Playing Fast and Loose?

The recent Ensign article by the Hafens has already seen discussion at T&S and FMH. I’d like to add a comment, but first point out that I appreciate the tone and direction it took. I have found good guidance and much to think about in the Hafens’ other writings. I have no wish or motive to make them or the Hebrew professor upon whom they relied look bad, but they have presented a flawed argument, which attempts to correct ignorance (a good and noble thing) but unwittingly does so with misplaced apologetics (a bad thing.)

My focus is on the following statements.

a) “the Hebrew for help in “help meet” is ezer, a term meaning that Eve drew on heavenly powers when she supplied their marriage with the spiritual instincts uniquely available to women as a gender gift.”

b) “Genesis 3:16 states that Adam is to “rule over” Eve, but this doesn’t make Adam a dictator….over in “rule over” uses the Hebrew bet, which means ruling with, not ruling over.”

All well and good… except point a is quite a stretch and point b is poorly argued Hebrew, which which I must respectfully disagree.

I appreciate that the article parses correctly and avoids the common trap of slurring what should be “a-help (pause) meet-for-him” into “a help-meet (or worse, helpmate) for him.” “Meet” does indeed mean what the article says, something like “suitable for” or “equivalent to.” But lexically speaking, ezer has nothing to do with “spiritual instincts uniquely available to women as a gender gift.” I see how that is arrived at, but it’s not what the word means.

Ezer (think of Ezra “God is a help” or Azriel/Eliezer “God is (my) help”) is applied only to two characters in the Bible- Eve and God. If you’re in a group of two, and the other member is God, that’s a fairly elite group. In other words, Eve is some kind of divine aid to Adam, and the nature of that help is not subordinate, like that of a secretary, a gopher, an assistant, or when parents say of their three-year old “he’s such a good helper.” It’s God-like aid. God is a help and clearly not subordinate, and that’s apparently the kind of aid Eve is. Since this ezer-ness is channeled through Eve, the proto-typical female and not Adam the male, I can see why one might extrapolate to what they said. Nevertheless, I think it’s inaccurate as they stated it, and discussing the background might have helped. Perhaps they or an editor were motivated by space concerns.

As for the second part… I think the claim is both unnecessary and that it is indefensible from a scholarly perspective. The claim is that the preposition bet (the letter b) should be translated as “with” not “over.” This is problematic for several reasons.

First, bet has many translational values in English- “in” “into” “at” “on” “by means of” “when” “among” and also “with.” However, “with” is fairly rare and somewhat indirect. Most often when the Hebrew writers wanted to say “with” or “in the company of” they use ‘et or ‘im (the consonantal inverse of Arabic ma’a, the typical Arabic word for “with”).

Second, as in many other languages, some verbs have a fixed preposition for governing objects. In English, for example, one listens, but one listens to something. When the verb “to listen” has an object, the preposition used between the object and the verb must be to. Similarly, the Hebrew verb “to rule” in the Genesis passage is mashal. When mashal governs an object, the mediating preposition is always bet. It is clear from all other occurrences of this verb that the meaning is one of ruling, governance, authority etc.. A king mashals b- his people. Joseph mashaled b-Egypt in Gen. 45:8. There are lots of other examples establishing this.

Temporarily setting aside the Genesis passage, every occurrence of mashal b– requires the translation of (insert higher authority) ruling (insert appropriate preposition here) (insert lower authority here). What should that preposition be? In English, one rules over something.

In other words, if the author had wanted to say “rule with” instead of “rule over” he had a choice of much better and clearer words to use in Hebrew, ‘im or ‘et. When we look at the semantics of mashal b- elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, we find that it always means “to rule over something, exercise authority over.” I find it utterly illogical that the author decided to use the normal phrase for “rule over” if “rule with” was intended, particularly since this would be the sole occurrence of mashal b– meaning “rule with” and thus easily misunderstood.

