Genesis 2-3 tells the familiar story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It’s a story ripe with images that light up the imagination of adults and children alike: a secret garden, magical trees, and a talking snake. I can still see the Sunday school flannel graphs (If you are too young to remember flannel graphs, I recommend you Google it. It might help you appreciate why your parents can’t figure out the TV remote.).
When we first encounter “the man” in this story, YHWH has placed him in the garden as a groundskeeper, with a few simple rules: keep the place nice, eat what you like, except don’t eat from this one specific tree—because it will kill you. Sounds simple enough. What couple possibly go wrong?
Well, the first thing that goes wrong is that YHWH realizes there is something “not good” in this corner of creation: the man is by himself. There are no other living creatures. It’s easy to miss that in the Genesis 2-3 account, there’s plenty of plant life, but no animals as yet. The animals are formed in response to YHWH’s recognition that the man is alone (Gen 2:18-20). The impetus for their formation is that the man needs a helper. The man inspects the animals and names them, but none satisfies the necessary requirements—whatever those might be.
YHWH decides to perform the first medical procedure by sedating the man and removing a piece to form a new companion. Most translations say that YHWH took a rib (Heb. צלע). However, the meaning of this word is vague. It could be a rib. It could also mean a side. In his book What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden, Ziony Zevit proposed that it meant the man’s penis bone. While intriguing (humans are one of the few mammals without one), I think his proposal goes a bit too far.
The man’s response confirms the success of the surgical procedure: “Now this one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” (Gen 2:23, my translation, emphasis added). I wonder what else besides a visual inspection was involved in the man coming to this conclusion. Speaking for men everywhere, probably not much.
The narrator then gives the reason for this account. “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24, NRSV). As an aside, this assessment is quite strange. Societies of the ancient Near East—including Israelite society—were patrilocal, meaning the wife went to live with the husband’s family after marriage. While this marital origin story might fit with our Western conception, it is very foreign to its ancient Near Eastern context.
With this as background, we come to the real question: what does Genesis 2 say about the role of women? More specifically, what is meant by “helper?”
In general, Hebrew is a word-poor language compared to English. Words often have a wide range of meanings. Author Lois Tverberg refers to Hebrew words as “over-stuffed suitcases.” For example, there is only one word to describe a large body of water: yām. It makes no difference whether you are talking about a moderate-sized freshwater lake or the Mediterranean Sea, the Hebrew word is yām. The word we translate as king (melek) is equally broad. It can mean a ruler as impressive as the King of Babylon or someone as minor as a local village ruler (See: The Trouble with Jericho).
In some areas, however, Hebrew is relatively word-rich. There are at least 4 words to describe different types of desert/wilderness environments. There are several words for different types of valleys. There are even multiple words to describe female servants/slaves. One reason for these pockets of specificity may be the cultural need for distinctions in these areas. For example, a desert-dwelling people place greater importance on specifying the type of wilderness than is necessary for something rarely encountered, like a large body of water.
So, you might ask, which of the words for a female servant does Genesis 2 use to describe the man’s helper?
None of them.
Genesis 2 goes in a very different direction.
The Ezer Kenegddo
Let’s consider YHWH’s assessment of the man’s situation: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18). The Hebrew phrase consists of two words: ezer kenegddo (עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ).
Ezer is generally translated as a “helper.” But this is not just any helper. Ezer shows up 16 times in the Hebrew Bible. In almost every case, it refers to God and what God does for Israel:
I lift my eyes to the hills—Psa 121:1-2
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
In some places, ezer has the sense of God (or another party) acting as a warrior delivering or protecting the people. In no instance does ezer mean an inferior or subservient helper. It connotes a powerful helper that can do for the other party what they cannot do for themselves. The woman in Genesis 2 is no exception. Based upon how ezer is used throughout the Hebrew Bible, one gets the sense that this “helper” is more powerful than the party they are helping.
In no instance does ezer mean an inferior or subservient helper. It connotes a powerful helper that can do for the other party what they cannot do for themselves. The woman in Genesis 2 is no exception.Tweet
Kenegddo is a compound word. Ke is the prefix meaning “as or like.” Neged is the root word meaning “before, in front of, or opposite.” The suffix o simply means “him.” So, putting it all together, it means “as before him,” “as in front of him,” or “as opposite him.” Regardless of your preferred spatial interpretation, there is one thing that is clear from this word: the woman is not behind him. Hebrew has a different word for that.
