Eve as Ezer kenegdo does not mean “a helper subordinate to him”

This past week, I was reminded that many Christians still believe that Eve was created to be Adam’s assistant, and this means she was subordinate to him. Does Eve’s “help” in Genesis 2 have the sense of “assistance”?  And does helping someone require that you subordinate yourself to that person? A few scholars whose essays I’ve read recently would answer these questions with a “yes”. They seem to have a different idea of “help” than I do.

According to Dictionary.com the verb “help” can have many senses, but the top three are:
1. to give or provide what is necessary to accomplish a task or satisfy a need; contribute strength or means to; render assistance to; cooperate effectively with; aid; assist.
2. to save; rescue; succor.
3. to make easier or less difficult; contribute to; facilitate.

A helper, then, in English at least, is someone who does some or all of these things.

Eve as an Ezer Kenegdo

Genesis 2 tells us that Adam, who was all alone, needed help; and that a woman, Eve, was created to provide this help. The Hebrew word for “help” used here is ezer, and it is mostly used in the Hebrew Bible for God’s help. (More on ezer and how it’s used in the Hebrew Bible, here.)

Importantly, ezer is qualified by the word kenegdo. Kenegdo tells us that Eve was a person who was similar to Adam, who corresponded to him, who was his equal counterpart. (More on kenegdo here.)

Eve was not an afterthought or an extra in God’s scheme. She was not a mere auxiliary or assistant for Adam. The narrative of Genesis 2:18ff, which states that it was “not good” for Adam to be alone, is designed to highlight and emphasise the vital necessity of Eve. The naming-of-the-animals-exercise highlights her compatibility and equality with Adam (Gen. 2:20).

Most Christians today acknowledge that Eve was equal to Adam in her being, or personhood (i.e. she was ontologically Adam’s equal). I believe she was also equal to Adam in her purpose and function, even if their reciprocal help was sometimes expressed in different ways. (Note that I do not use the word “equal” as necessarily or always meaning “the same”, especially when it comes to details rather than broad concepts.)

There is no sense of subordination in the Hebrew Bible’s description of Eve as an ezer kenegdo.[1] And there is no sense of subordination in Adam’s words about Eve in Genesis 2:23. Rather, he uses words that express affinity and similarity: “This one now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.” Nevertheless, some Christians maintain that Eve was subordinate to Adam simply because she was a help to him.

Eve as a Subordinate Helper

Below are three quotations from three scholars who believe Eve was created inferior to Adam in purpose and function. After each quotation, I give a brief critique.

Raymond Ortlund writes that Eve “was Adam’s spiritual equal and, unlike the animals, ‘suitable for him.’ But she was not his equal in that she was his ‘helper.’”[2]

As God’s people, we need to be wary about accepting the proposition that a spiritual reality has little or no bearing on the physical reality. Why wouldn’t spiritual equality have had a physical and practical outworking in the relationship between Adam and Eve? Also, Eve was not just Adam’s helper, she was his “helper kenegdo” which does not convey any sense of inequality in either spiritual or practical terms.

David Clines, in his essay entitled What Does Eve do to Help?, writes, “. . . though superiors may help inferiors, strong may help weak, gods may help humans, in the act of helping they are being ‘inferior’. That is to say, they are subjecting themselves to a secondary, subordinate position. Their help may be necessary or crucial, but they are assisting some task that is already someone else’s responsibility. They are not actually doing the task themselves, or even in cooperation, for there is different language for that.”[3]

I’ll work backwards through these statements from Clines.

Ezer is used in the Hebrew Bible with a sense of cooperation and joining forces (e.g., Isa. 30:1-5; Dan. 11:13-14 CEB). (Though, in these examples, there is a failure in delivering vital help.) In Isaiah 41:6, the cognate verb azar is used in the context of mutual help among neighbours. In Ezra 10:15, azar is used in the context of forming an alliance. So, ezer and its cognates can be used in the contexts of cooperation.

Furthermore, when we help someone, we can make the task or responsibility our own, or we can share the task or responsibility with the person who originally took it on. Importantly, even if we are helping others and empowering them to succeed in their task, I fail to see how this makes us inferior or subordinate in rank. Helping someone to succeed does not diminish us or make us subordinate.

