Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18; cf. 2:20).

The English words “helper” and “suitable (for him)” do not adequately express the senses of importance and of mutuality in the Hebrew expression ezer kenegdo which is used in Genesis 2:18 and 20 about the creation of first woman. Rather, these English words come across as mundane and even boring.

What’s more, regardless of what language they are translated into, Genesis 2:18 and 20 have been typically interpreted through the lens of lowly attitudes towards women, attitudes evident in many cultures. This cultural bias has blinded many people to the significance of the description of the first woman, and they have failed to appreciate the kind of help she provided. In this post, I look at two very different ways of looking at Eve as helper.

Augustine

Bishop of Hippo, Doctor of the Church and Latin Father, 354-430

Augustine believed Eve’s help was solely related to procreation, and he seems puzzled by the biblical description of her as Adam’s suitable helper. This is what he wrote in his work with the English title, The Literal Meaning of Genesis:

I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate? De genesi ad literatum 9.5-9 (Italics added)

Yet, according to Genesis 1:27-28, God created and commissioned both women and men for more than procreation. Both were to act as God’s image-bearers and take charge of the animals and rule the earth as his representatives.

Furthermore, unlike Genesis 1, Genesis 2 says nothing about procreation. Rather, the task at hand was to cultivate the earth: “The LORD God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it (Gen. 2:15 CEB).

In interpreting Genesis 2:18 and 20, Augustine was looking more at his own culture than at the biblical text, a culture where women were regarded as inferior to men and were very much limited in how they could contribute to society.

David J.A. Clines

Biblical scholar and emeritus professor at the University of Sheffield, b. 1938

David Clines is a scholar who is committed to feminism.[1] Nevertheless, he largely agrees with Augustine’s view of the role of Eve. He believes her help was to have children and not help in farming.

In his chapter What Does Eve Do to Help?[2], Clines discusses Eve’s help and says, “We never actually see Adam tilling the ground, so we cannot tell for sure whether Eve has been lending him a hand. But since nothing in the narrative says it, we doubt it …”

Clines’ arguments against Eve tilling the earth include the punishments given in Genesis 3: “Adam is sentenced for his guilt to sweat over his work on the land and to struggle with thorns and thistles, and not Eve.”

Unlike what Clines asserts, I cannot see that the respective punishments for Adam and for Eve signify that Adam tilled the earth on his own without any help from Eve, either before or after the first sin, or that Eve went through childbirth on her own without Adam’s help and support. Furthermore, Genesis 5 tells us that Adam was 130 years old when he had his son, Seth, who seems to be their third son. Even if she had a few daughters as well, what has Eve been doing all these years? It is difficult to accept Cline’s proposition that for decades on end “she is inside having children while Adam is out there sweating and struggling with the soil.”

Clines also believes that only the directive to procreate, given in Genesis 1:27-28, applies to women, while all of them apply to men. He states, “God regards Eve as primarily a child-bearing creature,” and that childbearing is “the one thing she has been created to do.” And he further notes, “Woman’s function as childbearer is denoted by her name Life, Eve.” If childbearing was her only role, however, why isn’t the woman identified immediately or earlier in the narrative as “Eve”?

Eve is primarily identified as a mother in Genesis 3:20, and Adam is identified primarily as a farmer/gardener Genesis 3:23, and the consequences for their disobedience further confirms this (Gen. 3:16-19). But, I strongly disagree that Eve’s one and only role was to procreate, any more than Adam’s one and only role was to cultivate the ground.[3]

Kenneth E. Bailey

New Testament scholar, seminary professor, and linguist, 1930-2016.

