To Help or Not to Help, that is Not the Question: Gen. 2:18, Woman as Man’s “Helper,” and Issues in Translation

Recently I took the time to do an in-depth study of ezer, the Hebrew word describing the first woman in Gen. 2:18, 20 that is often translated “helper” in English. Though I’ve spent way too many years reading every scholar I could get my hands on, I mean every scholarly comment I could get my hands on, as so far I have not laid hands on any scholars, when I finally studied ezer in depth I could not help being more than mildly surprised. Frankly, unless someone can send me a suitable helper to help me see the light, I can’t help but question the helpfulness of “helper.”

You see, I had heard that while ezer-helpers aren’t always subordinate, they can be. Though ezer is used mostly of Yahweh in the Old Testament, the one being who is vastly superior to anyone and everyone, it is said that the word itself doesn’t tell you whether the helper is inferior or superior to the person they’re helping.[1] So, an ezer-helper could supposedly be either, though when it’s the woman it means inferior. Inferior in rank, that is, not in essence.[2]

I had also heard that “helping” is “the same the world over” [3] and, frankly, anyone worth their salt knows that helping can involve any type of assistance, whether practical or menial or otherwise. When it comes to the woman, however, “helping” mostly has to do with caring for the home and children.[4] And since “helping” means that whatever you are helping with must by definition be the other person’s responsibility, by the mere act of helping you’re subordinating yourself. That is, you’re helping someone else with their job.[5]

Which, when I take a second to think about it, must mean that the home and children are the man’s responsibility but the woman’s work.

Then too I had read that ezer, which technically refers to the aid itself (that is, it’s really ezer-help not ezer-helper, but I’ll explain that later), generally means “assistant” when it’s applied to a person, especially when that person is female.[6] This kinda sorta follows from the idea that just by helping helpers make themselves subordinate. Even God subordinates himself when he helps us, you know.[7] And if, shall we say, someone is specifically and irreversibly and literally created as the ezer-help or ezer-helper for another someone, well then. What more is there to say?[8]

As it turns out, a whole lot. 

It’s not just that the ezer-helper is stronger, though they almost invariably are, or that ezer-helping has anything whatsoever to do with our idea of subordinate-helping, because it doesn’t, or that ezer-helpers assist others with their responsibilities, though in general they don’t. The issue is much more basic than that:

It’s simply that our English idea of “helping” is a far cry from the concept that underlies ezer

You see, the English term brings to mind images of preschool children following their father about on Saturday as Daddy’s little helpers, predictably walking off with the hammer and screwdriver, ensconcing those wondrously useful items in some inscrutable location so that Daddy never sees them again. It recalls the wedding caterer who unreasonably claims that due to the number of guests you have invited she needs to hire two more helpers, which is just a nice way of telling you that your bill will be a whole lot higher. Or maybe it’s the neighbor teens you want to hire to help you spread some rock in your yard except that you would never do so, because you’ve seen how their bodies suddenly go limp every time they help their parents with the raking. 

So it seems plenty obvious to plenty of people that we can say, without much of a shadow of a doubt, that the woman was created as The Help.[9] She is not The Inferior Help, of course, but The Equal Help. That is, The Equal-Subordinate Help. I mean she is equal and subordinate at the same time, if you get my drift. 

All that being mostly settled, at least in many people’s minds, the question that remains is: How exactly did Eve help? This has been the subject of intense study.[10] It seems that, besides the fact that the first man was housework- and childcare-challenged, two job descriptions The Help very conveniently fit, there was no possible way he could fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply all by himself.[11] So God, ever willing to help, created The Help. 

Yet even before the arrival of The Help the man wasn’t entirely helpless; he had finished the naming and was managing the gardening on his own, that is to say the ruling of all things earthly, so The Help was not needed in those arenas. She was not needed, shall we say, for the Managing-Help, but only for the Helping-Help. 

Or so I’ve been told.

On the other hand, and this is my view as your helper, maybe, just maybe, helper doesn’t mean helper after all.

To Help or Not to Help: That is Not Really the Question

To get at the root of the issue I looked at the masculine noun ezer plus its two related terms: the feminine noun ezrah and the verb azar.[12] My first surprise was that except for the two references to the woman in Genesis 2, ezer always alludes to Yahweh as Israel’s “help.” 

I knew that ezer is often used directly of Yahweh, of course, but I thought that the rest of the time it refers to someone else. And there’s a way that is true. Yet when I read every passage I saw that every time some other entity (another nation or army) is called an ezer, it is intended as a condemnation of Israel’s wayward practice of turning to others for ezer-help instead of to the Lord.[13] The point is that Yahweh is, and is to be, Israel’s only ezer.

