No…George Liele Was Not America’s First Missionary

George Liele

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for quite some time. But, as time wore on, it seemed like this was a topic that people weren’t really interested in talking about anymore. That is…until I listened to a recent message by David Platt at Together for the Gospel 2018.[1] In his message, David Platt restated a historical claim that I think is completely historically untenable, namely, that George Liele, a former African-American slave, was America’s first missionary, predating Adoniram Judson by several decades.

The idea that Liele was America’s first missionary is an idea that has been repeated several times in various publications.[2] More recently, it’s an idea that has gained some currency in Southern Baptist circles, most likely out of a desire to promote racial reconciliation due to their legacy of racism and support of slavery.  This came out clearly in 2012 when a resolution was made at the Southern Baptist  Annual Convention that mentioned Liele as someone “who many acknowledge as the first overseas missionary from the United States in 1782.”[3]

The problem, though, is that the claim that Liele was America’s first overseas missionary is historically untrue – and this is something that is fairly easy to demonstrate.  The purpose of this post is twofold: (1) To introduce George Liele to those who might be unfamiliar with him and (2) to show that, although Liele had a remarkable ministry, it is historically inaccurate to say that he was America’s first missionary.

Sources for the Life and Thought of George Liele

There are three main groups of sources available for understanding the life and thought of George Liele. The first and most important group of sources are found in The Baptist Annual Register for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793 by John Rippon.[4] John Rippon, a leading Baptist minister in Great Britain, became interested in learning more about the life and ministry of George Liele when he read a letter written by the Rev. Mr. Joseph Cook of South Carolina, which described, in the barest of details, the success Liele had in planting the first Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, and in planting another Baptist Church in Jamaica.[5] Rippon, desiring to know more about his life and ministry, wrote letters to acquaintances of Liele in South Carolina, Georgia, and Jamaica to uncover more information. He also sent a list of fifty questions to Liele himself so that he could describe the work of his ministry in his own words. From these sources, Rippon was able to compile a brief biography that has served as the basis for virtually every account written about Liele since that time.

In addition to the biography contained in The Baptist Annual Register, Rippon also included a number of letters written by acquaintances of Liele and a number of letters written by Liele himself. The Baptist Annual Register also contains biographies of two of Liele’s colleagues in Georgia, Andrew Bryan and David George, both of whom were heavily influenced by Liele’s preaching. These biographies contain a great deal of first-hand information about the character of Liele’s ministry in Georgia. The secondary sources about Liele consist largely of a recapitulation of the material found in The Baptist Annual Register with little or no historical analysis.[6]

The second group of sources comes from the Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica for October to March, 1791-2,[7] and October to December, 1796.[8] These sources contain records of payments given to Liele by the Crown for transporting military equipment by carriage from one military outpost to another in Jamaica. Liele himself refers this work in his response to the fifty questions sent to him by John Rippon, citing this as the reason why his response to Rippon’s letter was delayed.[9] The amounts given in these records give some kind of idea of what Liele’s income was like during this part of his ministry in Jamaica.

The third group of sources consist of stories or anecdotes contained in secondary sources that do not provide information about where they got their information from. The most significant sources in this group include the History of the Baptist Missionary Society from 1792 to 1842 by F. A. Cox[10] and The Voice of Jubilee: A Narrative of the Baptist Mission, Jamaica by John Clark, W. Dendy, and James M. Philippo.[11] Since the authors of these sources were associated with English Baptist missions to Jamaica in the early nineteenth century, it seems likely that they heard these stories from first-hand witnesses. That being said, although oral history should be given its due weight, the sources outlined above provide more direct and reliable information about the life and ministry of George Liele.[12]

Liele’s Life in Georgia

George Liele was born a slave in colonial Virginia sometime around 1751.[13]   At a very young age,[14] Liele moved with his master, Henry Sharp, to the Province of Georgia, where slavery had only recently been introduced.[15] According to his own account, Liele grew up living a moral life because he had a “natural fear of God” and his conscience was checked by the fear of death.[16]   However, as Liele would later realize, he was trusting in his own personal merit to save him, rather than in Christ. All of this changed in 1773,[17] while Liele was sitting under the ministry of the Rev. Matthew Moore, a Baptist minister in Burke county, Georgia. One Sunday afternoon, while listening to Moore’s preaching, Liele came under deep conviction of sin. He realized that his good works were insufficient to save him and that his sin, which he saw unfolded before his eyes in Moore’s preaching, condemned him to hell.