Moreover, the superiors, the strong, and the gods, in Clines’ statement, are not defined by an inferior or subordinate position to the people they supposedly help. The opposite is true. They remain the superiors. Yet Eve’s “reason for being” is incorrectly summarised by the idea of “a subordinate helper” rather than as an ezer kenegdo.

Douglas Moo, in writing about the statements about the creation and the fall in 1 Timothy 2:13-14, mentions “the subordinate, helping role envisaged for [women] in creation.”[4]

In this phrase, Dr Moo links subordination with helping, but the idea of subordination is not expressed in Genesis 1 or Genesis 2. As with Ortlund and Clines, Moo seems to think that helping others is the role of a subordinate. (Please note that Dr Moo’s quotation comes from a paper published in 1980, and I don’t know if he still believes this.)

For these three men, Eve’s “reason for being”, her purpose, can be summarised by the description that she is a helper (or assistant) subordinate to Adam, rather than a vital helper equal to him.

Christians as Helpers

I regard myself as a helpful person, but I have never thought that I was being subordinate to the people I was helping. And when I look around at other people who are helping communities and individuals, I rarely see that they are subordinating themselves. In fact, some people who help have more authority and power, in certain areas, than the people they are helping, as Clines also admits.

Helping people with less power 

Doctors have a level of authority in hospitals where they help their patients to get well. Police officers have a level of authority in their communities where they help to keep their communities safe. Teachers have a level of authority in educational institutions where they help their students to learn. If doctors, police officers, and teachers subordinate themselves and relinquish their positions of authority, they are less able to help the people who need them.

Helping Equals

More often than not, I suspect, we help people who are our equals, our peers, where authority is simply not part of the relationship, and status is not a consideration. For instance, if I choose to mop my friend’s floors and do her laundry because she’s hurt her back, I’m not subordinating myself to her. I’m helping her as a friend.

Marriages can be at this level. Ideally, husbands and wives are equal partners who share the same level of authority and responsibility in their homes, and who, day to day, help each other and defer to each other out of mutual respect and love.

Helping people with more power

Some people do help others with more power. Servants and slaves help their masters and are subordinate to them. And employees help their employers. The level of authority of employers, however, is restricted in healthy societies, and employers and employees are, hopefully, equal in agency outside of work hours. However, according to some, unlike employees, Eve never gets a day off. Some Christians maintain that she is always Adam’s subordinate helper.

We are all Servants

I simply can’t see that helping someone goes hand in hand with subordinating oneself. I would hope that all of us see ourselves as people ready to help, regardless of gender. It bothers me that the idea of unequal power and the language of subordination has been pulled into conversations about Adam and Eve and into conversations about Christian men and women.

Genuine Jesus followers are servants, but the people we help are not our masters. Ultimately, we have only one master (Matt. 23:8-12). We are servants of God. In our service, with perhaps a few exceptions, we do not subordinate ourselves to other people, especially to other Christians, because we all have the exact same status as both servants of God and children of God.

The Bible never asserts that Adam had a greater level of authority or responsibility than Eve. And while wives are directed in a few New Testament passages to be submissive to their husbands, all Christians are directed to be submissive to one another in Ephesians 5:21. (I take the Greek verb hypotassō as having a sense of submission and deference rather than a sense of subordination and subjection in verses that are about the relationships between Christian brothers and sisters.)

I wish all Christians could actively love, care for, and serve each another, and quit the unnecessary and unhelpful obsession with who supposedly has authority and who hasn’t. We must be careful that we do not regard or treat some Christians as though they are either superior or inferior, or of a higher or lower class, than others. All followers of Jesus are equal in being and in purpose.

Notes and References

[1] There is also no sense of subordination in the Septuagint’s excellent translation of ezer kenegdo in Genesis 2:18 and 20. See here.

[2] Raymond C. Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship, Genesis 1-3”, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 86–104, 91. More about Raymond Ortlund’s views on gender in Genesis 2, here.

[3] David J.A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament (JSOTSup, 94; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), 25-48. (Available online here.) More about David Clines’ views on Eve as helper, here.

[4] Douglas J. Moo, “1 Timothy 2:11-15: Meaning and Significance”, Trinity Journal NS (1980), 62-83, 68. More about Moo’s views on the “roles” of men and women and the created order, here.

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