Kenneth Bailey has commented on Eve’s function as helper, and has an entirely different take on her status and her help compared with that of Augustine and Clines. In his book Paul through Mediterranean Eyes, Bailey, who does not mention procreation at all, writes,

It was not Eve who was lonely, unable to manage and needed help. Instead, it was Adam who could not manage alone. Eve was then created as an ‘ezera [feminine of ezer]. The Hebrew word ‘ezer is often used for God when God comes to help or save Israel. … The word ‘ezer does not refer to a lowly assistant but to a powerful figure who comes to help/save someone who is in trouble. … Women, as descendants of Eve, are placed by God in the human scene as the strong who come to help/save the needy (the men). (Bailey’s italics.)[4]

The woman was created to be a strong and able companion for the man. Moreover, within this piece of the creation narrative, there is nothing that specifies how the woman helped apart from alleviating the human’s aloneness by joining him and being united with him in an exclusive relationship (Gen. 2:24).[5]

It is remarkable how different Bailey’s understanding of Eve’s function as ezer kenegdo is compared to that of Augustine and Clines.

What did Eve do to Help?

Genesis 2 says nothing about procreation being an issue. Rather, God himself states, “It is not good for the human to be alone.” God highlights the problem with the naming-of-the-animals exercise that made the human acutely aware that there was no creature on earth that was a kenegdo, his equal and corresponding partner (Gen. 2:18-20).

As soon as God introduced the newly-formed woman to the man, the problem was solved. The man was no longer alone. He had a companion who was perfectly compatible with him.

Despite what some may suggest, there is no mention of permanent or fixed gender roles in Genesis 2. And nothing in Genesis 2 or 3 implies that the woman continues to be primarily identified or defined as Adam’s helper. Likewise, the man does not continue to be identified or defined by his task of naming the animals.

The scriptures give us no reason to think that Eve’s station in life was marked by a one-sided help or service to her husband, or that Adam’s station in life was to receive his wife’s help without also helping her. Furthermore, the idea that women are to help men, but men are not to help women, flies in the face of both common sense and the repeated New Testament teaching that we are to love one another. Surely, an obvious expression of loving someone is helping them. Helping someone is not a gender role.

Augustine was wrong. Men do need women, women who have been given the freedom to learn and develop as capable human beings and explore their potential. And women need men. We need each other. The apostle Paul understood this and, alluding to Genesis 2, he stated, “In the Lord, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (1 Cor. 11:11). Mutuality between men and women, and not a gender hierarchy or inflexible roles, is the social paradigm for those who are “in the Lord.”

Footnotes

[1] Clines regards the Bible as sexist and he argues that the Hebrew Bible was written by men, and for men, and is about a male God. (Much of the Bible is andro-centric, in that it largely focuses on male characters, but this does not mean women do not have the same status as their brothers in the New Covenant community of God’s people.) Despite Clines’ assertion that the God of the Hebrew Bible is “a thoroughly male god,” he acknowledges in his paper Alleged Female Language about the Deity in the Hebrew Bible that ”the prophet does indeed use the image of a woman in his depiction of Yahweh” in Isaiah 42:14. And in Isaiah 66:13, God acts “like a mother.” (Cline’s italics.) Source: Academia.edu My article Is God Male or Masculine? here.

[2] All quotations in this section are taken from What Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament (JSOTSup, 94; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), 25-48. This chapter is available on Academia.edu here.
In this chapter, Clines also states, “To say, for example, that women as well as men are created as the image of God is to move beyond the horizon of the text.” I believe, however, Genesis 1:26ff does tell us that both women and men are created in the image of God. Genesis 1:26-28 tells us that men and women at creation had the same status, the same authority, and the same purpose.

[3] In Genesis 2, Adam was given the task of naming the animals, a task he completed (Gen. 2:18-20).

[4] Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 310.

[5] Fifty years ago, Derek Kidner said this about Adam and Eve and their “roles” in Genesis 2:18-25:

The naming of the animals, a scene which portrays man as monarch of all he surveys, poignantly reveals him as a social being, made for fellowship, not power; he will not live until he loves, giving himself away (Gen. 2:24) to another on his level [cf. Eph. 5:1-2, 25, 28-29, 31]. So the woman is presented wholly as his partner and counterpart; nothing is yet said of her as childbearer. She is valued for herself alone.
Derek Kidner, Genesis (TOTC) (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 65. (Source).
Read selected statements about Adam and Eve, taken from Kidner’s commentary, at Enough Lighthere.

