A Recent Article on Canaanite DNA

Canaanite Article

A recent journal article published in the American Journal of Human Genetics has made headlines in the last couple of days because of the implications that its findings might have for the historical accuracy of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.[1] The article is basically a report about five genomes that were sequenced from bones that are approximately 3700 years old from the Canaanite city of Sidon in modern-day Lebanon. These genomes were then compared to the genome sequencing of 99 modern-day people from Lebanon. The results, at least for the researchers, were quite surprising: modern-day people from Lebanon are mostly descended from the Canaanite population who inhabited the same area in biblical times.

For anyone who knows the history of this region, these findings should not have been surprising. However, the authors of this article presented their findings as though they should be surprising, at least to those who are familiar with what the Bible has to say about the Canaanites.  Partway through the article, the authors included a very curious statement – at least from the perspective of a biblical scholar – about what the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible has to say about the Canaanites. It says:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.[2]

It was this statement that caught the attention of the media and caused this article to make headlines in the last couple of days. Take, for example, the article by Nicholas St. Fleur in The New York Times. This is how the article opens:

There is a story in the Hebrew Bible that tells of God’s call for the annihilation of the Canaanites, a people who lived in what are now Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories thousands of years ago. “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes,” God said in the passage. “But you shall utterly destroy them.” But a genetic analysis published on Thursday has found that the ancient population survived that divine call for their extinction, and their descendants live in modern Lebanon.[3]

When I first read this article and glanced at a few other articles that basically said the same thing, I assumed that they misinterpreted something that was said in the original study. But then I read the statement from the original article that was quoted above and saw that there was no mistake: the reason why these articles were framed the way they were (i.e. the Bible is wrong because the Canaanites actually did survive) is because of the line quoted from the article above. So, in one sense, it is hard to blame articles like the one from The New York Times. On the other hand, a little bit of research or a quick phone call to a biblical scholar would have cleared up any confusion that was caused by the original article.

Let’s take a look at that statement again:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.

But does the Bible actually say that the Canaanites were completely annihilated? And would the Bible lead one to believe that the Canaanites would have made no genetic contributions to the present-day population of Lebanon or elsewhere? The answer to these questions is a complete and unequivocal “no”.

There are four main problems with the statement that was made in the article:

(a) First, the Old Testament makes it clear that the people of Israel did not, in fact, destroy all of the cities of the Canaanites or annihilate all of their people. A quick look at Judges 1, for example, shows that the Israelites weren’t able to conquer large chunks of the land of Canaan. Over and over again it says that the people of Israel failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land. And even when they did gain the upper hand in terms of power, they were only able to subject many of the Canaanites to forced labour: but they weren’t able to destroy them and they weren’t able to drive them out of the land. So the article is completely mistaken when it says that, according to the Bible, the cities of the Canaanites were completely destroyed and that the Canaanites themselves were completely annihilated.

(b) Second, the city of Sidon lies outside of the area that was conquered by the people of Israel. A common phrase in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible to describe the entirety of the land of Israel is the phrase, “from Dan to Beersheba”. Geographically, Beersheba lies at the very bottom of the land of Israel (i.e. in the south) while Dan lies at the very top (i.e. in the north). Sidon, however, is located northwest of Dan: it was not part of the land of Israel. So even if the Israelites had annihilated the Canaanites in territories it conquered, the people of Sidon would not have been included in that number.

(c) Third, the Old Testament is quite clear about the fact that the Sidonians continued to live and prosper long after the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan. In fact, according to 1 Kings 5:6, the Sidonians provided the timber for Solomon’s temple and apparently had friendly relations with both David and Solomon. According to Ezra 3:7, the people of Sidon also provided timber for the Second Temple hundreds of years later. So there is no reason from a biblical perspective to think that Canaanites from Sidon could not have contributed genetically to modern-day people from Lebanon.

