Woman: Helpmate No Longer
The scene is well known. God has created הָאָדָם ha-ʾadam ‘the man’ (v. 7) and has planted the garden in Eden (v. 8), but the man is alone.
בראשית ב:יח וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ יְ־הוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־טֹ֛וב הֱיֹ֥ות הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדֹּ֑ו אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לֹּ֥ו עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדֹּֽו׃
Gen 2:18 And YHWH Elohim said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make for him an ʿezer ke-negdo.”
First God creates various animals that inhabit the land and the sky (v.19), but the man finds that none of these serve as a suitable ʿezer ke-negdo.
בראשית ב:כ וַיִּקְרָ֙א הָֽאָדָ֜ם שֵׁמ֗וֹת לְכָל־הַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּלְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּלְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה וּלְאָדָ֕ם לֹֽא־מָצָ֥א עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃
Gen 2:20 And the man called the names of all the land-animals and of the fowl of the sky, and of all the living-creatures of the field; but for (the) man, he did not find an ʿezer ke-negdo.
Thus, God decides to make woman:
בראשית ב:כב וַיִּבֶן֩ יְ־הֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֧ים׀ אֶֽת־הַצֵּלָ֛ע אֲשֶׁר־לָקַ֥ח מִן־הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְאִשָּׁ֑ה וַיְבִאֶ֖הָ אֶל־הָֽאָדָֽם: ב:כג וַיֹּאמֶר֘ הָֽאָדָם֒ זֹ֣את הַפַּ֗עַם עֶ֚צֶם מֵֽעֲצָמַ֔י וּבָשָׂ֖ר מִבְּשָׂרִ֑י לְזֹאת֙ יִקָּרֵ֣א אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּ֥י מֵאִ֖ישׁ לֻֽקֳחָה־זֹּֽאת:
Gen 2:22 And YHWH Elohim built the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man. 2:23 And the man said, “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken.”
The man identifies the woman as the companion for whom he had been looking. Though he does not call her his ʿezer ke-negdo, the context implies that she has fulfilled this role.
What Does ʿezer ke-negdo Mean?
The phrase עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדֹּו ʿezer ke-negdo, which appears here twice, and nowhere else in the entire Bible, has bedeviled scholars for centuries. The first word is from the root ע.ז.ר, which appears about 12 times elsewhere in the Bible (e.g., Deut 33:7), and generally means “help” or sometimes “save” (generally when the subject is God). The second word, a compound preposition formed by כְּ- ke- “like”+ נֶגֶד neged “opposite, against,” is more unusual, and difficult to translate in this context. Thus, the ancient translations all take a similar approach to the first word, even as they struggled (presumably) with how best to render the second:
- Septuagint: βοηθὸν κατ᾽ αὐτόν—“a helper corresponding to him” ( 18)
- βοηθὸς ὅμοιος αὐτῷ—“a helper like him” (v. 20)
- Vulgate: adiutorium similem sui—“a help like unto himself” (v. 18)
- adiutor similis eius—“a helper like himself” (v. 20)
- Peshitta: (ܡܥܕܪܢܐ ܐܟܘܬܗ (מעדרנא אכותה—“a helper for him”
- Targum Onqelos: סְמָך כְקִבלֵיה—“a helper before him”
- Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: סמיך בקיבליה—“a helper before him”
- Samaritan Targum: סעד בקבלה—“a helper before him”
The rendering that has had the strongest effect on how the term is understood, among English speakers at least, is the King James Version (1611), “an helpe meet for him.” The KJV translators seem to have originated the phrase, which has since become ensconced in the English language, eventually yielding “help-meet” (with hyphen, used by John Dryden, for example) and then either “helpmeet” (without hyphen, common from the 19th century onward) or “helpmate” (used by Daniel Defoe, for example). The first element is the standard rendering for ʿezer, while the second element “meet,” meaning ‘equal’ (though it would have been archaic even in 1611), is an attempt to render the Hebrew compound preposition ke-neged. This rendition is problematic because the simple preposition neged nowhere else has the meaning “equal,” but typically means “in front of, opposite, against” in a spatial sense.
Recent English translations have continued the traditional understanding, though some have made minor adjustments. Thus Everett Fox renders, “a helper corresponding to him,” like the LXX, but suggests that it could be rendered “a helping counterpart.” Robert Alter veers more widely from the usual rendering, and translates “a sustainer beside him.”
Does ʿezer Really Mean “Helper”?
All of the translations discussed above work with the assumption that ʿezer means help. Usually, this is the case, but in the context of Genesis 2 this meaning is uncertain. Nothing further in the story suggests that the woman is to be a helper to the man. Could the term be homonymic, and have another meaning that better fits the narrative? Scholars have turned to Semitic cognates that could be relevant in this context.
