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Published Date: November 1, 2006

Published Date: November 1, 2006

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Does it Really Mean “Helpmate”?

I was working on my thesis in seminary. Tired of being asked if I was going to seminary to be a pastor’s wife, I had decided to write a biblical theology of single women in ministry that would show God’s calling for a woman was not dependent on her marital state. I was talking with my thesis advisor, Dr. Joseph Coleson, the professor of Old Testament Studies. He had looked at my outline and thesis proposal and told me that I needed to add a chapter addressing the Creation Story in Genesis 1:1—2:25, particularly the second creation account found in Gen. 2:5-25, where woman is created to be an ezer cenegdo to the man. If the Hebrew phrase simply meant “helper”, then could a woman hold a leadership position in the church, let alone a single woman? But if that isn’t what ezer cenegdo meant, then that would open up the vistas I needed to write and successfully defend my thesis. Defend, not in front of the professors at seminary, but to defend from those who say woman was created to be a wife and mother and only a helpmate for her husband.

So what does this little Hebrew phrase mean?

Ezer is used 20 times in the Old Testament: seventeen times to describe God and three times to describe a military ally or aide. “Help” or “helper” is an adequate translation, but English has different nuances than the Hebrew does. In English “helper” implies someone who is learning, or under a person in authority. In the Hebrew “help” comes from one who has the power to give help—it refers to someone in a superior position. That is why God can help Israel: he has the power to do so. God helps Israel because they do not have the power to help themselves.

There is another possible definition for ezer: “power” or “strength.” Both words are from the same Hebrew root and the nouns would be identical. This is seen in how ezer is translated as either “helper” or “power/strength” in the Judean king’s name, Uzziah, which means “God is my strength,” as well as the other name he is known as, Azariah. There are also poetic passages where “power” or “strength” are the only logical translations of ezer. It is clear that in some passages the root for ezer is “helper,” and in others it is the root for “power.”

Cenegdo is two prepositions, and together their literal meaning is “facing.” Ke is the first preposition and it means “like” or “corresponding to.” Negdo means to stand in someone’s presence. Paired with ke it means to be in the presence of an equal. Together these two prepositions show the relationship between two people: it means they are standing or sitting facing each other, which shows they are equals. Ezer cenegdo does not mean or even imply to mean one who is subordinate or inferior—in creation or in function. Woman was created to be a power equal to man; an autonomous being that God created so that the man would have someone like him, and equal to him, to share his life with.

The man acknowledges this when he sees the woman. In the second poetic passage in the Bible he proclaimed: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”! He knew at last an ezer cenegdo had been brought to him. His speech reinforces the woman as his equal. Unlike the animals, she corresponds to him—she is like him; there is mutuality, unity and solidarity. The man recognized what God had done by calling her woman and saying she came from man. The narrator then stated, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). This seems odd in that in all Near Eastern cultures it was the woman who left her family to live with her husband and his family. Again, we see that one is not above the other. Flying in the face of patriarchal culture, the mandate for marriage is one where the man leaves his family and clings to his wife.

Woman is not subordinate to man because she was made from man. This would imply that man would be subordinate to the dirt he was formed from. As Phyllis Trible points out both man and woman are made from raw material that God fashions into something else. When God is done there is no longer dirt—there is man; there is no longer a side—there is woman. In both cases it is God’s creative activity that creates and sustains both man and woman. Woman is not dependent on man, but on God, for her creation and her being, just as man is.

In Genesis 2:23 when the man recognizes the woman as someone comparable to him and calls her “woman,” some believe that he names her as he named the animals earlier. They interpret this to mean that as man has dominion over the animals, now in a similar way he has dominion over the woman, and this is God-ordained. But the normal naming formula that can denote authority over another is not used here. Normally call is immediately followed by the naming of a name, and here the text does not say that the man named the woman, only that he recognized her as one like him and called her “woman.” The first time the female is called “woman” is by the narrator in verse 22: “And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman.” She is recognized as “woman” before the man sees her. He is simply affirming what God has done: given him an ezer cenegdo.

In the beginning, men and women were both created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and they were created to be equals. They were both given the commands to be fruitful and to rule over the earth (Gen. 1:28-30). The woman was not created to be a subordinate helper to her husband. She was created as an autonomous being; she was a complete human being, just as the man was. Her existence was not dependent on him as his existence was not dependent on her: their existence depended on God alone who created them both.

Another assumption is that since woman was made because it was “not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18), and the first marriage covenant comes after man’s declaration of woman being “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23), that a woman’s primary purpose is marriage and that should be her primary goal in life as well. Even though woman was created to alleviate the man’s loneliness and provide him an ezer cenegdo, men are not raised to believe that marriage should be their primary purpose and goal in life. For men their main purpose is a career. How are single women with a call to ministry to react to the attitude that they are just “playing ministry” until Mr. Right comes along? After all, isn’t Genesis 2 clear that marriage is the God-ordained, and therefore, the “natural” state to be in?

Certainly marriage is a part of God’s design, and marriage is to be the ultimate expression of love, fidelity, and sexuality, but it is just one of many relationships. As Christians, we must remember that marriage is not the supreme relationship—the supreme relationship of any believer’s life is with God; our relationship with God is what makes us whole and complete.

Although I began this with Genesis, I would like to end with what the New Testament has to say about women and ministry. As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ came to redeem all people—both men and women, and now “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). At Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled all the believers who had been gathered—both men and women, and they went out to the streets proclaiming all the things that had happened in the last few weeks. It is reasonable to believe that the women who were at the foot of the Cross were in the upper room as well. When the Holy Spirit came, he came to all: men, women, married, single, old, and young alike, which Peter affirms in his sermon. All that God required of these believers was obedience: they stayed in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit came, and then they all went out and proclaimed what he had done. Whether one is married or single, male or female, is irrelevant in the Kingdom of God. All that is required is obedience to the call and the will of God.


Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Helpmate or Power Equal to Him?” 11-22.

Joseph Coleson, ’Ezer Cenegdo: A Power Like Him, Facing Him as Equal (Grantham, PA: Wesleyan/Holiness Women Clergy), 1996.

Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton, Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership (Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing), 2000.

J Lee. Grady, Ten Lies the Church Tells Women, How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House), 2000.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 1992.

Aída Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 1985.

Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1978.

All biblical translations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

P. S.: Since the writing of the thesis, I have married a wonderful egalitarian man who fully supports me in my callings as pastor and writer. He’s also fine with the fact that I cannot have children. 🙂