Formations 02.07.2020: Helpmate?

Genesis 2:18-25

In the second movement of the Genesis 2 creation story, God takes note that the man is alone and takes measures to correct that situation. We read first of the creation of “every animal” and “every bird” (v. 19) and the man’s naming of these creatures. But, of course, none of them are a suitable partner for the man.

Finally, God creates the first woman from the side of the man. As soon as he sees her, he realizes that he has at last found someone who is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23). The man has finally found “a helper as his partner” (Hebrew ’ezer kenegdo, vv. 18, 20), an expression that has sometimes, unfortunately, been understood to mean “helpmate.”

When I edited this lesson and again when I was preparing this Coracle article, I consulted dozens of English Bible translations. In none of them do I find this troublesome word “helpmate.” The word itself is first attested in 1715, which explains why it is not found in the Geneva Bible (1599) or the King James Version (1611), both of which have “help meet”—two words—in Genesis 2:18.

The problem with “helpmate” is not only that it is an unbiblical word but that it fails miserably to convey the meaning of the original Hebrew phrase. Even the King James Version’s archaic “help meet” is far better.

“A help meet for him” means “a helper suitable for him” as in the New International Version, the Orthodox Jewish Bible, and the Modern English Version. Another possibility is “a helper comparable to him” as in the New King James Version and the World English Bible. My favorite rendering is probably that of the Common English Bible: “a helper that is perfect for him.”

“Helper” (’ezer) is a term of high regard in Hebrew. It often refers to a powerful military ally. More often even that that, it refers to God: “But surely, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life” (Ps 54:4).

That’s what the woman is in Genesis 2: a strong, resourceful ally, an equal that is perfectly suited to stand beside the man (as he stands beside her) in the work that God has given them both. If you want to build a theology of marriage from these verses, start there.

Discussion

• When have you heard wives referred to as their husband’s “helpmate”? What implications does that language have for you?
• How have traditional beliefs about gender roles shaped the way we read this passage?
• If you are married: When has your spouse proven to be your strong, resourceful ally?

• If you are single: How does this passage challenge our culture’s expectations of married life?
• Women and men also fulfill God’s plans apart from marriage. What relevance does this passage have for male-female relationships in the workplace or in church ministry?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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