Saturday, February 26, 2011

Eve the "Helper" - The Complete Picture

In my last post, I dug deep into the Biblical use of the Hebrew word ezer as it relates to God, and subsequently, Eve. But God's intent in his provision for Adam is not fully described by this one word. Now I would like to expand the inquiry to the full phrase that describes what exactly Eve will be for Adam.

For this post I will be using, for purposes of comparison and contrast, two translations of ezer k-neged-u from Genesis 2:18.

King James Version
And the LORD God said, [It is] not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet (ezer k-neged-u) for him.

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable (ezer k-neged-u) for him.”

“help meet” vs. “helper suitable” - there is quite a disparity between the two translations. The King James sounds strange to our contemporary minds. It may surprise the reader that “help meet” is actually a far more literal, and accurate, translation than “helper suitable”.

Let's begin with ezer again. There is a subtle difference between the English words “help” and “helper”. The latter is part of the solution to a problem but the former is the solution in and of itself. We see that when the word is used for God. In most cases, God isn't a “helper” per se, leaving it up to us to help ourselves to some degree. No, God is the all inclusive “help”, without which we would be completely helpless.

Which state did Adam find himself in, one where he needed a little assistance or one where he was completely hopeless. Remember that Adam did not need help with any domestic tasks. That is not what Eve was created for. Genesis 2:18 is crystal clear that the only condition that was not good and therefore required a help was Adam's state of being alone. In fact, Adam was hopelessly alone and could do nothing on his own to remedy that situation. This became even more stark of a reality when God had him name the animals and he found none that could cure his alone state. So, did Adam need a helper to fix what was “not good”, or did he need an all encompassing “help”. To me, it is clearly the latter. Eve was Adam's “help”.

This seems like a nit picky semantic exercise to go through but it is important because of the subtle differences between the English words. To an English speaking mind, helper immediately brings to mind synonyms like “assistant” which leads easily to “subordinate”. It is this very thought process, coupled with the tendency to think Adam needed help with the gardening or something, that leads people very easily to believe that Eve was made to be under Adam's authority. Using “help” instead of “helper”, while a little clumsy linguistically, fits much better with the context and reality of Adam's need.

Now on to this other word, neged that translates as “meet” vs. “suitable” in our two example verses. Beginning again with the NIV. To me, “suitable” is a terrible word to describe a person. It makes Eve in the context of the passage sound like some kind of tool. After all, if you need help with domestic chores, the most suitable helper is a domestic servant is it not? Again, it is nit picky, but I really think there are better words than “suitable”, and indeed many translations use alternatives that don't sound quite as domesticating. More on that in a minute.

Turning to the King James, a contemporary English speaker is initially quite stumped. What in the world does “meet” mean? Often we jump to a conclusion: “Well, 'meet' must mean that Eve 'meets' Adam's needs”. While that isn't the worst thought in the world, it really misses the true meaning of this word. Often too, people who have just heard the verse without reading it erroneously translate this as “helpmate” (although one translation – Darby – makes the same mistake). This is going in the wrong direction all together.

The Hebrew word neged actually means “in front of”, as in “standing face to face”. In negative contexts, it means to “oppose”. In positive contexts, it means one thing compliments or corresponds to another thing. So, literally, the King James translation of “meet” is very accurate. Eve is a “help” that “meets” Adam face to face.

Putting that together, can we find a better translation of ezer k-neged-u that removes all aspects of hierarchy and shows the true purpose behind Eve's creation for Adam? I think there are several good candidates.

The New Living Testament phrases it “a companion who will help him”. I certainly agree with the companion part, but I think we can do better.

The New King James has “helper comparable”. That's a little better. And even better still...

Young's Literal translation renders it “helper -- as his counterpart”. That isn't too bad. It certainly removes any thought that Adam was the boss of Eve. “counterpart” and “partner” are very similar words and they really get the sense of neged. Which leads to...

The New American Bible has “suitable partner”. I like “partner”, but as stated before I'm not so keen on “suitable”

The New English Translation gets a little wordy with “a companion for him who corresponds to him”. Seems “corresponding companion” would have done just as well. Never-the-less, I like this. “Companion” focuses on the correct context for the help Eve provides and “corresponding” gets the correct sense of neged. All things considered, this is my favorite.

Eve was indeed Adam's companion, not his helper. This is the correct understanding of ezer in the context, for the problem Adam needed help with was his alone state. A companion was the very “help” that fixed Adam's “not good” state. And she indeed corresponded to him. She was not his clone, but instead was his “standing in front of him” compliment.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Eve the "Helper" - The Wit and Irony of God's Word Choices

Much has been made of the designation of Eve as “helper” for Adam in Genesis 2:18;20. Some claim that it means Eve was designed to provide Adam some domestic aid as he went about his preeminent job of tending the garden. Kind of a “maid with benefits”, if you will. On the other end of the spectrum (where I fall), some point out that the word often translated as “helper” is a word in Scripture that is almost universally used for God. If God is not subordinate to us, how could Eve be subordinate to Adam. Those positions have been long discussed, including here, and I do not intend in this post to resurrect that tired debate (especially since it is clearly settled in my mind). Instead, I want to share a small but significant new irony that I have discovered about this little Hebrew word - ezer.

As mentioned above, the word ezer more often than not is used of God in scripture. In fact, of the 19 occurrences outside of Genesis 2, all but three are in reference to God. But what does this word say about God? And how is that ironic in terms of how we view both Genesis 1-3 and marital relationships in general? Let’s look.

In 5 of the 16 God-reference verses[1], God is spoken of as a “shield of…help” or “help and…shield”. In these verses, God is clearly identified as a protector. He both fights off foes and shields His people from their attacks. One legitimate interpretation of ezer, then, is clearly “protector”.

In 7 more of the 16 verses[2], God is spoken of as a provider or supporter. Phrases such as “may he send you help (ezer)…and support”, and “my help (ezer) comes from the LORD” are examples. So, “provider” is another prominent (in fact, the most prominent) general interpretation of ezer.

“Provider” and “protector” - there is something very familiar about those two words. When do we often hear them in connection with marriage? It is, of course, almost exclusively in reference to husbands. Culture (and many Christian philosophies) tells us that the males are the sole providers and protectors in the marriage and the females are the sole nurturers. Isn’t it ironic that the bible tells us the exact opposite.

Now, to be fair, the translation of ezer as it relates to God that best describes Eve in relation to Adam is “rescuer”, as in “you are my help (ezer) and deliverer”. That occurs in 3 of the 16 verses[3]. The “help” that Eve provides is actually to rescue Adam from his “not good” state of being alone by being an equal partner[4] with him. Still, I can’t help but chuckle that God in His infinite wisdom also turns the concept of gender “roles” on its ear in His provision of Eve for Adam.

1. Deu 33:29, Psa 33:20, Psa 115:9-11
2. Psa 20:2, Psa 89:19, Psa 121:1-2, Psa 124:8, Psa 146:5, Hsa 13:9
3. Exd 18:4, Deu 33:26, Psa 70:5
4. The final verse with ezer referring to God - Deu 33:7 - shows God as a fellow warrior, standing side by side as an equal with His people.