Liele remained in a state of despair for nearly six months. During these six months, he became more and more despondent until he found peace in Christ:

“The more I heard or read, the more [I saw that I] was condemned as a sinner before God; till at length I was brought to perceive that my life hung by a slender thread, and if it was the will of God to cut me off at that time, I was sure I should be found in hell, as sure as God was in heaven. I saw my condemnation in my own heart, and I found no way wherein I could escape the damnation of hell, only through the merits of my dying Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; which caused me to make intercession with Christ, for the salvation of my poor immortal soul….” [18]

As a result, Liele called upon Christ and found the peace with God that he was looking for. Liele spoke to his congregation about what had happened and he was soon baptized by Matthew Moore.

Immediately after his conversion, Liele prayed that God would somehow use him in the work of the ministry. He began to read hymns and explain the more significant parts to his fellow slaves on his plantation. As Liele wrote, “Desiring to prove [the sense I had of] my obligations to God, I endeavoured to instruct [the people of] my own colour in the word of God.”[19] Liele’s desire to share the gospel sprung from a sense of gratitude and obligation to God for the salvation he had received in Christ. This sense of gratitude and obligation to God would play a key role in the manner in which he carried out his ministry toward his fellow slaves.

Liele’s gifts for ministry were soon recognized by the white members of his congregation and he was invited to preach before the congregation at a quarterly meeting. After he had finished preaching, the church unanimously affirmed Liele’s gifting for ministry and licensed him as a probationer.[20]  Liele was given his freedom by his master, George Sharp, who happened to be a deacon in Liele’s church, sometime afterward. Several writers suggest that this was done to give Liele greater freedom to preach the gospel. While this is a reasonable inference, there is no hard evidence suggesting that this might be the case.

Liele preached the gospel from plantation to plantation until the British evacuated Savannah in 1782. Some of the character of Liele’s ministry can be seen through the testimony of Andrew Bryan and David George.[21] Andrew Bryan was converted when he heard Liele preach from John 3:7, which speaks of the necessity of being born again. Although Bryan and his fellow listeners were slaves, Liele clearly believed that what his audience needed to hear was not a message about how they could be freed from temporal slavery from human masters but about how they could be reconciled to God. Bryan would later become the minister of an African American church in Savannah and would suffer imprisonment and severe whipping under suspicion that his church had incited several slaves to escape from their masters. But, like Liele, his message was not a message about freedom from slavery but a message about freedom from condemnation and so Bryan viewed his sufferings as being suffering “for the cause of Jesus Christ”. This is an example of the kind of follower that Liele’s preaching produced.

David George likewise came under the influence of Liele during his ministry in Georgia. George was converted after a fellow African American told him that he would “never see the face of God in glory” if he continued to live as he did.[22] After experiencing a struggle similar to Liele’s about the insufficiency of good works to save him and the condemnation that his sin deserved, George came to trust in God’s mercy as it was displayed in Christ. Not long afterward, he heard George Liele preach on Matthew 11:28, which says, “Come unto me all ye that labour, and are heavy leaden, and I will give you rest.”[23] George felt that the entire message was directed toward him and the struggle over sin and condemnation he had just recently experienced. Although the details of Liele’s message have not been preserved, much can be learned about the character of Liele’s preaching by paying attention to George’s response. This passage would have been relevant to Liele’s hearers on a strictly literal level because most, if not all, of his hearers were slaves. However, it seems clear from George’s response that Liele’s focus was on spiritual labour and spiritual rest rather than temporal rest, a spiritual rest which both Liele and George saw as being far more important.[24]

Liele’s Move to Jamaica

After Liele’s former master, Henry Sharp, was killed fighting for the Crown in the American Revolution, Sharp’s heirs, who did not approve of Liele being set free, had the authorities arrest him and throw him into prison. Liele was released when an acquaintance named Colonel Kirkland helped him obtain the proper papers to prove that he was free.[25] When Savannah was evacuated by the British in 1782, Liele and his family sailed to Jamaica with Colonel Kirkland as indentured servants because of money that he owed to him back in Georgia. Liele worked for Colonel Kirkland for two years in Jamaica before being granted his freedom.

