A Narrow View of “Helper”
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 woman in Eden. Many people have thought the word implied that this woman, and all women in general, were designed by God to be nothing more than auxiliaries, or 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.
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 consistently used in the Old Testament in the context of vitally important and powerful acts of rescue and support.
How ezer is used in the Old Testament
The noun ezer is used twenty-one times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Twice it is used in the context of the woman in Eden. Three times it is used of people helping (or failing to help) in life-threatening situations. Sixteen times it is used in reference to God as a helper. (Scroll down to see every Bible verse that contains ezer.) These biblical texts are talking about a vital and powerful kind of help. Yet when ezer is applied to the 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.”
Robert Alter, a renowned expert on Hebrew literature and language, highlights the implicit strength in the word ezer. In a comment on Genesis 2:18 he writes, “‘Help’ is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.” Alter translates ezer kenegdo as a “sustainer beside him.”
That ezer can have a sense of strength and rescue is seen in Exodus 18:4. Here we are told 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!
Ezer describes aspects of God’s character: he is our strength, our rescuer, our protector, and our help! And ezer is the word God used to describe the woman in Eden. Eve was someone who would give vital help to Adam.
The word ezer in Hebrew letters.
The letters, reading from right to left, are ayin, zayin, and resh.
Ezer is pronounced “ay-zer.”
Not just an ezer, an ezer kenegdo
The word ezer is qualified by the word kenegdo in both Genesis 2:18 and 20. Kenegdo, sometimes 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. (More on kenegdo here.)
Ezer kenegdo—”a helper suitable for him”—is used in reference to the woman in Genesis 2 without any narrow qualifications, prescribed limits, or cultural restrictions. It is not specified in Genesis 2 how the woman was to express and apply her help towards her husband. Presumably, it was to alleviate the man’s solitude and partner with him in tending the garden, a sacred space. And together they could fulfil the commission given to humanity in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”
Unfortunately, too many people have presumed that the woman’s role was to be subordinate or 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.
Scroll further down to see every Bible verse that contains ezer.
 At the time that Eve was formed, she did not have children and may not even have had a household to run. So her help cannot have been related to household chores. Adam, however, had been given the task of tending the Garden of Eden. So we can imagine that Eve joined in that task. More about Eve’s help here.
 According to R. David Freedman, the word ezer is a combination of two roots, meaning “to rescue/to save” and “strength.” 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 ḏ 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.”
 Here are the three verses where ezer refers to people helping or failing to help. In each verse, the situation is life-threatening.
1. In Isaiah 30:5, the Egyptian forces are useless and are unable to help Judah. (A participle built on the related verb azar is used in Ezekiel 30:6 for the Egyptian forces that failed to help Judah when Assyria attacked Judah in the late eighth century BCE.)
2. In Ezekiel 12:14 NKJV, God promises to scatter to the wind the Prince of Judah (Zedekiah), his helpers (his bodyguards?), and his troops. Without his helpers and his soldiers to protect him, the prince will be destroyed. Zedekiah and his soldiers initially escaped, but Zedekiah was captured and blinded (Jer. 39:5–7; 52:7; cf. Ezek. 6:14).
3. Daniel 11:34 is about the lethal power of Antiochus Epiphanes IV who wreaks havoc on God-fearing Jews in Judea. During this time of persecution, the prudent Jews will receive a little help, or some deliverance. (Some have suggested that it is the Maccabees who are the helpers/ deliverers.)
 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 singles out the Holy Spirit. (Check here also.) I’ve written about Eve and the Holy Spirit as helpers, here.
 John H. Walton, Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 176.
 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) 22. (Google Books)
 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. See the postscript below. (A short article on 1 Corinthians 11:9 is here.)
 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. A significant part of the first woman was “taken out” of the first human (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, not of hierarchy. 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 equal and rule over nature (and not each other) together (Gen. 1:26–28). Mutuality, or equality, is also God’s ideal in the New Creation which, as his redeemed children, we are already a part of.
 John Walton argues credibly that the man and woman together cared for the garden in Eden, which was “more sacred space than green space” and had more to do with “divine presence than human paradise.” John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 116. Walton, among others, believes there was a priestly dimension to their role in the garden
Every “Ezer” Verse in the Hebrew Bible
Here is every Bible verse that contains the noun ezer. Note that although there may be nothing implicit in the word ezer that suggests a military context, most of these verses are about being rescued (or not rescued) from hostile armed forces.
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 Update: the Hebrew word used here is oz (עֹז) which is not ezer but may have some relation to ezer.
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 nor 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
© Margaret Mowczko 2010
All Rights Reserved
Image via Pixabay
Postscript: May 11, 2020
Ezer is an “Indispensable Companion”
The NET Bible translates ezer as “companion” and gives this explanation in a note.
The English word “helper,” because it can connote so many different ideas, does not accurately convey the connotation of the Hebrew word עֵזֶר (ʿezer). Usage of the Hebrew term does not suggest a subordinate role, a connotation which English “helper” can have. In the Bible God is frequently described as the “helper,” the one who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, the one who meets our needs. In this context the word seems to express the idea of an “indispensable companion.” The woman would supply what the man was lacking in the design of creation and logically it would follow that the man would supply what she was lacking, although that is not stated here.
Read the full NET note, 57, here.
The Jerusalem Targum (written in Aramaic) likewise understands that ezer in Genesis 2 is primarily about companionship. It interprets the phrase ezer kenegdo as “a yoke-fellow, going forth with him” (בַּר זוֹג כַּד נָפִיק בֵּיהּ).
“A Suitable Helper” (in the Greek Septuagint)
Kenegdo: Is the woman in Genesis 2 subordinate, suitable or similar to the man?
Kenegdo = “Equal to Him” (Genesis 2:18, 20)
Ezer Kenegdo does not mean “a helper subordinate to him”
Being an Ezer is not a Gender Role
Do women have a special obligation to be helpers?
Three Scholars with Two Views on Eve’s Role as “Helper”
The Holy Spirit and Eve as Helpers
Human (Ha’adam), Man (Ish) and Woman (Ishshah) in Genesis 2
Teshuqah: The Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3
More articles on Gender in Genesis 1–3