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Related Articles

A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew)
A Suitable Helper (In Greek)
Kenegdo: Is the woman subordinate, suitable or similar to the man?
Do women have a special obligation to be helpers?
1 Corinthians 11:9, in a Nutshell
Is a gender hierarchy implicit in the creation narrative of Genesis 2:4-25?
The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration

17 thoughts on “Three Scholars with Two Views on Eve’s Role as Helper

  1. I wouldn’t listen to anything Augustine says, especially about sex. Millions of people for centuries have been sexually repressed because a teenage Augustine was embarrassed about having an erection in a public bath.

    1. I was disappointed that a book I wanted to read used the term “Augustinian marriage”. Since when are the teachings of Augustine the benchmark of a godly or Christian marriage? I’m not a fan of the man!

      1. It would be like listening to Solomon talk about marriage. He had hundreds of women! I couldn’t believe it when our pastor gave a sermon on marriage and used Solomon as a positive role model. I guess we are all flawed. If we had to be perfect before we could speak, no one could say anything. Still, I don’t understand why anyone uses Augustine or someone like Solomon to discuss relations between women and men. I’m so confused.

        1. I’m with you, Debbie.

          1. what i find so telling about Augtustine’s comment is that he was speaking from what he knew about the times he lived in. In his day men tilled the fields and women stayed home with the children —there was little else in society for the average man men or woman to attain to. so taking the only facts he knew he came to the conclusion that women would not be much help in a field and other men made more interesting pals to talk with……

            —–the same happens today when those Westerners who say patriarchy is God’s will and command for genders…they were raised in modern times in the western world and thanks to gurus like Bill Gothard are pushing a 50’s style life (men at work and women at home) as “God’s best and only gender roles. They fail to see that just 10 years before women were working in factories because men were at war.

            They also fail to see how other cultures live, especially 3rd world countries where home is little more than a 1 room shack and all the family works in the fields and women walk long distances to market carrying baskets on their heads.

          2. Augustine was totally letting society’s views of women influence how he understood scripture. We all do to some extent. It is unavoidable but, if possible, we need to educate ourselves and see what the Bible is really saying.

            When I became a Christian at about 10 years of age, I started reading the Bible immediately. I read it every day, and I thought the churches in the New Testament were like the church I attended because I didn’t know any better. Church life in the first century was nothing like church life for most of us today! So I wasn’t getting an accurate understanding of several Bible passages.

  2. Great article, I’m not familiar with Augustine or any of the scholars you mentioned but I don’t agree on women created to be so strong to save needy men anymore than the other way around. I think God created both to be strong. As helper/ezer God created Eve to be a suitable make who was like him in which they were both of the same species as human beings unlike the animals and she was to be equal in value as a companion to complement him.

    God Bless

    1. Hi CT, I wouldn’t have been game to word the statement as Bailey did, but I don’t think he is incorrect. I also don’t think he implies that Adam was weak. However, Adam did need Eve, so in that respect he was needy.

      It was not good for the man to be alone. It’s not good for anyone to be alone. I’m sure the woman needed the man just as much as the man needed the woman. However, this article is on Eve’s role as helper.

      Paul alluded to the Genesis 2 story and said that men and women are mutually dependent on each other (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

      1. I wonder if God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” because Adam needed a strong helper to serve & guard (cultivate & keep) the garden?

        I’ve read 2 complementarian scholars recently (Aimee Bryd & G.K. Beale) who believe that only Adam was supposed to a priest & protective guard, not Adam & Eve together.

        1. Hi Elizabeth,
          Adam is never referred to as a “priest” in the Bible. Furthermore, the fact that both men and women are referred to as God’s image-bearers in Genesis 1 seems to indicate that the priestly activity of acting as God’s regents is a role for men and women.

          Also, Genesis 1 tells us that both men and women are given the role of ruling God’s creation, particularly the animals. So, I think it’s more than likely that both Adam and Eve were to cultivate and keep the garden together once Eve was on the scene.

