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

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).


“Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek”

So far, we have looked at tithing as described in the book of Deuteronomy. But the practice of tithing in the ancient Near East certainly predates by far even the time of Moses, the leader who is quoted at length throughout that book. In the New Testament (the last part of the Christian Bible), we read in the book of Hebrews, chapter 7, that “Father Abraham” (the traditional ancestor of the Jews and Arabs, and a number of other ancient peoples) paid tithes to someone named “Melchizedek” (see verses 2, 4, 6). A reference back to Genesis, chapter 14, gives us further information about this Melchizedek who is said to be both king and priest (the name in Hebrew is often translated “king of righteousness,” but probably originally signified “legitimate [i.e, “righteous”] king,” a king who is not a usurper, one who is born to the throne). In this Genesis passage, which is undoubtedly ancient, possibly even contemporary with the events it describes, Abraham (here named Abram) is pictured as a resolute tribal chieftain who must rescue his nephew Lot from a coalition of enemy kings (actually glorified “kinglets” ruling over small city-states in the Late Bronze Age). Still, Abram’s courage is exemplary, for he and his small army of allies, including some 318 men from his own household (note the exact number as given in v. 14, a sign of contemporaneity), do succeed in rescuing Lot and recovering all his possessions; and in gratitude for this success, offers a “tithe” of the spoils of war to the aforementioned Melchizedek, who is described as “king of Salem” (probably a shortened name of the city-state of Jerusalem), and “priest of God Most High” (Hebrew, El ‘Elyon). Once again, this “tithe” is specifically said to be from the spoils of victory (see v. 20), representing a one-time gift in gratitude for victory in battle (the practice of tithing was widespread in the ancient Near East—indicating a typical amount of generosity in giving to temples and/or royal officials).

So then, why is this tithe brought up in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament? Answer: this is once again the typical gift one might give to a temple and/or royal official (in a nice bit of parallelism, the recipient here is both a temple and a royal official, a point particularly stressed by the writer of Hebrews!). Also in a further bit of allegory, the writer of Hebrews then stresses that Levi (the ancestor of the Levitical priesthood—the priesthood found in the Mosaic Tabernacle, and later in the Temple of Solomon), as it were, himself paid tithes to Melchizedek (since his “seed” already existed, as it were, in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham). Talk about “paying it forward”!

OK, a lot of biblical details here. The point is, Melchizedek was greater than even Levi, the ancestor of all the later Israelite priests and temple officials (one pays one’s tithes to someone greater than oneself). In fact, even Father Abraham himself is not greater than Melchizedek (who in the book of Hebrews is taken as a type [or specific foreshadowing] of Jesus Christ—the greatest king/priest of all). The point of these chapters in Genesis and in Hebrews is that Abraham was great, but Melchizedek was greater. (Maybe, especially for the Hebrews references, one can also argue that we can bless our great-grandchildren in advance by giving a tithe of our victory-spoils to those who have blessed us in our military endeavors).

So in conclusion, next time you win a battle against a powerful enemy, celebrate your victory by giving one-tenth of your spoils of war to any powerful king/priest who has given you a blessing. After all, it was the accepted thing to do back in the ancient Near East.


“Render unto Caesar” redux

[This blog post is a lightly revised version of my Memorial Day post, updated for the Fourth of July, which is a national holiday in the United States, celebrating the signing of the “Declaration of Independence” back in 1776, and thus establishing the new nation as separate from England (after winning a “War of Independence,” of course).]

“Render unto Caesar . . . “

In the United States, today is Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those who have served and are serving in the Armed Forces, and especially those who gave their life (“their last full measure of devotion,” as Abraham Lincoln so memorably put it) in such service. The comment is often given that “freedom is never free,” and how true that is—we forget this at our own peril. It is of course altogether good that we devote a day to help ensure that such ultimate devotion not ever be forgotten.

As some of you know, I recently taught a lecture class at the University of Minnesota, one entitled “World of the Bible: Religions, Empires, and Discourses of Power.” I did not choose this title, but I liked it; it has the requisite academic colon demarking further definition of the original title, and delineating what particular direction the class will take concerning the overall subject. (And it also includes a nice usage of the Oxford comma.) I am mostly proficient in the Hebrew Bible, and it is an adventure when I venture into the Christian New Testament, but I think that out of the scores of bible references we consulted, the following quote (I want to say “quip,” but that might be too light-hearted for the original occasion) from Jesus of Nazareth says it best: “render unto Caesar [i.e., the foreign political power currently occupying the land] the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (see Mark 12:13-17). Talk about “religions, empires, and discourses of power”!

