I am a firm believer in the distinction that Krister Stendahl made in his famous article in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible between “what the text meant” and “what the text means”. According to Stendahl, biblical theology must first deal with what the text meant in its original historical and literary context before moving on to what the text might mean for us today. Stendahl’s formulation of this principle is problematic on a number of levels, but I firmly believe that this distinction is both valid and necessary for biblical theology.
The failure to maintain this distinction and to allow contemporary theological concerns to dominate one’s reading of the text lies at the heart of many of the most egregious misinterpretations of the Bible, both on a scholarly level and on a popular level. This is especially the case when it comes to such hot-button issues as homosexual practice and gender equality. In this post I would like to focus on a very common (mis)interpretation of the Hebrew phrase עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (ezer kenegdo) in Genesis 2:18. The purpose of this post is not to evaluate this text from a theological, moral, or sociological perspective or to advocate for a particular position on gender roles in the family, church, or society. My purpose is simply to show how this phrase has commonly been misunderstood, both on a popular and a scholarly level.
The argument goes like this. The word עֵזֶר (ezer) in Genesis 2:18, which is usually translated “helper”, has wrongly been understood to connote the idea of subordination or inferiority. However, when you look at the word עֵזֶר (ezer) in the Hebrew Bible it is never used of a subordinate – only of a superior or an equal. In fact, apart from a few occurrences, the word is always used of God in his role as saviour, rescuer, or protecor (e.g. Ex. 18:14; Deut. 33:7). So rather than communicating the idea of subordination or inferiority, עֵזֶר (ezer) actually connotes the idea of saving or protecting. The conclusion, then, is that in Genesis 2:18, Eve functions somehow as Adam’s saviour, rescuer, or protector – with any implications that this might suggest about the male-female relationship and gender roles.
It is important to note that those who argue for this position are right to note that the word עֵזֶר (ezer) does not connote the idea of subordination – at least not by itself. In fact, עֵזֶר (ezer) by itself does not indicate anything about the person’s superiority, inferiority, or equality. When the word is being used of a person – it can also be used to simply mean “help”, “assistance”, or “aid” in a more abstract sense (e.g. Ps. 121:1-2) – it simply refers to “a person who makes it easier for another person to do something by rendering their aid”.
That being said, there are a number of problems with this position. First, the word helper does not by itself mean “saviour”, “rescuer”, “protector”, etc. Saving, rescuing, and protecting sometimes result from one person helping another person in certain contexts, but these ideas are not communicated by the word itself but by the contexts in which the word is found. The ideas of saving, rescuing, or protecting cannot be transferred to other contexts where עֵזֶר (ezer) is used if these ideas are not present in the context. A good example is Ezekiel 12:14, where עֵזֶר (ezer) refers to the Babylonian king’s assistants. These assistants no doubt make it easier for the king to accomplish his tasks, but they by no means can be considered his saviour, rescuer, or protector – at least not in this context. It would, therefore, be illegitimate to say that עֵזֶר (ezer) in Genesis 2:18 defines Eve as Adam’s saviour, rescuer, or protector simply because the word עֵזֶר (ezer) is used.
Second, it is illegitimate to say that Eve is not subordinate to Adam in Genesis 2:18 simply because the word עֵזֶר (ezer) is only used of superiors or equals. Besides the fact that עֵזֶר (ezer) does refer to subordinates in Ezekiel 12:14, those who hold this position fail to take into account the use of the verb עָזַר (azar) and the noun עֶזְרָה (ezrah), both of which come from the same root as עֵזֶר (ezer) and have identical semantic ranges. In both instances there are plenty of examples where the helper is a subordinate. A good example is Judges 5:23, where the angelic messenger is chastising the warriors of Meroz for not coming to help YHWH in battle. As I noted earlier, עֵזֶר (ezer) says nothing by itself about a person’s superiority, inferiority, or equality – this can only be determined by context.
What, then, can be said about the relationship between the helper and the person being helped? In every instance – whether for עֵזֶר (ezer), עָזַר (azar), or עֶזְרָה (ezrah) – the person being helped is being presented as the primary person whose interests are at stake in the successful completion of the task. Let me give a few examples. (1) In Joshua 1:14, the Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh are told to help their brothers conquer the land on the east side of the Jordan River. The primary persons whose interests at stake are the other tribes because it is their inheritance that still needs to be conquered. The Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh provide aid toward accomplishing that task. (2) In Deuteronomy 33:29, God is called Israel’s helper because Israel is being presented as the primary person whose interests are at stake in defeating their enemies. (3) In Judges 5:23, Meroz is cursed because they did not come to YHWH’s help. In this case, YHWH is being viewed as the primary person whose interests are at stake in the battle.
It follows, then, that the person whose primary interests are at stake in Genesis 2:18,20 is Adam. He is the primary person who is tasked with working and taking care of the Garden (2:15). Eve is being presented as the person who renders assistance to Adam toward that end.
Whenever issues like this are being considered it is important to keep Stendahl’s distinction in mind. One cannot help but wonder whether or not the interpretation being critiqued here is motivated by contemporary theological concerns. More charitably, one wonders whether or not contemporary theological concerns have kept those who hold this view from looking at the evidence fairly. What this text “means” today – in other words, how we evaluate this text and/or apply it today – is a much more complicated issue. But before we can evaluate the text or find some sort of contemporary significance, we have to do the hard work to figure out what this text “meant” in its original historical and literary context.