How vividly do I remember witnessing a childbirth for the first time. I was young, maybe nine or ten.
About thirty minutes before the birth, my dad summoned me, asking whether or not I wanted to see a babe make its grand entrance into the world.
My answer? Of course!
I hopped onto his motorcycle, and we hastened along a dirt path scratched out of the rainforest by some gargantuan finger.
Tall vine-tangled rainforest trees tried to nab us as we rode up and down mountains, bumping and winding and gulping down gnats.
We arrived at the thatched village hut, called a “shabono”, just in time. Ducking through a hobbit-high door frame, our eyes took a few minutes to adjust to the dim light of the smoke-filled interior.
I was surprised to hear no sound, though four or five women were gathered around the laboring woman.
Panting, neck muscles straining, she squatted above a gargantuan green banana leaf.
And just when our eyes had adjusted to the dimness and the stinging smoke, a tiny babe, coated in mucus, slid silently from between its mother’s legs.
For a moment, everyone stared at the babe. The babe had to be deemed worthy; it must be without defect. Otherwise, it would be taken into the jungle and killed.
After investigating the child for defects and finding none, the women began to care for the newborn. Soon, that universal infant cry, so like caterwauling, filled the room.
I will never forget this experience: The miracle of new life coupled with the earthiness of my surroundings and the “other-ness” of cultural customs so different from my own imprinted itself firmly on my memory.
Upon witnessing this birth, I was filled with this great sense of unity which binds all of humanity— new life is new life, whether cradled under the mossy trees of the Amazon rainforest or ensconced in a blue blanket in a sterile American hospital room.
This past week, as I pondered the various ways in which I have read and interpreted the Bible's take on a woman's life work, I could not shake this vivid memory.
You see, in Yanomamo culture, a young woman’s status was lower than a dog’s; she was a man’s property. A man often had multiple wives. Most women were regularly abused and violated.
Before my third child was born, my husband and I lived in Bolivia. While there, I became friends with several Bolivian women.
Women in Bolivia went to school, and some graduated from college even, but they were not allowed to drive cars. Furthermore, there were many jobs which were considered to be women’s work (childcare, cooking, cleaning), and the men did not engage with these facets of life.
Imagine with me an ancient culture not so different from the Yanomamo or Bolivian cultures, in which the men were seen as more valuable and held a higher status than women: this is the cultural backdrop of most, if not all, of the Bible.
Stated another way, when I picture these two cultures’ treatment of women, it helps me grasp why there are so many difficult texts about women in the Bible.
Yet, what is God's vision of "woman"?
In Part 2 of this series, I ended with a quote from Sarah Bessey in which she shared a vision of men and women being “warriors fighting in distinct unity”. This vision of women certainly sounds different from that of the cultures I cited above.
The portrayal of “women as warriors” didn’t make much sense to me until I delved into the meaning of “helpmeet”.
I had been taught that a “helpmeet” was man’s perfect partner, meant to submit to him and help him carry out his mission in this world.
Boy was I surprised when I learned how the two Hebrew words combined to formulate “helpmeet” were actually used in other parts of the Bible; they didn’t have anything to do with subordination.
What is a “Helpmeet”?
I have two precious daughters and one sweet son.
They are my inspiration and the reason I push myself, work hard and face my fears.
I am constantly asking myself what message I am sending my children about women.
Am I telling them women are only good at certain jobs?
Am I communicating through my actions that women are only meant to be “background people” and not leaders?
(I am not saying there is anything “less” about being a background person. I am just saying I don’t want my kids to think women “can’t” or “shouldn’t”. )
Am I working as an equal partner, a warrior, alongside my husband, or am I demonstrating a subservient nature?
This resolve to demonstrate female equality awakened when I finally “got” what a “helpmeet” was.
I’d like to begin by narrating two stories for you (these stories are the main reason I am a feminist woman-of-faith):
Once upon a time, divine love, the Word, breathed God-life into this planet.
And this Word said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” so that they can rule over creation together.
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Then God told these two image-bearers to “fill the earth and subdue it”.
And God saw all that God had made, said it was good.
Once upon a time, divine love, the Word, formed this man-creature out of dust and breathed life into him. The man’s name was Adam.
God gave Adam some instructions, some “do’s and don'ts”, along with a job— name the animals.
And God noticed the man was alone, without a “suitable helper”. So he put the man to sleep and took out one of his ribs. God used this rib to form a woman. Her name was Eve.
Or, was that the beginning?
Whether or not you take them literally, both of these stories are in the opening chapters of Genesis.