(d) Fourth, as anyone familiar with ancient Near Eastern history should know, the Phoenicians, who were famous among other things for their maritime empire and the invention of the alphabet, were, in fact, Canaanites from the region around Sidon. In fact, the Carthaginians/Punics from the Punic Wars with Rome were descended from the Phoenicians. Punic is simply a dialect of Phoenician/Canaanite. The name Hannibal, which is quite familiar to anyone who knows Roman history, is actually a Canaanite name meaning “Baal is gracious”. The reason why this is important to know is because in Mark 7:24-30, Jesus is confronted by a Syrophoenician woman from the region of Tyre (in Matthew 15:22 she is simply called a Canaanite!). The NRSV is right in translating Mark 7:26 this way: “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” So the New Testament itself makes it clear that the people who were living in what is now modern-day Lebanon were descendants of the Canaanites/Phoenicians.

So this article is simply mistaken when it says that, according to the biblical account, the Canaanites were completely wiped out and that, from a biblical perspective, they could not have made a genetic contribution to modern-day people from Lebanon. Instead of making the Bible look silly, the authors of this article and every other article that was based on it only succeeded in making themselves look silly. A little bit of research, on the part of the authors of the original article or on the part of the authors who based their work on this article would have gone a long way.[4]

(Postscript #1 – I forget where I saw this but I’m pretty sure that I saw one comment somewhere that said something like, “I guess the people of Sodom did survive!” I wasn’t totally sure where they got this from until I realized that they probably mistook Sidon for Sodom. Place palm on face and shake head….)

(Postscript #2 – The value of these findings, at least from my perspective, is to dispel the popular belief that everyone in the Middle East who speaks Arabic is ethnically Arab.  While this is something that should have been known without the findings of this article, the findings of this article certainly help to dispel this myth.  If I were writing an online article for a newspaper or magazine based on the findings of this study, this is the part that I would have focused on.  I definitely would have made the connection with the biblical Canaanites, but not to show that there was something wrong with the biblical accounts.)

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Haber et al., “Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” The Journal of Human Genetics (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2017.06.013.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Nicholas St. Fleur, “Fate of Ancient Canaanites Seen in DNA Analysis: They Survived,” The New York Times (July 27, 2017): https://nyti.ms/2tNIYNy.

[4] It should be noted that the article by Kristin Romey on the website for National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/canaanite-bible-ancient-dna-lebanon-genetics-archaeology.html) did not fall into the same mistake as the original article and the articles that were based on it (“Biblical accounts generally portray Canaanites as the arch-enemies of early Israelites, who eventually conquered Canaanite territory and either exterminated or subjugated its people.”). Romey’s article is certainly less sensational but it is more accurate.


Old Testament Ethics – An Important Methodological Issue

Binding of IsaacWhy Old Testament Ethics is So Important

One of the main areas of Old Testament studies that I’m interested in is Old Testament Ethics.  This is an extremely important field of study, not only for me but for every Christian.  Let me give you two reasons why.

First, as Christians, it should be our aim in life to live lives that are pleasing to God (2 Cor. 5:9).  That applies, of course, to every area of our lives but it applies in a special way to our moral lives.  Morality doesn’t save us but how we live our lives is one of the chief evidences that we are saved.  The Old Testament contains some of the most important material in the Bible for telling us what kind of moral life is pleasing to God.  Of course there is a lot of material in the Old Testament that doesn’t apply to us as Christians – but much of it does, as the New Testament makes clear.  So if we want to know how to live lives that are pleasing to God in the moral sphere, we will want to study Old Testament ethics.

Second, some of the strongest and most persuasive attacks that people make against Christianity are based on a particular understanding of what the Old Testament teaches about ethics.  Here are some of the issues that people often point to: the religious and racial intolerance of the Old Testament; the Canaanite genocide; and the Old Testament’s views about slavery, rape, women, war, etc.  As Christians we need to know how to deal with these issues – both for our own sake and for the sake of others – and Old Testament Ethics helps us to do that.

But before you can do any serious engagement in any field of biblical studies you have to deal with the sometimes boring issues of methodology and definitions.  In this post I’m going to deal with one of the most important methodological issues in the field of Old Testament Ethics.  In my next post I’ll define what we mean by Old Testament (not as obvious as one might think) and what we mean by ethics.

This part may be boring for some people but it’s absolutely essential if you want to seriously engage in the field of Old Testament Ethics – and every Christian needs to have some level of engagement.  It’s also essential if you want to understand any of my posts on Old Testament Ethics.  So this and other posts that I will be writing on methodology are extremely important: you have to know the rules before you can play the game and you have to know the grammar before you can read.