Now, this is not to put down Caesar—or still less, Memorial Day. We must render (appropriately give) unto Caesar—the overriding political power in the land, whether chosen or unchosen—appropriate honor. “Caesar” contributes much to our own sense of peace and prosperity—“freedom is not free.” Jesus, in my opinion, is certainly not putting down the political status quo here. But he is reminding his audience (in this case a strange alliance between Pharisees (the religious moderates of the day, and no fans of the foreign occupying powers) and the Herodians (supporters of the political status quo) of proper priorities for his followers—for that matter, for anyone who must choose between important political and religious alternatives. (Most of my readers will not have to be reminded that political is religious—at least for their devoted adherents—and religious is often quite political as well!) So it is a reminder to us as well: Caesar deserves his due, how much more a republican form of government which tries to guarantee freedom for its citizens; and this support should be far more than grudging or formulaic. But for people of faith, such support will always, and necessarily, be secondary to the support they are to give to their God and to his/her human “kingdom” or realm.

So happy Memorial Day! Let us pause to remember—indeed properly memorialize—those who gave so much to keep us free. And let those of us who are people of faith also continue to remember—yes, properly memorialize—those faith perspectives we most hold dear. It is not “either/or” but “both/and.”


“The sun will not smite you by day . . . nor the moon by night”


Yesterday, I went “under the knife,” enduring what is called “Mohs surgery” for skin cancer on the face. This is not the first time I have had skin cancer—fair skin plus fifteen years of Florida sun, plus too many occasions of “sun bathing” (you know, to build up my Vitamin D) have taken their toll. So yesterday, the surgeon’s knife it was (in Mohs surgery, flesh is taken, then sliced [and diced?], stained, frozen, put under the microscope to see if all the cancer has been removed—with the procedure repeated as often as necessary). I really cannot say they took my pound of flesh—a tenth of an ounce is more likely—but it hurts enough today.

Well, pain gets a person thinking. One of my favorite psalms in the Hebrew Bible is Psalm 121, the one which starts off, “I lift my eyes up to the hills. / Where does my help come from? / It comes from the Lord [actually, “Yahweh,” the name of Israel’s God] who made heaven and earth.” The entire psalm is a psalm of praise, a psalm of confidence like the more somber Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”). By the time we get to verse 6, we are reminded that even the sun will not strike or hurt us by day, nor the moon by night. Of course, the sun “strikes” people in the Middle East by its unrelenting heat and intense light, exposing hidden places for all to see—and skin cancer would only be a secondary effect of its burning rays. Now the moon—especially the full moon like the one I saw last night—can also expose hidden places and people by its light, but its effects are more psychological than physical (everyone knows someone who can act like a “lunatic,” literally “moon-struck”). Commentators differ on whether such conceptions existed in the ancient world, but Mitchell Dahood reminds us that “the notion that the moon beamed harmful influences was widespread in the ancient Near East” [Anchor Bible Commentary on the Psalms, 3:202], and Derek Kidner’s Psalms Commentary (Tyndale, 432) concludes, “on the effects of the moon on certain people, little is understood; but some kinds of mental disturbance vary with its phases. Not all popular belief on the subject is unfounded.” (I love his British understatement.)

I have taught the Hebrew Bible for years, and typically my classes include health care workers and police officers. Time and again they confirm what popular culture attests, people can act crazy  (a condition often called “lunacy”) when there is a full moon. I know psychologists often debunk such popular thought, so I don’t want to get loony on the subject, myself. Besides, I have digressed (another disease which often afflicts me); the subject is the sun, and skin cancer. Or more precisely, the reality that neither skin cancer nor lunacy need afflict the psalmist—or for that matter anyone who looks to the Lord for protection (or “shade,” either literal or metaphorical, from the elements—see verse 5).

So I will continue to wear my hat during sunny days, and will look for lunatics during the night; but not worry about the baleful effects of either the rays of the sun or the “beams” of the moon. For such “moonshine” (now I know why locally-produced liquor deserves such an epithet) pales into insignificance under divine protection, as does the “sunshine” which dries up the crops in the Middle East. May we all have a great day, with our “goings and comings” guarded by Yahweh no matter where what happens to us today or tonight.


