Against Patriarchy, Part Seven: Woman as Helper?

Patriarchalists often claim that women are subordinate to men because they were made second and as man’s “helper.” This argument is often framed in terms of “design.” Women were just designed to submit and help men do their thing. Wilson, for example, tells us that “the creation order tells us that Adam was not created for Eve, but rather that Eve was created for Adam,” (Reforming Marriage, 29; Father Hunger, ch. 11). As a result, “submission for women is not optional. They will be in submission in some way and to somebody,” (Wilson, For a Glory and a Covering, 64). Sproul Jr., writing about the creation of woman in the Garden, says that this “affirms that she is in a position of submission,” (Bound for Glory, 64). Kostenberger writes that “Genesis 1-3 repeatedly root the man’s primary responsibility in the family (as well as in the church) in the fact that he was created first,” and argues that “these facts follow plainly from a reading of the creation narratives in Genesis,” (God, Family, and Marriage, 24. Emphasis his). The woman was to be his “associate or assistant” and “assigned to the man as his ‘helper’ and thus placed under his overall charge,” and that “female subordination” is “rooted in the creative order.” Being the man’s helper “sums up her very reason for existence,” (God, Marriage, and Family, 25, 26). This is “deeply imbedded in the created order, feminist doctrine notwithstanding,” (Wilson, Reforming Marriage, 31).

Such a reading would seem to belie, indeed contradict, what patriarchalists/hierarchical-complimentarians are at pains to establish–that the fact that women were “designed” to be submissive subordinates, “assistants” whose whole existence is to be found in helping the man accomplish his tasks of ruling does not make the woman inferior on a created, ontological level. But if they are not ontologically inferior, then they should not have been “designed” as a subordinate. Designed subordinates are made that way. Like women, who will apparently, as a gender, “be in submission in some way and to somebody,” (Wilson, For a Glory and a Covering, 64). By nature. By design. By created order. Such arguments make them ontologically inferior on the basis of creation, rather than as ontological equals who are afterward assigned “roles.” In this way, patriarchalist and hierarchical-complimentarian readings actually prove too much.

But what does Genesis 1-3 really say?

The Creation Account

At the peak of the creation week, God made humanity, and He made them equal. “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness,” the Godhead decided (Gen. 1:26). And so God “created man in His own Image, in the Image of God He created him; male and female He created them,” (v. 27). “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply…and have dominion,” (v. 28). What is shocking about this statement is that man and woman were created at the same time, unlike most Ancient Near East creation accounts where men were made first, with the right to dominate women.

Now, most patriarchalists are generous enough to grant that women reflect the Image of God and that women are co-rulers with men, though this is quickly undercut later (Kostenberger, God, Marriage, and Family, 22-24; Piper and Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 97). But they are also quick to point out that Eve’s subordinate status is clear from the fact that both man and woman are called “man.” This only makes sense “against the backdrop of male headship.” “God’s naming the race ‘man’ whispers male headship,” even though “Moses does not explicitly teach male headship in Genesis 1” and the “burden of Genesis 1:26-28 is male-female equality,” (Piper and Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 98). 

This is a failure to let the Bible define itself for us. It takes the biological differentiation between man and woman and reads it backward into the pre-differentiation passage without letting the obvious implications of definition into account. God is not defining all of humanity after the male, He is starting with a creature that contains masculine and feminine traits, in which male and female are contained in one body and defining that creature corporately. “Man” in Genesis one is little more than an undifferentiated being of male and female elements and characteristics, a hermaphrodite, if you will (literally or symbolically makes little difference to the meaning of the passage). “Man” at this stage probably means “earth creature,” without sexual differences, or both sexual differences.

But, say the patriarchalists, what about Genesis 2? There woman is clearly made second, which proves their case, right? Not so. We should still not take “man” to mean “male” until after God puts Adam into deep sleep and extracts woman from his ribcage. Thus, when God speaks to Adam prior to this point, He is speaking to the undifferentiated “earth creature,” fully formed but carrying both male and female within himself. Patriarchalists make much of the fact that Adam was given a task (Gen. 2:15) to which Eve was made as his assistant. But since the Adam of that moment was still the undifferentiated creature carrying both male and female within himself, God is actually speaking to both of them. He puts mankind, male and female, in the Garden “to work it and keep it,” (Gen. 2:15), which is no different from Genesis one when God said “to them…have dominion,” (Gen. 1:28). We’re still on equal footing. There is no inequality, inferiority, or subordinate status anywhere suggested in the creation accounts.

In fact, a careful reading of the passage illustrates not just equality, but almost a sense of superiority of the woman over the man. The order of creation is from simple to complex, a rising of ability and intelligence, from insects and bugs to birds and fish to wild creatures to domestic creatures, to Adam, and then to Eve. She is the crown and glory of all creation, the pinnacle of creaturely being. This is Paul’s reasoning in 1 Cor. 11:7: the male might be the image and glory of God, but the woman was made not just in the image and glory of God, but as the glory of the man too, placing her on a higher plane symbolically. Conservative scholar James Jordan notes, “The woman is the glory of the man, and thus a ‘better version’ of the man, an improvement in the sense of being more glorious,” (Jordan, “Deaconesses, Part One,” Rite Reasons No. 102). We also see this sort-of superiority in the fact that the woman does not leave her father and mother and cleave to her husband, but the man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife (Gen. 2:24)

What about Eve’s being Adam’s “Helper”? Doesn’t that imply a lesser role, a fundamental orientation toward her husband in her calling and duty? Does not being the man’s helper “sum up her very reason for existence,” (God, Marriage, and Family, 25, 26)?

