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"Helper?" Needs help

In my last post I talked about the value of word studies and how you start one, by researching the definitions of a word. The next step is to see the word in action -- look at how it's really used in texts. Seeing a word in context makes its meaning and nuance more clear; this is why dictionaries include example sentences with their definitions.

Today I'm going to use a different word, another we studied in my Hebrew class. The word is ezer, and the text we started with is from Genesis 2:

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."

Now 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. So 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. (Genesis 2:18-20 NIV)

Pretty familiar passage to a lot of people. The Hebrew word ezer is translated here as "helper," in both verses 18 and 20.

This time the definition is not so difficult. Ezer does actually mean "help, support, assistance." But not so fast, either. Let's take the next step: see where and how the word is used elsewhere in scripture.

Using my handy Bible software, a search through the Hebrew Bible for the word ezer produces 26 results. In some of them the word is a proper name, which doesn't suit our purposes. But in most of the rest, something interesting appears. Here is a selection:

After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro received her and her two sons. One son was named Gershom, for Moses said, "I have become a foreigner in a foreign land"; and the other was named Eliezer, for he said, "My father's God was my helper; he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh." (Exodus 18:2-4 NIV)

And this he said about Judah: "Hear, LORD, the cry of Judah; bring him to his people. With his own hands he defends his cause. Oh, be his help against his foes!" (Deuteronomy 33:7 NIV)

"There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides across the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty.
The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. He will drive out your enemies before you, saying, 'Destroy them!'
So Israel will live in safety; Jacob will dwell secure in a land of grain and new wine, where the heavens drop dew.
Blessed are you, Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will tread on their heights."
(Deuteronomy 33:26-29 NIV)

No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.
(Psalm 33:16-20 NIV)

Once you spoke in a vision, to your faithful people you said: "I have bestowed strength on a warrior; I have raised up a young man from among the people.
I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him.
My hand will sustain him; surely my arm will strengthen him. (Psalm 89:19-21 NIV)

I lift up my eyes to the mountains -- where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip-- he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
(Psalm 121:1-4 NIV)

I cared for you in the wilderness, in the land of burning heat.
When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.
So I will be like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk by the path.
Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open; like a lion I will devour them-- a wild animal will tear them apart.
You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.
(Hosea 13:5-9 NIV)

In all of these passages, did you notice who the "helper" is, and what kind of situations are being spoken of?

Most of the time, God himself is the ezer, and when it isn't God himself it is someone he has specifically sent. And these are not small issues we're talking about. In many of the ezer passages, life and death are on the line. Your ezer is who you call in when the chips are really down; when you need your strongest backup.

In light of this, the English word "helper" starts to look really pathetic.

No, not this...

No, not this...

Seriously, we don't use "helper" in matters of life and death. We use words like "rescuer," "champion," "savior," "guardian," "hero."

Do you see the impact this has for our understanding of Genesis 2 now? Especially in the midst of a secular culture which generally thinks the Bible treats women in a really shoddy way?

Take a look at this. What if I slightly tweak the NIV text of Genesis 2 and use a different word to translate ezer?

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make an ally suitable for him."

Now 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. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for Adam no suitable ally was found.

How different does that feel, just with one small change? Or if ezer was translated as "champion" or "rescuer," what would that do for our understanding of God's intended role for women and the relationships between women and men?

No, not this either...

No, not this either...

I don't want to press this argument too far. NO human person can offer help on the level that God himself can offer it. Genesis 2:18-20 is by no means comparing women to God in that way. It is not saying "men are so pathetic and sad, they are hopeless without women around to take care of them."

But neither is your ezer the one you expect to just do your laundry and make you a sammich, and otherwise sit around and look pretty. Oh dear me, no. Your ezer does for you WHAT YOU CAN BY NO MEANS DO FOR YOURSELF, BY YOURSELF. You are truly weakened by the loss of an ezer and truly strengthened by gaining one. In English, the word "helper" does not sufficiently convey this. A "helper" might be nice to have, but is not vital.

So here's another example of the value of word studies -- helping us understand sections where an English translation is technically correct, yet still misleading. They help reveal nuance and alternative meanings that a translation may be unable to supply, simply because of the limitations of translation itself.