Helpmate, Schmelpmate

Alternate title: When something is both awesome and infuriating.

There is a Hebrew word in the Bible that is translated as “strength” or “help”: ezer. (All verses from the New Living Translation, unless noted.)

There is no one like the God of Israel. He rides across the heavens to help you, across the skies in majestic splendor (Deut. 22:26).

But as for me, I am poor and needy; please hurry to my aid, O God. You are my helper and my savior (Ps 70:5).

I look up to the mountains — does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth (Ps 121:1-2).

I was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed. So I myself stepped in to save them with my strong arm (Is 63:5).

In the majority of its uses, ezer refers to help from God or from a mighty military leader (who may or may not help you): someone powerful helping someone less powerful. The helper is the savior who comes from a position of strength.

So why the &^%$ does it become, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him'”? There is little impression of strength here. It makes me think of helpers I’ve had over the years in children’s worship, some are just right for me, others require too much work — but I am clearly in a superior position to my helper.

The prior verse was from the NLT; my printed NLT says, “I will made a companion who will help him.” The Message, “I’ll make him a helper, a companion.” Although few translations use helpmate, the tone of that word infects the conversation because of the King James’ “help meet for him.” In historical fiction, a companion is a woman with lower social standing who is paid to accompany a woman in higher standing. A companion certainly isn’t a partner.

So when ezer is used about God or national leaders, it refers to a powerful helper. When it’s used about women, it is given a “lesser-than” connotation. That’s infuriating, because this section of Genesis has been used to justify teachings about the “lesser-than” position of women in marriage and in the church.

I didn’t know about this issue of the translation ezer in Genesis 2 until this week, when my minister mentioned it in a sermon about marriage. A visit to my friend Mr. Google, and I found other Christian thinkers who’ve noted it and argued for a better translation. Bruce Harkins suggests, “I will make a power [or strength] corresponding [and equal] to man.”

That’s not bad, but I think it’d be fun to play with the verse a bit, to use the connotations of contemporary language to better reflect the fuller implications of woman being an ezer to man.

There’s a really fine line to navigate here, because I don’t want to get all essentialist, saying that Woman balances out Man in ways that he needs that only she can provide and then go on to suggest that it’s nurturing or gentleness or some other typically feminine virtue — the union of man and woman that doesn’t include nurturing, strength and gentleness from both parties is not a union I want to be a part of. Yes, my husband and I each balance out some weakness in the other, but I think that’s due to personality as much as gender.

Also, this is a weird little story. God sees that the man shouldn’t be alone, that he should have one of his own kind, so what does God do? He parades all the animals in front of the man for the man to ooh and aah over and give names to. That doesn’t make any sense — unless God knows that the man won’t appreciate a partner of his own kind until he’s been confronted by his own aloneness. (I’m going avoid being sexist by expanding my next question to include all of us.) Is God saying, in effect, “People, you don’t know a good thing when I give it to you. Let me distract you with a bunch of stuff that isn’t the gift so you can recognize the gift when it comes”?

I actually think the key to the story is in verse 20b, “But still there was no helper just right for him” (NLT).

Anyway, here goes:


“I’m creating someone with some serious skillz. Don’t be stupid about her.”

A Little Less Flippant

 God looked at the man he had made. The man was good. Really good. But he was going to need some help. Big help. And he wasn’t going to like the idea that he needed help. Better ease the man into it.

So God  showed the man all the animals He had made. The man was fascinated by all the different kinds of creatures with all their colors and shapes and sounds. Eventually, the man noticed that the other animals not only came in pairs, but there was no animal like him. Indeed, there was no one strong enough to counter the man. So God made the woman and presented her to the man.

“At last,” the man said. “Here is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

Maybe even a little tender

God looked at the man he had made. He loved the man, but He knew He wouldn’t be enough for the man. The man needed someone strong, someone like him, to be with.

Then God brought the man all the animals He’d made, in all their variety. Some of the animals made the man laugh, others intrigued him; he even felt affection for some of the animals. Some of the animals could help him with tasks, but none of them were right to be his partner.