Delivering Israel from her enemies, protecting her in the face of calamity, and coming to her rescue in life and death situations were always God’s responsibility. It was Israel’s sinful independence that made her believe that rescuing herself was her responsibility, causing her to look elsewhere for deliverance. In the end the Lord declares, “It is thy destruction, O Israel, that thou art against me, against thy help [ezer]” (Hos. 13:9, ASV). 

Also, ezer refers to the aid or assistance itself; only by extension is it applied to the person, army, nation, or deity providing help.[14] So, as it turns out, the word doesn’t mean “helper” at all.[15] It doesn’t describe God as your or my or any nation’s “help-er” who spends his spare time “help-ing” us with things that are our responsibility, but rather that when we are in desperate need of any sort of rescuing, delivering, protecting “help” it is really God that we need, so that in the end we can think of God as our living and breathing “help.” 

The point is not that God sometimes subordinates himself to his people’s needs and “helps” them, pulling them out of tricky situations or even, perchance, folding the clothes, but that Yahweh, and no other, is the proper source of deliverance and rescue for his people. Ezer is a revelation of the Lord’s identity and rightful position in our lives, rather than a lesson on the function of “helping.” As far as his people are concerned, the Lord is our “help.” 

The feminine noun ezrah overwhelmingly continues this imagery, nearly always contrasting the Lord as Israel’s proper “help” with the nation’s adulterous habit of replacing him with the idol down the street or the nation around the corner.[16] What surprised me in all this, besides the wild difference between “helping” and existing as someone’s “rescuing-delivering-help,” was that ezer and ezrah do not apply to God sometimes, as I had heard, but that they refer to him virtually all of the time.

Also, a more helpful, that is, more accurate, translation of ezer and ezrah is “succor,” which means “assistance or support in times of hardship and distress” and “help given to people who are suffering or in difficulties.”[17] Since “helper” means an “assistant, a person who helps another person or group with a job they are doing” and “an assisting worker who is more or less unskilled,”[18] it gives the wrong impression to all of us assisting workers who are more or less unskilled in biblical Hebrew. What I mean is that ezer and ezrah have everything to do with protection and deliverance in a life and death situation and nothing whatsoever to do with helping around the house. 

The big problem with using “succor” in our translations is that Americans like me, whose public school education might have been lacking, hear “sucker,” not “succor.” And if, regrettably, we take things one step farther and envision the woman as the “suitable sucker,” things go from bad to worse. This misunderstanding can’t be helped, it would seem, though I stand by my American education in spite of what all those Brits keep telling me about my woeful ignorance of the Englush langwidj. 

When it comes to the verb azar, more than half the time it describes Yahweh’s position as humankind’s proper “helper” in contrast to the various false “helpers” that Israel and other nations relied upon.[19] As their “helper,” the Lord succors (comes to the rescue of) those who ally themselves with him, whether that is the nation of Israel, the king, or the poor and downtrodden who by their humility and righteousness demonstrate their allegiance to the Lord. 

The verb is also commonly used of aid supplied through political and military alliances, often of armies rescuing allies who are overwhelmed in battle and in danger of annihilation.[20] That is, they are in serious need of help. Sometimes these refer to sinful alliances, but most of the time they do not. In scripture, it is permissible to “help” your allies in war as long as you don’t set yourself up as their ezer, a position reserved exclusively for the Lord.[21]

This ought to be obvious, but “helping” your allies means that you fight alongside them, not that you clean the camp, fetch the water, feed the animals, or cook the soup. You might do those things too, but they’re not the point. The men who allied themselves with David when he was on the run from Saul “came to help [azar] David, until he had a great army.”[22] As David’s “helpers” they fought for the future king, protected him, saved him, and came to his rescue.[23]

What we have to remember about alliances, though, is that they go both ways. So while David’s men were loyal to him as his “helpers,” David was also loyal to his men. And while Yahweh is faithful to his people as their “help,” he expects us to be absolutely faithful to him in return, “helping” him in his battles and in his work. By definition, there is no such thing as a one-way alliance. In Isaiah 63:5 Yahweh complains:

I looked, but there was no one to help [azar], I was appalled that no one [no human beings] gave support; so my own arm achieved salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me.[24]  