     At this point we can consider the main issue that prompted this post in the first place, namely, was George Liele America’s first missionary? (We will answer this question without taking into consideration what counts as America at this point.) The answer is clearly no. The reason Liele moved to Jamaica was because of a debt that he owed to Colonel Kirkland. He, along with Colonel Kirkland, were evacuated from Savannah as refugees, not as missionaries. There was no church in Georgia that sent Liele to Jamaica for the specific purpose of carrying out missionary work. Liele himself clearly did not go to Jamaica for the purpose of carrying out missionary work. The reason why Liele went to Jamaica was because of the British evacuation of Savannah and a debt he owed to Colonel Kirkland.   The fact that Liele’s reason for moving to Jamaica has been so often overlooked can only be accounted for by a lack of familiarity with the primary sources or a very poor reading of the primary sources.

That being said, the fact that Liele did not move to Jamaica as a missionary does not mean that his work in Jamaica has any less value. In fact, the ministry he carried out as a refugee in Jamaica was quite remarkable.

Liele’s Work in Jamaica

In 1784, Liele began to preach in Kingston, Jamaica, and, along with four other refugees from America, formed a small church. Within a short period of time, Liele’s ministry began to see success, especially among the slaves and the poor. By the time he wrote to John Rippon in 1791, he had baptized nearly four hundred people. All in all, there were about fifteen hundred people on the island that were being ministered to by Liele. In addition to his regular ministry, Liele established a free school to teach slave children and free children how to read and write.

Liele carried out all of this ministry while supporting himself through farming and through transporting goods from one part of the island to another.[26] Liele would not accept money from the slaves who attended his church because they only received a very small amount of money from their masters to buy food with and he believed that it would bring “scandal to religion” if he were to accept money from them.[27] The free people in his congregation gave what they could but they had little money as well. The fact that Liele worked so hard to support himself and took no financial compensation for his ministry demonstrates once again how he valued the gospel above all things.

Liele would not accept slaves as members of his church unless they had letters from their masters stating that they behaved decently toward them and that they had shown evidence that they were truly converted.[28] In other words, before Liele would accept a slave as a member of his church, he wanted proof from the slave’s master that he was obeying the New Testament injunctions for slaves to obey their masters. One of the reasons why this was so important was because slave owners were fearful that Christian ministry among their slaves would lead to unrest or even rebellion among their slaves. Indeed, Liele’s meetings were interrupted on many occasions by whites who feared that Liele’s preaching would lead their slaves to revolt. This continued throughout the early part of Liele’s ministry until he received special permission from the Jamaican House of Assembly sanctioning their freedom to worship.

Although the problems lessened, there continued to be resistance to the idea of evangelizing slaves. Stephen Cooke, a member of the Jamaican House of Assembly,[29] noted that it was this fear of revolt that kept Liele’s work from having more success:

“The idea that too much prevails here amongst the masters of slaves is, that if their minds are considerably enlightened by religion or otherwise, that it would be attended with the most dangerous consequences; and this has been the only cause why the Methodist ministers and Mr. Liele have not made a greater progress in the ministry amongst the slaves. Alas! how much is it to be lamented, that a full QUARTER OF A MILLION of poor souls should so long remain in a state of nature; and that masters should be so blind to their own interest as not to know the difference between obedience inforced [sic] by the lash of the whip and that which flows from religious principles.”[30]

But, as Cooke noted further on, Liele gained the goodwill of many slave owners by not permitting any slave to become a member of his congregation without their master’s permission. In addition, Liele made sure that the church covenant was read to the members of his congregation once a month so that the illiterate slaves in his congregation would know what duties they were to perform in keeping the commandments of God. Liele showed this covenant to the Jamaican House of Assembly when he petitioned for freedom for his church to gather for worship and he showed it to the owners of slaves who had applied for membership at his church and both groups came away satisfied.[31] Although the text of this covenant is not available, it must have included an injunction for slaves to obey their masters, otherwise it would be difficult to explain why it met with such approval by the Jamaican House of Assembly and the owners of slaves who wanted to become members of Liele’s church.

