Pursuing Partnership: The Blessed Alliance – Week 5

By Carolyn Custis James

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

The Blessed Alliance, Week 5

Always when we read the Old Testament in our English Bibles, we are dealing with translations. Unfortunately, not every Hebrew word has an exact English equivalent, so translators do the best they can. Often scholars look for help by seeing how the same word occurs and is used elsewhere in the Bible. In Genesis 2:18-20, both ezer and kenegdo could use a little more work.

In 1611, the King James Version of the Bible translated ezer kenegdo in Genesis as “an help [helper] meet [fit or suitable] for him.” In 1674, the poet John Dryden connected the two words with a hyphen in the phrase, “help-meet for man,” taking the expression one step closer to becoming an independent word applied mainly to a man’s spouse, as Eve to Adam. In the nineteenth century “helpmeet” emerged as a single word in its own right.[1]

Humanity 101

This is problematic for a number of reasons. Consider how large segments of the church tend to reduce the ezer kenegdo to marriage and view gender relationships—that the man is the leader, the protector, and provider for the woman. It does seem like the creation of the ezer increases the man’s workload instead of providing real help. Furthermore, theologians who hold this view of male/female relationships are perpetually put on the defensive to assure women that even though the female is subservient to the male, they still enjoy a fundamental equality as God’s image bearers. Still, it’s difficult not to sense Genesis 2 as a demotion for the female from the glorious exalted calling and weighty responsibilities entrusted to both male and female in Genesis 1. So what’s happening here? This certainly raises a lot of questions:

Is there one job description for males and a different job description for females? Don’t God’s female image bearers have responsible to rule creation and do God’s work in the world with the man?

Does the creation of the ezer kenegdo negate what God said about females in Genesis 1? Does Genesis 2 displace God by placing men at the center for females? Is God’s mandate for image bearers for men, with women in supporting roles? These may be uncomfortable questions, but they are serious issues for women and girls.

We’ll dive deeper into this in a subsequent segment, but for now, a closer look at ezer kenegdo is imperative.

According to Hebrew scholar Victor Hamilton, kenegdo indicates that the ezer is the man’s match—literally “as in front of him”— ​as Yin is to Yang. He explains:

“[Kenegdo] suggests that what God creates for Adam will correspond to him. Thus the new creation will be neither a superior nor an inferior, but an equal. The creation of this helper will form one-half of a polarity and will be to man as the South Pole is to the North Pole” (emphasis added).[2]

In the Old Testament, ezer appears as a noun twenty-one times in the Old Testament and is usually translated “helper”. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 2x for the woman (Genesis 2:18, 20)
  • 3 times for nations Israel appeals to for military aid (Isaiah 30:5; Ezekiel 12:14; Daniel 11:34)
  • 16 times for God as the Helper of his people (Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7, 26, 29; Psalms 20:2; 33:20; 70:5; 89:19 [translated “strength” in the NIV]; 115:9, 10, 11; 121:1 – 2; 124:8; 146:5; Hosea 13:9). 

This resulted in upgrading “helper” to “strong helper,” raising questions about how strong the ezer can be.

Things didn’t end there. On closer examination, every time the word ezer appears in the Bible, it is within a military context. Three times Israel appeals for military aid. When ezer refers to God, he is described as God is his people’s “shield and defense,” “better than chariots and horses,” standing “sentry watch over his people.”

This pattern even holds up in the Garden of Eden where the Adam is commanded to “guard” the Garden—language used for the angel guarding the garden with a sword when Adam and Eve are evicted. The Blessed Alliance mandate includes the word “subdue”—suggesting there will be opposition to their efforts. And the Garden itself isn’t a safe place, for it contains dangerous trees and a deadly Enemy inside plotting his first catastrophic attack.

I believe the ezer is a warrior. God’s calls both male and female to join forces in the battle for God’s good purposes and for his gracious kingdom on earth. The Enemy is not flesh and blood. We are summoned to God’s rescue effort for the world and the humanity he loves.

Renown Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter explains:

kenegdo . . . means ‘alongside him,’ ‘opposite him,’ ‘a counterpart to him.’ ‘Help’ is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in the Psalms” (emphasis added).[3]

God isn’t downsizing females when he names us ezer-kenegdo. To the contrary God is amplifying the female imago Dei’s calling—naming women after himself and mobilizing us for his kingdom. The ezer kenegdo will be her brothers’ strongest ally in pursing God’s purposes. She must bring her full self to their mission; she is a source of strength, wisdom, and courage to her brothers, and it is not good for them to be without her.

If anyone still doubts the strength and significance of the ezer, consider this: in biblical times, parents named their sons (not their daughters) Eli-ezer, Abi-ezer, and just plain Ezer. Even in modern times, Ezer Weizman (1924—2005), an Israeli military hero, established an international reputation as a fighter pilot, commander of the Israeli Air Force, a world leader involved in Middle East peace negotiations, and Israel’s seventh president.

I have no doubt that Ezer Weizman would have been proud to display EZER on his Israeli license plate.

[1] See The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.; Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), s.v. “helpmeet.”

[2] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 117 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 175

[3]  Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: The Five Books of Moses, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2019), 14.

This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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