The debate over women in ministry is never-ending, but it has taken center stage these past few weeks as several prominent defenders of “biblical manhood and womanhood” have launched a full-scale polemical war against women who preach, and one in particular. There have been some provocative statements made and articles written appealing to the order of creation as the basis for gender hierarchy and excluding women from the pulpit. I recently did an entire sermon series making a biblical case for women in ministry and I hope to turn that into a complete written project soon. In the meantime, here are a couple excerpts, one audio clip and one written piece in which I explain that gender hierarchy was never God’s original intention, but instead a result of humankind’s fall into sin. Both the audio clip and the written excerpt make the same general point, but the written piece is a bit more detailed.
Right off the bat I want to acknowledge that I recognize some readers believe the creation stories in Genesis recount “literal,” historical events while others read them as something other than that. Either way, I think we can all agree with Jesus’s own assessment that these stories represent God’s original vision for humanity prior to the fall into sin.
The first chapter of Genesis focuses on God’s creative power as God takes a formless void and begins to fill it with light and darkness, space and matter, dry land and seas, and plants and animals. At the end of each creative “day,” God looks at God’s handiwork and each day, “God saw that it was good.” Then, on the sixth day, God finally creates God’s masterpiece, humankind. Here’s how the author of Genesis describes it:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).
The very first mention of humankind includes men and women together, both created in the image of God. Upon completion of this creative capstone, God’s assessment of his handiwork gets upgraded from “good” to “very good.”
As readers of Genesis have long noticed, the first three verses of chapter two seem like they belong in chapter one.
Don’t believe me? Go read it for yourself.
Verse four begins a new narrative, a re-telling of the creation story from a somewhat different perspective which appears to “zoom in,” so to speak, on the creation of humankind. Here’s how the author of that story introduces the first human:
The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).
What should catch our attention here is that the first human formed is singular and male. Now for a little Hebrew. Don’t worry, it will be fine.
The Hebrew word translated “man” in Genesis 2:7 is adam (prounced uh-DAHM). Now you know why we call him “Adam.” But the Hebrew word adam is also the same word the NRSV translates as “humankind” back in Genesis 1:27. In other words, the word adam does not necessitate maleness. It can and often should be translated inclusively as “humankind,” but here in Genesis 2:7 “man” is the most appropriate translation since the context indicates it is referring to a singular male human. This may seem dry, but it is important. I promise.
As the story progresses, the man is placed in the garden, assigned the role of gardener, and given some very specific instructions about which trees he’s allowed to eat from and which “tree” is forbidden. It’s at this point in the story that we are made aware that something isn’t quite right.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone… (Genesis 2:18a, emphasis added).
This is the very first time God identifies something as not good, and so God sets out to remedy the problem:
“…I will make him a helper as his partner” (Genesis 2:18b, emphasis added).
This verse, especially the various translations and interpretations of the two boldfaced words above, has led to some rather significant misunderstandings regarding God’s original vision for women. To give just one example, I grew up in a church where the standard Bible translation was the King James Version (KJV). Here’s how the KJV translates Genesis 2:18:
“And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”
Now, in the early 1600’s when the King James translation was produced, the word “meet” was an adjective that meant something like “suitable,” “adequate,” or “fitting.” Inherent to this archaic definition of “meet” are the concepts of correspondence and similarity. For example, to throw a party “meet for a king” would be to throw an elaborate and extravagant party in which no expense was spared because such decadence and extravagance corresponds with and is similar to the lifestyle of a king. As you can see, there is a sense of equality embedded in the archaic definition of “meet,” which, as we will see shortly, is a “meet” translation of the original Hebrew.
(See what I did there?)
At some point in the late 1600’s however, people began reading the two words, “help meet” as one word, “helpmeet,” even though such a word did not exist. By the 1700’s, “helpmeet” had evolved into “helpmate.” If you grew up in a more conservative Christian circle, you’ve probably heard these terms used to describe the role of women. The unfortunate effect of this fusing of words was a loss of the true meaning of the original “meet” as “suitable” or “corresponding to.” More on this shortly.
As the story in Genesis continues, God begins the process of identifying “a help meet” for the man.
So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner (Genesis 2:19-20, emphasis added).
