Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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, 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.

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 one, this means sharing the responsibility for procreation and for ruling God’s earth as his regents and stewards (Gen. 1:26–27). For the couple in Eden, it meant serving together in the garden which was a sacred space (Gen. 2:15).[2]

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. (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).[3]

Ezer is a Masculine Name

If being an ezer was thought to be a uniquely feminine role in Bible times, and by people who understood the word ezer, we might expect to see this word used for, or in, women’s names in the Bible.

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.[4]

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
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.[5] 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 are feeling pressured and are second-guessing their roles in marriage and their 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 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] See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 70.

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

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

[5] 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.

12 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. Hi Marg,
    This is very ezer to me.

    I like David Wilson’s take on ezer (above): ” ‘ezer’ is used either as a description of God, or the word for what is received from God, ….”

    Eve was created to be an ezer to adam because he was lə·ḇad·dōw (alone). The root word for alone is “bad” in the Hebrew. It was not good for adam to be “bad”.

    Paul Young says that the primary definition of “bad” is separation and that aloneness is not a good translation. He believes that Adam was already in his separation and that’s why he needed ezer . Adam was never alone before his separation – the Trinity was always present.

    Paul Young brings this out at the 31 minute mark of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZAi_VNdqs4 This whole video is an amazing interpretation of the Genesis 2 account and places women and the gospel in interesting light.

    Happy New Year.

    1. The primary sense of the Hebrew word בּד-bad is “separateness.” If you are alone, you are separate or apart from human companionship. I think “alone” is a fine translation of בּד-bad in Genesis 2:18.

      I recommend looking at what BDB says about the Hebrew word here: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h905/kjv/wlc/0-1/

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