Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Introduction

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper (ezer) corresponding to him.” Genesis 2:18 CSB

Many Christians today rightly understand that the Hebrew word ezer, used in Genesis 2:18 and 2:20, does not have the sense of being lowly or subordinate assistant. Rather ezer (pronounced “ay-zer”) is always used in the Hebrew Bible with the sense of a vital, necessary, strong, and even a rescuing kind of help. The word is usually used of God’s help and occasionally of vital military help.[1]

For some women, it has been freeing to discover that God did not design the woman of Genesis 2 as a lowly assistant for man’s use. For other women, however, the understanding that an ezer is a powerful help makes them feel pressured.

I’ve heard from wives who are anxious that they are somehow not fulfilling their role as an ezer in their marriages. These women usually believe that being an ezer is a uniquely feminine role and that the men in their lives do not have an equal obligation to be “ezers.” Is this really the case?  Is being an ezer, a helper, a distinctly feminine role?

The NET Bible on Ezer in Genesis 2

The word ezer is qualified in verses 18 and 20 of Genesis 2 with the word-phrase kenegdo. Kenegdo means “corresponding (or similar, or equal) to him.” This word-phrase indicates that the woman and man were similar. And while it is not spelt out in the biblical text, it can be inferred that the woman and man were to help each other.

The New English Translation (NET) translates ezer in Genesis 2 as “companion.” “Companion” is not a literal or precise translation of ezer. Nevertheless, the NET translators believe they have captured the overall sense of what God says about the woman in Genesis 2.[2]

Here’s their note where they explain their translation decision. Note the last two lines.

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.
NET Bible Note 57 on Genesis 2 here. (Bold added)

I wish “indispensable companion” was not just in their note, but also in their translation of Genesis 2:18 and 20.

Mutual Help in Marriage

That husbands and wives should help each other is a basic tenet of the Christian faith. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up in 1646, gives a few reasons for marriage but the first reason is this: “Marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife.” (WCF 24.2). Mutual help!

To fulfil God’s plan for humanity, men and women need to work together and help each other. According to Genesis 1, this means sharing the responsibility for procreation and for ruling God’s earth as his regents and stewards (Gen. 1:26–27 cf. Psa. 8:4–8 NIV). For the couple in Eden, it meant serving together in the garden which was a sacred space (Gen. 2:15).[3]

In 1 Corinthians 11:9, Paul alluded to Genesis 2 and reminded the Corinthians that woman was made for man. He wrote this to make a certain point. However, Paul goes on to say that men and women who are “in the Lord” are mutually interdependent (1 Cor. 11:11–12). We need each other. (I have more on 1 Cor. 11:9 here.)

Furthermore, the message of love found throughout the New Testament should tell us that helping others is not a gender role. Helping others is what loving, caring, and considerate people do. And, as Paul points out in his letter to the Romans, “Love is the fulfilment of the Law” (Rom. 13:8).[4]

Ezer is a Masculine Name

If being an ezer was thought to be a uniquely feminine role in Israelite society, we might expect to see this word used in women’s names in the Bible. But this is not the case.

Here are the names of all the people in the Bible who have the noun ezer, or related verb azar, as part of their name: Abiezer, Ahiezer, Azarel, Azariah, Azriel, Azrikam, Azzur, Eleazar, Eliezer, Ezer, Ezra, Ezri, Hadadezer (called Hadarezer in one verse), Hadarezer, Iezer, Lazarus, Romamti-ezer.[5]

Here are the possible meanings of these names based on their etymology:

Abiezer (Abi-ezer): “My father is help/er”
Ahiezer (Ahi-ezer): “My brother is help/er”
Azarel (Azar-el): “God is help/er”
Azariah (Azar-iah): “Yah is help/er”
Azriel (Azri-el): “Help of God”
Azrikam (Azri-kam): “Help rises up”
Azzur: “Helpful, helper”
Eliazar (Eli-azar): “My God is help/er”
Eliezer (Eli-ezer): “My God is helper”
Ezer: “Help, helper”
Ezra: “Help, helper,” but the name may be derived from different words (az + ra’a) meaning “strong vision.”
Ezri: “My help/er”
Hadadezer (Hadad-ezer): “Hadad is a help/er”
Hadarezer (Hadar-ezer): “honour + help” “perhaps, “to help is honourable”?
Iezer (I-ezer): “he will help”
Lazarus/ Lazaros: A Greek version of Eleazar used in the New Testament.
Romamti-ezer: (rum + ezer): “help has risen”

These are all men’s names and Ezer is still a masculine name. For example, Ezer Weisman (1924–2005) was the seventh president of Israel. I couldn’t find any woman’s name in the Bible with ezer in it.

