There’s an infamous verse in the King James Version of the Bible with phrasing that sets some people’s teeth on edge. Here, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” We’ve sometimes read this as “help-meet” as if it’s all one word and is somehow demeaning women as nothing more than an assistant or something. Really, though, “help” and “meet for him” are two separate words and they mean something different than you might htink.
“Help” comes from the Hebrew word ezer, which we’ll be spending most of our time with in this study. “Meet for him” is an old Englishy phrase that means comparable to or suitable for. It’s from the Hebrew word neged, which speaks of something conspicuously placed before someone, as well as something beside or parallel to something else (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [TWOT] 1289a; Brown-Driver-Briggs H5048). For example, God commanded “read this law before all Israel in their hearing” (Deut. 31:11, WEB) once every seven years during the Feast of Tabernacles. His law is important, and so He wanted it placed before His people to regularly remind them of what to focus on.
Setting negad aside for now, let’s go back to the word translated “helper.” The really interesting thing about the word ezer is that with just one exception, it’s only used to describe women and God. The word shows up 21 times in the Hebrew Bible. Twice it’s used in Genesis 2 to describe women. Once it refers to God scattering away anything else His people might try to rely on for help (Eze. 12:14). All the other times, ezer describes God.
Reflecting God’s Image
Right from the get-go, God makes it clear that He created both man and woman in His image. Though God is consistently described as masculine, both men and women bear His image and reflect who He is. We also have the same spiritual potential as “fellow heirs of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7, NET).
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”
God created humankind in his own image,Genesis 1:26-27, NET
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.
In addition to being made in God’s image, we’re also supposed to grow into reflecting His character. We don’t look or act exactly like God right now, but He wants us to in the future (1 John 3:1-3). God the Father wants us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” and “put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth” (Rom. 8:29 Eph. 4:24, NET). We’ve “borne the image of the man of dust”–we’re human, just like Adam and Eve– and now we should “also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49, NET).
One of our main goals as Christians is to become like God the Father and Jesus Christ. We’re already like them in a few ways since we’re made in their image, but we’re supposed to become more and more like them the longer we’re in a covenant relationship with them. Studying God’s character traits helps us understand Him better and it also helps us understand what we’re supposed to be like.
The Lord As Our Helper
Most of the 21 uses of ezer are found in the Psalms . Here, the writers talk about God as their help. Often, He’s described as help and shield. He shows up as a helper when we need a deliverer to protect and save us.
Our soul has waited for Yahweh.Psalm 33:20, WEB
He is our help and our shield.
But I am poor and needy.Psalm 70:5, WEB
Come to me quickly, God.
You are my help and my deliverer.
Yahweh, don’t delay.
You who fear Yahweh, trust in Yahweh!Psalm 115:11, WEB
He is their help and their shield.
There’s a lot of martial imagery here. It makes sense; the root word for ezar “generally indicates military assistance” (TWOT 1598). Yahweh is our shield and deliverer. The connection between helper and battle is even more pronounced when God describes Himself to Israel as “your help.” All of us who are honest will admit we need help, particularly the sort of help God provides. And look at what a powerful sort of help this is:
“You are happy, Israel!Deuteronomy 33:29, WEB
Who is like you, a people saved by Yahweh,
the shield of your help,
the sword of your excellency?
Your enemies will submit themselves to you.
You will tread on their high places.”
In addition to God’s role as help being linked with protecting and fighting, it’s linked with happiness. When He’s talking to His people, He says they are a happy “people saved by Yahweh, the shield of your help” (Deut. 33:29, WEB). When they turn away from Him, He tells them, “You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your help” (Hos. 13:9, WEB). If we go against God, our help, then we face destruction. But when we stay close to Him, we’re safe and happy (Ps. 146:5).
If we were just reading those verses that talk about God as help, shield, sword, and protector, we’d likely link ezer with God as a Warrior and assume helper is a masculine role. But God uses it for women at creation (Gen 2:18, 20). It’s not used to describe human beings in a positive way again, but we can’t dismiss this verse lightly. This is how God describes His intention when creating women. We weren’t afterthoughts because He forgot to create a female version of the human animal. No! He carefully sculpted man in His own image, then carefully sculpted woman from man (also in His own image).
We don’t usually think of women in the Bible as offering military assistance. One notable exception is Deborah, so let’s take a look at how she modeled God’s image as a help to those around her. You’ll find her story in Judges 4-5. She led Israel when King Jabin of Canaan was oppressing Israel. He’d been a problem for 20 years before God called someone to do something about it.
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, judged Israel at that time. … the children of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh Naphtali, and said to him, “Hasn’t Yahweh, the God of Israel, commanded, ‘Go and lead the way to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? I will draw to you, to the river Kishon, Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into your hand.’”
Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”
She said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the journey that you take won’t be for your honor; for Yahweh will sell Sisera into a woman’s hand.” Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh.Judges 4:4-9, WEB
Deborah and Barak went to war together, along with 10,000 men. It doesn’t look like she strapped on armor and fought, but she was there to help. King Jabin’s military commander Sisera met them with 900 chariots and an unnamed number of other fighters described as “all the army.” Israel won the battle decisively. Only Sisera escaped, and then only for a short time. He took shelter in Jael’s tent since he knew her husband had a peace treaty with Jabin, and Jael killed him by driving a tent peg through his head. Deborah and Barak’s victory song celebrates Jael for her military assistance (though I recommend not following her model today if you’d like to help someone). Also in this song, we learn more about Deborah’s role.
Warriors were scarce;Judges 5:7, NET
they were scarce in Israel,
until you arose, Deborah,
until you arose as a motherly protector in Israel.”
There are some questions about how to translate this section, but it looks like Deborah arose as a leader and protector in Israel to fill a gap when other warriors and rulers were scarce. God used her as a help that the whole nation needed.
Women As Helpers
What about us today? Deborah is an Old Testament example, and the idea of women as leaders, protectors, and warriors might not seem like it shows up in the New Testament at first glance. But there’s actually quite a bit of evidence for women teaching, leading, and protecting in the church. Paul mentions several at the end of his Romans letter.
Now I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, so that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and provide her with whatever help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many, including me.
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life. Not only I, but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Also greet the church in their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my compatriots and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.Romans 16:1-7, NET (emphasis added)
Here, Paul mentions four women who played a key role in the church. Phoebe was “a great help to many” in her role as a servant or possibly a deaconess (“servant” here is the same word that’s translated “deacon” in 1 Tim. 3:8, 12). Prisca, also called Priscilla, and her husband worked alongside Paul, hosted a church, and taught God’s way accurately (Acts 18:2-3, 24-26; 1 Cor. 16:19). Mary worked hard enough for the church that Paul noted her in this letter. Junia is a prisoner for her faith, just like Paul was at this time. The Greek wording used here is ambiguous; either the apostles took note of her or she was considered an apostle (Misreading Scriptures with Western Eyes, p. 172).
We could turn to other examples as well, but that seems sufficient to show that women in the New Testament still help in powerful ways. In addition, we’re involved with fighting spiritual battles, just like every follower of God throughout history. For both men and women, you’re a warrior even if you never pick up a physical sword or strap on armor. God puts His own armor on you and arms you with the Shield of Faith and the Sword of the Spirit. Whenever we aid someone facing a spiritual battle, encourage someone to keep going, or stand up for what’s right, we’re modeling God’s role as a help.
Featured image by Jantanee from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Onye-Inyeaka (My Helper)” by Mr. M & Revelation (lyrics translation in comments on YouTube)