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.

NIV
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.

7 comments:

  1. Does Genesis 3:16 relate to Genesis 2:18? and if so Does Eve's position as a help mate in 2:18 change because of 3:16? stating "Eve's desire shall be unto her husband and he shall rule over her"

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  2. I don't see the two verses as related so much as opposite outcomes pre and post fall. As far as Eve's "position" - an interesting choice of words - I don't believe God's view of or desire for the marriage relationship changes at all. Gen 3:16 is not a directive. It is God's prophecy on the effects that sin in the world will have on marriage given our new "nature". The effects predicted in Genesis 3:16 don't universally obliterate the kind of relationship that Gen 2:18 speaks of. Husbands and Wives can still lives as corresponding companions. Sin just makes it much, much harder.

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  3. I do also want to point out, as I did in the post, that "help mate" is an unsupportable translation. Eve was not Adam's garden "helpmate". She was the God created "help" for his "not good" alone state.

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  4. Hello Gengwall! This is really interesting! Did you ever finish your book?

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  5. Hey! My friend; a blast from the past. I haven't been on Christian Forums for sooooo long. How did you find me here?

    No, I didn't finish my book. In fact, I now have outlines for 3 books, but haven't really dug in yet even though my wife is really encouraging me to do so. My latest project is on Ephesians 5 and the true picture of biblical marriage. Stay tuned.

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  6. thank you for this. I would also recommend the book "Why Not Women?" by David Hamilton and Loren Cunningham. It's takes a missiological perspective on releasing both men and women to use their gifts so the Great Commission can be completed sooner.

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