Mailbag #50: Does Genesis 2 Call Women to “Help” All Men?
The elders at my church are working through this question and could use your help. Looking at Genesis 2:18, 20, would you say that women are designed to help (ezer) their husbands or are women designed to help (ezer) men/women/everyone with a special focus on their husbands? If women are designed to help (ezer) men/women/everyone, in what sense are women’s responsibilities or capacities as helper (ezer) different than men’s responsibility or capacities to be helpers? And where in the Bible or nature are these responsibilities and capacities delineated?
Some would understand ezer to be a part of a woman’s very identity (when God made a woman he made an ezer), and therefore women will ezer in varying ways in various relationships. They would suggest that where women are acting in godly ways in Scripture, they’re acting in accordance with their ezer design. In other words: Female = Helper = Woman. The exegetical argument is simple: “When God made a woman, he made a helper.” Helper is part of a woman’s ontology, not economy. That’s simply what woman (not wife yet) is, and therefore we should expect her to help men/women/everyone in varying ways. Marriage is held out of view until 2:24, such that helper-as-ontology precedes helping-as-economy in the married context.
Others would see ezer as a role specifically worked out in marriage. They would suggest that since we do not have any other occasions in Scripture where ezer and women are connected (it only occurs in Genesis 2 and the context appears to be a woman helping her husband fulfill the mandate), then there’s not biblical warrant for the idea of women acting as ezer outside of marriage. In other words, Female = Woman, but not all women will ezer because not all women are called to marriage.
At the risk of frustrating you, I see truths on both sides. Reading between the lines just a bit, the first group’s pastoral burden feels like the ontological one. It’s as if they look around the world, acutely feel the culture’s push toward a nonsensical androgyny, and feel the need to reassert the fact that God created men and women differently. Meanwhile, the second group’s pastoral burden feels like the ethical one. They look around, see patterns inside the church of requiring women to conform to certain cultural stereotypes, and so want to reassert the fact that a woman has a unique and exclusive responsibility to her husband and to no other man. The first wants to talk about what’s normal (“is”), the second about what’s normative (“ought”).
The conversation becomes heated when we don’t make a clear distinction between normal and normative. There’s danger in denying what God has created, and there’s danger in requiring what God does not require as if he did. Let me unpack all this by answering your exegetical question, and then offering four lessons for pastors, parents, and disciple-makers generally.
To begin, consider Genesis 2 in the context of the previous chapter. Genesis 1 tells us God made us male and female (v. 27). Punctuating the point, theologian Alistair Roberts observes, “Humanity has two distinct kinds, a male kind and a female kind.”
The text also ties our two-kind-ness to the dominion mandate: be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion (v. 28). The mandate is bigger than marriage, but it cannot be accomplished apart from both “kinds” of humans playing their respective parts—how else will we be fruitful and multiply? I don’t think it’s an unreasonable inference from 1:27–28 to say there is a male-like way and a female-like way to fulfill that mandate.
Genesis 2 puts Genesis 1’s dominion mandate into motion through marriage. Your second group, Mike, rightly connects the woman as “helper” to marriage. The progression of the passage leads to the presentation of a wife. It’s one narrative string: Adam needs a helper —> God makes this helper and brings her to the man —> The man responds, “Here is bone of my bone / flesh of my flesh,” or, as English speakers would say it, “she’s my flesh and blood, my family” —> And the narrator summarizes the string by pointing to the “one flesh” of marriage with a “therefore” (ESV, KJV), “for this reason” (NAS), “that is why” (NIV). To paraphrase the whole passage, God made her a helper and brought her to the man—that is why they are married.
So I think your second group is exegetically right if I’m staring just at chapter 2: the woman is expressly created and charged with being a helper for marriage. And yet, your first group has a point when we view Genesis 2 in light of Genesis 1: marriage faces outward because it exists in the larger context of God’s dominion project. And this project incorporates all humanity, married or not.
What does all this mean for pastoral, parenting, and discipleship purposes? Here are four takeaways:
1) God designed men and women differently, and that will impact every domain of life.
This is clear in Genesis 1, and Genesis 2 at least implies that every woman is created as a helper. Yes, she’s named a helper for the purpose of marriage, but God does say, “I will make a helper.” This is what he makes.
With group 1, then, I think we have to conclude that Scripture makes ontological assertions. Let me borrow from Roberts again:
God has created us as two differing types of human beings, who find the centre of gravity of our callings in different places, even though they are intertwined with those of the other sex. We must learn to live with the differing grains of our nature not only in church and home, but also in society, the workplace, politics, etc. We must also recognize our commonality and shared part in the human vocation with those of our sex, even within the huge variations within each of our sexes. (from email correspondence)
These “variations within each of our sexes” Roberts compares to family resemblances, as in “You don’t look exactly like your brother, but I see the resemblance.” I’d even say, for as much as conceptions of masculinity and femininity differ between ancient Egypt, medieval Mongolia, and America today, we can see family resemblances across cultures.
