What Does "Helper" Really Mean?

When I first began dialoguing with people about women and Scripture, I noticed something really interesting: biblically educated folks will agree that much of what Paul says concerning women should be read with historical and cultural context in mind. It was obvious early on that learned people will never say that Paul's letters are in no way contextual. For example, in 1 Timothy, Paul argues that women (besides keep silent) shouldn’t braid their hair, or wear gold and pearls. Interestingly, everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that doesn’t apply to our culture. Thus, most agree that at least some of what Paul says has to do with the context in which he lived in.

In the last seminary I attended, professors who held very strongly to complementarian practice still taught that “women shall remain silent” was a result of first-century cultural realities. I always found this interesting, and naturally, it led me to wonder: if the main issue isn’t (always) a disagreement on context, then what else (in Scripture) could be the cause for such polarizing views concerning women?

Throughout my study of this topic, I’ve noticed that the foundation of the “woman” debate sort of hovers around one main thing: the creation narrative, or more specifically “creation order.” (And when I say narrative in regards to creation—I mean narrative. I’m talking about what the story means theologically.

I could write five different posts related to Genesis 1-3 (perhaps I will), but for today, I just want to focus on the Genesis 2:18 and 20 claim that woman was to be a “suitable helper” (NIV) or “helper fit” (ESV) for man. Many argue that this verse is proof that women were created to be submissive to men. Now, I’m sure there’s a spectrum to this, as some will argue that women need only submit to their husbands (although I don’t see how that works practically for single women). Still others will agree with what I’m going to focus on in this post: the Hebrew phrase ezer kenegdo, or “suitable helper.

For starters, the word “help” or “helper” implies something very different in Hebrew than it does in English. In English, "helper" most of the time suggests someone who is under a person in authority, like an assistant, for example. However, this is very different from the Hebrew, as “help” in this particular context comes from one who has power to give help—it refers to someone in a superior position offering help to a weaker person who cannot help herself or himself.

I used to be a huge Matt Chandler fan, and I remember back in my full-blown complementarian days being so excited after hearing him preach a sermon about women as “helpers.” I’ll quote him directly, because he’s pretty spot-on about this:

God being called helper throughout the Scriptures brings honor to the position of helper. Since God has been called the helper, a helper cannot be inherently inferior. So if woman has been made a helper fit for him, a woman as helper to the man cannot mean the woman is inferior in any way.”

Chandler is right. Ezer can be found 20 times in the Old Testament. Seventeen of those times it is used to describe God, and the other three times to describe a military aide. When it refers to God, it's always in accordance with his engagement with humans and his relationship with Israel.

A few examples include:

Exodus 18:4, "…and the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, 'The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh')." 

Deuteronomy 33:7 says, "And this he said of Judah: 'Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah, and bring him in to his people. With your hands contend for him, and be a help (ezer) against his adversaries.'" 

and Psalm 33:20: "Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help (ezer) and our shield."

You see, if one argues that woman as “helper” denotes man’s elevated position in relation to her, than the same would be implied for God—which we know isn’t true.

God helps Israel because he has the power to do so, and because Israel can’t do it alone.

The second part of the phrase is also important to note: kenegdo. This word is made up of two prepositions: ke which suggests “corresponding to” or “the adding of something that is essential,” and negdo which suggests “to stand in someone’s presence.” The two prepositions together express a relationship between two people facing each other, showing they are equals.

Ezer kenegdo in no way suggests subordination or inferiority—not in creation, nor in function.

Thus in Genesis 2:18—“I will make him a helper fit (ezer kenego) for him,” implies someone, a helper, who is suitable for the task—not a maid or an assistant, but a companion that corresponds to ‘adam (this word literally meaning “earth creature” not yet a proper noun), being of the same nature as him and of the same capacity for a relationship with God. As David Freedman puts it, “When God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, His intent is that she will be—unlike the animals—a power or strength equal to him.”

I will say that I’m not against the idea of true “complementary.” In fact, it’s very evident in Genesis 1 in that man and woman complete what it means to be human—specifically in completing the tasks given to them by God in regards to creation.

Woman is not a duplicate, but a complement that completes human creation.



Some resources to check out: Ben Witherington's Women and the Genesis of Christianity: https://www.amazon.com/Women-Genesis-Christianity-Ben-Witherington/dp/0521367352

Kevin Giles: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/genesis-equality-part-1

The Junia Project and CBE International also have quite a few resources on this as well! (linked are two that I used)