The Three Tasks of Old Testament Ethics

The most important methodological issue in Old Testament Ethics involves distinguishing between the three main tasks of Old Testament Ethics: (a) The descriptive task; (b) the evaluative task; and (c) the normative task.  We can deal with each of these in turn.

(a) The Descriptive Task

The descriptive task deals with the ethical standards found in or taught by the Old Testament and the moral (as opposed to amoral – see my next post) behavior found in the Old Testament without making any moral judgments and without trying to apply the text to our present situation.

E.g. What does the book of Numbers say about murder?  How does it define murder?

The issues that are discussed at this point are usually generated from the text itself rather than brought from the outside.  This isn’t an absolute rule but it generally keeps the interpreter asking questions that the text was never meant to answer or that the texts don’t deal with explicitly.  A good example is the issue of abortion.  We can use the Old Testament to form an opinion or make an argument about abortion (e.g. texts about causing a woman to miscarry, an argument based an unborn baby being made in the image of God, etc.) but it’s very important methodologically to realize that the Old Testament doesn’t address the issue explicitly.

(b) The Evaluative Task

The evaluative task involves judging the ethical standards of the Old Testament and the moral behavior of people in the Old Testament in terms of praiseworthiness or blameworthiness.  It involves stating and (sometimes) justifying the ethical standards that we use to make these evaluations.

E.g. The fact that the book of Numbers says that murder is wrong is a good thing because…. This is how I justify the ethical standard I am using….

It’s important to realize that more than one ethical standard can be used to make this kind of an evaluation and that the person making that evaluation doesn’t necessarily have to hold to that standard.  A secular reader could say that Samson’s sexual exploits were blameworthy from an Old Testament perspective without necessarily holding that standard themselves.  Similarly, I could say that Deuteronomy 7’s teachings about marriage are praiseworthy from both an Old and New Testament perspective while admitting that it would be blameworthy for many readers today, who see love as being more important than religion in determining who a person should marry.  If a person claims that their ethical standard should be normative for everyone (as most people do intuitively), this would require some degree of justification.

(c) The Normative Task

The normative task involves two things. (I) applying the ethical teaching of the Old Testament to our present situation (and justifying why it applies) and (ii) using the Old Testament to address ethical issues not specifically addressed in the Old Testament itself.

E.g. Christians should follow Leviticus 19:18 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) because it is affirmed by Jesus (or some other justification).

E.g. What can the Old Testament teach us about protecting the environment?

Why Are These Distinctions Important?

It is important to distinguish these three tasks because when we don’t we end up misinterpreting, misjudging, and misapplying the text.  But it’s not simply enough to distinguish these tasks – we need to do these tasks in order.  You shouldn’t judge the text if you don’t know what the text is saying.  You shouldn’t apply the text unless you know that the is saying and that it, in fact, applies to you.  You shouldn’t interpret the text based on how people are trying to apply it today (e.g. how Christians have applied what the Old Testament says about applying interest on loans shouldn’t affect how we actually interpret the passages that deal with this issue).  And you shouldn’t interpret the text based on whether or not you like what the plain-sense meaning of the text actually is.

Now, of course, each of these tasks are quite complicated in and of themselves and we shouldn’t think that we’ve exhausted all of the methodological issues that we need to deal with.  But distinguishing these three tasks is an important step in the right direction, a step that too few people actually take and too few people realize they need to take.

Mark Francois

Geerhardus Vos vs. Brevard Childs – What’s the Difference?

When I was a student at Toronto Baptist Seminary, the main textbook that we used for our course on Old Testament Biblical Theology (that is, Old Testament theology) was Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments.  Vos was famous for two things at TBS: (1) his extremely difficult writing style (which seems pretty easy now 11 years later and after reading pretty much anything by Ephrem Radner!) and (2) introducing us to a new (at least to us) and exciting way of reading the Old Testament – through the lens of biblical theology.

When people familiar with Geerhardus Vos and Reformed biblical theology in general see Brevard Childs’ works on display at their local Christian bookstore (okay, maybe not the average Christian bookstore!) they often wonder what the difference between the two really is.  So in this post I’m going to look at the main difference that I see between Geerhardus Vos and Brevard Childs.