Conclusion

The woman in Eden was created to be an ezer kenegdo. She was made because it was not good for Adam to be alone and, presumably, he needed help in fulfilling the task of caring for the garden in Eden.[6] However, being an ezer is not a gender role―women do not have a special obligation to be helpers. We are all meant to help each other and care for each other depending on the situations we are faced with and depending on our individual abilities.

It is sad that some wives feel pressured, that they are second-guessing their responsibilities and relationships with their husbands because of faulty doctrines that make special demands of women. In everyday life, it is usually enough that spouses are cooperative and are mutually kind, caring, supportive, and helpful.

____________
Footnotes

[1] You can see this for yourself: I’ve quoted every verse that contains the noun ezer at the bottom of my article A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew).

[2] The Jerusalem Targum (written in Aramaic) likewise understands that ezer kenegdo in Genesis 2 is primarily about companionship. It interprets the phrase as “a yoke-fellow, going forth with him” (בַּר זוֹג כַּד נָפִיק בֵּיהּ).

[3] See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 70.

[4] Paul uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff (cf. Col. 3:19). I have more on Paul’s words to wives and husbands, here.

[5] Ebenezer, meaning “a stone of help” (1 Sam. 7:12), and Jazer, meaning “he will help,” are names of places in the Bible.

[6] Caring for the garden is the only ongoing task given in Eden. The woman was made from a part or side taken out from Adam’s body, and we can imagine that the couple then worked together, side by side, caring for the garden, a sacred space. Sex and procreation don’t seem to have been part of the Eden experience. There are none of the usual Hebrew words that refer to sexual relationships in Genesis 2 like we have in Genesis 4:1, 17, and 25, for example. Nevertheless, the man and woman formed a close and exclusive bond. They were a couple, and this was later consummated.

© Margaret Mowczko 2021
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Explore more

Do women have a special obligation to be helpers?
A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew)
A Suitable Helper (in the Septuagint)
Kenegdo: Is the woman subordinate suitable, or similar to the man?
Kenegdo = Equal to Him (Genesis 2:18 & 20)
The Human (Ha’adam), Man (Ish) and Woman (Ishshah) in Genesis 2
Woman Created for Man (1 Cor. 11:9), in a Nutshell
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
All my articles on gender in Genesis 1–3 are here.

being an ezer
I had a lot of fun speaking with Amy and Sarah on this podcast. I spoke a bit about my story and a bit about Phoebe, Priscilla, and Tabitha.
Gotta love the accents!

Listen on the Recovering God Podcast website here, or on Apple Podcasts here. And you can read more about my story here.

26 thoughts on “Being an ezer is not a gender role

  1. Thanks for this. A few months ago I did a word study on ‘ezer’. It appears 21 times in 15 different contexts. One is Gen 2, obviously. In Ezek. 12:14 is in conjunction with soldiers of a prince who is heading into exile: “his staff and all his troops”. So, some suggestion of subordination here – but this is the only case. In Isaiah 30:5 Pharaoh is not an ‘ezer’ who will bring protection. In Daniel 11:34, a little ‘ezer’ is what is to be received by those who stumble.

    In the eleven other contexts – seven of them psalms – ‘ezer’ is used either as a description of God, or the word for what is received from God, and always in the context of protection or deliverance. Hosea 13:9 has “he destroys you, Israel, for you are against me, your helper (‘ezer’).” The word is God’s own description of himself towards Israel – withheld because of their rejection.

    A quick look at some of the places the cognate verb ‘azar’ is used shows that this verb is often used in the context of ‘rescue’ rather than a deputy providing assistance.

    That men have names derived from the ‘ezer’ that God brings is hardly surprising.

    Bringing this to bear on the use in Genesis 2 gives a very different dynamic from that traditionally assumed to the relationship between the adam and the woman taken from his side.

    1. Hi David, I list and quote (in English) every verse in the Bible that contains the noun ezer in this article:
      https://margmowczko.com/a-suitable-helper/
      However, I’m having second thoughts about Psalm 89:17. What are your thoughts on it?

      I’ve also seen that ezer and the verb azar are often used in the context of rescue in the Hebrew Bible. And this sense is found in the Greek translation of these words.
      https://margmowczko.com/a-suitable-helper-in-the-septuagint/
      https://margmowczko.com/every-verse-that-contains-boethos-in-the-septuagint/

      It’s shameful that the understanding of ezer has been minimised and distorted in traditional understandings of Eve as ezer.