It’s Monday . . . once again

The science prof at a school where I used to teach reminded us from time to time that one-seventh (14%) of our life is a Monday. I would add that this melancholy observation is true, but I presume medical science is working hard on the problem, even as we speak. But imagine, 14% of our life wasted on “Mondays.” (I know, Mondays are often days of rest for pastors and other full-time church workers, but still . . . )

Years ago I had the privilege of digging in Jerusalem (yes, “digging in the dirt,” that is how my three year old daughter described it). Of course, that was for an archaeological dig, in this case the “City of David” dig, under the late Yigal Shiloh. We dug just south of the present Old City of Jerusalem; I personally did not find much in the ground there, but I had a great time in the “City of Gold.” I stayed in an Anglican hospice, just within the Jaffa Gate (I believe it is still there); and we had chapel on the premises—I remember the British singing that great song from Psalm 118, “This is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made / let us rejoice and be glad in it.” But of course, they sang “Lohd,” dropping the “r” as Englanders (and New Englanders—at least in Boston) are wont to do (or, I guess, not do, in this case). It makes a great memory, but it wasn’t until years later that I actually looked at the Psalms text in the Hebrew Bible, and was reminded that not every day is necessary “the day the Lord [or Lohd] has made,” when we are exhorted by the psalmist to “rejoice and be glad in it.” Take a look at the two verses preceding the “day of the Lord” reference:

The stone that the builders rejected

has become the chief cornerstone.

This is the Lord’s doing;

it is marvelous in our eyes. [vv. 22, 23]

Now, think about this. Maybe it was a Monday (or a Sunday, since Sabbath was on a Saturday), but “the builders” (the experts) had rejected a stone as entirely worthless for the building of a wall (or possibly the capstone for an arch). But they had made a major mistake, for later that same stone was chosen as the most important stone of all: “the chief cornerstone” for the wall (or possibly “keystone” for the arch). In other words, the human experts had got it all wrong: what they deemed worthless, was in God’s eyes the most worthwhile, the most important of all. And THIS is the special day the Lord has made: when what was worthless becomes (or is finally recognized) as the most significant of all. THIS is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it—even if it is a Monday. In fact, Monday, the most despised of days, maybe should be seen as the most important? Nah, that is too trivial for these sublime verses—God can pick any day he wants to do whatever he wants. But what he does will NOT accord with the status quo—that is for sure!

Christians will recognize that the New Testament quotes these verses from Psalm 118 rather often, and they apply them to the elevation of Jesus as the Messiah. What the world (and especially the religious experts of the day) rejected as beneath consideration, God elevated to the highest position of all. But you do not have to be a Christian to recognize the underlying reality represented in this psalm—so often God’s ways are not our ways—and to take great delight when God confounds the human experts in whatever situation they (or we) may find themselves. “This is the day the Lord [God] has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Even if it is on a Monday!

It’s Friday, Friday . . . (but Sunday’s coming)

NCU Office with Olive Tree

With Rebecca Black’s song in my mind, and a full academic year as “University Professor” at the University of Minnesota just completed, I think I will try my hand (actually two hands, since I touch-type) at blogging.

We ended the year at the “U” (of Mn) with a look at “Peter, Paul, and Mary,” and some musings on their various roles in the New Testament (NT). (“Mary” here refers to Mary Magdalene, which in some circles is considered to be the wife of Jesus—not his mother, the Virgin Mary, about whom quite a number of blog entries could also be posted!) As for Mary Magdalene, I suggested the following epithet, which many have embraced: Mary, “the Apostle to the Apostles.” Mary, you see, was according to NT tradition, the first to discover the empty tomb of Christ, the first to be directed to tell the apostles about his resurrection, and according to John ch. 20, the first to meet the risen Jesus. So she was indeed “the apostle to the apostles.” (Commentators have often noted the incongruity of trusting such a tremendous message to a woman—women were considered untrustworthy witnesses back then—but God’s ways are not the same as human ways of that, or any, time.)

These observations, however, got me to thinking. There was another time, according to tradition, when God entrusted a simple message to a man. Back in the Garden of Eden (see Genesis chs. 2-3), God told Adam not to eat of a certain tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Evidently, however, after Eve (the first woman) was created, she apparently “did not get the memo,” for she ate of that very tree, and she gave some of its fruit to Adam “who was with her” at the time (see Genesis 3:6). Well, as you know, that was the end of their stay in the garden. Maybe, just maybe, God should have told the woman directly, not trusting the man to pass the message on to her.

Be that as it may, in the NT, God took no such chances—he told a woman, not just any woman, but a very close companion of Jesus, and in later tradition, possibly his wife! Anyway some musings about husbands and wives, life-changing messages, and the like.

[For further information concerning evidence that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s special companion, and possibly his wife, check here:]