One approach, suggested by R. David Freedman, uses the meaning of its Ugaritic cognate ǵ-z-r “strong, powerful.” The Hebrew letterʿayin [ע] actually represents two different consonant sounds, ʿayin (a pharyngeal fricative) and ǵayn (or ghayn – a velar fricative, pronounced about halfway between /g/ and /r/).
The two sounds are clearly distinguished in other Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Ugaritic – as they were in ancient Hebrew as well (notwithstanding the single letter used to represent both). Though ǵayn merged withʿayin in post-biblical Hebrew, in biblical times, the former still was pronounced in distinctive fashion, which is why, for example, the Philistine city עזה is transcribed in the Septuagint with the Greek letter gamma at the beginning, thus explaining why the city-name reaches English as Gaza.
Freedman’s suggestion that the root is homographic (written the same but pronounced differently) is supported by several biblical passages. For example, in the list of warriors who accompanied David to Ziklag, as he sought to distance himself from Saul, one reads:
דברי הימים א יב:א ...וְהֵ֙מָּה֙ בַּגִּבּוֹרִ֔ים עֹזְרֵ֖י הַמִּלְחָמָֽה.
1 Chr 12:1 …and they were among the heroes, theʿozre of the battle’.
The transliterated term above does not make sense as “helpers” and thus should be translated “strong-men,” based on the Ugaritic cognate. Thus Freedman translates the phrase in Genesis 2 as “a power equal to him.” Following in his footsteps, Ziony Zevit prefers the locution “a powerful counterpart.”
This interpretation is certainly possible, but an alternative suggestion, based on a different cognate, seems more convincing.
“Young Woman”—Arabic Cognate
Zeʾev Ben-Ḥayyim (1907‒2013), master Hebraist of the Hebrew University, suggested in 1998 that the word ʿezer here is cognate with the common Arabic noun عَذْرَاء ʿadrā, meaning “maiden, young woman.” The Hebrew /z/ is the regular correspondence of the Arabic phoneme /d/ (which does not exist in Hebrew); see, for example, Arabic أُذْن ʾuḏn “ear” = Hebrew אֹזֶן ʾozen “ear.”
The noun ʿadrā is part of the basic Arabic vocabulary and is used, for example, by Christian Arabs to refer to the Virgin Mary. Ben-Ḥayyim, accordingly, proposed that the ancient Hebrew lexicon included the noun עֵזֶר ʿezer “woman” (in some fashion) – a meaning which fits the context of Gen 2:18, 2:20 perfectly.
Ziony Zevit critiqued this suggestion, noting that if the word עֵזֶר means “woman” (or some such equivalent term) in v. 18, it makes little sense for God to form animals and parade them before the man in v. 19. In Zevit’s words, “Ben-Ḥayyim’s proposal is acceptable on linguistic grounds but not on contextual ones.” From the standpoint of pure logic, Zevit may be correct, but to my mind he introduces too much rational thinking into the narrative; we need to be careful not to employ the Aristotelian yardstick when reading ancient Hebrew literature.
The two ʿezer words then are true homonyms, as both begin with ʿayin (/ʿ/).
What about ke-negdo?
Once we realize that ʿezer means “woman, dame, lady,” we need to reconsider what כְּנֶגְדֹּו ke-negdo might mean. As noted above, the expected spatial translation “opposite” hardly fits the context. We should consider the semantic extension of “opposite” in English, keeping in mind such phrases as “the opposite sex,” “one’s opposite number,” “to play opposite someone in the theatre,” and the like. And thus, I would go with “as his opposite” in the sense of equal partner.
The later rabbinic maxim that lists righteous acts concludes with וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּנֶגֶד כּוּלָּם “and the study of Torah is equal to all of them” (M. Peʾah 1:1), reflecting a similar expansion of the compound-preposition’s sematic range.
In fact, as Zeʾev Ben-Ḥayyim demonstrated in another article, the various manuscript readings of Mekhilta Pisḥa reveal the interconnectivity and semantic equivalency of multiple terms meaning “similar to,” including the biblical ke-neged. The text concerns a slave of a kohen [priest] who flees from his master to the cemetery, since the kohen will not be able to enter there to retrieve the slave – to which the kohen says to the slave, “I have others like you.”
Oxford Bodl. Or. 150 (= Neubauer, no. 151):
אמר לו רבו יש לי כניות כמותך
His master said to him “I have others servants like you (ke-motka).”
Oxford Geniza fragment c. 18/9
אמ' לו רבו יש לי כניות כנגדך
His master said to him: “I have other servants equal to you (ke-negdeka).”
Munich Cod. hebr. 117, fol. 2r
אמר לו רבו יש לי כמותך כיוצא בך
His master said to him: “I have like you (ke-motka) and similar to you (ke-yoṣe bak).”
