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Sunday, March 25, 2007
(4:31 PM) | Stephen:

I read yet another of those "feminism will destroy us all" columns recently, and wanted to address one aspect of it, specifically the use of the word "helpmeet" to describe women. If you decide to click the "read more" link, consider yourself duly warned that we're going to have a good old-fashioned word study after the fold.

The column that I read was by one Chuck Baldwin, pastor, radio show host, author, "Moral Majority leader" - I put that in scare quotes because I'm not sure what it means, and newspaper and internet columnist.

Reverend Doctor (two honorary D.D's!) Baldwin pulls no punches in his latest column, showing that feminism is to blame for

America's rapid deterioration. . .today's kids. . .growing up mostly undisciplined, unrestrained, and uncontrollable. . .our society [falling] into chaos. America's dads [being] reduced to. . .the butt end of every comedian's joke, the fall guy in every sitcom, and the stupid buffoon in every television commercial.

It's not that women have careers. The problem is worse than that. The real problem is a change in attitude, a sense that women can move "from under the arm and. . .the side of their husbands to, in many cases, a place of independence from, and lordship over, them."

Why should women be under the authority of men? Why do Chuck Baldwin and so many others belive that "man has a natural headship responsibility" and "when men surrender this reponsibility, or when women wrestle it away from them, the entire family and social structures collapse?"

It goes all the way back to the Creation Narratives of Genesis. If you read my comments in this thread, you'll see that for the ancient Hebrews, one of the most important things accomplished by God is to create order out of chaos, and one of the most important things we must do in response to that is refrain from creating "confusion" where there is order. This idea forms the heart of the Hebrew Scripture's prohibitions against homosexual behavior, for one example, and it has been carried over into Christianity as well. God created things with a specific order in mind, and one aspect of that is how women are subjected to the authority of men.

But one of the very interesting things of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is that even though they were certainly products of their cultures and times, there is often a counter-voice that can be heard within them, a subversion of the traditional patriarchal societal systems and the way that we view examples from a faith history. For example, Gideon and Samson are both anti-heroes, people whose stories are told so that we can understand how we are not supposed to act. That's why when preachers - usually to teens - talk about setting out your "fleece" before God, they are encouraging people to emulate one of the worst people the Hebrew Scriptures have to offer.

The third chapter of Genesis is one such place that things are not as they seem. In this chapter we see Adam and Eve suffering the consequences of their sin. They are being cursed, the serpent is cursed, the land is cursed - curses are flying out of God's mouth in this chapter - and all of it is due to the sin, the disobedience of Adam and Eve. It is within this context that Eve is told "your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you."

The idea that men are to have authority over women is a curse. It is a consequence of what we churchy people call The Fall. For men to have authority over women is a consequence of humanity losing the "image of God," in the likeness of which we were created. It was not part of the original creation, not part of the plan that God had for us.

But what was God's plan for us? How did he want us to interact with one another? We need to go further back, to the description of why God created a companion for the first human.

To begin, we need to realize that ha-adam was not intended as a proper name. It's a Hebrew word related to "dirt," and using it makes sense because in the Creation Narrative we are made from soil. It can be used to refer to both men and women in much the same way that other such words have been used in various languages around the world. The ha-adam had no gender. For 5 days God had been busy creating, and at the end of each he would say "it's good." But on the 6th day, God looked at ha-adam and said,

lo-tov heyoth ha-adam levetoh; e'eiseh-lo 'ezer cenegdo

"It is not good for the human to be alone; I will make a. . ."

Usually this sentence is finished with words like "helper, companion, helpmeet." That last word, by the way, is from the King James Version, and is used primarily by those who believe in traditional patriarchal roles for society.

These translations, though, for 'ezer cenegdo are inadequate. To translate this phrase as "helper" or even "companion" is to ignore the way that the words, especially 'ezer, are used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

'Ezer is a word that is, aside from this one verse, applied almost exclusively as a description of God. There are three instances of it being used to describe a military ally. Within these contexts the meaning for 'ezer is "strength." The Israelite King Uzziah, also known as Azariah, is an example of 'ezer (Azar) used in this way; his name means "YHWH is my strength." God is portrayed as our helper, our strength; does this imply that we have authority over God?

Cenegdo is a weird combination word that's hard to deal with. Ce means "like" and "negdo" means standing, specifically standing with someone. In that culture, to be able to stand in the presence of another is to be equal in status to the other. People approaching their betters would bow instead, or even prostrate themselves. When ce and negdo are put together, they mean "like each other, standing in each other's presence as the same to one another." Of course, that's incredibly wordy, but there are connotations to these words that can't be expressed so succintly in English.

When God found the human being to be lacking, he decided to make another human being and in the process differentiate between them. By his own words we see that the intent of God within Creation was to have these two human beings, male and female, approach one another as equals, as partners and sources of strength and help to one another. We might even be able to say that God, by creating this other human being, gave both of them a source of strength that not even he could provide. Does that really sound like a subservient role, a person who has no ability to lead, that must always be under the authority of the other gender, lest our entire society crumble and fall into chaos?

No, of course not. When we try to perpetuate the idea that women should be subservient to men, all we are doing is reinforcing the curse placed upon us at The Fall and denying the fact that God's intent ever since The Fall has been to provide ways for us to come out from under the curse and have the Image of God restored to us. Those who even now try to maintain a "place" for women that is less than men, though they may not know it, are rebelling against God and God's desires for humanity.

Note: My thinking in this matter has been shaped by Joseph Coleson, Professor of Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He's a very respected scholar and a rather accomplished archaeologist as well. He wrote a small booklet called 'Ezer Cendegdo: A Power Like Him, Facing Him as Equal, which can be found here. I of course used it as a reference for this, as well as this great essay by Shawna R.B. Atteberry that covers pretty much the same topic.

cross-posted at Ezra's place

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