Meting out help for helpmeet

November 21, 2013 in Theology · 44 comments

helpmeet

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.

44 comments… read them below or add one

friendly reader November 22, 2013 at 8:29 am

One of the many reasons to not use the KJV: the language is so old that you almost have to translate it into modern English for it to make any sense.

To add a few more modern translation options, from the versions I’m reading for my “read all the way through the Bible” project:
NRSV: “a helper to be his partner.” A little ambiguous, but “partner” implies equality.
NCT (a Japanese text): “au tasukeru mono,” literally “one who will match/equal him and help/rescue him”

I particularly like the Japanese because they use the word for “help” (tasukeru) that implies saving or rescuing rather than the one that means assisting (tetsudau).

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Dan November 22, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Japanese…nice! I totally agree that the KJV is essentially in a different language than what we speak today. The Bible is challenging enough as it is…there’s simply no good reason to try and understand its message through a version that so often seems to obscure it.

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cmuncy2 November 22, 2013 at 10:54 am

An excellent look at the meaning and origin of Biblical words. There are many other verses in the Bible which appear to indicate a submissive role by the wife. Verses like 1 Peter 3:1, Ephesians 5:22, 1 Corinthians 11:3, Colossians 3:18. One must wonder if it was for this reason that in translation these words ezer and k’enegdo “morphed” into something different than they originally were, to indicate such a role. If this were the case, it is good to know that, at the least, those composing the KJV perhaps had a good context and understanding of these other verses. Who really knows their reasoning. Perhaps an error in human judgement? Perhaps purposeful? Or perhaps the author’s wife got him to do it. Wouldn’t that be ironic.

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Jenell Brinson November 22, 2013 at 11:03 am

Thank you! I saw the same comment,, reacted and felt like posting a response to is, but just couldn’t think of how, at least without doing an overly long bloggy type response, which I’ awfully bad at anyway. 😉 You explain well how I have understood that relationship of man and woman, and how that relates to a truly functional, successful marriage. But I have almost never seen, whether in religious or secular contexts, much about that element of marriage, not of ‘master/subordinate’, or owner/slave, but as two competence whole people joining together in meeting the challenges of life, and of daily life, in the sense I’ve come to think of, and one’s right hand and left hand, working together, as we would use our two hands to accomplish all our every day tasks. I’ve considered it a blessing to have known a few, very few, but good examples, for me, that helped form my schema for “ideal marriage relationship.” In those special marriages, I observed those couples working together in everything from daily tasks around the home, to meeting challenges and major crisis events in their lives, each carrying out a part, as the left hand and right hand working together, and perhaps as important if not more so, each being ready and willing to carry extra load when the other was incapacitated or faltering in any way. We have been so concerned with trying to overcome the cultural/social oppression and abuse of women under ‘men’s authority’ and supporting women’s competency and right to develop her gifts and talents and personal autonomy, which we surely needed to work on, we have in some ways lost the essence of what marriage was intended as to benefit the well being of humans, both man and woman, as well as form the stable environment for the raising of children. Equal doesn’t mean same, and men and women do have some different qualities to bring to the relationship, each as valued as the other. Women of course, are biologically fitted to bearing, caring for, the babies, while the man was more fitted for providing both for the needs and protection of the vulnerable women and children. When most men did so through physically demanding work, to ‘bring home the bacon’ as we’d say, the same nurturing qualities women gave to caring for children also provided him a place of rest and restoration at the end of days of hard work. Culture has changed, especially with development of technology, so how partners might carry out various functional roles are more varied now, but I don’t believe that necessitates loss of the value of functional marriage.
I have lived in situations within marriages, where the relationship was good, and it was always so when we WERE working together in a partnership, and, whether it was first the breakdown of partnership or if that came as a result of whatever else went wrong, when partnership failed, that was very much where it was either working or is was not. Without partnership, marriage become instead an antagonistic relationship. I can certainly agree marriage is in crisis in our culture/society, unfortunately, *some* are determined to find other things to “blame” such as homosexuality, which is of course absurd, or, to force us backward into using “husband authority/wife submissive” in unhealthy master/slave type dysfunction we have been fighting our way out of for several generations now. The breakdown of what is called ‘social capital’ in our society, functional relationships of marriage as a stable partnership and environment for rearing children, extended supportive family, and community, is so at the core of so many of our social ills.

