Last week, I published a blog post on the dangers of purity culture. I briefly touched on my experience with that culture. I also went deeper into why purity culture is so harmful and where it strays from the gospel. Today’s post is kind of a follow up, but most certainly stands on its own as well. I want to address a particular word that is often used in purity culture and most conservative circles of Christianity: helpmeet. This word is one that is hard to define, much less understand. I have heard numerous interpretations of the word itself, although, interestingly enough, there is no Hebrew equivalent.
A large chunk of my fellow believers that I am friends with and/or dialogue with regularly grew up reading the King James Version of the Bible. The word “helpmeet” came from this translation. It appears in the Bible twice, but both instances take place very close together, in Genesis 2:18-20. The verses in the KJV read as follows: And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.
This passage tends to be more well-known, as it tells the story of how God provided Eve for Adam. These verses (and the following verses) are frequently used to demonstrate God’s model for marriage: one man married to one woman, for life. These verses are also often used as part of the model for complimentarianism. Complimentarianism has many nuances, but the basic idea is that the husband is the head of the home and the wife must submit to her husband’s leadership. This is a very basic definition of this belief. There is a lot more to it that I will go into, although some things I will not. I am a complimentarian, however, like Christianity itself, complimentarianism has a spectrum. It is extremely important to note that just because someone is a complimentarian does not mean that they hold a biblical view of marriage. Purity culture is a direct result of the harmful side of complimentarianism. There is much more I could say about that, but today I want to focus on building a biblical view of marriage, and what it means to be what the King James translates as “helpmeet.”
Like any good Bible scholar, I want to turn your attention to the Hebrew. I am doing my best to keep my discussion of the Hebrew as easy to understand as possible. When I finish and publish my book, if you happen to read it, you will find a more in-depth and technical discussion on the Hebrew words that were translated “helpmeet” in the King James. For the purposes of this blog post, I am backing off the technical talk and keeping things focused on the implications of the technicalities.
Hebrew is hard. But (at least to me) not for the reasons you’d think. In many ways, there was an ease to learning Hebrew that simply was not there when I was taking Greek. Maybe it’s because I already had experience learning a dead language. But there was more to it than that: Hebrew follows the rules. And when it doesn’t, it has rules about how it doesn’t follow the rules. It is beautiful.
What makes Hebrew extra hard, though, is translating the dang language. The word that follows and is translated with ezer, kenegdo is a perfect example of this. In my book, I go in depth about the complexities of this word. But what you simply need to know right now is that kenegdo and words like it can be frustrating to translate. It’s very easy to miss the forest for the trees with these words, or even vice versa.
So why am I telling you this? What does it matter to a layman how difficult it may or may not be to translate a Hebrew word? First, because kenegdo describes ezer. Thus, the translation of these words directly relate to each other. Second, because kenegdo is the word the King James translators could have translated better. The word ezer is translated either “help” or “helper” in every instance it shows up in the Old Testament. A word study of ezer is important to help us understand the implications of this word. But we would be remiss to completely ignore kenegdo.
I’ll save you the step-by-step breakdown of kenegdo (once again, it will be in my book), but trust me here when I say that kenegdo is best translated “corresponding to him.” Thus, the whole phrase (ezer kenegdo) is best translated “a helper corresponding to him.”
Before we go on to discuss the meaning and implication behind this phrase itself, let me pause and make a note about the King James. The King James is a good translation. If you were to do a study of the King James, comparing the language as it meant in 1611 to the Hebrew, you would find much accuracy. The (general) problem with the KJV is not that it isn’t a good translation – it is simply an old translation. The KJV came to the scene over four hundred years ago. If you consider how much the English language has changed during your own lifetime, it puts the language of the KJV into perspective. If language has changed so drastically in the mere twenty-four years of my life, imagine how much it has changed over four hundred years!
However, it is important to also remember that the translators of the KJV were humans just like us. Very scholarly humans, but humans nonetheless and thus prone to error. Based on my study of Genesis 2:18-20 both under the guidance of a professor and independently, I believe that ezer kenegdo is one of those phrase with which the KJV translators missed the mark. Maybe at some point down the road, I will learn the “meet” had similar connotations back then that “corresponding to him” has today. I am open to correction and deepened understanding! But alas, the horse is dead and I must stop beating it. Let me shift back to what it means to be a “helpmeet,” or, as we now know: “a helper corresponding to him.”
Sometimes a word in Scripture is difficult to understand in context, or you need more clarification. It is helpful to look at other instances where the word appears in a similar context. Doing a word study accomplishes this task. After the two occurrences in Genesis 2, the word ezer appears in Scripture fourteen more times. Of these fourteen, eleven refer directly to God as ezer (help/helper). The remaining three refer to Israel seeking the wrong kind of ezer (help/helper).
Two of these instances are found in Psalm 121:1-2, I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come? My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth. In these verses, the Psalmist is not only pointing to God as his help in time of trouble. He also points to God as his help, keeper, and protector. He recognizes that he does not just need God at specific times for specific instances. He needs God all the time, every moment of every day. God is necessary not just for when things get hard, but for all the time life in general. Our need for God is constant.
This and other passages that use the word ezer (Deuteronomy 33:7; Psalm 70:5) speak to our constant need for God. Back in Genesis 2, God is showing Adam that Adam needs not just any ezer, but an ezer kenegdo: a helper that corresponds to him. A helper that is like him, but different enough to fulfill his human needs. When God paraded the animals in front of Adam, giving Adam the opportunity to name them, God was not just filling Adam’s time. He was showing Adam his need for someone like himself. It is not good for man to be alone. And Eve fulfilled that need in Adam, just as every wife has fulfilled that need in her husband ever since.
Don’t get me wrong here: God is the only one who can fully satisfy our every need. But he also created us for companionship. He created us to need other people. He created woman for the man and man for the woman. Men and women need each other. It does no good for one gender to shut the other out. We were created to be together, not just romantically, but even through platonic and familial relationships. This is glorifying to God, for it is how he created us.
However, to be a “helper corresponding to him” speaks first to the marital relationship. To how a woman relates to her husband and vice versa. Women, we are not merely secretaries or special assistants to our husbands, placed on a lower, less valuable plane. Not at all. To think so seriously misses the beauty of the marital relationship. To be helpers corresponding to our husbands means we and our husbands to fulfill a need in one another. A need for companionship, someone to complete you, someone to be your partner in crime through this life. A husband and wife are equal partners, equal players, equal in value and importance, and this is glorifying to God
But while we have equality in value, importance, and in our covenants with our husbands, we are also vastly different from them. The wife fulfills roles in a marriage that the husband cannot, and vice versa. The gift of bearing and nurturing children is for the wife. The gift of leading the home in all things, but especially spiritually, belongs to the husband. This does not make a husband a lesser father or a wife oppressed. This is merely what makes them different. It is glorifying to God, because this was how he created us.
In conclusion: to any wife, whether it’s your first year of marriage or your fiftieth year, remember who you were created to be. First and foremost: you were created to glorify God. Everything you do must stem from this. Second: you were not created to be considered “lesser” or “subordinate,” but rather to complete your husband in a way no other human could (although God is the one completes us perfectly). Third: you are valuable. I don’t mean this in the fluffy, prosperity gospel sense. You are a human being, created in the image of God. You. Matter. You are not lesser because you are a woman who submits to her husband, and submission is not subordination (something I plan to address soon). The created order is beautiful and it is good. Dear wife, you are an ezer kenegdo: a helper corresponding to, that fits beautifully with, your husband. Equal in value, importance, and in your covenant with your husband.