Or, as the King James renders that last phrase, “there was not found an help meet for him.” In other words, it’s not as if none of the animals were “helpful,” it’s that none of them were “meet,” adequate, suitable, fitting, corresponding, or equal to the man. It’s at this point in the second creation narrative that God creates the woman, fulfilling all the necessary requirements of “an help meet” for him.
As we mentioned earlier, the text does not say that God made a “helpmeet,” one word, for the man, but a “help meet,” two words, for him. These two words, a noun and an adjective in English, correspond to two words, a noun and a functional adjective, in Hebrew. Those two Hebrew words, transliterated into English letters, are ezer kenegdo. We’ll discuss each word in a little more depth below.
Ezer is the word that is translated as “help” or “helper” in most English versions of the Bible. In English, these words often carry the connotation of subordination and inferiority. When we think of a “helper,” we usually think of an assistant, someone whose role is simply to support someone else who has more importance and more authority. Because of this, when people read the second chapter of Genesis they often make the assumption that because the woman was created to be a “helper” for the man, she was created to be subordinate and subservient to him. Think of an assistant coach or an executive assistant and you’ll get the general idea.
Subservience and subordination, however, is not the only sense in which the word “help” is used in English. If you didn’t know how to swim and you fell into the deep end of the swimming pool, what might be the first word you would cry out?
“Help!” “Help me!”
We certainly would not say that the lifeguard who rescues you is in a position of subservience or subordination to you, even though they are “helping” you, now would we?
At the time of this writing, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. When she is attempting to do something she doesn’t quite yet have the skill or dexterity to do, like climbing up on a tall swing-set or opening the lid on her water cup, she looks up at Thomas with her great big toddler eyes an says, “Daddy, can you help me please?” The point I’m trying to make here is that, even in English, it is not necessarily appropriate to assume that subservience or subordination is the intended meaning of the word “helper” in Genesis 2. When we look at the Hebrew word ezer, however, it becomes clear to us that subservience and subordination is almost certainly NOT the right connotation.
One helpful way to grasp the meaning or range of meanings of a particular word is to look at other places the word is used. So, where else in the Hebrew Bible is the word ezer used?
That’s a great question. I’m so glad you asked.
Let’s do a quick word study together.
The next occurrence of ezer is in Exodus 18. Let’s set the context.
The book of Exodus begins by describing the situation of the descendants of Israel as slaves in Egypt and the series of providential events that led to one Hebrew boy named Moses being adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the Egyptian palace. Sounds like the plot to a movie.
As a grown man, Moses begins to take notice of the plight of his people. On one particular day, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and, deciding to take matters into his own hands, he kills the Egyptian. When Pharaoh discovers what Moses had done, he arranges to have Moses killed. Fleeing for his life, Moses escapes to the nearby region of Midian, where he is welcomed and cared for by a local priest named Jethro. As was the custom in patriarchal cultures, Jethro gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses as a wife. Together Moses and Zipporah had at least two sons, the name of the first was Gershom, the name of the second is not revealed until later.
Fast forward to Exodus 18. Moses has successfully led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and they are now traveling through the wilderness. Jethro, who had been caring for Zipporah and the children while Moses was away doing his exodus-y stuff, brings the family to reunite with Moses in the wilderness. It’s at this point that we learn the name of Moses’s second son:
And the name of the other, Eliezer (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”) (Exodus 18:4, emphasis added).
It was customary in ancient cultures to give children names embedded with significance and meaning. A person’s name often indicated something important about that person, their family, or the circumstances surrounding their birth. The name of Moses’s second son is no exception. Eliezer is a combination of two Hebrew words, el, the basic Hebrew word for “God,” and ezer, the word we’ve seen translated as “helper” in Genesis 2. The name Eliezer means “God is my helper.” The word “help” in the parenthetical aside at the end of verse four is also the Hebrew word ezer. Moses chose the name Eliezer for his son because he believed God helped rescue him from the sword of Pharaoh.
So what does this all mean?
If you recall, a few paragraphs ago I demonstrated that the English words “help” and “helper” have several different connotations, some of which carry the meaning of subservience and subordination, others of which carry the meaning of rescue or aid rendered by someone in a position of equal or greater strength or ability. Which of those two connotations do you think best describes the use of ezer here in Exodus 18? Was God Moses’s subordinate, or was God Moses’s rescuer?