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Dan November 22, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Thanks for these thoughts.

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Jim Ellis November 22, 2013 at 10:01 pm

If we understand the bible as a human document composed within the cultural context of the people who wrote it, we are then enabled to take it seriously rather than literally – which is what this article does.

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lisa November 23, 2013 at 1:13 am

I don’t know if you are familiar with the Pearls ? They have a business called ” No Greater Joy ” that they claim to be a ministry . They wrote a book titled Created To Be His Helpmeet . THey have a huge following , esp in the fundamentalist community . I can not tell you how many times I have seen an abused women be given a copy of this book . It just make me so sad , angry and sick !

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Dan November 23, 2013 at 10:16 am

I am unfortunately aware of the Pearls. 🙁

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mosquito November 23, 2013 at 8:27 am

In regards to the comment, cmuncy2 November 22, 2013 at 10:54 am, it is not legitimate for a translator of the Bible to read into a verse other verses in the Bible. The translator has to give the meaning of the verse, what the verse says, not what the verse would have or might have said had it taken into account other verses of the Bible. So, what your suggesting still represents a mistranslation of the text in question.

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Dan November 23, 2013 at 10:20 am

Balderdash! Translation is all about context. Words are meaningless outside of their wider context. Sure, we shouldn’t defer to theological or cultural understandings that would have been foreign to the original author to help us discern his (or her) meaning. But we certainly should look to other places in the Bible (and in secular literature) to help us in translations.

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mosquito November 23, 2013 at 10:56 am

I stand corrected, Dan. Of course, the context of the verse in question is relevant to the translator. But, translation is not “all” about context. Also, other books of the Bible are not part of the context of a verse in one book of the Bible. And, writings in secular literature are not part of the context of a verse of the Bible. The goal of translation is to accurately represent what the author actually said, not what he might have said.

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Dan November 23, 2013 at 11:14 am

Yes and no. By “all” about context, I mean that words don’t simply have inherent meaning unto themselves, and the context in which we use them is what endows them with meaning.

Other books of the Bible may or may not be relevant to any given book or verse or work. When trying to understand Paul’s writing in any given letter, it’s certainly relevant to look at his other letters. When trying to understand the world of the Old Testament, it’s highly relevant to pay attention to other Old Testament books, to how the NT authors understood those books and to what other contemporary literature and culture may have to say about a given topic. You seem to think that you can just pluck and word or verse out of the Bible and accurately intuit what the author really meant. It’s simply not that easy.

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mosquito November 23, 2013 at 10:58 am

Dan, you are confusing interpretation and translation.

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Dan November 23, 2013 at 11:15 am

Translation always involves interpretation.

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mosquito November 23, 2013 at 11:04 am

Balderdash, Dan, words are not meaningless outside of their wider context.

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Dan November 23, 2013 at 11:16 am

Tingledarph twizzlefrand.

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mosquito November 23, 2013 at 11:22 am

Translation does not “always” involve interpretation. You seem to be big on making bald assertions. It is widely recognized that translation and interpretation are two different things. And you are confusing these two things. That’s a fact. And your “tingledarph twizzlefrand” post proves nothing. Your logic is sadly lacking if you think that it does. We are talking about someone translating a language known to them. So, your “tingledarph twizzlefrand” post is a straw man. It’s irrelevant to the discussion.

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Dan November 23, 2013 at 6:11 pm

That’s twice. If you say it one more time you’ll end up back in Kansas.

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mosquito November 23, 2013 at 11:45 am

Dan, when I speak a sentence in German, you don’t have to know what was my intended meaning of what I said in order to translate what I said into English. Translation does not require knowledge of intended meaning. That is the province of interpretation. Again, you are confusing interpretation and translation.

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Dan November 23, 2013 at 6:09 pm

I’m not sure what you think translation is, if it’s not transposing the meaning of something conveyed in one language into another language.