The challenge that English translations have is how to put this phrase together in a way that conveys the richness of the Hebrew meaning. The NRSV (used above) chooses to use helper and partner. The NET Bible opts for “a companion who corresponds with him.” The NKJV updates the old language of “helpmeet” (totally nonsensical) to “a helper comparable to him.” Carolyn Custis James proposed the term Ezer-warrior in her book Malestrom. I think they all fall short of the full meaning, but do highlight the interpretive challenge of this term.
The Proof-Texting Problem
Unfortunately, this passage has a long interpretive history that promotes the misguided notion that female subordination to males is God-ordained. That interpretation cannot be supported by a careful reading of the text. The woman is a powerful and co-equal partner with the man. She is more than capable of standing toe-to-toe and side-by-side with the man. There is nothing in Genesis 2 that would indicate any inferiority or subordinate role in their relationship.
But does the situation change in Genesis 3 with the incident at the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Wasn’t the woman cursed because she disobeyed God? Again, a careful reading of Genesis 3 tells a different story. The Hebrew word for cursed, arar (ארר) is only used twice in chapter 3. The serpent is first. For his role in this unfortunate event, he is cursed to crawl on his belly (Gen 3:14). Most think that before this, the snake must have had legs and walked. I prefer to imagine that he had wings and flew. Don’t ask me why, I just think it’s cooler, and the text doesn’t say. The second curse is on the ground (Gen 3:17). Rather than producing an abundance of edible crops, its productivity will be limited by weeds, thorns, and the like.
Neither the man nor the woman is cursed. Both endure the consequences of their actions. But there is no sense that either is directly cursed for their disobedience. The implications for the woman are painful procreation and a broken relationship with the man. If one maintains that the man ruling over the woman is “Biblical,” then one must also reject the use of epidurals and other pain-killers during childbirth for the same reason. While we’re at it, you better ban all fertilizers and weed-killers too.
Life in the Kingdom of God
I think a more appropriate way to look at this is what the garden represents in scripture. The garden portrays God’s kingdom with the Divine, humanity, and creation living and working as God intended. There’s a harmony of relationship—everything functioning as designed. In Hebrew, this state is described as shalom. Genesis 3 explains how this harmony is broken. It describes, in very basic terms, the implications when shalom is absent. Bad things happen in both the created order and human relationships. In a sense, Genesis 2 and 3 make us long for a time when everything in creation functioned together as God intended.
When Jesus begins his ministry, he proclaims “the year of the LORD’s favor” and that “the Kingdom of God is here!” He is announcing that God’s redemption of creation—the reconstruction of the system is underway. Jesus’ ministry is about the renewal of the created order to the way God intended from the beginning. “Thy kingdom come! They will be done on earth as it is in heaven!”
So, as children of God and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, what is our task? Are we to perpetuate the brokenness within the world? Are we to mandate the consequences of sin as though they were God-ordained? Heaven forbid!
Let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute. We inherently know this to be true. We produce fertilizers to improve crop yields. We develop treatments to heal sickness and disease. We provide palliative care to ease suffering, and many women elect to use drugs to reduce the pain of childbirth. We recognize that the world we live in should be a better place! We long for the restoration of the shalom described in Genesis 2—except when it comes to women. With women, we immediately fast-forward to Genesis 3 and claim that the status quo of male-domination is God-ordained. No. God-ordained is Genesis 2: co-equal partners living and working together in shalom.
I think many Christians have lost sight of our responsibility: God’s people are to be about Kingdom business. Our job is to continue God’s restorative work in anticipation of its complete renewal in the world to come. We are called to identify brokenness and do whatever God enables us to do to correct it. Among other things, that restorative work includes not only the rejection of misogyny, but actively acknowledging and promoting the co-equal treatment of the sexes in our homes, workplaces, communities, churches, and synagogues.
Imagine the positive impact this would have on our world. What better way to demonstrate God’s love for his creation than by doing our part to restore shalom to the brokenness. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the shalom-makers, for they will be called children of God!”