Is “Suitable Helper” a Suitable Translation?

By Daniel Kim Nov. 11, 2015 9:00 a.m. Biblical Exposition, Marriage and Family, Old Testament

I grew up as a second generation Korean-American, meaning my parents immigrated from Korea to the United States and I was born here in America. Naturally, my parents brought their culture and language with them. They infused and comingled their culture with their new environment – and, at times, even adopted American culture and replaced their own. Consequently, I am a product of both my U.S. citizenship and my Korean heritage.

In the Korean language, as well as most every other modern language, there are a plethora of loan-words from English. Some of them are so odd that one often finds oneself scratching their head and thinking, “how in the world did that happen?” For example, the Korean word ha-de is one of the Korean words for a popsicle. Growing up, I had no idea that this was not originally a Korean word, but instead it was meant to be the word “hard” from “hard-bar” (since popsicles are a type of “hard ice cream,” apparently). I remember rolling on the floor laughing when I found this out in college. Really? The name for a popsicle in Korea is merely a poor pronunciation of the English word hard? Another word for popsicle that is more contemporary is “ah-ees-uh ken-dee.” Pronounce that out loud and you’ll get it.

Like many young sons, I wanted to help my dad do some of the cool dad-like stuff he did, such as put in a sprinkler system in the backyard, or build shelves, and the like (by the way, now that I have a son of my own, I realize I was less help and more work for my dad). When he did let me “help,” he would always call out “hel-puh.” Of course, helpuh meant helper, and I realized that being a helpuh was not really that fun at all. He’d call me when he wanted me to sweep the floor, clean up a mess, or hold a heavy object up on the wall so he could nail it in. I was my dad’s helper, or, to use another antiquated term, his gofer (one who “goes for” coffee or other menial errands), or perhaps even his assistant or intern. I was the one who did the tedious tasks that didn’t require any skill, while my dad got to do the fun and important stuff, like use the table saw or the paint sprayer – the stuff that was too important or too dangerous to let me do, or more precisely, the tasks for which I didn’t have enough skill and ability. I heard helpuh a lot growing up, although not just from my father, but also from other, older Korean men who needed a hand (that’s putting it politely – in reality the culture was that younger people did more menial tasks than older ones; the older could make the younger do whatever he wanted the younger to do, even if there were no familial relationship, and even if they were just a year or two older). Like hade, helpuh was a formal loan-word that was in common usage back then (I’m told that both words aren’t used that often in Korea anymore).

The well-known words suitable helper in Gen. 2:18 are so engrained in our English speaking culture that it’s difficult to think of Gen. 2:18 in any other terms, even though many translations have tried to adopt better wording to fit the original Hebrew (c.f., ESV, NLT, or the footnote in the NASB). These words come in the midst of the sentence, “I will make him a helper suitable for him” (NASB). Suitable helper might have been a suitable translation 50 years ago, but I suggest that the phrase suitable helper has become outdated and is now misleading in its translation.

Grammatically speaking, the Hebrew phrase ‘ēzer kenegdô is actually a very heavily loaded clause. The word ‘ezer is the noun “help,” or “helper” (when used to describe a person), and kenegdô is a tripartite construction of two prepositions and a pronominal suffix (ke = “like” or “as”; neged = “opposite” or “in front of” – a “counterpart”; and the suffix ô = him). A terse and wooden, but literal translation might be “a help as one standing opposite him,” or “a help as his counterpart.”

Let’s first take a look at the word helper (‘ezer). When I ask the students in my classes about what comes to mind when they hear the words suitable helper, they give me the answer that promotes equality of essence: partner, coworker, etc. However, when I ask them to put it in a non-church context, immediately the answer is “assistant,” which connotes a lower position. This duality is not uncommon. The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of helper is concise and accurate: “a person who helps someone else.” But, when one looks at the different sets of synonyms for helper offered in the same dictionary, one quickly notices the different meanings the word can portray. The first category lists the synonyms: “assistant, aide, helpmate, helpmeet, deputy, auxiliary, second, right-hand man/woman, attendant, acolyte.” These are all words that depict an unequal and subordinate rank. The next category of synonyms provided by the Oxford Dictionary is, I would maintain, more appropriate for Gen. 2:18, and describes an identity and nature that promotes equality of essence: “coworker, workmate, teammate, associate, colleague, partner.” However, the “informal” set of synonyms also listed in the dictionary is likely more indicative of how most of us feel when we hear the word helper: “sidekick, body man.” Sound like helpuh at all?

Why is the second set of synonyms (coworker, partner) more appropriate? The Hebrew word helper (‘ēzer) does exactly mean “help” or “one who helps.” And, to the church’s benefit, many who have grown up in church have often heard that the word helper in the Old Testament is primarily used of God. In Ps. 121:1-2, the psalmist states, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my ‘ēzer come? My ‘ēzer comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” One cannot say that God is subservient to humankind – He is not our assistant. So the word helper should not be taken as one who is a modern day personal assistant, but instead one who is able to help another in their time of need; when no one else is suitable, or fitting; when no one or nothing else is aptly qualified to be the one to help propel the mission and purpose of humankind.

