idealization of marriage (really, an idolization of marriage) we see in so much evangelical writing about the family these days.

  2. AWESOME POST! I will be quoting parts of this for sure in one of my future posts. It’s such a blessing to have a fellow Christian feminist to learn from! Thanks!

  3. You may be aware of The Biblical Womanhood site. Over there they are constantly posting things like woman was made to be man’s helpmate – meaning woman was made subordinate to man. I’ve tried to submit posts asking how they deal with the fact that the Hebrew word used for helper is the same word used in various places throughout the OT to describe God. The way they deal with the fact seems to be to ignore it as none of my posts have been published. Either this interpretation is correct and they should acknowledge it or they have a different interpretation and should post a defense, but to just outright ignore the issue makes me wonder if they really want to believe what the Bible says or if they want to make the Bible say what they believe. Shawna, do you have any idea how it is they would defend this verse as making woman subordinate to man. I’m really curious and the people who should be willing to explain this idea seem unwilling or unable to do so. This reminds me of Tyndale – he wanted to translate the Bible into English so even the lowest farm boy could understand it, but the Church at the time did not want everyone to have access to the Word of God so they could “test the Spirits” for themselves. Makes me wonder if these woman have husbands telling them things like “don’t worry about orignal Greek and Hebrew cause I know what it means and here’s what you need to believe.”

  4. I read Crystal’s blog also and I don’t get how she comes to the conclusions she does about the Bible. She states in an article “The Role of Woman” that “man is under God and woman under man” which to me sounds like she believes the man is between her and God. In her profile she says that you may not agree with her but search the scriptures and then seek the counsel of your husband or father. I search the scriptures and pray for guidance from God and then I often go to my husband for his opinion but always asking God to guide me. Seems like she can’t go to God without going through her husband first. In her defense I get the idea that she’s very young and has been exposed to only one interpretation of scripture but you should always be testing what you believe. If you can’t answer questions about why you believe what you believe you don’t really have a very strong faith.

  5. […] In comments left on Does It Really Mean Helpmate? Mary and Seeker wanted to know why women kept insisting on interpreting this phrase to mean that they were subordiante and submissive, and why some wouldn’t even entertain the idea that there could be another option. It’s part of a whole fundamentalist mindset. I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, so I know the fundamentalist mindset very well, and I am very glad I no longer have it. They have built a house of cards around the Bible as literal truth (actually they see the Bible as literal “fact”). Part of this literalism is that a passage or text can have only one meaning. Both literalism and a passage having one meaning are totally foreign to Hebrew thought. The Israelites used symbolism, similes, and metaphors to picture truths that could not be contained in language. They never meant for certain passages and genres of Scripture to be taken literally. They also loved paradox. The Hebrew people had no problem juxtaposing two opposites and then leaving it up to the reader to work out the paradox for themselves. They believed that faith was lived out in the nitty-gritty day-to-day living, and therefore, there were no pat answers for every situation. This is really seen in the first five books of the Bible where Leviticus and Numbers basically tries to figure out how to live out the Ten Commandments in the Isrealite’s daily lives. They also had no problem admitting when they didn’t know the details and facts of something God did, and this is seen in the first two chapters of Genesis. There are two different creation accounts in Genesis 1:1–2:4 and Genesis 2:5-25. In these two accounts God creates the heavens and earth in different ways and in a different order. The Isrealites did not know exactly how God created the heavens and earth, and they had two traditions that told the “how” and included them in their Scriptures. Their statement of faith is: Yahweh created everything (not Molech, not Baal, not Marduk). Inspired writers of Scripture did not agree on the how only that God–Yahweh–created everything, and therefore no other god or idol was to be worshiped. […]

  6. […] I have dealt with biblical literalism in Truth vs. Fact. In Does It Really Mean Helpmate? I looked at the creation account and showed that the Hebrew phrase ezer cenedgo means a help or power equal to, and that there is nothing submissive about the term. Woman was created equal with man to be partners with him in life, marriage, and ministry. […]

    • Thank you very much. This is how I feel. So said that their is so many of people who ignores the Bible, when it says clearly: man and women are one body… How other vise can be love showed, love about Jesus God’s Son Jesus thought, when he came to do, what his father, Jehovah God said to him to do……
      Thank you.
      Irena

  7. […] I have dealt with biblical literalism in Truth vs. Fact. In Does It Really Mean Helpmate? I looked at the creation account and showed that the Hebrew phrase ezer cenedgo means a help or power equal to, and that there is nothing submissive about the term. Woman was created equal with man to be partners with him in life, marriage, and ministry. […]

  8. As a joyful wife and mother I pity the women who have lost their way on this issue. God did not make a mistake when He created us to be helpers to our husbands and mothers to our children…..He did not make us any less worthy. Instead, God made a chain of authority. I am protected under my husbands headship, love him dearly, and do not envy his weighty responsibilities as Spritual Leader.

    Please consider more verses:

    Eph 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.

    Timothy 2:11 “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. 12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

    Timothy 2:3-5: The aged women likewise, that [they be] in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things;
    That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,
    [To be] discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.

  9. […] In Does It Really Mean Helpmate? we saw that God created man and woman to be equals in every way. In Genesis 1 both male and female were given the mandates to procreate and to have dominion over the earth. The human had been placed in the garden to tend it and guard it, and one assumes the male and female continued to do what the human was created to do, and they fulfill the mandates given in chapter 1 together and as equals. There we saw that complementarians try to subordinate woman under man because man was created first, and she was created to be an ezer cenedgo, a word that is normally mistranslated “helpmate” instead of its literal meaning: a power equal to. […]

  10. In response to Kristen:

    The scriptures that are you are using, were written in a different cultural backdrop than you are using them for today. In addition to that, no designated Paul as the authority for Male and Female relationships as it relates to the body of Christ.

