This badly misguided comment crossed my computer monitor yesterday: “GOD made women to be a helpmeet for Man, the Bible says. What is a Help Meet. It is a Proper assistant – A Second in command.”
Helpmeet isn’t a real word — or at least it shouldn’t be a real word. It’s essentially a mistake, an etymological misstep that distorts the original text from which it derives. The King James Version of Genesis 2.18 reads: “And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”
In this passage we see two words: help and meet. “Help” is here used as a noun. In modern usage we’d say instead of “an help” we’d say “a helper.” “Meet” is an adjective describing that helper. In King James English, “meet” means “fitting” or “suitable.” Accordingly, we find in the NIV this translation of Gen 2.18b: “I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Unfortunately, in the late 17th century, printers started hyphenating the noun and adjective phrase “help meet” to “help-meet” and shortly thereafter merged the words into a single noun: “helpmeet.” From there, helpmeet and the related word helpmate wormed their way through the English language, quickly becoming synonymous with a woman’s subordinate role in marriage.
But let’s take a step back and look at what lies behind “an help meet for him”: the Hebrew words ezer and k’enegdo.
Ezer does in fact mean helper, but not a subordinate helper. It is used throughout the Old Testament to describe God helping humanity. It implies companionship and partnership and assistance, often in the context of doing what you can’t do for yourself. If anything, the one being helped is subordinate to the helper!
K’enegdo describes correspondence. It means “that which is opposite, that which corresponds.” It’s talking about man’s counterpart, not just a partner or a companion, but a matching opposite.
The two English translations that best bring out these nuances are probably the NET and the CEV. The NET renders this verse as:
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him.”
While the CEV translates it a bit less-woodenly as:
The Lord God said, “It isn’t good for the man to live alone. I need to make a suitable partner for him.”
There are certainly Biblical texts that lend weight to arguments favoring patriarchal hierarchy. But Genesis 2.18 and a false notion of a “helpmeet” isn’t one of them.