June 13, 2015 • Life for Leaders
Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.'”
When I was a young Christian, I remember hearing that a wife was to be a “helpmeet” to her husband. I thought that sounded strange and I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. In my juvenile understanding, I heard the word as “help-meat.” Perhaps wives were to help their husbands by preparing the meat for dinner. At any rate, I did get the sense that “helpmeet” meant something like “junior assistant.” The “helpmeet” wife did menial labor under the authority of her superior husband.
In my boyhood, I did not know that the odd word “helpmeet” comes from Scripture, from Genesis 2:18, in fact. The King James Version of this verse reads, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” When “help” and “meet” are blurred together, you get “helpmeet.”
In my youth, I also had no idea about the Hebrew words that lay behind “help” and “meet.” Later in life, after I had studied Hebrew in graduate school, I did a careful investigation of the original language of Genesis 2:18. I found that the word translated as “help” is ‘ezer. Occasionally, in the Hebrew Bible, it is a name. But, mainly, it appears 21 times as a noun, with the basic meaning of “help.” So the idea that the woman is a subordinate assistant to the husband in charge seems at first linguistically possible.
However, a close study of the 21 uses of ‘ezer in the Hebrew Bible points in a completely different direction. Nine times, the text identifies God as our ‘ezer, as in Psalm 33:20, “Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help [‘ezer] and shield.” Six times, ‘ezer refers to assistance that God gives to us (see Psalm 20:1, for example). Three times, ‘ezer is used for help that comes from a stronger human being (Daniel 11:24). Only once in Scripture is ‘ezer used for someone who advises a superior in rank (Ezek 12:14).
Thus, when God says he will make an ‘ezer, it is highly unlikely that God envisions the woman as man’s junior assistant. If anything, the obvious sense of ‘ezer would be that of a person of superior wisdom or strength. When my children were young, I was their ‘ezer when I helped them do homework they couldn’t understand or when I carried their suitcases that weighed more than they did. We might get the sense of Genesis 2:18 if we think of God looking down upon the solitary man and saying, “That guy needs some serious help!”
Given the meaning of ‘ezer throughout Scripture, we might even wonder if God meant for the woman to be the man’s superior. I’ll consider this possibility in Monday’s Life for Leaders devotional. For now, I’d encourage you to reflect on how you understand Genesis 2:18 and how this makes a difference in your relationships, especially those with the opposite sex.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Have you ever heard the word “helpmeet”? If so, what did it convey to you?
How does the biblical use of the word ‘ezer affect your reading of Genesis 2:18?
How do you envision God’s ideal for male-female relationships in the workplace? In the family? In church? In the world?
Gracious God, we would begin in prayer today by thanking you for being our help. You are indeed our help and our shield (Ps 33:18). When we wonder where our help comes from, we know that our help comes, not from the hills, but from you, the one who made heaven and earth (Ps 121:1-2). When you are our help, then we rejoice (Ps 146:5). So we praise you, O God, our help, our strong deliverer, our shield and protector.
We need your help now, Lord, to understand rightly what you intend in the relationship between man and woman. So much has been said and written about this. So many positions have been staked out and defended. So much has been built upon the shifting sand of inaccurate biblical understanding. So, dear Lord, be our help. Show us your truth. Give us open hearts and responsive minds to you, because you are indeed our Help. Amen.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.