Liele also sought to gain the goodwill of slave owners by putting a bell in the church steeple so that the slave owners might know when their services started and know that their slaves had returned home at the right time. Liele did all of this because he knew that the progress of the gospel would be hindered if he did not gain the goodwill of slave owners by exhorting the slaves in his congregation to be obedient to their masters. The progress of the gospel was so important to him because he knew from experience that freedom from condemnation and sin was much more important and was of a much greater value than freedom from human slavery.  The result was thousands of slaves and free people who came to faith in Christ.


While it is clearly historically inaccurate to say that Liele was America’s first missionary, Liele lived an incredible life as a minister of the gospel and left behind an incredible legacy.  During his time in Georgia, Liele showed what it meant to put the gospel above all things despite his circumstances and the evil he saw all around him.  The influence he had in Georgia and beyond (including in Canada through David George) was profound.  During his time in Jamaica, he made the most of the circumstances he found himself in as a refugee and poured out his life and energy out of love and compassion for those he considered to be his fellow people.  Once again, the results were profound.

Liele’s legacy, at least as far as it concerned Jamaica, can be aptly summarized through the words found in a letter written by Thomas Swigle, one of Liele’s co-workers, to John Rippon:

“We have great reason in this island to praise and glorify the Lord, for his goodness and loving kindness in sending his blessed Gospel amongst us, by our well-beloved minister, Brother Liele. We were living in slavery to sin and Satan, and the Lord hath redeemed our souls to a state of happiness to praise his glorious and ever blessed name; and we hope to enjoy everlasting peace by the promise of our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. The blessed Gospel is spreading wonderfully in this island; believers are daily coming into the church, and we hope, in a little time, to see Jamaica become a Christian country.”

I remain respectfully, Rev. and Dear Sir,

Your Brother in Christ,

Thomas Nicholas Swigle.[32]

Mark Steven Francois

[1] The message can be found at

[2] See, for example, David Killingray, “The Black Atlantic Missionary Movement and Africa, 1780s-1920s,” Journal of Religion in Africa 33 (2003), 6; E. A. Holmes, “George Liele: Negro Slavery’s Prophet of Deliverance,” Baptist Annual Quarterly 20 (1964), 350; Timothy C. Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2010), 258; and Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 266.


[4] The Baptist Annual Register, for 1790, 1791, 1792, and Part of 1793. Including Sketches of the State of Religion Among Different Denominations of Good Men at Home and Abroad (London: Dilly, Button, and Thomas, 1793).

[5] Ibid., 332.

[6] See, for example, David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, and Other Parts of the World (Boston: Manning & Loring, 1813), which simply reproduces the material found in The Baptist Annual Register. For some examples from early twentieth century see John W. Davis, “George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers,” The Journal of Negro History 3 (1918), 119-27, and George Liele, Stephen Cooke, Abraham Marshall, Johnathan Clarke, Thomas Nichols Swigle, “Letters Showing the Rise and Progress of the Early Negro Churches of Georgia and the West Indies,” The Journal of Negro History 1 (1916), 69-92.

[7] Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica, In a Session begun the 25th of October, and ended the 22d of November, 1791; A Session begun the 23d of November, 1791, and ended the 10th of March, 1792; and A Session begun the 13th, and ended the 15th of March, 1792. Being the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sessions of the Present Assembly. Saint Jago de la Vega: Alexander Aikman, 1792.

[8] Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica, In a Session begun October 28, and ended December 21, 1796. Being the Fifth Session of the present Assembly. Saint Jago de la Vega: Alexander Aikman, 1796.

[9] Rippon, The Baptist Annual Register, 337.

[10] F. A. Cox, History of the Baptist Missionary Society from 1792 to 1842, Vol. 2 (London: T. Ward & Co., and G. & J. Dyer, 1842). Cox suggests that Liele’s teaching was likely “very imperfect and intermingled with many false and superstitious notions” (12). This seems unjustified on the basis of the information given about Liele in The Baptist Annual Register. It seems as though this judgment was made on the basis of experience with other Christians in Jamaica.

