I have a lot of issues with some of the ways in which the Genesis Creation narratives are used by Christians. They are theological poetry (look at the way that the verses in Chapter 1 are set out in your Bible – not like prose, more like the settings of the Psalms) and narratives that are designed to emphasise the who rather than the how – who created, who humans are, who we are in relation to the planet, who we are in relation to one another. If we start to use these foundational chapters as a science textbook we are asking them to do something they are not designed to do – like using the clothes washing machine to wash the dishes.
But that’s not my major confession today. That relates to chapter 2 verse 18. Chapter 2 is very much the tale that tells us how we should be stewards of the planet and the life that teems on it rather than masters, and the story that shows us the importance of human relationships and companionship. The thing I have got wrong for all of the [coughs loudly to disguise the large number] years I have been reading the Bible is my growing unease with the description of Eve being created as “a helper suitable for him.”
My chauvinistic prejudices are shown in all their glory here if I explain that I had always assumed (and been unhappy with the implications of that assumption) that the ‘helper’ was subordinate to the person being helped. In effect, I had read ‘assistant’ or ‘support act’ rather than ‘helper’. Now don’t get me wrong, I fundamentally believe that all humans are made equal and I do not believe that men are superior to women – we all have the same ‘made-in-God’s-image-ness’ inherent in our being. And that is why I have been uncomfortable with the use of the word ‘helper’ because I had always read it as suggesting inferiority when I do not believe that there is any inferiority or superiority between any humans.
Part of the problem is that I have only read the passage in English and relied on the translators to give me the best equivalent word for the ancient Hebrew. If you explore the ancient Hebrew word which we translate as ‘helper’ it carries with it a sense of someone who assists and encourages. It is someone who provides support for someone who needs help.
And the same word is used several times in the Old Testament to describe the help which comes from God.
And we translate a Greek word used for the Holy Spirit as ‘helper’.
And when you add the word which qualifies ‘helper’ in Genesis 2 (which is translated as ‘fit for him’) it actually means ‘suitable for him’ or ‘matching him’. A literal translation is ‘like opposite him’. It actually has nothing to do with superiority.
I am much happier now. Especially when I reflect that ‘helpers’ are more often the experts. A good football coach has greater knowledge and experience which they use to help a team work together as well as possible and offer tactical changes and inspiration that help them to win games. A teacher has vastly more knowledge of their subject than their students as they help them to understand it. A breakdown assistance mechanic has far more knowledge and ability than the driver of a broken down car as they help them to get back on the road. And a magician’s assistant is often the one who does the difficult and dangerous work that makes the magician look good. A ‘helper’ is an empowerer who in many ways is greater than the one who is helped.
So that is my confession. I have wrestled uneasily with that word for so long – finding it jarring with what I believe about God and humanity – and now I can embrace it and relax knowing that because there are others around me who are my helpers I am able to grow beyond what I am now.