Oddly enough (if you think of how we use the verb “to help” in English), azar is never used in a context of practical or manual labor, such as artifact creation, lamb skinning, baby delivering, census taking, temple rebuilding, or even “helping” the remaining Benjamites by letting them snag the daughters of Shiloh as wives.[25] All of these, along with every other Old Testament reference to practical assistance, use other words, phrases, or verbal forms to convey the idea of “helping.” They never utilize azarezer, or ezrah

Nor does azar ever describe caring for the home (or tent, as the case may be) or children or any sort of “subordinate” work that one person does for another, such as watering camels, spinning wool, making clothing, cooking dinner, changing diapers, sweeping the floor, doing the laundry, running errands, organizing the family schedule, or even cleaning the shower.[26]

Not even once

Instead, the consistent usage has to do with coming to the support or aid of an ally in the face of opposition and, most of all, coming to the rescue in life or death circumstances.[27] So it’s not like helping to make the bed (as my husband did today), but instead like grabbing an elderly man stuck on the fourth floor of a burning building before he goes up in flames or hauling a child out of a frozen lake before her heart grows cold and refuses to beat again. It’s “help” or rather “HELP!” in the sense that If you don’t come, I will probably die.

This was all so weird to me. With all the talk of women “helping” men out at home in all sorts of practical ways, taking care of the routine and mundane basics of life, those things that are important and need to be done, no doubt, I expected to find at least one example of that type of “helping.” Instead, I found zero.[28]

That is, zero.

The Woman Images One of God’s Most Important Roles

The very strangest part of it all, though, was that through ezer the woman distinctly and powerfully images one of God’s most important roles. Though men may reflect God as Father and Jesus as Bridegroom, it is the woman who reflects God as our Helpreminding us of the awesome power and unending goodness of the one who deserves absolute love, allegiance, and devotion from those he chooses to “help” with his rescuing hand.

What does all of this tell us about the identity of the woman? Just as the term speaks of God’s proper place in our lives, a place that belongs to him and no other, so also ezer speaks of the woman’s position with the man, a position that no one else and nothing else is to hold. Just as by his very existence God is the succor, the deliverance, the “help” that his people so desperately need, so also the woman by her existence embodies the succor, the rescuing “help” that the man is in dire need of in his “not good” state of being alone. 

The man was not able to rule and subdue the earth on his own. He was not able to solve all the problems that needed to be solved on his own. And of course he was not able to be fruitful and multiply on his own. 

But the man was also not able to understand everything, invent everything, discover everything, create everything, or organize everything. He was not able to design everything, paint everything, compose everything, write everything, or say everything. He was not able to deduce everything, decide everything, lead everything, or govern everything. 

From the beginning, the man needed a strong, necessary “help,” a “powerful ally.”[29] So God made the woman. She is the man’s appropriate earthly co-regent, his appropriate life partner, and the one to whom, as far as other humans go, he can turn to in his most desperate times of need. 


[1] Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 118-119, claims the word itself “decides nothing.”

[2] See for example Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991/2006).

[3] David J. A. Clines, “What Does Eve Do to Help? And Other Irredeemably Androcentric Orientations in Genesis 1-3,” in What Does Eve Do to Help? (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), 32. Clines himself is not a hierarchicalist but he comes to the conclusion that Genesis 1-3 “irredeemably” points to hierarchy. 

[4] Grudem, EFBT, 44, states: “Biblical support for the husband having the primary responsibility to provide for his family and the wife having primary responsibility to care for the household and children is found in Genesis 2:15, along with 2:18-23; 3:16-19.”

[5] Clines, 30-31, explains that if he helps a student with an essay or another motorist change his tire he is saying, by the mere fact of helping, “This is not my task or my problem, but yours.” See also Wayne Grudem, Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 31-32.

[6] Carl Schultz, “azar,” in Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, ed. Harris, Archer and Waltke (Chicago: Moody, 1980), 661.

[7] Clines, 31, writes that “though superiors may help inferiors, strong may help weak, gods may help humans, in the act of helping they are being ‘inferior’. That is to say, they are subjecting themselves to a secondary, subordinate position.”

[8] Ortlund, “Male-Female,” 101-104, argues that it is the term “helper” that proves the woman’s subordination to the man while the word translated “suitable” or “corresponding to” (kenegdo) indicates her essential equality. 

[9] I am using The Help in its American slang meaning of “a person of lesser social standing who must do things for you.” See urbandictionary.com.

[10] See Clines, “What Does Eve Do to Help?”

[11] This is Clines’ ultimate conclusion in “What Does Eve Do to Help?”

[12] Ezer occurs 21 times, ezrah 26, and azar about 80.

[13] Is. 30:5; Ezek. 12:14.