Can you guess from which of these two stories we have gleaned the idea that a woman’s job is to stand by a man’s side, helping him?
“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” (Gen. 2:18) — Story 2
According to Story 2, the woman was made for the man, right?
At least, this was the narrative I grew up hearing.
But what does the phrase “suitable helper” mean?
The first creation narrative, Story 1, makes it clear that the man and woman were both created in God’s image. Wouldn’t that mean they both demonstrated God-likeness, and so were equals?
God spoke to both of them and gave them a job to do, together.
In the second creation narrative, Story 2, it sounds more as though Eve was secondary, an afterthought. It sounds as though she was designed to help the man do his job.
So why the contradiction?
Many scholars have certainly combined these two stories to affirm the idea that men and women are “equal yet different”.
At first glance, it seems obvious from these passages, doesn’t it?
Yet one glaring problem I see with the “woman-was-created-for-man” interpretation is that there are many women who are either single or do not marry a man.
This whole interpretation leaves them out!
There were many women featured in the Bible, in fact, who were exemplified for their character qualities; we do not even hear mention of husbands, or even men, in their lives, women such as Rahab, Mary Magdalene and Deborah.
To repeat, if the Adam and Eve story was supposed to provide us with wisdom, we need to ask this question: How does the “equal yet different, woman as "helpmeet" to man” interpretation apply to single women or women who aren't married to men?
Let’s dig into the meanings of “suitable” and “helper” in the Hebrew language...
The word translated into “suitable” is “kenegdo” in Hebrew.
The King James Bible translated “kenegdo” as “meet for him”. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon translates "kenegdo" as "corresponding to".
I love looking at how other languages translate words; interestingly, in the New Afrikaans Translation , "kenegdo" is translated as "sy gelyke" which means "his equal".
In your opinion, do any of these translations— “suitable” or “meet for him”, "corresponding to" or "his equal" — connote “subordinate” to you?
When I hear “suitable” or even “meet”, I hear “perfect fit” or “perfect complement”.
It was like a half-finished picture: something was missing for wholeness to be displayed; Adam needed a complement, an equal.
Eve was Adam's perfect counterpart.
None of the animals had been “suitable” as an equal to Adam; Eve was.
Marg Mowczko holds an MA with a specialization in early Christian and Jewish studies. She writes extensively about “ezer kenegdo” and what it means.
On her blog, she explains that “kenegdo” means “equal” or “corresponding”. If you enjoy getting into the nitty gritty meaning of words, I highly recommend reading her article on kenegdo here.
If “kenegdo”, then, means “equal to”, or “corresponding”, isn’t the implication behind these words similar to what the first creation narrative implies— that Adam and Eve were both made in God’s image?
Adam by himself was not complete. We can even assert that by himself, Adam wasn’t the full expression of the image of God.
Does this thought make your heart beat faster?
Stop and think about the women in your life. They are divine-image-bearers.
Have you affirmed this in them recently?
Have you told them the world wouldn’t be complete without them?
Are you empowering them to be fully who they are called to be?
My husband has been doing this for me. He does all the “house-and-kid” stuff after his job ends so I can write. He believes my life’s passion is important.
In Sarah Bessey's words, "In the early new light of Creation, God didn't set up a 'masculine' rule as his standard and plan for humanity. No, it was masculine and feminine, together, bearing the image of God." (Jesus Feminist)
Now that we have tackled “kenegdo”, let’s tackle “ezer”. This is the word which has been translated as “helper”.
Ever wonder who coined the complete term “helpmeet”? It was a poet named John Dryden (1631-1700). He decided to hyphenate “help” and “meet” into “help-meet” so as to describe his wife in a poem. Interesting, right?
Before I get into what “ezer” means, I’d like to ask: If someone helps you, does that make them subordinate to you?
In fact, what words would you use to describe a “helper” who is also subordinate? The terms “slave” and “servant” come to mind...
The word “ezer” is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament.
Blogger Rachel Held Evans, explained that “ezer” was used, “[...] twice in reference to the first woman, three times in reference to nations to whom Israel appealed for military support, and sixteen times in reference to God as the helper of Israel.” Read more here.
Wait. Military support? God-as-helper? These uses of “ezer” certainly don’t connote subordination.
Check these verses out. I have highlighted “ezer” in bold.
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
-Psalm 10: 14
But as for me, I am poor and needy;
come quickly to me, O God.
You are my help and my deliverer;
Lord, do not delay.
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.”
God-as-helper, desperately needed, warrior-on-our-behalf, companion-by-our-side, rescuer...
Sit with these meanings for a bit.