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mosquito November 23, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Dan, you write: “You seem to think that you can just pluck and word or verse out of the Bible and accurately intuit what the author really meant.” There is no way that you can make that conclusion from what I said. Again, your logic is sadly lacking. I leave the determination of “what the author really meant” where scholars of the Bible leave that determination; namely, to the realm of interpretation, not the realm of translation. Again, you are confusing interpretation and translation.

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Dan November 23, 2013 at 6:10 pm

I’m not confused at all regarding interpretation and translation. I’m just glad you’re not in charge of translating the Bible!

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mosquito November 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Dan, you confused interpretation and translation. Everytime you talked about determining “what the author really meant”, you were talking about interpretation. But the discussion was about translation. So, it is a fact that you confused interpretation and translation. You wrote: “I’m not sure what you think translation is, if it’s not transposing the meaning of something conveyed in one language into another language.” Your committing two basic logical errors here, raising a straw man and equivocating. You were not talking about the meaning of the words in a sentence. You were talking about “what the author really meant”. These are two different things. But you are pretending that they are the same thing. You need to pretend that they are the same thing, so that you can set up your straw man. You have not advanced your argument one bit by this equivocation and setting up a straw man.

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Dan November 24, 2013 at 6:11 pm

I don’t think you even understand what the straw man fallacy is. But you’re right about one thing, I am confused…primarily by your continual reference to “logical errors” and informal fallacies, while you fail to say anything of substance. I’ll give you credit for living up to your name!

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mosquito November 24, 2013 at 9:21 pm

I know full well what is the straw man fallacy. I happen to be an expert in logical argumentation. I make a living at it. Perhaps, you would like to demonstrate your understanding of the straw man fallacy, by pointing out where you committed it. I’ve said quite a bit of substance. I have repeatedly shown where you have made logical errors when trying to prove me in error. If you missed my proofs, then I suggest that you go back and read the thread carefully to find these proofs.

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mosquito November 24, 2013 at 9:25 pm

Also, Dan, at the very outset of my involvement in this thread I said something of substance about an illegitimate translation. You want to insert interpretation into the process of translation. People who translate the Bible would be shocked at what you are suggesting. They would regard that as tampering with the text of the Bible.

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friendly reader November 25, 2013 at 7:31 am

I am starting to suspect you’ve never learned a foreign language.

Languages do NOT have a one-to-one correspondence of meaning. Greek, for example, doesn’t have indefinite articles (“a” and “an”). The world we translate as “kingdom” can also mean “reign,” as in, the time a person rules, not the place. In the Lord’s prayer, are we delivered from evil, or from the Evil One? Because it’s the same word in Greek.

I’m reading the Bible in both English and Japanese right now. In Japanese, there’s no word for “brother” or “sister” – you have to specify if they are an older or younger sibling, and that has a lot of cultural significance in Japan. (Abel literally asks, “Am I my younger brother’s keeper?” and the answer in a Confucian culture would be unequivocally “Yes!”)

You don’t mix interpretation in with translation. Translation IS A FORM of interpretation. You are interpreting a text in a new language, which is a completely new context.

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John D. McCarthy November 25, 2013 at 7:37 am

Once again, Dan, you are attempting to win the debate by equivocating and raising a straw man. The type of interpretation of which you were speaking is not the province of translation. The type of interpretation of which you were speaking is the sole province of interpretation. It does not belong in the realm of translation. You are trying to pretend that the type of interpretation of which you were speaking belongs in the realm of translation. It doesn’t. So, once again, you are confusing translation and interpretation.

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friendly reader November 25, 2013 at 10:10 am

I’m not Dan. You can follow the link to my page. I was replying directly to this quote:
“You want to insert interpretation into the process of translation. People who translate the Bible would be shocked at what you are suggesting. They would regard that as tampering with the text of the Bible.”

If you feel I somehow misrepresented this idea when I said that translations IS interpretation and that you (are you mosquito? if not, I wasn’t talking to you) actually do understand that translating from one language to another is not an easy search-and-replace function, then please explain to me what you mean by keeping interpretation out of translation.