It may be impolitic to suggest that men and women are different by design. And I understand why with so much history of male abuse. But I’m not sure the solution is to pretend we live in a world of androgynous gray, as safe as the gray might seem. Both the Bible and our observations of the world suggest men and women are different, and those differences can offer a more beautiful and colorful picture of flourishing. Here’s Roberts again:
Whether Christian or non-Christian, our society tends to treat gender as an onerous law, rather than as a liberating structure. I’ve tended to return to images of dance (and/or music) when thinking about the character of gender. Dance/music expresses something of the connection between the internal and the external dimensions here. Our bodies naturally respond to music in dance, and music springs forth from and elicits the natural movements and rhythms of the body. Dance is liberating yet ordered. Dance expresses structure, but does so in an excessive and celebratory manner. . . . Dance is an art more than a science. . . . We are caught up in and by the music, made part of something greater than ourselves. . . . Playfulness, delight, spectacle, and ceremony are all involved. It is communal, bringing people together in shared movements. . . . It requires alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness to subtle movements and creativity and coordination with others. (from email correspondence)
2) We must articulate norms or rules only where Scripture does.
Genesis 2 may suggest that God makes every woman to be a helper, but he explicitly does so for the purposes of marriage. Therefore, the only place I would say a woman must adopt anything like the “role” or “office” of helper is in marriage. She is made a helper for her husband, and while she might naturally give herself to helping her colleagues or neighbors or the pastors at church, Scripture does not assign her with any such “job.” Clearly, this is where I’m sympathetic with your second group, Mike.
Just think, if a woman was supposed to adopt the role or office of helper to every man, how would she administer that? How could she arrange her schedule and balance out competing requests by multiple men? Which men exactly would have a claim on her time and how would she prioritize? Plus, do any of those men have the same duties of love, care, protection, and living with her in an understanding way like her husband does? Assuming they don’t, that’s going to lead to a heap of trouble for her.
Just because something is normal doesn’t make it normative. Ontology is not ethics. Is is not ought.
Another crucial distinction here is the distinction between wisdom and law. In fact, the Bible provides us with the genre of wisdom literature as a commentary on creation. Wisdom is interested in how things are designed. It requires us to study how God has created the world, his law, and the consequences of sin and folly. Through such study we learn to live skillfully and make good judgments in all those life decisions that are biblically unscripted: Should I take this job? Should I marry this person? How do I build a skyscraper? Should a government conscript its women for combat positions? Wisdom respects the rules of the game, and plays inside the boundaries, yet it makes its decisions about getting to the goal line one play at a time, because every play is different.
If God has created men and women differently, it is folly to ignore those differences. And, yes, our culture today is deeply foolish. But wisdom is not law. And the space between wisdom and law—between “everything is lawful for me but not everything is helpful” (1 Cor. 6:12)—allows for variation between individuals and cultures and lives. It allows one player to run this way with the ball and another player to run that way, even if they’re both hemmed in by the same rules.
So it is wise for men and women to consider how God has uniquely designed them. But absent any Scriptural norms or rules about what roles, jobs, or offices a woman should take, I might encourage an individual in this direction or that based on what I know about her; but I’m not going to bind her conscience by telling her something is sin which Scripture neither says nor implies is sin. She, too, must take on life one play at a time, making her best judgments based on the law of God and the design of creation. Speaking of . . .
3) Our pastoring, parenting, and discipling must account for both the rigidity of law and the flexibility of wisdom.
I appreciate what I surmise to be the pastoral burden of both your groups, Mike. They need one another. On the one hand, we want, as pastors and parents, to help our men and women, sons and daughters, to grow into what God designed them to be. “Become what God made you!” is our creation-driven message. And we should not shrink back from different ideas about masculinity or femininity, even when some of the forms of masculinity and femininity are culturally rooted. So long as the cultural forms are not sinful, dehumanizing, or foolish, there is freedom, perhaps even benefit, in employing them. I’ll come back to cultural forms in a moment.
Here’s the larger point: God created us male and female, and he called this good. So should we. Gender differences are not a burdensome law, but a way of being that is for our good and our flourishing. It’s a dance that combines structure and improvisation. And our goal is to teach our men and women, our sons and daughters, to dance.