The main difference between Vos’ Biblical Theology and Childs’ Old Testament Theology is that Vos’ main concern is the events behind the biblical text while Childs is primarily concerned with the text itself.  Take a look at these two quotes:

Geerhard Vos – “ [T]he study of the actual self-disclosures of God in time and space which lie back of even the first committal to writing of any Biblical document, and which for a long time continued to run alongside the inscripturation of revealed material; this last-named procedure is called the study of Biblical Theology.(Biblical Theology, 5, emphasis mine)

Brevard Childs – “The initial point to be made is that the canonical approach to Old Testament theology is unequivocal in asserting that the object of theological reflection is the canonical writing of the Old Testament, that is, the Hebrew scriptures which are the received traditions of Israel.  The materials for theological reflection are not the events or experiences behind the text, or apart from the construal in scripture by a community of faith and practice.” (Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, p. 6)

Now if you’re not very familiar with Old Testament theology outside of the Reformed tradition, you might think that Vos has the most “biblical position” because as evangelicals we believe, for the most part, that the truthfulness of the theology contained in the Old Testament depends on certain events having actually happened.  The quote from Childs seems to go against that – keeping in mind that in the very next sentence he says that “the literature cannot be isolated from its ostensive reference.”

But I would say that Childs has the better position.  Here are a few reasons:

(1) You don’t have to actually know what happened in history to be able to understand what the theology contained in or assumed by the biblical texts is.  What actually happened in history may be important (for some people) in terms of how you evaluate that theology but, in the end, it’s not very important for how you understand that theology.

(2) Not everything in the Bible is based on or reflects on events that actually happened in history.  As I noted in my previous post, the prime example of this is OT wisdom literature, which, for the most part, makes no reference to “God’s saving acts” in redemptive history.  The truthfulness of Proverbs – at least in terms of how we evaluate it – is not based on whether or not certain events happened; it’s based on whether or not its wisdom actually works (at least in its own historical context).  It is no coincidence that Vos only cites OT wisdom 10 times in total.  Compare that with 94 references to Exodus, not including passages that are cited more than once.

(3) From a theological perspective, God gave the church the canon, not the revelatory events behind the canon.  This may seem counterintuitive but the book of Amos has more authority for the Christian than the actual preaching of Amos.  I’m tempted to say the same thing about the gospels but that might be going too far.  But, in the end the gospels are all we have and they have more authority for the Christian than a historian’s reconstruction of the life and teaching of Jesus, regardless of how Wright it might be.  My point is that there is a difference between inspiration and canonicity (not everything that’s inspired made it into the Bible) and that there is a difference between events and how these events are depicted (it’s the depiction of the event that is important from a theological perspective).

(4) The field is called biblical/Old Testament theology, not the actual events or revelatory acts behind the biblical text theology.  Enough said.

There are other differences between the two writers but, for me, this is the main difference.  Childs (in theory) is more focused on the Bible whereas Vos (in theory) is more concerned with what lies behind the text.  I added the words “in theory” because, as is often the case in biblical theology and Old Testament theology, there is a huge difference between how a person articulates their methodology and what they actually do in their own writing.  But (in theory!) Childs’ approach is much more attractive than Vos’.

Biblical Theology in Kingdom Through Covenant

Kingdom Through CovenantThe majority of book reviews that I’ve seen on Kingdom Through Covenant focus on the authors’ views of the relationship between various divine-human covenants found in the Bible – which, of course, makes sense given the fact that this is one of the main topics of this book.  My main interest, however, in picking up this book was not so much their view of the relationship between the covenants but their understanding of biblical theology and the methodological issues involved.  So in this post I would like to look at Stephen Wellum’s understanding of biblical theology and offer an evaluation based on my understanding of biblical theology.

Is a Critique Even Possible?

