Seminarian N.C. Harrison offers a reading of scripture that presents women as allies rather than helpers or servants.
“So the person gave names to all of the livestock, to the birds of the air and all of the wild animals. But for Adam there was not found an ezer suitable for helping him.” Genesis 2:20.
The interpretation of this verse, in which the word ezer is often translated “helper” or, in the venerable King Jame’s Bible “help meet,” has often been used for the purposes of mischief across the years, decades and even centuries. Those who propose that they hold to “tradition” have wielded it as a club in order to beat women into a subservient position to men, a position which they consider proper. Critics who have examined the word and seen only the shackles that these previous interpreters imposed, ignoring the unique, historical strength of women, have used it as a proof text for sexism inherent in the Torah.
It is likely that neither of these interpretations is fully correct. The first one, as it condones the dominance of one being created in Imago Dei over another, fails on internal grounds when the verse is telescoped against Acts 10:34 and Romans 10:12 in the New Testament and against Deuteronomy 1:17 and 16:19 in the Torah. The second view, though it is noble for criticizing the problematic first view, fails on external grounds for failing to examine fully the poetic potential of the word ezer in the context of the surrounding verses.
The literal meaning of Genesis 2:20 is, as with many verses in Abrahamic Scripture, relatively straightforward. The Man of Red Clay, whom ADONAI has shaped and breathed life into, has examined the creation into which he is situated. The animals under his care are named and his first job is complete but he is lonely. Though he cares for the animals like a good steward should, none of them is found suitable to be his life’s companion.
Unwilling to see His creation suffer, ADONAI placed him into a deep sleep, drew out one of his ribs and formed it into a complementary creature, made also thus of red clay and in His own image. He named it Woman, Eve or Isha–depending on what text you read or who you are–and, upon awakening, the Man of Red Clay proclaimed that she was a part of him, he a part of her, and that their fates would be bound for eternity.
The words used in the account of the Lord’s creation of the Woman are one’s first clue as to the depth of metaphorical meaning inherent in this tale. Ezer, the word so often translated as “helper,” might in some instances better be translated as “ally,” “companion” or even by the phrase “one who stands beside in a time of need.” This is underscored by the source of the flesh from which ADONAI drew as He operated upon the Man of Red Clay. Although “rib,” “side,” “ally” and “helper” do not sound much alike in the English language, tzela and ezer in Hebrew make the relationship between the two much clearer. One cannot read the terms in this manner without understanding that the two companions are meant to be joined at the hip, to borrow a modern phrase, walking side-by-side instead of one in front of the other. This idea only deepens when the Man of Red Clay refers to his Isha as “bone of my bone” or, in Hebrew etzem. This word, which again links phonically and sonically–as the Torah is meant to be read aloud–to both ezer and tzela has the connotation, in Hebrew, of being what cuts to the heart of the matter. The Red Clay Man is therefore saying, in this small phrase, that the concerns and the very matter at the core of his being are those at the core of the Isha’s being and vice versa.
Ezer is used, also, at various other places throughout Scripture and never in a subservient position. It is said that ADONAI was the ezer of one delivered from the sword of the pharaoh in Exodus 18:4 and, again, the Lord is the ezer and shield or ezer and deliverer of Israel in Psalm 33:20 and 70:5. None of these could describe one who is in a subservient position. One can also see, when one looks at truly healthy relationships as presented in the Scriptures of both Israel and early Christianity, that friendship and mutual respect and kindness were the goals. Ruth and Boaz, for example, built a life together based on these, as did Solomon and the one who was Dark But Lovely, the Lily Among Thorns, the Shulamite and, in the New Testament, Miriam and Yosef. Even in the realm of friendship, instead of romantic affection, one can look at the relationships which developed between Yeshua and Miriam, Martha and Lazarus of Beth Ani (two sisters and a brother He was close to) or the friendship between the Apostle Paul and Phoebe of Rome as presented in Romans 16:1-2. Even the Lord Himself, when seeking to send a Messiah, did not just speak Him into being but chose, instead, to have Him be born and raised by a human alma (young woman, as described by Isaiah 7:14) who grew up to be a human isha. If there could be any more eloquent a statement of equality and respect in relationship, I cannot think of it.
As a final note, I am once again unsure if any grand conclusions can be drawn from this article. Although I am not yet married, and have had some truly strange and less than happy experiences with relationships in my life, I am not quite ready to give up yet. Perhaps one day this simple being of red clay and dusty will find an isha to stand by his side.
Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder – Adam und Eva im Paradies (Sündenfall) – Wikipedia