[11] John Clark, W. Dendy, and James M. Phillippo, The Voice of Jubilee: A Narrative of the Baptist Mission, Jamaica, From its Commencement; with Biographical Notices of its Fathers and Founders (London: John Snow, Paternoster Row, 1865).

[12] The situation might be somewhat different if these authors gave some indication of who passed on these stories and when.

[13] The Baptist Annual Register, 335. The date of Liele’s birth is not certain but in 1791 he estimated that he was about forty years old.

[14] While no date is given, Liele must have moved at a very young age because he knew nothing about his parents except that their names were Liele and Nancy (The Baptist Annual Register, 335). Liele knew that his father was known as one of the few genuine African Christians in that part of Virginia but he received this information second-hand.

[15] Slavery was introduced into Georgia in 1750. For the historical background of the introduction of slavery into the Province of Georgia see Darold D. Wax, “Georgia and the Negro Before the American Revolution,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 51 (1967), 63-77. For the role played by George Whitefield, the great revivalist, in the introduction of slavery into Georgia see Stephen J. Stein, “George Whitefield on Slavery: Some New Evidence,” Church History 42 (1973), 243-56.

[16] The Baptist Annual Register, 332.

[17] The Baptist Annual Register, 332. Liele says that his conversion experience began “two years before the late war”, i.e. the American Revolution.

[18] Ibid., 333. The words in square brackets were added by John Rippon. In The Baptist Annual Register itself, Liele’s words are in quotation marks and the words that were added are found outside of those quotation marks. It is interesting to note from this quotation that Liele was able to read. For the significance of Liele’s ability to read in the context of African-American literacy during the First Great Awakening see Frank Lambert, “‘I Saw the Book Talk’: Slave Readings of the First Great Awakening,” The Journal of Negro History 77 (1992), 194-95.

[19] The Baptist Annual Register, 333.

[20] Ibid., 334. Probationers were ministers who were in preparation for being ordained.

[21] Andrew Bryan’s story is found on pages 339 to 343 of The Baptist Annual Register and David George’s on pages 473 to 484.

[22] The Baptist Annual Register, 475.

[23] Ibid., 475.

[24] This was not the only encounter that George had with Liele. One day he heard Liele preach in a cornfield and he wanted to join with the people who were gathered there in prayer. However, he felt ashamed and went to a swamp to pray by himself. He eventually went to Liele and Liele’s advice proved a great help to him and helped him on his path toward Christian ministry. George ministered together with Liele for a short time in Savannah before moving to Charleston where he was eventually evacuated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the British. George would go on to have a profound ministry in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Sierra Leone.

[25] Ibid., 334.

[26] See Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica (1791-2), 250, and Votes of the Honourable House of Assembly of Jamaica (1796), 132, 160.

[27] The Baptist Annual Register, 336. Stephen Cooke, a member of the Jamaican house of assembly and an acquaintance of Liele, wrote the following about Liele’s refusal to take money from slaves: “I am led to believe that it has been of essential service to the cause of GOD, for his industry has set a good example to his flock, and has put it out of the power of enemies to religion to say, that he has been eating the bread of idleness, or lived upon the poor slaves” (Ibid., 338).

[28] Ibid., 335.

[29] John H. Davis, “George Liele and Andrew Bryan, Pioneer Negro Baptist Preachers,” 122.

[30] The Baptist Annual Register, 338.

[31] Ibid. 343-44.

[32] The Baptist Annual Register, 542.

Has Anyone Ever Seen God Before?

Knocking on Door with WatermarkThis past week I experienced something that most people dread but something that I’ve been looking forward to ever since we moved to Blind River: some Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our door.  I could barely hear them knocking at the front door because I was on the other side of the house and we’re not used to people knocking on the front door (my wife thinks it’s strange that in Canada, at least where we live, people tend to come to the side or back door rather than the front).