But before we get to Wellum’s views on biblical theology, there’s an important issue that needs to be dealt with first.  As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s common knowledge to people working in biblical theology or its sub-disciplines (Old and New Testament theology) that there is no agreed-upon definition for what biblical theology is supposed to be.  The definitions that people do give for biblical theology often vary quite widely from each other.  So in one sense, it might seem a little strange to evaluate and critique another person’s approach to biblical theology because any disagreement could simply be attributed to the disputed nature of biblical theology as an academic discipline.  However, despite the fact that there is no agreed-upon definition for what biblical theology is supposed to be, there are a number of reasons why I think it’s legitimate to evaluate and critique another person’s view of biblical theology:

1. Despite the fact that biblical theology is a disputed term, most people who work in the field of biblical theology see enough of a family resemblance with other works of biblical theology to see their work as belonging to the same field.  The real difference, for most people, has to do with differences in methodology.  If that’s the case – and I think it is – it’s perfectly legitimate evaluate another person’s understanding of biblical theology in light of those family resemblances, however vaguely defined.  The understanding that I gave for biblical theology in my previous post was an attempt to define what that family resemblance might be and to trace where and how that family resemblance diverges in various works of or understandings of biblical theology.

2. Any work that deals with the nature of biblical theology on an academic level inevitably ends up interacting with (a) the history of the discipline and/or (b) other works of biblical theology.  In these cases, it is perfectly legitimate to evaluate how well a person has understood the history of the discipline and the authors they are interacting with.

So with those two points in mind, let’s move on to an evaluation of Wellum’s understanding of biblical theology in chapter 1 of Kingdom Through Covenant.


There are three main points I would like to discuss:

(1) The first point I would like to discuss is Wellum’s belief that the Bible itself should determine the shape and structure of biblical theology.  This can be found in a number of different places in Wellum’s discussion:

“Biblical theology must follow a method that reads the Bible on its own terms, following the Bibe’s own internal contours and shape, in order to discover God’s unified plan as it is disclosed to us over time.” (p. 32 – emphasis mine)

“‘Biblical theology’ is ‘theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church.  It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyse and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus.’” (pp. 32-33, quoting Brian Rosner’s definition of biblical theology in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology)

“In other words, all theologizing starts with the Bible’s own presentation of itself as we seek to live under its authority and teaching and not over it.” (p. 33)

“To start with the Bible’s own presentation of itself, or to read the Bible on its own terms is at the heart of biblical theology.  Even within evangelical biblical theology this point is not always followed.  For example, some argue that biblical theology is the approach by which redemptive-history is divided into various historical epochs and then the development of those epochs is traced.  Or, others view biblical theology as merely thinking through the large themes of Scripture.  Still others approach the discipline by working through the Bible book by book.  All of these approaches have their place but, in our view, they fall short.  Their fundamental problem is that they do not follow the Bible’s own presentation of itself, or, in other words, they do not carefully trace out the Bible’s own literary plot structure.  If we are going to read the Bible on its own terms, we have to ask, how has God given Scripture to us, what are the Bible’s own internal structures, and how ought those structures shape [sic] our doing of biblical theology?  We are convinced that working through the biblical covenants is tracing out the Bible’s own internal structures and learning to read Scripture as God intended it to be read.” (p. 33, n. 29, emphasis original)

There are a number of problems with these statements and the way they are worked out in this book – not least the lack of distinction between how biblical theology is presented versus how biblical theology is discovered – but the main thing I want to focus on is his insistence that biblical theology follow the Bible’s own shape and structure.  I have to admit that when I read these quotations, especially the final one, I was completely baffled.  While it’s true that the covenants form the shape and structure of redemptive history – a reality that exists outside the texts – and that they shape the meta-narrative of the Bible, it’s simply not true that they form the structure of the Bible itself.  While I don’t necessarily think that a book-by-book presentation is the most effective way of presenting biblical theology, it is impossible to deny that the Bible itself follows a book-by-book structure, not a redemptive-historical structure.  The structure of redemptive history and the overall metanarrative of scripture is something that has to be reconstructed theologically following cues found in the Bible, not the structure of the Bible itself.

