Revisiting the “helpmeet” in Genesis 2:18: what does “ezer” signify in early Iron Age Israel?

by thebibleprof

In what has become a very intermittent series on the Eden story in Genesis chs. 2-3, I wish to update my thoughts on the famous term “ezer” in 2:18—the term traditionally translated as “helpmeet” in the King James Version. Of course, the observation that it is not good that the man remain alone colors the overall context; Yahweh surely means that the addition of the “ezer” be, yes, an actual helpmeet to him. And, yes, the “ezer” is to be someone “like him.” All this is well known. But not as well known (at least to me) is how “like him” and how truly “helpful” this “ezer” actually was, at least in the early period of Israelite history (known, archaeologically, as Iron Age I). Life was, to put it mildly, very difficult then, at least in the highlands of Palestine/Israel with its terraced, dry-farming subsistence existence. (My use of the term  “Palestine/Israel” is meant to be simply a neutral geographical indicator of what is currently the regions of upland Israel and the West Bank.) The “man” needed desperately a “helpmeet” simply to survive (i.e., not starve, and not die childless!) in that time and place.

In her excellent recent study entitled Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford, 2013), Professor Carol Meyers has painted an unforgettable portrait of the difficult life such agrarians faced at the time in their rugged highlands west of the Jordan River, from “Dan to Beersheba.” In sharp contrast to the irrigated lowlands of both Egypt and Mesopotamia, the terraced dry-farming of the Israelite hill country depended totally on the winter rainfalls for success. (Ideally, the “early rains” of late October would culminate in the “latter rains” of February and March, bringing agricultural sufficiency.) But waterproof cisterns would still be required to store enough water year-round for domestic use—they would be filled both by channeling surface runoffs from the winter rainy season as well as collecting water manually from nearby shallow pools. (In most areas, drawing water from wells dug down to the water table was not an option.)

Professor Meyers describes the Israelite diet as a “Mediterranean mixed system”; grain was central but crop diversity was important. (She estimated that about 75 percent of their daily caloric intake came from grain.) “Bread (or other grain products) was clearly the staff of life” (p. 48). Now, the alert reader can anticipate where this discussion is heading: woman as “helpmeet” is literally (and literarily) crucial to the making of bread, and thus to the success of the household in Iron I Age Israel. As Meyers notes, the phrase “only a wife and mother” would have been incomprehensible to Israelite agrarians! (And I have not even alluded to the crucial issues of childbirth and child-rearing so essential to the preservation of life and culture in that world!)

Now, of course, the history of interpretation of the Hebrew term “ezer” is long and complex, and itself subject to later interpretive biases. But I think the original context of Genesis 2:18 is surprisingly straightforward—the first “man” required the “helping” of the first “woman” for any chance of success outside the Garden. Professor Meyers’ happy formulation of the phrase “everyday Eve” to describe family life in ancient Israel—Yahweh truly providing nothing less than a vital “helpmeet” for the hapless human—has much to say to us even today. I don’t know about you, but my own life would have only been a series of disasters apart from my own Eve, yes, my very own “rib” who has cooked the food, borne and reared the children, and brought much spice to my life over the years. In any case, let us no longer quibble over the original significance and status of the “ezer” Yahweh brought to the man in the Garden—she was (and is) nothing less than “the source of life” (what “Eve” literally means in the Hebrew), and the “mother of all the living” (Adam’s own apt phrase, as found in Genesis 3:20).