(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

A helper fit for him

I pointed out yesterday that there is no reason to read “he shall rule over you” in Genesis 3:16 as the corruption of an original good andrarchy. In response to this Nigel Dutson asked about the interpretation of Genesis 2:18, where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” He says: “No mention of domineering control to be sure but certainly the idea that woman was created with man’s interest in mind and not vice versa.”

The word for “helper” is ʿēzer. More often than not in the Old Testament it refers to God, who is Israel’s “helper” in times of trouble. For example: “But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay!” (Ps. 70:5). It describes a person who runs to the aid of another in difficulties. It does not signify a person in the position of servant or assistant; nor does it convey the idea of subordination. The “helper” is “an independent person who makes up a significant deficiency or helplessness in the other”.1 The word says more about the unsatisfactory condition of the man than the status of the woman.

The helper must be as a “counterpart” or an “opposite” to the man (kenegdō). The animals, which like Adam are made from the ground, do not meet this requirement, though no reason is given. It seems likely that the phrase looks ahead to the marriage relationship. The woman is a proper “counterpart” to the man because the woman is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”; therefore, “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (2:24). There is a complementarity at work here, but it is sexual rather than hierarchical.

Gordon Wenham thinks that the naming of the woman by the man (2:23) renders her subordinate to him, which he suggests is “an important presupposition of the ensuing narrative”.2 But clearly the subordination of the woman in Genesis 3:16 presupposes not an original hierarchy but the judgment on the woman’s disobedience. Further, nothing in the text suggests that naming establishes authority over that which is named. Something quite different is going on:

In Genesis 1 God ‘names’ the various elements as they are created (vv.5, 8, 10), and in so doing establishes their identity and differentiates between them. In each case the naming accompanies an explicit separation of one element from another. Likewise, by naming the animals (2:19-20) Adam does not demonstrate his rule over them but rather differentiates and identifies each creature in hope of finding one suitable to be a ‘helper’. It is in the process of naming that they are found to be inadequate. The woman, however, is recognized as corresponding to the man and is named accordingly: ‘this one shall be called woman, because this one was taken out of the man’. By naming her Adam marks her out as being fundamentally both different from the animals and related to himself. This is an act of recognition, not of rule; the only advantage he has is that he preceded her.3


Hi Andrew, it’s been awhile. I hope all is well.

In the Old Testament text the man’s rule over the woman is not intrinsic to their natures but is a consequence of disobedience. However, twice Paul predicates man’s authority over woman not on the Fall but on the Creation. In 1 Cor. 11 his is argument is threefold: (1) Man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man (v. 7); (2) woman originates from man, not vice versa; (3) woman was created for man’s sake, not vice versa. Paul puts forward a twofold case in 1 Timothy justifying women’s silent submission to men’s instruction: (1) Adam was created before Eve; (2) not Adam but the woman was deceived, falling into transgression. This last point is an interesting one: Paul is saying that the woman’s proneness to deception preceded and resulted in the Fall. Of course Paul might have been arguing rhetorically, or he might have gotten it wrong…

The idea that Genesis 3 applies to all men and women doesn’t get much airplay in the Old Testament. If we didn’t already have the church’s traditional doctrine of Original Sin in our heads, we could read the Garden text as the story of one particular man and woman who had a falling out with Yahweh. Eve might have been subjected to Adam, but the story doesn’t necessarily imply that men in general are to rule over women in general. What do you think, Andrew: is it time to “de-Greekify” and “re-Hebraize” the interpretation of Genesis 3?

Hi, John, nice to hear from you.

I agree that the order of creation remains important for Paul. But 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 seems to offset that somewhat.

I’ve put forward my understanding of the 1 Timothy passage here.

I think you’d have a hard time claiming that the curses pronounced in Genesis 3:14-19 applied only to this particular couple and this particular serpent, though it’s an interesting thought. Doesn’t the generational conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent suggest that this event stands at the head of humanity?

I do read Genesis 2-3 as a “just so story” intended to explain, among other things, women’s subservience to men in general. Still, the enmity between serpent and woman is the only part of the curse that is explicitly extended to future generations. The text doesn’t seem to carry the “total depravity” burden of the Curse even as far as the next generation. Yahweh tells Cain,

“If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen. 4:7)

I  don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assert that Yahweh believes that Cain could do well, could master sin. Nowhere does the reader get the sense that, because of his parents’ sin, Cain can’t help but kill Abel.