  3. With regard to the article and the defining of gender roles I believe we waste far to much time and effort trying to sort out who does what. We are created beings who have equal roles in life. God created us so that we could share the burden of life together, not as individuals but as one couple under God. As a man I have certain strengths and attributes, equally my wife has strengths and attributes that I do not have. Together we are we become one as God intended us to become.

    1. I agree, Michael. And roles can change over time and as new situations arise. Pigeon-holing people into roles is both unbiblical and impractical.

  4. My wife, Irene (‘peace’.., d. June 1, 2017 age 82) a great teacher and preacher of the Word of God, had a great comment on the term “roles”… , “Roles… shmoles… Let ’em come out fom under their rock.” She also taught that God’s word in Genesis 3:16 as being descriptive rather than prescriptive… She used 4:1, “I have gotten a man “with” the Lord… (better Hebrew) to teach that here God is here first seen as Immanuel. She referred to Adam as “that man” or “Bubba”, based on his weaseling-out with God at Gen. 3:12, i.e., “…the woman You gave me…” Irene thought that Adam/Bubba would miss it when Eve, baffled by the elements of pregnancy: the first copulation, the nausea and barfing, the change of body shape, etc…, indeed, the general overwhelming nine months of difficulty to the extent she would call/implore Adam for help, “…help me…”, and he would pull a classic male power trip and deny her… She had no mother, older sister, aunt or grandmother to tell her what was going on… Sooooo, she called upon the Lord… and He did His thing… He was a very real help in time of trouble… and he was “nice” to her as well… He was God ‘with’ her… The term “rule”, at Gen 3: 16 is יִמְשָׁל־ , Strong’s number 4910, Heb. verb, qual imperfect, ma-shal, to rule, have dominion over, to reign, is used 81 in the KJV and very consistent in it’s connotation. It is a rugged word… ranging from strong to harsh… dominion (1), gain control (1), govern (1), had charge (1), have authority (1), master (1), obtain dominion (1), really going to rule (1), rule (27), ruled (5), ruler (18), ruler’s (2), rulers (6), rules (9), ruling (3), wielded (1).

    1. Hi Russell,

      I agree with your wife: roles …shmoles. I also agree that Genesis 3:16 is not prescriptive.

      1. Marg, Before you are, she is…

        She was so happy to see your generation come along and go to school and take on the good old boys… She got a kick out of saying she was so glad to be a son of Abraham… and a CO-heir of Christ…

        She was impatient with the feminists, saying they were right for all the wrong reasons… She was an ardent evangelical. For her the genesis theology was what it was all about… “Let Us make man(kind) in our image.” She would yoke that together with Galatians 3:27 – 29, “… When she heard me break out “There is neither Jew nor Greek,there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male AND female… she instantly knew that God got it right from he git-go… She would push it a bit and preach it up,”… ye are all one (and the same) in Christ… Then weave in Ephesians 2:15, “one new man…, saying if the Jew and gentile are so then the females and males also..”

        She would usually close with 2:17, “and preached peace…”, good for the two cultures and good for the waring sexes and struggling marriages… God, how I miss her…

        Oh yeah, of course one time a poor guy was arguing that women weren’t tough enough to serve in the military… Irene set Jael after him. Hulda and Deborah as well as Miriam were up front and ready when it was thought that women couldn’t speak for God… She had a play of the names of Hulda, “mole”, and the “honey bee”, Deborah… Our suburban Bible study merged with an inner-city study which was mostly black. How those sisters used to love to hear her preach…

  5. I read an online paper that said Adam’s creation was creational while Eve’s creation was eschatological. Eve’s creation was meant to move human progress forward to fulfill the dominion mandate of Gen. 1:26-27 which Adam could not do on his own. Without Eve, Adam stagnates and goes nowhere. I thought that was a great way of looking at it.

    1. I’m not sure about the supposed creational and eschatological differences, but there is no doubt that Adam needed Eve. And once she was around, Eve needed Adam.

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