Applying this to our phrase, we get something like “a lady similar to you” for our phrase in Gen 2:18, 2:20.
Ancient Support for Ben Ḥayyim’s Reading
A translation akin to Ben Ḥayyim’s “a lady similar to you” appears in two ancient Aramaic targumim:
- Targum Neofiti: זוג כד נפק ביה—“a partner similar to him”
- Fragment Targumim: זוג(א) כד נפיק ביה—“a partner similar to him”
These two Aramaic versions do not render עֵזֶר ʿezer with a word meaning “help,” but as the common Hebrew/Aramaic word זוּג zug “partner, spouse” (or anything yoked or joined together). Also, they translate ke-negdo with a relatively rare Aramaic usage of the root נ.פ.ק, “to go out, exit,” produced as a calque (loan translation) from Hebrew כּיּוֹצֵא בוֹ “similar to” (standard in Rabbinic Hebrew).
These lines of evidence all converge to demonstrate the correct meaning of Gen 2:18, 2:20 עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדֹּו ʿezer ke-negdo, namely, “a lady as his opposite” = “a woman as his equal.”
Why the Unusual Term?
Why did the author of Genesis 2 choose this unusual phrase, ʿezer ke-negdo? Throughout the Bible, a common reason for such lexical choices is the author’s desire to introduce alliteration into the text. In this case, the author was inspired by two similar sounding expressions in the lead-up to v. 18:
- בְגַן־עֵדֶן be-gan ʿeden—“in the garden of Eden” (v. 15)
- עֵץ־הַגָּן ʿeṣ hag-gan—“the trees of the garden” (v. 16)
- עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדֹּו ʿezer ke-negdo—“a lady as his opposite” (vv. 18, 20)
Note that /ʿ/, /n/, and /g/ appear in all three combinations; /d/ appears in two of them; the /ṣ/ in the second one evokes the /z/ of the third one; the /r/ of the last one shares the sonorant qualities of the /n/ in the other two; and the /k/ in the third one is the voiceless velar stop corresponding to the voiced velar stop /g/ that appears in all three.
The result is an interweaving of sounds in the three expressions – an effect produced by our author’s reaching deep into the Hebrew lexicon to pluck the word עֵזֶר ʿezer “lady, woman,” which then works in tandem with the unique compound preposition כְּנֶגֶד ke-neged “as equal” or “as opposite.”
An Aspirational Understanding
As serious readers of the Bible, we can be proud that this ancient Israelite author understood that the role of the female was not to help or serve her husband, but rather to function as his equal partner – as his “opposite” on the theatrical stage of the human enterprise. Indeed, the עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדֹּו ʿezer ke-negdo of Genesis 2:18, 2:20 coheres well with the prominent and at times heroic roles assigned to women in biblical literature.
Postscript: Ben-Ḥayyim, His Sources, and His Influence
In a lovely personal note included in his ʿezer ke-negdo article, Ben-Ḥayyim noted that he had carried this thought with him שנים הרבה, הרבה מאוד “for many years, very many,” and even mentioned that he may have learned this point from one of his teachers or from a journal article.
The unstated message was that since the author was then advanced in years (beyond the age of 90), he probably should publish the thought before he passed. As it turned out, he lived another 15 years, to the age of 105, though naturally he could not anticipate such in 1998.
In a note added in proof, Ben-Ḥayyim said that he finally found the source(s) of “his” discovery: an article by Ḥayyim Nachman Shapira (1895–1943) in vol. 3 of the journal Lešonenu, which in turn was cited by Naphtali Herz Tur-Sinai in his glosses on the Bible, Pešuṭo šel Miqraʾ. And then in true Jewish tradition, Ben-Ḥayyim added the Talmudic adage (b. Megilla 15a):
כל האומר דבר בשם אומרו מביא גאולה לעולם
All who say something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.
Ben-Ḥayyim regretted that none of the Hebrew dictionaries had incorporated this discovery into their lexicographical research. Fortunately, though, Ben-Ḥayyim lived to see the day, because in the 100th year of his life, The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, produced in Sheffield under the general editorship of David J. A. Clines, included an entry עֵזֶר IV “woman,” with reference to Ben-Ḥayyim’s article.
The exercise outlined here illustrates wonderfully how scholarship proceeds. One scholar – or in this case the trio of Shapira, Tur-Sinai, and Ben-Ḥayyim – discovers something and brings that discovery to the attention of the academic world through his or her publication. Another scholar – in this case the present writer – builds on that discovery to reveal even more. In this particular instance, I am honored to do so, as I cherish the fond memories of my personal meetings with Zeʾev Ben-Ḥayyim during my early sabbaticals in Jerusalem in 1987 and 1993.
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Prof. Gary Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His Ph.D. and M.A. are from N.Y.U. Rendsburg is the author of seven books and about 190 articles; his most recent book is How the Bible Is Written.
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