The Lord caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and then took a part of the man’s side and made a woman from it. He brought the woman to the man.

“At last,” the man said. “She is like me. We will be one.”

What do you think? Was this a crazy exercise? Was I too flippant about God’s Word? Did you already know about the ezer issue or was it new to you, too? Got any other translation frustrations you want to share?




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2 thoughts on “Helpmate, Schmelpmate

  1. Crazy? Too flippant? Woman, you are engaging honestly and creatively. Don’t be shy or apologetic. You are “ezer”, given to the world to help us see more clearly, as we are given to you.

    I’m having fun thinking about this. For what it’s worth, here’s where your thoughts led mine.

    What I find most interesting is how when Adam sees Eve his response is focused, not on their difference, but on their similarity. “Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” What if God’s intention was that our human “ezers” would show us ourselves? And I don’t mean just that they would mirror back to us who we are by pointing out our strengths and weaknesses, etc…but that because our ezers are flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, they help us to recognize our essential humanity. Because we see our ezer’s beauty and folly, strength and vulnerability we might recognize our own. After all, if s/he is part of me then I cannot separate myself from her/him.

    What if, in each glance, we refused to separate ourselves from one another by making judgments about our inferiority or superiority to one another? What if, when my husband inspires me with his diligence, I could acknowledge my own capacity (not yet plumbed) for such diligence? What if when a colleague made a cutting remark, I could recognize my own small-heartedness? What if, beginning with my very thoughts, I quit separating myself from others, but allowed the strengths and weaknesses of others to become occasions of solidarity? What if I really took my belief in the Trinity to heart and if I heeded Jesus’ prayer of John 17:20ff that all might be one as he and the Father are one? I believe this oneness has been God’s intention from the beginning. I believe that this oneness is what the author of Hebrews is speaking of when he claimed that Jesus endured the pain of the cross, scorning its shame for the joy set before him. What else could that joy be but the joy of full communion? Of complete unity?

    As the Bible makes clear, our chief problem as humans is one of sight. We are constantly hiding from God, ourselves and one another; we are always seeking flight from reality. We are afraid to look at both our faults and our gifts. But the poignant realities of the people who surround us pierce our haze. Those realities, carried to us by the wind of the Spirit, nestle in our crevices and crack us open. They invite us to a deeper seeing.

    They invite us to a vision of a scandalous unity of God and humanity. Jesus, though God, claimed solidarity with humanity. And ever after, God the Father cannot but see Christ when seeing us. And we are invited to do the same. I think thirteenth-century Julian of Norwich expressed it best when asked by a friend how she prayed for her replied, “I look at God, I look at you, and I keep looking at God.” May our lives together be such a prayer.

    1. I am crazy in love with your response, Lorilyn — I’d been hoping you’d see it and respond. Going through that little story, the intimacy of Adam’s response struck me, too, the focus on the sameness, the oneness.

      Your vision of our strengths and weaknesses being occasions for solidarity is wonderful, and I think can come from an image of oneself as an ezer: it is when we are secure that we can see someone else’s strength as not threatening, and can see someone else’s weakness and not gloat. Ideally, of course, that security comes from our self-image as someone God loves. I see the opposite of this sometimes in my kids; they’re made anxious by people raving about others’ abilities, they want to make sure we know that they’re good at something, too. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of constantly ranking superiority/inferiority. I want to choose solidarity, union, communion.

      We’ve been studying Ephesians in our church small group and so much of the first three chapters is about unity, about the Jews not lording it over the Gentiles before they got to God “first,” and the Gentiles understanding that they are not the lesser cousins, but the adopted first sons’ of God who will get full inheritance. So many of the “big verses” that we understand individualistically are meant communally: the verse in Eph 2 about being a dwelling in which God lives is not about me, it’s meant to be about the church — collectively. v.22 “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” I wish English had a “you, plural” like other languages do. I suspect we might understand some of the New Testament quite differently. “Scandalous unity” — yes!

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