The conversation started off like most conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses do – they started off with some generic spiel about suffering and conflict in the world to get me to read their literature and to get the conversation going before saying that that they were actually Jehovah’s Witnesses – so I wouldn’t get turned off.  The whole time I was thinking in my mind, “Who do you think you’re kidding?  We all know that you’re Jehovah’s Witnesses – just get on with what you really want to say so we can actually have a meaningful conversation.”  So I quickly changed the subject to the two main areas of contention between Jehovah’s Witnesses and orthodox Christianity: the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.  Whenever they tried to change the subject to the importance of God’s name (which I totally understand) or that believers will be spending eternity on a new earth rather than in heaven (which I totally agree with) I brought them right back to those two subjects.

So I told them that the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is God and I told them that you can see it pretty clearly in the Gospel of John.  Of course they thought I was talking about John 1:1 but I was actually thinking about John 12:41.  We did talk about John 1:1 and I showed them from their own Bible that it still teaches the deity of Christ even in their own translation.  Anyway, I had them read John 12:41 and asked them who they thought John was talking about.  They told me that it was important to read the verse in context so they read the entire section out loud to me.  Then I asked them again, “Who do you think John is talking about?”  And they said, “He’s clearly talking about Jesus.”  And then I asked them, “Do you know what passage in the Old Testament this text is referring to?”  They didn’t know so I pointed them to Isaiah 6, which I asked them to read.  The very first verse in their Bible said, “I saw Jehovah, seated on his throne, high and lifted up….” or something to that effect.  And then I said, “You see, John is equating Jesus with Jehovah!”  They were taken aback and said they would have to go home and study it some more.

But then they brought a verse to my attention that they thought would stop me in my Trinitarian tracks – John 1:18, which says: No one has ever seen God….  Then they asked me, knowing that it was obvious that people had seen Jesus before, “Has anyone ever seen God before?”

My answer was, “Yes!”  They were completely taken aback.  Before they had a chance to answer I took them to Exodus 24:9-11:

Exodus 24:9-11 – Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel.  Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.  But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.

They were in absolute shock.  One of them tried to get around it by saying that their translation says, “They had a vision of God, and they ate and drank” – they didn’t see God, they just had a vision of God.  But then I pointed out that the Hebrew text actually says that they saw God.

“Was this a contradiction then?”  They were ready to delete this passage from the Bible!  Then I said to them, “It’s not a contradiction – it’s a paradox.  A paradox is something that looks like a contradiction but, when you look at it closely, is actually true.”  So how do you solve this paradox?

The Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us how to solve this paradox – we have to take both statements and try to make sense out of them theologically.  The best way of solving this paradox, in my mind, is to look at what God says in Exodus 33.  In Exodus 33:20 God says to Moses that he won’t show him his face because no one may see him and live.  That second part sounds a lot like John 1:18.  But what does he mean by “face”?  It has to refer to seeing God in all of his splendor and glory.  God’s unveiled glory would be so overwhelming that it would literally consume any human being who saw it.

Getting back to Exodus 24, when it says that “they saw the God of Israel” it must mean that they saw him in a form where his glory was somewhat veiled.  They didn’t see “the face of God” because no one can see the face of God and live.

So has anyone ever seen God before?  Yes – but not in all of his glory.  John 1:18 must mean that no one has ever seen God before in all of his glory.  Whenever the Old Testament talks about people seeing God it has to mean that they saw God with his glory being veiled.  And then I brought them back to Jesus – no one has ever seen God in all of his glory, but Jesus shows us God’s glory in the veil of human flesh, which is precisely what the rest of John 1:18 says:

John 1:18 – No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (NIV)

I’ll have to write a bit more on that conversation some other time but it was amazing how the dots were connected in the conversation to show who the Bible says Jesus is.  I gave them two challenges when they left: (1) We both can’t be right.  The Gospel of John tells us that salvation is wrapped up with recognizing who Jesus really is.  If I’m wrong, I’m in trouble; if you’re wrong, you’re in trouble.  Don’t take your time trying to figure this one out.  (2) Go home and study these passages.  If you can’t come up with an answer, you need to change your mind and go where scripture leads you – even in your own translation.

עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (Ezer Kenegdo) in Genesis 2:18

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

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.

Mark Steven Francois