Silly question, right?
So the question now is whether this connotation of ezer as a rescuer is the standard meaning of the word, or whether this occurrence in Exodus is a one-off, unique usage of a word that usually means something closer to an assistant. The next two occurrences of the word are found in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 33. Nearing the end his life, Moses offered a prayer of blessing for each of the tribes of Israel. This was his prayer for the tribe of Judah:
“O Lord, give heed to Judah,
and bring him to his people;
strengthen his hands for him,
and be a help [ezer] against his adversaries.”
Then, blessing all of Israel at the end of his prayer, Moses says this:
Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord,
the shield of your help [ezer],
and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come fawning to you,
and you shall tread on their backs.
Once again, this word is used in reference to God as a rescuer, savior, and defender.
The next time ezer shows up is in the Psalms, and, following the pattern we’ve seen so far, every usage of the word is in reference to God as helper. Here are a couple representative examples.
But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help [ezer] and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay!
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help [ezer] come?
My help [ezer] comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
The last four occurrences of ezer are found in the Prophets. In Isaiah 30, the prophet is rebuking God’s people for turning to Egypt for help in time of trouble instead of turning to God.
Everyone comes to shame
through a people that cannot profit them,
that brings neither help [ezer] nor profit,
but shame and disgrace.
So, while ezer here is not referring to God, it is being used in the sense of rescue or aid from either an equal or superior power, not from someone in a position of subservience or subordination.
Similarly, the occurrences of ezer in Daniel 11:34 and Hosea 13:9 are found in the context of people needing rescue or defense.
When they fall victim, they shall receive a little help [ezer], and many shall join them insincerely.
I will destroy you, O Israel;
who can help [ezer] you?
We’ve saved Ezekiel 12:14 for last because it is the only occurrence of ezer in the Hebrew scriptures that seems to carry the explicit connotation of people in a position of subordination. The prophet Ezekiel, warning of a coming exile, explains that the prince will attempt to escape in secret but will be caught in the process. When that happens, the prophet says that God “will scatter to every wind all who are around him, his helpers [ezer] and all his troops; and I will unsheathe the sword behind them.” The Christian Standard Bible (CSB) translates ezer in this verse as “attendants” and the New International Version (NIV) renders the word “staff.”
This quick word study of ezer in the Hebrew Bible leads me to the following conclusion: while ezer can connote the idea of subordination or subservience, the predominant meaning is rescue, defense, or aid rendered by someone of equal or superior power and standing. In light of that, the burden of proof lies with those who would argue that the author of Genesis had the idea of subordination in mind when using ezer to describe the woman, a burden I don’t believe the context can bear.
Another avenue of approach would be to ask if there were any other words used to describe someone functioning in the role of an assistant or an aide.
The answer to that question is “yes.”
The Hebrew word sharat is often used in just this sense. Just a few examples: Joseph is described as the “attendant,” sharat, of both Potiphar and keeper of the prison. Joshua is regularly described as Moses’s “assistant,” his sharat. When Elijah selected Elisha to become his disciple, Elisha left his previous life and became Elijah’s “servant,” his sharat. Kings and royalty would often have sharats “attendants” or “aides” or “personal servants.” If this was the kind of thing the author of Genesis wanted to communicate as the role of the woman in relation to the man, sharat would have been a much more natural choice than ezer.
The second word in the phrase we’re examining is kenegdo. Technically, kenegdo is sort of like a contraction of three different words, but it functions like a single adjective, modifying the noun ezer. Because this word only occurs here in Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures, it is more difficult to ascertain its range of meaning with a word study, but we can still take a closer look at it. The NRSV translates the entire phrase as “a helper as his partner,” the NIV as “a helper suitable for him,” the CSB as “a helper corresponding to him,” and the ESV as “a helper fit for him.” The emphasis here seems to be on the correspondence, fittedness, and likeness of the woman to the man. She corresponds to him because she is like him. She is both his opposite and his equal.