  2. Matthew Henry (1662-1714) in his commentary has this rather delightful sentence:

    The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.’

    Was he very advanced for his time, or has this view been buried?

    1. I’ve seen this quotation repeated. I think it’s fairly well-known. But some understand it with a patronising spin.

  3. Thanks. I think this is also helpful for single women too, who can feel like we are not living up to the highest form of being a woman (according to what we’ve been taught in church growing up) because we aren’t in the role of helper in a marriage. It’s good to know that we are all called to help each other.

    1. Thanks, Hannah. It’s sad that some churches seem to view single people, especially single women, as “less than.” This is not how Paul and most people in the early church regarded single people.

  4. Thanks for this article, Marg. It’s really cleared up my questions about my role as a woman. It’s nice to know we are not just existing for men, that we need each other.

    My problem lies in the fact that I am second wife and I have just found out these mutuality truths.

    1. That sounds like a difficult situation, Natalya. I hope you find peace and wisdom and are able to live by at least some mutual principles.
      God bless.

  5. I love this article, Marg! Thank you for all that you do. I will be sending this to my partner, who is, thankfully, very supportive of my aspired vocation and is of the same mindset when it comes to equality in ministry and marriage. I am in my second year at Tyndale University in Toronto studying Theology. Blessings!

    1. All the best with your studies and ministry, Tiffany!

  6. I love this article, it’s cleared up many of my questions! But I wonder: was Eve created last because women have a ‘givable’ nature that makes them more capable of being an ezer to men than men could be to women? Men seem to run after women as if they know how much they need an ezer.

    Thank you

    1. Both stories, the naming-of-the-animals exercise and Eve being created second from a part taken out of the first human’s body, illustrate how necessary the woman was and how compatible she was with Adam.

      Genesis 2 shows how similar the man and woman in Eden were. They were made of the same stuff. It says nothing about different natures.

      Nothing in the Genesis 2-3 Eden stories suggests that Eve had a givable nature unless you take into consideration that Eve gave Adam the forbidden fruit:
      “… she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6).

      In Ephesians 5, Paul tells husbands to love their wives in a giving way (Eph. 5:25 cf. Eph. 5:1-2). Being giveable is a Christian trait. However, in some cultures, women have no option but to be more giveable than men.

      1. Thank you Marg. I understand it shows similarity but I was wondering why there is so much focus on the necessity of woman. It feels like there’s something very special.

        1. It shows that we can’t do things on our own. We need each other. “It’s not good for the human to be alone.”

          1. Ah, that that makes sense. I’m thrilled to find all these things out after hearing garbage from church all the time. Thank you for your faithfulness. Do you have any recommendations for books/resources about these things?

          2. Hi Yvonne, a simple book that’s easy to read and that has relatable anecdotes is Julie Zine Coleman’s 2022 book “On Purpose: Understanding God’s Freedom for Women Through Scripture.” I mention it and another book by Julie here: https://margmowczko.com/unexpected-love-by-julie-zine-coleman/

            For something a bit deeper, I recommend Lucy Peppiatt’s 2019 book “Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women.”
            https://www.amazon.com.au/Rediscovering-Scriptures-Vision-Women-Perspectives/dp/0830852719

            I interpret a few verses differently from Julie and Lucy but their books are excellent.

            The 2021 edition of “Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural, and Practical Perspectives” goes into more depth.
            https://www.amazon.com/Discovering-Biblical-Equality-Theological-Perspectives-dp-0830854797/dp/0830854797/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

            And on this website, I have articles on the relevant scripture passages and more. See my “categories” which is a kind of index

  7. Hi, I was very pleased to find your website, and I’ve registered for updates on the blog. I was wondering, however, whether you’d consider collecting links to your podcast appearances together somewhere? Many thanks.

    1. Hello Mark, I don’t speak on podcasts very often and I’m not so sure I do a good job when I am being interviewed.

      Here are a few links.