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mosquito November 25, 2013 at 10:38 am

Friendly reader, you have to go back and read the interchange between Dan and I. Dan was talking about, and I’ll use his words here, determining “what the author really meant”. Interpretation, in this sense, is not the province of translation. We want our translations to come from the original text, not from some determination of what the writer might have written had he been able to make himself clearer, but from what the writer actually wrote. “Translations” which replace what the writer actually wrote with what the translator determines was what the writer actually meant are not translations at all, they are commentaries masquerading as translations. Legitimate translators of Scripture would be appalled at such manipulation of the text.

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Dan November 25, 2013 at 10:45 am

Out of curiosity, Mr. Mosquito, which translation do you use that successfully avoids the interpretive pitfalls that you’re so leery of?

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mosquito November 25, 2013 at 10:51 am

Dan, which translation do you use that falls into these interpretive pitfalls?

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Dan November 25, 2013 at 10:56 am

Every translation that I use has shortcomings. I’m not aware of any translation that’s perfect. But you didn’t answer my question ….

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mosquito November 25, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Where do these translations of which you speak fall into the interpretive pitfalls of which we are speaking?

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mosquito November 25, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Once again, Dan, you are raising a straw man. No one was talking about perfect translations.

John D. McCarthy November 25, 2013 at 7:41 am

You write “I am starting to suspect you’ve never learned a foreign language”. Nothing which I have said could possible justify you’re starting to suspect that. I know full well that there is not a one-to-one correspondence of meaning between languages. That fact is irrelevant to our discussion. Once again, your logic is sadly lacking.

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mosquito November 24, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Dan, you write “I don’t think you even understand what the straw man fallacy is.”. Nothing which I have written could possibly lead you to that impression, yet you reach it anyway. Once again, your logic is sadly lacking.

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Dan November 25, 2013 at 8:49 am

John D. McCarthy/mosquito … we’re running around in circles here. If I had a nickle for every time you said “your logic is sadly lacking” I’d have … 20 cents.

I’m not going to try and discuss Biblical translation here any more. If you or anyone else is interested in these sorts of issues, I recommend How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth by Fee & Strauss (beginner level) and The Challenge of Bible Translation by Scorgie & Strauss (intermediate level).

I’ll leave you with this quote from Daniel Block, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College:
“Lay people often imagine that Bible translation is simply a matter of replacing one word in the original language with one word in the target language. Those involved in such work know that the matter is much more complex and that translation always involves interpretation.”

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mosquito November 25, 2013 at 9:00 am

Dan, you write: “If I had a nickle for every time you said “your logic is sadly lacking” I’d have … 20 cents.” I’m glad to see that you can do arithmetic, even though your logic is sadly lacking. The only reason why I pointed out that your logic was sadly lacking several times, is because you kept making basic logical mistakes in your argument. I recommend that you take a course in basic logic. It might help you to avoid these basic mistakes.

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John D. McCarthy November 25, 2013 at 8:54 am

Well, Dan, despite what Professor Block says about the matter, it is a plain fact that translation does not always involve interpretation. I’ll prove this. I’m going to translate deux from French into English: two. There you go, I just translated something and no interpretation was involved. The logical consequence of this example is that you and Professor Block are both wrong in stating that translation “always” involves interpretation. That’s a fact.

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Dan November 25, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Why won’t you answer my question?

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mosquito November 25, 2013 at 2:36 pm

I answered your question with a question, Dan. I know that that is a bit out of the ordinary, but I prefer to answer it that way. Besides, your question is irrelevant to our discussion, as is everything that you wrote when you set up straw men. Moreover, its none of your business which translations I use. And, why won’t you answer my question?

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Dan November 25, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Are you being deliberately obtuse? Regardless, I’m done. If you’re truly interested in Biblical translation, I encourage you to check out the books I mentioned. And I wish you well interpreting whatever translation you choose to use.

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mosquito November 25, 2013 at 3:01 pm

No, Dan, I’m not being deliberately obtuse. I’m not even being obtuse. Criticizing you for your repeated poor logic, your equivocation, and your use of straw men, is not being obtuse. It is part of refuting your erroneous arguments against my position. What has been going on is that you have been trying to refute my position and I have on every occasion refuted your attempt to do this. This has been as easy as pointing out that you made a logical error (i.e. that your logic is lacking). This is all part of the process of debating. It has nothing to do with being obtuse.

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