A Suitable Helper in Hebrew

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The LORD God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.” . . . but for the human no suitable helper was found. Genesis 2:18 & 20

In the past, people have had a poor understanding of the word “helper” which is used in reference to the first woman. Many people have thought that the word implied that the first woman, and all women in general, were designed by God to be nothing more than auxiliaries (i.e. subordinate assistants) to men. Moreover, it was widely thought that this assistance was limited to taking care of the family and the house, and catering to the needs and even the demands of the husband.[1]

Why this narrow view of the word “helper” in reference to Eve?

In English, the word “help” has a broad range of connotations. “Help” can refer to a simple, modest act, or it can refer to something much more vital and significant. An example of vital help is the assistance provided by doctors. In Hebrew, the word for “helper” used in Genesis 2:18 and 20 is ezer (pronounced “ay-zer”), and it is always and only used in the Old Testament in the context of vitally important and powerful acts of rescue and support.[2]

The word ezer is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament. Twice it is used in the context of the first woman. Three times it is used of people helping (or failing to help) in life-threatening situations.[3] Sixteen times it is used in reference to God as a helper.[4] Without exception, these biblical texts are talking about a vital, powerful kind of help. Yet when ezer is applied to the first woman, its meaning is usually diminished to fit with traditional and cultural views of women’s roles.

In his commentary on Genesis, John Walton has this to say about the word “helper” (ezer) in the Old Testament:

The word “helper” is common enough as a description of someone who comes to the aid of or provides a service for someone. It carries no implications regarding the relationship or relative status of the individuals involved. In fact, the noun form of the word found in this verse as used elsewhere refers almost exclusively to God as the One who helps his people. If we expand our investigation to verbal forms, we find a continuing predominance of God as the subject, though there are a handful of occurrences where people help people. In this latter category we find people helping their neighbors or relatives (Isa. 41:6), people helping in a political alliance or coalition (Ezra 10:15), and military reinforcements (Josh. 10:4; 2 Sam. 8:5). Nothing suggests a subservient status of the one helping; in fact, the opposite is more likely. Certainly “helper” cannot be understood as the opposite/complement of “leader.”[5]

In Exodus 18:4 it says that Moses named one of his sons Eliezer, which in Hebrew means “My God is my helper” (Eli = “my God”; ezer = “helper”). This verse goes on to explain why Moses named his son Eliezer: because God had powerfully delivered Moses from Pharaoh’s sword!

A Suitable HelperThe word ezer in Hebrew.
The letters, reading from right to left, are ayin, zayin, and resh.
Ezer is pronounced “ay-zer”.

Ezer describes aspects of God’s character: he is our strength, our rescuer, our protector, and our help! And ezer was the Holy Spirit’s choice of word to describe the first woman. Eve was someone who would provide valuable and vital strength to Adam.[6]

The word ezer is qualified by the word kenegdo in both Genesis 2:18 and 20. Kenegdo, often translated as “suitable for him”, gives the meaning that Eve was designed to be a corresponding and equal partner for Adam. There is no sense of subordination stated or implied, or even hinted at, in this passage in Genesis 2.[7]

Ezer kenegdo—”a helper suitable for him”—is used in reference to the first woman without any narrow qualifications, prescribed limits, or carefully crafted cultural restrictions. In other words, it is not specified anywhere in Genesis 2 how the first woman was to express and apply her help towards her husband, but presumably it was to alleviate the man’s “alone-ness” and partner with him in their joint commission, given in Genesis 1:28.

Unfortunately, too many people have just presumed that the woman’s role was to be subservient. These people have read Genesis chapter 2 with narrow, preconceived notions, and have failed to see the wonderful expressions of equality, affinity, and unity in this passage.


Endnotes

[1] At the time that Eve was taken out of Adam, Eve did not have children and may not even have had a household to run. So her help cannot have been related to household chores. More about Eve’s help here.

