Two days ago J. K. Gayle wrote a fabulous post, “Jesus: ‘The Help’ and the “Helpmeet.” In this post J. K. makes some great observations, but the the reason I think it’s absolutely brilliant is because he forces the horrible theology of the complentarians to its logical conclusion. If women were created subordinate and submissive to be men’s helpers, then that means Godde and Jesus become subordinate and submissive to humans when they help us. Because the same words used to describe Godde and Jesus as “helpers” is the word used to describe the female as a “helpmate” (helper) to the male in Genesis 2. Then Suzanne responded with her own thoughtful insights in “Jesus Is My Helpmeet.” I had never thought to extend my arguments past the Old Testament into the New Testament using both the New Testaments quotes of Genesis in Greek along with the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. Now I am. I’m totally going to be stealing some J. K. and Suzanne’s material and make it my own.
Until then here is some of the work I’ve done on the Hebrew phrase that gets mistranslated as “helpmate.”
Does it Really Mean “Helpmate”?
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?
What Is Our Highest Calling?
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.
Edited to add: This is how I see men and women created in Godde’s image with the woman being the power equal to man working out in the New Testament, the Church, and in marriage: Made in the Image of Godde: Female.
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.
Does It Really Mean”Helpmate”? was originally posted on May 25, 2007.
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