I don’t think Scripture bars women from being doctors or lawyers or CEOs or anything else. Neither should we. One of my fellow elders describes a former female supervisor who possessed what we might think of as stereotypically feminine traits. She was consensus building, relationally sensitive, empathetic, and so forth. The team called her “Mama Bear,” and everyone agreed she was one of the best team leaders they ever had. Dare I say this woman acted as a “helper” in her leadership office? Somehow, God manages to both lead and be a “helper” (Ps. 10:14; 30:10; 54:4; 118:7; John 14:16, 15:26, 16:7; Heb. 13:6).
All that was the first hand. Now, the other hand: We must teach our congregations and children to walk according to the rigidity of the law. We should bind the conscience precisely in those places that Scripture does, and refrain from doing so where Scripture does not. Scripture establishes a leadership role for men in the home and the church. So should we. Scripture gives the dominion mandate (a series of commands) to all humanity. So should we. Typically, this means encouraging men to live out their maleness and women their femaleness by getting married and being fruitful. Sometimes, it means figuring out how to do this as singles.
I also think it means encouraging husbands and wives to avoid work-life situations where spouses will neglect their distinct gendered-duties to one another or their distinct duties as mother and father. Let me put it this way: a woman is free to take any job she wants, even president of the United States. But also: a mother of young children is not free to neglect the role of nurturer in her children’s lives, a role that’s distinct from a father’s role and that, yes, might require more time in the younger years. Of course, a father is not free to neglect his family duties for the sake of job either. Notice here that I’m deliberately setting two principles into tension with one another (the principle of freedom; the requirements of parenting), and then I’m calling on couples to use wisdom in figuring out how to satisfy both principles. Yes, moms, you’re going to have to make sacrifices! Dads, you too! I say “no” to opportunities monthly for the sake of family. Other factors will affect any couple’s formula, such as financial hardship, the precise nature of their jobs, maybe the availability of grandparents, who knows. At the end of the day, any arrangement might be lawful, but not every arrangement is helpful. As a pastor, I might urge or nudge in some direction based on design and wisdom, but I’ll take care not to bind consciences, knowing that exceptions exist, at least until something is clearly sin. Realize, however, if we always speak to the exceptions, we’ll give most people bad advice.
4) Expect culture to help and to hurt.
A last word on culture. Expect it to both help and hurt. Different cultures will express or symbolize maleness and femaleness differently. Social construction of gender is real, observes Roberts. But he also notes that culture does not create masculinity and femininity ex nihilo—out of nothing. Rather, every culture starts with a common foundation, a common gene pool for those family resemblances. And different cultures might do a better job of representing this or that dimension of what it means to be a man or a woman.
What a culture cannot do is obliterate the basic distinctions—the family resemblances—entirely. Ironically, same-sex relationships often illustrate the point as one partner adopts the more masculine and one the more feminine role.
So, on the one hand, the biblical affirmation of maleness and femaleness transcends culture, but it also interacts with culture. I sometimes hear Christians dismiss certain gender expectations as merely “cultural”: “Oh, that’s just from Leave it to Beaver.” And the biblical authors will surely explode cultural expectations, as when Jesus speaks with the woman at the well in John 4.
And yet, sometimes biblical authors seem happy to work inside of certain cultural forms for the sake of acknowledging that, yes, God did create them male and female. Men and women are forbidden from wearing one another’s clothes in Deuteronomy 22; and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 is concerned about the length of hair, which, in his context, says something about the basic ordering of creation. In other words, Paul wants to ensure certain creation realities are expressed through whatever cultural forms happen to be in play. It’s not good enough to just say, “Oh, that’s cultural,” as I often hear Christians say. The question is, is a particular cultural form helping or hurting God’s larger purposes?
Knowing what to do with cultural forms of masculinity and femininity requires—once again—wisdom. Sometimes we can work within them, sometimes we have to work against them. My house of four daughters has been filled with dolls and strollers and pink for years. Praise God. But I also want to teach my girls to learn what it means to be “tough,” not necessarily in the vein of action figures like Sydney Bristow or Rey, but certainly like the Proverbs 31 woman who “dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong.” I’d say the same to all the women in the church, single and married: be strong, be tough, be gentle.
I want my daughters, and I want the women in the church, to be like Abigail and Esther or, if need be, Deborah, all of whom leveraged their power to make the world around them better. I don’t want them to be like Jezebel or Solomon’s wives, who used their power for personal gain and to mislead. The lives of godly women will be powerful, but not in the same way as men’s. God made two kinds of humans. He means for them to dance. And he calls all of it good.
Mike, that’s far more than you asked for. I confess your question gave me the opportunity to say a few things I’ve been wanting to say. I pray its wise, biblical, and helpful.