The word for “helper” here is ezer, a word used for God’s deliverance of His people. Jethro, for example, names his son Eliezer, which means “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh,” (Ex. 18:4). Psalm 20 declares, “May Yahweh answer you in the day of trouble! May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! May he send you ezer from the sanctuary and give you support from Zion!…O Yahweh, save the King! May he answer us when we call,” (Psa. 20:1-2, 9). “Behold, the eye of Yahweh is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for Yahweh; he is our ezer and our shield,” (Psa. 33:18-20). “I am poor and need; hasten to me, O God! You are my ezer and my deliverer; O Yahweh, do not delay!” (Psa. 70:5). “O Israel, trust in Yahweh! He is their ezer and their shield,” (Psa. 115:9). “From where does my ezer come? My ezer comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth,” (Psa. 121:1-2). “Blessed is he whose ezer is the God of Jacob…who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. Yahweh sets the prisoners free; Yahweh opens the eyes of the blind,” (Psa. 146:5, 7-8). The “help” which Yahweh provides is deliverance from destruction, persecution, famine, war, and enemies. This is the sort of “helper” woman would be, a deliverer, an essential ingredient without which he would surely perish. She would be his deliverer, his means of liberation.

His deliverer from what? From anything. A support in the storm, his refuge, one who defends and protects him from all comers, just as he was to be for her. Again, what we see is mutuality. Patriarchalists are right to see the call of a husband to protection and support to his wife; but they miss that this task was also for the woman to do for the man. The task was given while “man” was still undifferentiated, containing both male and female aspects. No hierarchy here, just a co-equal mutuality of protection for one another.

But there is also a historical-redemptive aspect to her deliverance. And to unpack that, we have to turn to the Fall of humanity. Man and woman was to gather in the center of the Garden for worship (Jordan, Trees and Thorns), to be taught God’s principles from their angelic guardians (the Old Creation was ruled by angels: Heb. 1-2; Gal. 3-4). This makes them equally subject to God’s word, declared to them by sexless angels who neither marry or give in marriage (Matt. 22:30). This was not a moment when man instructed woman, as some have suggested.

Scholar James Jordan has demonstrated that the angelic Serpent did not begin this exchange evil. He was Lucifer, lord of all the angels, God’s messenger, come to grow and stretch humanity in wisdom, playing the role of pastor in this proto-Holy of Holies. So when he says, “Did God really say” at the start of the exchange (Gen. 3:1), this is a question not geared to subvert God’s word, but rather to test their comprehension of that word. Many commentators have hammered Eve for her response, which was to say that they were neither to eat of it nor touch it (Gen. 3:2-3). They take Eve to task for adding to the word of God, because God never said not to touch the fruit, just not to eat it (Gen. 2:16-17). Once again, these scholars are blaming the woman. In fact, a study of the later law reveals that what you do not eat you should not touch (Lev. 11), and Paul declares “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch,” (Col. 2:21). Eve was learning wisdom (ahead of the man, gasp!). She understood God’s word and had applied it wisely and had grown. But suddenly the Serpent contradicts God. God said “you shall surely die,” but the Serpent subverts God’s word at this point, immediately after the woman displays wisdom. “You shall not surely die,” (Gen. 3:4). Eve is tempted and “she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate,” (Gen. 3:6). Adam stood there the whole time and did nothing. Patriarchalists have rightly seen that Adam should have stepped in and corrected the Serpent (or the woman, if they are feeling particularly subordinationalist). They reason from this that obviously God appointed the man protector. But can we really imagine a situation in which Adam was tempted by the Serpent and the woman was not supposed to step in and correct the Serpent?

It is sometimes supposed from the temptation of Eve that she was the “weaker” sex by nature, so obviously the Serpent targeted her. She was gullible, easily deceived, and thus her punishment is being forbidden from teaching a man. This is supposed from 1 Tim. 2:12-15: “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man…For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith and love a holiness, with self-control.” Full exposition of this passage must come some other time, but it should be enough to note that Paul’s argument does not depend upon the created order; rather, he is referring to the fact that Eve had not heard God’s instructions to Adam directly; Adam had to tell her what God said. She had to trust that Adam was accurate in telling her what God said. She was made second and missed the direct instructions, not that she was made second and is therefore inferior. Her weakness was not of nature, but of knowledge, a vulnerability which the Serpent exploited. The heart of the passage revolves around v. 14, that she was deceived and became a transgressor, not that she was gullible and easily manipulated. But what are we to make of v. 15, that “she will be saved by childbearing?” Is Paul saying women are saved by having big families? Emphatically not. In fact, he’s referring to the second way in which woman will be man’s deliverer. The curse on the Serpent was that someday a deliverer would come forth to destroy him: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; He shall crush your head, and you shall bruise His heel,” (Gen. 3:15). Paul is saying that womankind will be saved along with menkind by bearing a child who has grown, ministered, died, ascended, and will come to judge their enemies and deliver them all from the devil, sin, and death (1 Tim. 2:15).

Incidentally, the first time we get the faintest hint of gender subordination is also in the midst of this curse on creation. The consequence of their sin will mean that “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” (Gen. 3:16). That is, men will want to dominate, and women will want to be dominated. This curse was finally undone in baptism and equality restored (Gal. 3:27-28).

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