A funny thing going around the internet these days is this post about the 10 types of women Christian men shouldn’t marry. I’m not going to deal with all the craziness there. I just want to talk about one word; “helper.” This guy uses Genesis 2:18 to argue that women should have less authority than men because they are to be “helpers” to their husbands.
In this passage, God says he will make a “suitable helper” for man (that’s how the NASB translates the phrase). Adam looks at all the animals and can’t find a suitable helper, so God builds him one.
The King James Bible translates the words as “help meet.” The Hebrew words are ezer kenegdo (עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּ). Kenegdo means something like “suitable” in this passage. Maybe. The root word, neged, can also mean lots of different things like “over against” or “before.” But the more interesting word here is ezer (עֵזֶר), “helper.” It can be a bit offensive these days to say a wife should simply be her husband’s helper. So some translations offer “partner” instead. But that really isn’t what the Hebrew says.
So, is that it then? Is the wife, from the moment of creation, her husband’s household helper? Does she just help out around the house? Or is she more like the Robin to his Batman? Or, worse, the Alfred to his Bruce Wayne? Actually, I’m not sure which of those is worse. I’d probably rather be Alfred than Robin. Anyway.
Interestingly, ezer is one of the many Hebrew words that’s made its way into English as a first name. Charles Dickens gave one of his most famous characters the strong Hebrew name, Ebenezer. This word means “Stone of help.” We often sing this word in the song “Come Thou Fount” when we declare “Here I raise mine Ebenezer.” The image is drawn from the Old Testament passage where Samuel sets up a big rock and calls it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
God is often described as ezer throughout scripture. One of my favorite passages that uses this word is at the end of Deuteronomy 33 where Moses blesses the tribes of Israel with these words:
“There is none like the God of Jeshurun,
Who rides the heavens to your help,
And through the skies in His majesty.
The eternal God is a dwelling place,
And underneath are the everlasting arms;
And He drove out the enemy from before you,
And said, ‘Destroy!’
So Israel dwells in security,
The fountain of Jacob secluded,
In a land of grain and new wine;
His heavens also drop down dew.
Blessed are you, O Israel;
Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord,
Who is the shield of your help
And the sword of your majesty!
So your enemies will cringe before you,
And you will tread upon their high places.”
The Lord God rides the heavens to help (ezer) Israel and he is their shield of help (ezer). Ezekiel warns that Israel will be utterly destroyed without the Lord’s help. Quite often, the “help” offered in scripture is not that of a servant but of a rescuer, a savior.
Now, I’m NOT saying that the writer of Genesis had “salvation” in mind in Genesis 2. I’m not even saying this is the best translation. There are plenty of instances of a much more mundane kind of ezer. But, in light of what we know about the vocation of marriage, we ought to know that the help a wife offers to her husband is anything but mundane.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the Sacraments of Holy Orders and Matrimony are both “directed towards the salvation of others” (CCC 1534). For husbands and wives, this “other” is their spouse. We help each other pursue Christ and learn to love selflessly and graciously.
There’s a lot of awesome stuff in that passage in Genesis 2. The one flesh becoming two but then joining back together as one. The compatibility and completion of men and women. The purpose of marriage. So, it would be a shame to downplay this passage. But it would also be a shame to relegate women to a lesser role because of a poor reading of a single passage.
So, yes, my wife IS my helper. And, as a husband, part of my vocation is to help her, too. But we’re not “helping” each other to clean the house or fight crime (I wish). We’re helping each other work out our salvation!