Two months ago, I began looking at the Biblical basis for masculinity and femininity. In part one, I looked a little at what it means to be made in the “image of God” and the responsibility given to humanity to populate and bear God’s authority over creation. In this post I want to look at Genesis 2 and see how it relates to our understanding of humanity, masculinity and femininity.
Starting from verse 4 of Genesis 2, we have a more detailed account of the creation of man.
4This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.
5Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
As an aside, the astute reader may notice that in Genesis 2 there appears to be a slightly different order to creation than in Genesis 1. This apparent contradiction is not found in the Hebrew, but is a translation issue; there is a Hebrew word שָּׂדֶ֗ה (sadeh) preceding the words for both shrub and plant here, meaning “field” and sometimes translated as “of the field” when used as an adjective (as in Genesis 2). This qualifier is not found at all in Genesis 1. It may not seem very important or relevant, but it is actually quite significant for helping us to understand the responsibility given to humanity. You see, the word “field” here (unfortunately absent in many translations) gives a distinct impression of something occupational and practical; it's an agricultural term. A ‘sadeh’ does not come into being by itself, it is planted.
(and, skipping over some geographical details)
8Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.
15The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
Sometimes Christians get the idea that the whole world was created just how God wanted it, and then we went and messed it up. While there's some truth to that, it glosses over some important points. Namely, before the creation of man, the earth had no ‘sadeh’ (fields); there was life and vegetation, but not the kind of organised agriculture required to support human community. That was Adam's job, man's responsibility (Adam and man are the same word in Hebrew) – the first ‘sadeh’ was planted by God as described in Genesis 2, and man was commanded to tend and expand this field (in the process of multiplying to fill creation).
God not only gave Adam (and, by extension, us) this job, but everything Adam was going to need to do the job. There was an established field, livestock (as we will see next), a river for water (that split into four of the largest rivers of the ancient world – I believe this is meant as a symbol that Eden was the source of all life), and let's not forget that God himself was there.
Of course, the question is; how is Adam going to do all this by himself? I believe that the author of Genesis has deliberately built up this crisis in the narrative. (There is also a second crisis building, regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but I will not address that in this post.)
18The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
19Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.
But for Adam no suitable helper was found.
Here we see Adam starting to do his new job. Adam, bearing God's authority over creation, names the creatures (a responsibility which is rightfully God’s). We also see the first appearance of livestock here (literally, field beasts, using the Hebrew word ‘sadeh’ again); something not found in Genesis 1. The author of Genesis further highlights the crisis that Adam cannot do this alone.
A ‘suitable helper’
At this point, I want to explore the meaning of this term, עֵ֫זֶר נֶ֫גֶד (ezer neged). Many people have debated the exact meaning of these words, and in modern times the discussion has unhelpfully focused on whether the term implies inferiority or equality (of the woman). The fact is, the author did not write this passage to address that kind of question, and it is an exegetical mistake to read it is though such a question were in scope. That's not to say we can't look at the subtle implications of the term, but we must be careful not to take it out of context.
According to my Hebrew dictionary (Strong/Vine's), נֶ֫גֶד (neged) means “a front, i.e. part opposite; spec[ifically] a counterpart, or mate; usually (adv[erb], espec[ially] with prep[osition]) over against or before.” It's an interesting word, with this variant being used just a couple of dozen times in the OT; it is used in both positive and negative contexts, and gives the distinct impression of two things or people intentionally oriented towards each other. In this context, it is probably best translated as “corresponding”; that is, Adam needs a helper corresponding to him (and his needs, and his problem that he physically cannot fulfil God’s command.)
What about עֵ֫זֶר (ezer), then? The dictionary entry is just “help”, and mentions that it is from the Hebrew word for aid. It appears 21 times in the OT:
- Twice to refer to the woman in Genesis 2.
- Three times to refer to the help or assistance given by one person or group to another, each in the context of God's judgement (Isaiah 30:5, Ezekiel 12:14, Daniel 11:34). The first two are explicitly negative references to the assistance requested by a rebellious people from other men.
- Eight times it refers to something that God gives or does.
- Nine times it refers to God himself as the ‘help’ of his people. A typical example is Psalm 33:20 (“We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.”).
What shall we make of the term ‘ezer neged’ then? First, the helper is a gift from God. It would be right to say not only that she is a helper, but that she embodies God‘s help in this particular instance. Some commentators make a big deal about the word for ‘help’ not implying inferiority; this much is true, but it is just as much of a mistake to read this as implying equality. The term implies neither inferiority nor equality.
To be continued in the next part...Unless otherwise noted, scripture quoted is taken from the NIV 2011.