This may seem like nitpicking but it’s important to realize what we’re doing when we’re doing the kind of biblical theology being presented here.  Wellum’s approach belongs to the third stage of biblical theology that I mentioned in my previous post.  That stage is distinctly theological in character – it involves much more than simply describing the theology assumed or found in the biblical text.  That’s the reason why there’s so much disagreement between the various forms of dispensationalism and covenant theology – it’s not just a matter of exegesis, it’s a matter of theology, which always involves more than mere exegesis.  (I’ll have to talk about my understanding of systematic/dogmatic theology in another post).  The more variables that are involved, the more potential there is for disagreement.  So by saying that his approach simply reflects the shape and structure of the Bible itself doesn’t do justice to the shape and structure that the Bible actually gives has and downplays the theological character of the structure he gives instead.  Again, I’m not saying that this theological structure isn’t important – it’s absolutely essential for doing the third stage of biblical theology from an evangelical perspective – but we need to recognize it for what it is.

(2) Related to this is Wellum’s exclusive focus on redemptive history in the definitions he gives for biblical theology.  As I said in my previous post, biblical theology deals with the theology contained in or assumed by the various books of the Bible.  That’s the main point of family resemblance in virtually every form of biblical theology.  If that’s the case, redemptive history is only one aspect of biblical theology, an important one but not the exclusive focus.

The classic way of showing this is by looking at how Biblical Theologies that focus on redemptive history treat Wisdom Literature.  If you look at the scripture index of Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology there are six references to Proverbs, four references to Job, and zero references to Ecclesiastes.  Kingdom Through Covenant does a little bit better (Proverbs – 16; Job – 9; Ecclesiastes – 2), but when you look up these references they are mostly there as cross-references for other passages (e.g. most of the references to Job have to do with the “sons of God” in Genesis 6).  The reason why the wisdom writings are neglected is because they don’t really mention redemptive history.  Sure, we can place them in a redemptive-historical framework so that we know what to do with them, but the reality is that these books don’t really mention the main themes of redemptive history (covenant, election, the exodus, etc.).  Compare Vos’s Biblical Theology and Kingdom Through Covenant with Walter Brueggemann’s Old Testament theology and you will get the picture.

My point is that there is much more to theology in the Bible than redemptive history.  You have the character of God, divine providence, God’s holiness, God’s wrath, Jeremiah’s theology of repentance, beliefs about angels and demons, the whole idea of monotheism, etc.  Just take a look at a book of systematic theology: redemption is important, maybe even central, but that doesn’t mean that other topics are not dealt with in their own integrity.  So to define biblical theology so narrowly inevitably leads to the sidelining of other major topics in biblical theology.

(3) The final point I would like to look at is Wellum’s focus on the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture.  Please read this carefully so you don’t misunderstand.  A belief in inspiration and inerrancy is absolutely essential for the third stage of biblical theology from an evangelical perspective (which is my perspective, of course) but I don’t see why it’s essential for the first two stages.  The first two stages are descriptive in character: (1) describing the theology contained in or assumed by a particular biblical text and (2) comparing/contrasting it with the theology contained in or assumed by other books in the Bible (the scope depending on whether one is doing pan-biblical theology, Old Testament theology, or New Testament theology).  Since these stages are mainly descriptive, I don’t see why a belief in inspiration or inerrancy is absolutely essential.  There are a few cases where there is a choice between a more conservative or less conservative interpretive option but the choice between the two usually belongs to the third stage of biblical theology, which allows other sorts of information to be considered besides information that is publically available to any historian.  This point is the most likely one to be misunderstood and to be argued with but I think it’s important.  Making this distinction allows those of us who do believe in inspiration and inerrancy to learn from and dialogue with Biblical Theologies that don’t believe in inspiration and inerrancy.  If James Barr, Brevard Childs, John Collins, Jon Levenson, or Walther Eichrodt have insight into the theology of Genesis, Proverbs, or Amos, then we can learn from them.  We may differ in how we evaluate and appropriate the theology of these books, but it is perfectly possible for them to describe the theology of these books (even if they disagree with it) without believing in inerrancy.  When reading this chapter it seemed like every work of biblical theology outside of the evangelical/Reformed camp was being dismissed as being “illegitimate”.  If anyone wants to push back on this point, please do.


There are a number of other issues that could be addressed in Wellum’s understanding of biblical theology but these are the ones that stood out most  In the end I probably do agree with most of their conclusions about how the main divine-human covenants in scripture relate to each other.  However, biblical theology is an important discipline and we need to make sure that we do it right, with all of the methodological precision that that entails.

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 Francois