The fact that God is an “ezer” for God’s people has been life-changing for me.
If I am an “ezer”, then I am a warrior.
This is so very different from what I previously believed. It means first of all, in marriage, that I ought to be working alongside my husband in everything.
In the larger sphere of society, this means that I ought to be bringing my whole self, all my gifts and talents, to the table, for the good of the world.
This means women should not in any way be valued as less than men.
Women ought to be compensated equally as much as men, and their word should be seen as equally authoritative to that of men. If a woman holds a title, she ought to be addressed by that title, just as men are.
If I am an “ezer kenegdo”, then I am a perfectly suitable warrior, fit to fight beside man- needed, necessary, valuable, capable, powerful and compassionate, bringer-of-aid, rescuer.
Sarah Bessey writes:
If a woman is held back, minimized, pushed down, or downplayed, she is not walking in the fullness God intended for her as his image bearer, as his ezer warrior. If we minimize our gifts, hush our voice, and stay small in a misguided attempt to fit a weak and culturally conditioned standard of femininity, we cannot give our brothers the partner they require in God's mission for the world.
Godself is in fact an Ezer to God’s people.
Before I go any further, I’d like to say I believe men and women alike demonstrate various facets of God’s image; I do not think these bearers of the “imago dei” should be categorized or delineated by gender (as in, "only women are compassionate" and "only men are loud").
Where does the idea that Eve was to be subordinate to Adam come from, then?
The short answer?
In my opinion, it comes from the pronouncements of “The Fall”.
Whether you see “The Fall” as metaphorical or literal, you can see it resulted in the “goodness” of everything God had brought forth getting mussed up.
After The Fall, a “curse” was pronounced on the man, the woman, creation and the serpent. The idea of “curse” implies that things were going to be very different from how they had been previously.
The “curse” for the woman reads:
“Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.” Gen. 3:16
The subordination of woman, then, in my opinion, was a result of the fall, of humanity’s brokenness, of its “having gone wrong”.
This subordination of woman to man has not exactly born good fruit.
Take a moment to review these stats: https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures.
Need a Kleenex?
I love that God isn’t interested in leaving the world hopeless and fallen. God is about restoration and rescue. God is our ezer.
As my pastor often says, to loosely paraphrase, “God is going to get everything God wants”:
“He [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Rev. 21:14
What do you think we should be about, friends?
The fall, or “God getting everything God wants”?
Subjugation, or restoration?
Ultimately, we could haggle over words and meanings forever. For every argument one way, there is an equal argument another.
I would say most Christians, regardless of what their view of the meaning of “helpmeet” is, would agree that women are equally imbued with God’s image and should be treated with respect.
Most would agree that women can have careers or pursue higher education.
The difference in perspective, though, is highlighted when we look at the ultimate, highest purpose of “woman”.
Is “woman” fulfilled when she is subordinated to a man, acting as his helper?
Or, is “woman” an equal counterpart to “man”, a fellow image bearer, an important contributor to all the work which needs accomplishing in this world?
Can woman be fulfilled and effective without a man in her life? (A resounding yes! from me...)
Is woman a warrior armed for battle you’d be lucky to have fighting by your side?
"And men, what a gift for you! What a revelation! A man does not need to deny a woman's identity as a beloved and unique warrior in Christ out of misplaced fear or insecurity or a hunger for power. Let's praise God together for this truth. Sons, brothers, husbands, friends, can you imagine? God knew that it was not good for you to be alone, and he gave you your best ally." (Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist)
Does woman have valuable insight, wisdom, leadership and skills to contribute to this world? Absolutely!
I urge you to take some time to consider the implications of each of these points of view.
I love how Rachel Held Evans described male-female equality, and how she came to a more feminist viewpoint not by reading feminist literature, but by reading the Bible: https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/accidental-feminist.
"Most of all, if these critics knew me, they would know that it isn't feminism that inspires me to advocate gender equality in the Church and in the world; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ."
I feel the same way.
In this article, Rachel Held Evans mentioned the term “patriarchy”.
Remember my comparison at the beginning of this post of the Yanomamo and Bolivian cultural treatment of women to the treatment of women in the Bible? The word often used to describe this treatment is “patriarchy”.
Patriarchy is another plausible reason some of the Bible seems to be placing women "beneath" men.
I am excited to dig into this thought more in next week's post.
Meanwhile, I love hearing your thoughts! Thanks again to all of you who have followed my Facebook page, leaving comments there as well as on the blog. Your stories and thoughts mean so much.
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I'm a busy mom of three asking hard questions about my faith.