    Those scriptures come from letters that he sent to those two churches that were having problems related to those scriptures that you left out.

    In addition to this, there is no where in the Bible that clearly states that a woman cannot lead in the body of Christ, if you can find that scripture please post it.

    Thank you Shawna for this awesome article.

  11. Thank you Dale.

  12. My name is Ajariah and I just realized that my name is derived from Hebrew meaning Helped by God and I am proud to say I walk by help everyday

  13. We must also realise that many times we take scripture out of context. Look at Deborah who was a judge in the OT, Miraim, Moses’ sister had leadership roles, and numerous women some even with Jesus who had specific roles and not in subordination to the men around them. When we look at scripture in context from OT through NT it is all the same. I agree that we need to keep the cultural points cultural and not take Paul’s words out of context as the majority do.

  14. I absolutely agree. In fact, I’ve written articles on Miriam and Deborah along with other women in the Bible. You can find them here.

  15. Thank you so much!!!! I have been married to a Southern Baptist pastor for 10 years.I joined the SBC after we married (I was saved in a nondenominational church). He has used/abused his “headship” over me for too long. I love the Lord, but do not have a desire to continue living in a faith I do not agree with. Sadly, it looks like it may be the end of the road for our marriage. He will not leave this church, nor will he leave the pastorate. We have 2 young daughters, who love the Lord, but need the truth. Thank you for your diligence to find the truth in what helpmate truly is.
    Loren

  16. Your welcome Loren. I’m so glad you found my site! Another great site is Christians for Biblical Equality and their blog, The Scroll. There are many women on the blog who have come out of the same situation you have. I will be praying for you and your family. You’re in a very difficult situation, and I pray that God will give you the wisdom and discernment you need for you and your daughters.

  17. Seeker. when I first started studying the women in the Bible one of the passages I studied was the Genesis 1-3. I looked up the words translated helpmeet and had to draw the conclusion that Eve was to be a strong help(power) equal to Adam. The question I asked was if I could fiqure this out why can’t the theologians. The answer is they don’t want to face the fact that they need that strength from a woman. To quote a popular pastor on the word helpmeet “While the word “helper” carries very positive connotations, even being used of God Himself as the helper of Israel
    (Deut. 33:7, Ps. 33:20), it still describes one in a relationship of service to another.” When was the last time God waited on us or got us a cup of coffee? I believe the gentleman dug a hole and couldn’t get out. It’s almost when the pastor at our church was teaching on Acts he was reading Chapter two on how inthe last days the men and women would prophesy. when he got to the women his statement was “and the women would do want ever the women does” He couldn’t say women would prophesy. These people just can’t admit they are wrong.

  18. Kristen,

    There is evidence that the word translated “head” in Esp. 5, and in 1 Cor 10 did not mean leader or authority in the original Greek. The word, kephale, was generally not used metaphorically, but when it was, generally it was with a meaning other than authority or leader. We read authority and leader into kephale, because that’s how it used metaphorically in our language.

    In addition, 2:12 was written in the present tense, meaning Paul was referring to the present. He was making a statement for a situation at hand, not making a command to be followed for all eternity. And the word translated as authority (authenein) does not mean normal, positive authority in the original Greek. It may not even mean authority at all. What it does mean it up for discussion amoung scholars.

  19. Thank you for your comment, and your right on both counts. I may need to add a post to my series that deals with these passages.

    Thank you for stopping by.

  20. Shawna,

    Great article.

    What do you think about the possibility that the text is speaking on more than one level? That is, what if the woman and man also represent two parts of the one person? This would fit with other eastern philosophies.

    In this sense androgynous man is separated then put back together but in a complementary fashion, rather than as a homogeneous whole. The fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil did the splitting and it is a gift from God that brings us back toward wholeness.

    bill

  21. […] believe that his denomination’s 103 year history of ordaining women is right. He took apart Does It Really Mean Helpmate? […]

  22. I have always known that it is man (people) that have a problem with the term helpmate. The bible is not at fault, just the people. Consider the term and you should be able to get your answer. I state to my wife, walk with me as I walk with god. We both are her to HELP each other, society has decided that a man should have dominion over the woman, Paul has asked for a woman to be submissive in the church, not god. There should be respect for what the other has to say whether you like it or not. Your role in life is not nor should it be based on the fact you are a male or a female.

  23. […] Does It Really Mean “Helpmate”? Career Women of the Bible: Teachers, Elders and Co-workers […]

  24. I found this very interesting, I go to a church that does not even allow a woman to pray in front of a man.( the choices are few here) women are looked at as servants. I’m sure I would not be able to change his mind. but it does encourage me in my walk and helps me understand my true role to my husband and he would also wholeheartedly agree with you. I also recently found the greek word “authentein” what an eye opener. thanks for writing this.

  25. […] translate a certain Hebrew phrase to mean helpmate. That is not what ezer cenegdo means. Ezer cenegdo means “a power equal to” (The King James Version comes the closest to translating this phrase right: help meet–a help […]

  26. […] Does It Really Mean "Helpmate"? […]

  27. […] Yes I am upset about this. But not because it’s Godde’s good design. I’m upset because it’s one big, fat lie. If you want to see a drastically different way to interpret these same verses read this: Does It Really Mean Helpmate? […]

  28. […] Does It Really Mean "Helpmate"? […]

  29. […] Remember why our Godde created marriage in the first place. In the beginning… Sophia-Yahweh said, “It is not good for the human to be alone. I will make it a power equal to it.” […]

  30. […] how that word is a mistranslation of the Hebrew phrase it interprets (it is not a translation). Ezer Cenegdo literally means a help or power equal to. Woman was created to be a help and a power equal to a man. In English Bibles the King James […]

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