      Recovering God
      “Romans 16 Women with Marg Mowczko” (December 2022)
      https://recoveringgodpodcast.buzzsprout.com/732203/11873456-romans-16-women-with-marg-mowczko

      Everyday Disciples
      “Mutuality in the Garden” (August 2022)
      https://open.spotify.com/episode/3pUZbgBysoCcHJNwBAGxPN

      “Mutuality in Marriage” (September 2022)
      https://open.spotify.com/episode/15IZPSQLf09n38ESZDZ8Vo

      The Alabaster Jar
      “Exploring Biblical Egalitarianism with Marg Mowczko” (September 2022)
      It was such an honour to be interviwed by Lynn Cohick, but I was sick that day and a little disappointed with what I said and the sound quality is poor.
      https://www.podbean.com/ew/dir-a73wh-15e657ce

      No Limits: Empowering Women Through Theology
      A talk I gave at a conference in February 2023 on “Paul’s Theology of Ministry” is here:
      https://bwpacific.org/bwp-theological-symposium-2023/
      My talk starts at the 13.45-minute mark in session 2.

      City Women Forum
      “A Biblical Theology That Empowers Women”
      This is a talk I gave at another conference in early May, but I’m not sure if the link will work.
      https://drive.google.com/file/d/1_Blcvz_kYU98toKZGmWRZok2-7hGde0R/view?usp=sharing

      The Bible and Beyond
      “How a Conservative Christian Finds Biblical Justification for the Equality of Women” (November 2020)
      https://earlychristiantexts.com/conservative-christian-finds-biblical-egalitarianism/

      There are some interviews on Youtube too.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WqxkR5KloM

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owt7wFXm19o

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDb9Fh3c7mI

      A short video is here:

      1. Very kind! Thank you.

  8. This … This explanation is all I ever needed on this subject. I wish this explanation was more popular because calling the woman a help meet alone, never sat right with me. Many Christian bloggers and websites have tried to define how powerful an ezer is, in order to make it sound better, but I simply did not care. As long as it wasn’t mutual, I couldn’t stand to hear it. Being a help meet is great but IT HAS TO BE MUTUAL. PERIOD.

    It’s all so bizzare to me. So many Christian websites are telling women that they are born to be a helpmeet to a man and that’s the point of their whole existence … it’s almost disrespectful. That type of mindset sets us back 100 years.

    But Marg I’m grateful for women\persons like you speaking on this subject. Its important. It’s 2023 and women aren’t looking to be oppressed, as well as women who are in Christ.

    Thank u a bunch.

    1. You’re very welcome, ivyne.

  9. In footnote [6]…Sex and procreation don’t seem to have been part of the Eden experience. There are none of the usual Hebrew words that refer to sexual relationships in Genesis 2 like we have in Genesis 4:1, 17, and 25, for example.

    Are you saying that Genesis 1:28’s ‘be fruitful, multiply…’ are not addressing sex and procreation? And if not, what does it address?

    Thank you. Appreciate your work.

    1. Hi Kat, Genesis 1:28 (and Genesis 1:22) is definitely about procreation. Adam and Eve were fruitful and multiplied, they had sex and children, but seemingly not in Eden.

  10. Hi Marg. I was wondering if you have read the book Guardian Angel by Skip Moen. I read it a while back, and basically it didn’t resonate with me, so I didn’t think too much more about it. Yesterday I had a pastor tell me their beliefs about why the woman was created, and it seemed like they were echoing the beliefs in Skip’s book. Essentially that the woman was created specifically to be the protector (guardian) of the man. The book’s description of the woman on the back cover says “Protector, Nourisher, Boundary-Setter, Spiritual Guide.”

    If ezer means a military rescuing kind of help, I’ve been thinking she was “rescuing” him from loneliness. But is there any possibility that the rescuing kind of help is referring to her being an ongoing protector/guardian of him as her primary purpose for existing? I find the thought to be strange. But I don’t want to dismiss the whole notion without hearing your thoughts on it, if any.

    1. Hi Jill, I haven’t read that book. “Protector, Nourisher, Boundary-Setter, Spiritual Guide” is reading a lot into the word ezer, especially considering that we don’t see Eve performing any of these four functions in the Genesis story. I don’t discern these four elements in the narrative.

      Ezer can certainly refer to a military rescuing kind of help, and it is most often used in that context in the Hebrew Bible. But it can refer to vital non-military help also. There were no actual wars or threats of actual violence in Eden.

      Genesis 2 doesn’t simply say that God made the woman as an ezer of, or as an ezer for, the solitary human. It says God made the woman as an ezer like, or similar to, or compatible with, the human.

      The word-phrase kenegdo qualifies how the woman was an ezer.
      https://margmowczko.com/kenegdo-meet-subordinate-suitable-or-similar/

      The NET Bible translates ezer kenegdo as “indispensable companion.” And I like how they explain their translation choice and it’s implicit sense of mutuality. I quote their note in a postscript here:
      https://margmowczko.com/a-suitable-helper/

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