While the Oxford Dictionary’s definition is accurate, the definition, I think, should be expanded to be “a person who helps someone else in their time of need.” Intrinsic in the nature of a helper – if one is to be a true helper – the person being helped needs help. I was not much of a helper to my dad, because in reality he didn’t need my help. I was not the one who could help him with his true needs when he installed a sprinkler system in the backyard, and so all I could do is be his assistant. In Gen. 2:18, the situation is clear – after a search through all the animals, there was not one who was able to be Adam’s clear match, his true helper. Adam needed someone who could help him.

The Hebrew word(s) kenegdô (suitable) is a bit more challenging to define. Holladay in his Hebrew lexicon states first that ke is a “particle of comparison” as in “like” and that it “expresses identity.” Some words in its semantic range are: as, as much as, suitable to – when comparing two things, one is “as much as” or “like” the other. The preposition neged can mean: opposite, counterpart, in the presence of, in front of, corresponding to, before, etc. Hence, the ‘ēzer that God provides is comparatively “his” (ô) counterpart – the one who stands eye to eye, who fits as a dovetail, a compliment that makes the other whole. This counterpart is divine provision – it is the means through which God himself provides aid to Adam. By the way, it is often argued by scholars that in Gen. 2:18 the preposition neged is the ancient noun form, not a preposition, similar to the way the English word opposite can function as both a noun and a preposition (“that’s the opposite of what I was thinking,” or “they stood opposite one another,” respectively) In other words, neged is substantive, not just spatially relational. She is his match, his counterpart. Hence, ‘ēzer kenegdô means one who is a counterpart who stands before the man – face to face, so to speak. It is like a mirror image. Fundamentally, a mirror image is the exact same image in reflection, but of course the reflection is also the exact opposite image.

The Hebrew, therefore, expresses that the two are counterparts in a complementary relationship – an idea that the word suitable tries to express, but in today’s society might be taken as “good enough,” as in “that’ll do,” but not “that’s a perfect match.” It is not surprising to find that the frequency of the word “suitable” reached its peak in the 1950’s, but in this decade its use has declined to levels not seen since the 1840s.

Given the above, I suggest a meaningful translation of Gen. 2:18 in today’s context might be: “I will make for him a helper, as one who is his counterpart.”  There are other methods by which one can convey the right meaning, such as shifting word order, using other synonyms, or even employing more words. Some examples are: “I will make a helper for him, one who is his perfect match,” or, “I will make a counterpart for him, one who is able to help in his time of need.” Of course, none of these translations alone captures the entire meaning of this part of the verse, nor even what’s been explored above. That’s why we need good exegetes and teachers in the church that can fully explore and explain the passage for the church.

One translation that is becoming more popular is “ally.” I think ally conveys the right message and strikes the right tone, and this translation is helpful to fill out the full meaning of ‘ēzer kenegdô. If you are at ETS in Atlanta this year, I highly encourage you to attend the session by Dr. John Mckinley, a Talbot professor, entitled: “Necessary Allies: God as ezer, Woman as ezer.” It is sure to be riveting and insightful!

I’m not revealing anything exegetically new here. Many have commented on this passage in similar ways. I only make the humble suggestions that we need to pay careful attention to: a) our own biases and culture that may affect our perception of words; b) the translation we are reading and not to gloss quickly over newer versions/revisions of biblical translations that aim to be more precise and modern (you probably didn’t realize that some translations, like the ESV, don’t use the word suitable at all in Gen. 2:18); and c) the original languages of the Bible: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. 

One glance at the Hebrew of Gen. 2:18 and one should already wonder about the typical English translation. Further study will quickly dispel any notion that women are relegated to a lower rank in their identity and essence by the creation of Eve as ‘ēzer kenegdô. Hence, intense study of the original biblical languages is critical when one takes on the responsibilities of being a teacher in the church. 

As we study Gen. 2, we should also remember that we have the most illustrious forerunners of Old Testament interpretation to rely upon. Of course, I mean the New Testament authors, and specifically Paul the Apostle. Paul too, promotes equality: “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus “(Gal. 3:28). But, elsewhere, Paul alludes to Gen. 2 when he speaks of the created order in 1 Tim. 2:13. Inherent in Gen. 2 are both equality and differentiation. Being different is neither higher nor lower. It’s just different. Paul understood that there is a fundamental equality – an equality of essence – but yet there is a difference between a woman and a man.

It is not my aim to produce a theology of gender here, especially through a blog post. Instead, I simply want to highlight how both our cultural biases and our understanding of the ever-evolving definitions of words can lead to translations and (therefore) interpretations of Scripture that can tint our perception of what the Bible actually says. Unfortunately, sometimes one word is not enough to translate a word in a different language. Sometimes you need many. And, sometimes you need to keep adjusting the translation in order to have a suitable translation for each generation.

Comments

  • A. S. Haley Nov. 11, 2015 at 9:35 AM

    There was a happy accident in the 17th century as a result of the King James translation of Gen. 2:18 as "an help meet for him ...", i.e., a helper suitable ("meet") for Adam. People began to refer to Eve as Adam's "helpmeet", and the word passed into our language, but is now archaic. Nevertheless, I think it is an admirably compact expression for what the Hebrew tries to convey.

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