In a fascinating article written for Biblical Archaeology Review, R. David Freedman, whose background was in Assyriology and Semitic Languages, argues that the phrase ezer kenegdo should be translated as “a power equal to man.” He bases his argument on several observations. First, similar to our earlier word study, he notes that ezer is often used in the sense of savior or rescuer. Adding to that, he observes that the word ezer has some linguistic connections to a similar word that means “strength” or power. Third, he notes that while kenegdo only occurs once in the Hebrew Bible, “in later Mishnaic Hebrew, the root keneged means ‘equal,’ as in the famous saying that ‘The study of Torah is equal (keneged) to all the other commandments.’” Finally, he posits that this understanding of the woman as “a power equal to man” reflects the equality of the humans as they are described in Genesis 1, together created in the image of God.
The point of that entire nerdy investigation was to demonstrate that there is nothing in either the text or the context of Genesis 1 and 2 to suggest that God’s vision of humanity “from the beginning” included either male superiority or female subordination, in either value or role. Simply put, when it comes to patriarchy, “from the beginning,” it was not so. God’s original vision and intention was equality.
Enter the Patriarchy
If God’s intention was equality, then where did patriarchy come from? As we’ll demonstrate here, patriarchy is the result of humanity’s fall into sin. Genesis 2 ends with a picture of paradise. In Genesis 3, however, things begin to fall apart. You’ve probably heard story and seen the painting: The serpent convinces the woman to eat from the one tree that God had forbidden, and the woman convinces her husband to do the same. This event is often referred to as “the Fall.”
Like most of us who have done something we weren’t supposed to, the man and the woman feel ashamed and attempt to hide what they’ve done. But God finds them in the garden and confronts them about their disobedience and explains to them that there would be consequences for rebellion against God’s command. Here’s how the writer of Genesis tells it:
To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
And to the man he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
An important question to ask here is whether these consequences were prescriptive or descriptive. In other words, did God cause the consequences, or were they the natural result of the humans’ own actions? God’s statement to the man in verse 17, “cursed is the ground because of you,” indicates that the consequences are the natural of his disobedience. This is consistent with later Christian doctrine regarding “the Fall,” where the first humans’ sin opened the door for all manner of disorder, destruction, and death. Both human evil (hatred, murder, etc.,) and non-human evil (disease, natural disasters, etc.,) are understood to be effects of the fall.
What does this have to do with patriarchy?
A great deal.
In Genesis 3:16, God tells the woman that one of the consequences of her disobedience will be that her husband “will rule over” her. When we understand that this a descriptive statement instead of a prescriptive one, we realize that patriarchy was never God’s intention, but was instead one of the consequences of “the Fall,” an undesirable effect of sin and its curse. And, as will become important in a later chapter, Christians believe that the effects of sin and its curse are being undone in Christ.
So What? Why in the world have we gone into such detail to demonstrate that male superiority and female subordination were not God’s original intention and design for humankind? One major reasons is that those who oppose female leaders and teachers in the church often do so based on the erroneous belief that patriarchy was in fact God’s plan “from the beginning.” My goal here has been to demonstrate that the best exegesis* of creation narratives in Genesis indicates that God’s original intention for humankind was equality, not patriarchy.
 See Genesis 39:4; 40:4.
 See Exodus 24:13; 33:11; Numbers 11:28; Joshua 1:1.
 1 Kings 19:21.
 Freedman, R. David. “Woman, a Power Equal to Man,” Biblical Archaeology Review 9, no. 1 (1983): 56–58.
* This is a term you’ll often encounter regularly in biblical studies, if you haven’t already. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart provide a great definition in their excellent book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: “The careful, systematic study of the scripture to discover the original, intended meaning.”
This is a great post, Thomas. I really like the thorough word study.
Another argument I’ve heard is around the order of creation. God created male first therefore males are to be dominant. However, if order of creation outlines the pecking order, then animals should be higher than humankind.
Basically the arguments to maintain a male-dominated Church feels like a disservice to the Gospel, effectively shutting out half of the voices because they “aren’t called to lead”. Thanks for being a voice of reason.
Thank you, Chip!
I did a similar word study without your superior personal knowledge of Hebrew, and came to a similar conclusion. It changed my mind and could see my childhood ideas as coming from tradition rather than understanding. I do not try to debate or convince others but am satisfied that women can are are often gifted with leadership. More importantly to me, is the equality of personhood not church leadership. As I often say to my male only friends, I have a high view of women and a low view of ordination practices.