[14] F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, “azr,” in Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2010), 740-41.

[15] The present active participle of the verb azar does refer to the one bringing aid or help and is reasonably translated “helper,” as long “to help” is considered a reasonable translation of the verb azar. We do not have a verb participle in Gen. 2:18, 20, however.

[16] The only exceptions for ezrah are two occurrences in Judg. 5:23 where the imagery is reversed and the human inhabitants of Meroz are cursed for refusing to come “to the help” of Jehovah, and possibly Job 6:13 and 31:21 that also speak of human help, though these might be understood to contrast human help with reliance on the Lord.

[17] “succor,” www.collinsdictionary.com.

[18] “helper,” www.collinsdictonary.com.

[19] The qal active participle of the verb, i.e. “the one helping” is reasonably translated as “helper,” as long as we remember what type of “help” we are talking about.

[20] Also, as with ezrah, on one occasion the imagery is reversed and it is the Lord who is looking for humans to “help” him achieve his purposes: “I [Yahweh] looked, but there was no one to help” (Is. 63:5).

[21] For example, the Reubenties, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh were to “help” the other tribes in battle until they had fully possessed the promised land (Josh. 1:14).

[22] 1 Chron. 12:22.

[23] As an example of a sinful political alliance, Joab and Abiathar broke faith with David and “helped” (allied themselves with) Adonijah in his rebellion against his father (1 Kings 1:7).

[24] As noted in footnote 4 there is one other verse where the Lord expected human “help” but did not find it. In Judg. 5:23 the inhabitants of Meroz are cursed because they did not come to the help of Jehovah.

[25] Ex. 31:6; 2 Chron. 29:34; Ex. 1:16; Num. 1 :4; Zech. 6:15; Judg. 21:22.

[26] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, in arguably the best Hebrew lexicon available, state that azar is used of people “helping” one another “in work,” citing Is. 41:6. They don’t mention, however, that the “work” is idol making or that the whole passage drips with sarcasm, drawing a striking contrast between the false “help” of idolatry and Yahweh as true “help” (41:10, 13, 14). The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 810.

[27] There are a few instances where the idea of rescuing succor in a “life or death” circumstance might be questioned, but I believe that they do fall into this category. For example:

1) In 2 Chron. 32:3 when Sennacherib was threatening Jerusalem, Hezekiah consulted with his officials about blocking off the springs outside the city and they “helped” him by supporting this plan of action. What should be noted here is that the Assyrian siege was a life and death situation and that these men “came to the rescue” of Hezekiah and Jerusalem through their allegiance to the king. See Sara Japhet, I and II Chronicles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 982. 

2) A negative example is Ezra 10:15, where two men “helped” those who were opposing Ezra’s command to send away the foreign wives. The usage of azar here emphasizes that this misguided attempt to “come to the rescue” of the opposition is denounced by the narrator, since the person they should have “helped,” i.e. supported, was Ezra. Also, in the life of Israel this was considered a life and death situation since it was foreign wives who had led their kings astray in the first place, resulting in much suffering, death, and ultimately exile. See Leslie C. Allen and Timothy S. Laniak, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Grand Rapids; Baker, 2012), 80. 

3) In 1 Chron. 15:26 David and all the people rejoiced when the ark was returned to Jerusalem “because God had helped [azar] the Levites who were carrying the ark.” Obviously, the Lord did not physically assist the Levites but rather “helped” them by making clear how they were to carry the ark without dying. This is in the context of 13:9-10 where the Israelites thoughtlessly packed the ark on a cart to return it to Jerusalem and Uzzah died when he reached out to steady it. After this moving the ark was understood to be taking your life into your hands. But God “came to the rescue” of the Levites by teaching them (through his word) the proper way to transport the ark.

4) In 1 Chron. 22:17, shortly before his death, David charged his officials to “help” his son Solomon. Ultimately what this meant was that they were to pledge fealty to David’s designated heir. Considering all the intrigue regarding which of David’s sons would ascend to the throne and how often later kings were assassinated by top-level officials, here David is ensuring not only support for his son, but also protection. Once again, the life and death nature of the situation comes to the fore. See the discussion of Mediterranean loyalty oaths by Gary N. Knoppers, 1 Chronicles 10-29: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 780; see also Japhet, I and II Chronicles, 401-02.

[28] My expectation stemmed from the many places the NIV rightly uses English “help” to convey the idea of helping with practical matters. I was just surprised that the underlying Hebrew was never azarezer, or ezrah.

[29] Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ (London: InterVarsity, 2019), 76. 

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