[2] According to Rabbi David Freedman, the word ezer is a combination of two roots, meaning “to rescue/to save” and “strength”.[2] The Hebrew word ezer is a combination of two roots: `-z-r, meaning “to rescue, to save,” and g-z-r, meaning “to be strong.”
R. David Freedman, “Woman, a Power Equal to a Man”, Biblical Archaeology Review 9, 1983, 56-58. Quoted in Hard Sayings of the Bible by Walter Kaiser, et al.  (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996) 93. The relevant passage can be read here.
Dr Martin Shields (Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies, University of Sydney), however disagrees with Freedman on this. In an informal online conversation, Martin told me, “It has long been recognised that behind the Hebrew ʿzr stood the common Semitic root ʿḏr meaning “to help, aid.” This root is attested in Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic, and old South Arabic. In biblical Hebrew, the Semitic consonant merged into z, accounting for the form of the word in Hebrew. Thus it is clear that the meaning ‘helper’ is basic to the Hebrew word עזר, and this meaning is not, as Freedman suggests, a later meaning derived from the merger of two earlier meanings.”

[3] (1) In Isaiah 30:5, the Egyptian forces are useless and are unable to help.
(2) In Ezekiel 12:14, God promises to scatter to the wind the Prince of Judah, his helpers (his bodyguards?), and his troops. Without his helpers and his troops to protect him, the prince will be destroyed.
(3) Daniel 11:34 is about the lethal power of Antiochus Epiphanes IV who wreaks havoc on the God-fearing Jews in Judea. During this time of persecution, the Jews will receive a little help, or deliverance. (Some have suggested that it is the Maccabees who are the helpers/deliverers.)

[4] Some Christians have been taught that the word “helper” (ezer) somehow refers to the Holy Spirit. If you look at the verses in the section below, you will see that not one of the “helper” references single out the Holy Spirit. (Check here also.)

[5] John H. Walton, Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 176.

[6] It has been said by some that Eve was provided to help her husband, but not vice versa (cf. 1 Cor. 11:9). This suggestion goes against everything we know from New Testament teaching on human relationships (e.g., Eph. 5:1-2, 21, 28-29). All of us are to love and care for one another, as well as help and serve one another. [A short article on 1 Corinthians 11:9 is here.]

[7] The whole purpose of the Creation of Eve narrative in Genesis 2:21-24 is to emphasise the unity and mutuality of man and woman. To read it any other way is to miss the point and distort its meaning and purpose. The first woman was “taken out” of the first human being (Gen. 2:23b). Before her creation, Eve was already a part of Adam in some way. When Adam looked at his new partner he exclaimed that she was “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone!” This is a profound expression of similarity and equality. There is no hierarchy here. But to further emphasise the point, verse 24 says that when a husband and wife join in marriage, they become one flesh, a point which Jesus also highlighted (Matt. 19:4-5; Mark 10:6-7). God’s ideal at creation was that man and woman be completely equal and rule over nature (and not each other) together (Gen. 1:26-28). Equality is also God’s ideal in the New Creation which, as his redeemed children, we are already a part of.


Ezer Verses in the Hebrew Bible

I have included the following verses so that you can see the context of every Bible verse where “ezer” is used.  

The LORD God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.” …but for the human no suitable helper was found. Genesis 2:18 & 20

For [Moses] said, “My father’s God was my helper.”  Exodus 18:4b

“Hear, O LORD, the cry of Judah; bring him to his people. With his own hands he defends his cause.  Oh be his help against his foes.”  Deuteronomy 33:7

“There is no God like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you, and on the clouds of His majesty.”   Deuteronomy 33:26

Blessed are you, O Israel!  Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD?  He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword.  Deuteronomy 33:29a

May He send help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion.  Psalm 20:2

We wait in hope for the LORD; He is our help and shield.  Psalm 33:20

Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God.  You are my help and my deliverer…  Psalm 70:5

“I have bestowed strength (ezer) on a warrior; I have exalted a young man among the people.”  Psalm 89:17

O house of Israel trust in the LORD – He is their help and shield.  O house of Aaron trust in the LORD – He is their help and shield.  You who fear Him, trust in the LORD – He is their help and shield. Psalm 115:9-11

I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?  My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.  Psalm 121:1-2

Our help is in the Name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.  Psalm 124:8

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God.  Psalm 146:5

Though they have officials in Zoan and their envoys have arrived in Hanes, everyone will be put to shame because of a people useless to them, who bring neither help not advantage…   Isaiah 30:5

I will scatter to the winds all those around him – his staff (ezer) and all his troops – and I will pursue them with a drawn sword.  Ezekiel 12:14

When they fall they will receive a little help… Daniel 11:34

You are destroyed, O Israel, because you are against Me, against your helper.  Hosea 13:9

© 8th of March 2010, Margaret Mowczko


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