Why then, this translation in the article? I believe it’s purely a case of misplaced apologetics. The authors (and President Kimball) apparently view this passage as prescriptive, as the way God intends things to be, the ideal. I do not. I think it’s descriptive. In other words, I view Genesis as describing the natural circumstances of their now-fallen state, our earthly imperfect impulses and conditions, not the heavenly ideal. I can see why someone concerned with equality who also viewed the passage as prescriptive would want to soften it.

I applaud their article, and their willingness to read and interpret the scriptures seriously.

For those interested in further reading on ezer and “help meet,” it looks like this list includes a Bible Review article along with some LDS treatments.

18 Replies to “Playing Fast and Loose?”

  1. Wow, thanks Nitsav. This is great.

    You’re explanation of Ezer was even more “pro-equality” than theirs.

    As for ruling over, I have been flipping through different commentaries and lexicons on mashal today and was wondering about this, since it says within the same story that the sun will rule over the day and the night and that adam will rule over the animals.

    I think a reason this becomes a concern for people is we are asked as Later-day saints to apply this story to ourselves in the hear and now, with varying degrees of success…

    As a non-Hebrew speaker, I was looking at the Blue letter Bible lexicon and it noted an alternative of “to cause to rule” and that there is some connection between “to rule” and “to make like”. This made me think of the added verses to the end of the Gospel of Thomas, but sadly I am not knowledgeable enough to draw any conclusions or pursue these lines of reasoning any further.

  2. Matt, from consulting one of the current lexicons, it appears that scholars posit two different homophonous roots. The sibilants in Semitic (s, sh as in mashal, other similar sounds), particularly Hebrew, are notoriously uncertain and hard to pin down.

  3. But now I think that I am even more confused…if Eve’s help is God-like help, why then is Adam ruling over her? In other words, if Eve’s ezer is so important, why not have her rule over Adam in the way that God rules over Adam?

  4. My knee-jerk response is to point out that Eve is called an ezer while still in the garden. Once fallen, all bets are off, and the mashal-phrase is descriptive of that.

  5. Thanks for this post–I had suspected as much but was not confident enough in my Hebrew to state what you did.

  6. Nitsav, thanks for bringing good Hebrew to the ‘nacle and for explaining it well.

    As for ezra, I’ve heard a professor of mine make a connection between this segholate and an arabic form ‘idthra, meaning young woman, where in Hebrew the z represents (at least?) two Proto Semitic phonemes, z and dth (the voiced dental fricative; not sure how to make the eth here). If he’s right, this would make the translation something like ‘your female counterpart’ instead of help-meet, thus reducing the terrible implications of ‘help’ that have crept up in the Millennia of interpretation of this verse. Unfortunately, I don’t command Arabic, so I can’t verify this argument.

    This interpretation would make the most sense to me, since Eve is an outlier when it comes to who can be an ‘ezer, and since in J it’s not good for ‘adam’ (humans as a collective) to be one entity, but an ‘ish and an ‘isshah were required. After it is stated that it is not good for humans to be ‘alone’, the animals are created and paraded before the ‘adam’, and none is found to correspond to him. It’s not that they couldn’t ‘help’ ‘him’, but that they weren’t of ‘his’ composition. Once the adam is split and two entities made from it, they are named ‘ish and ‘isshah, because finally a correspondent existed. If there really were implications of “help”, even in the more salvific sense, I would expect there to be more said about what this meant, whereas if it means something like ‘female counterpart’, ’nuff said.

    This also brings J and P into closer harmony, since in P there’s nothing whatsoever about women helping men, it’s simply: “he created them male and female” (1:27b).

    Any support/criticism?

  7. Re #8,

    Question; if it means “female counterpart,” then what’s the point of parading all of the animals in front of Adam–there doesn’t seem to be much chance that either Adam or God would think that any of them would be his female counterpart.

  8. Nitsav: thanks for the info. Any thoughts on the purpose of the parallel language of gen 3:16 and gen 4:7?

    Does this parallel contribute anything or is it just coincidence?

  9. Jupiter: I have no philological objections, though I’d want to see the Arabic data. (D-underline did merge with z in Hebrew, so that’s no problem.)

    Your professor, then, posits that this and the ezer meaning “help” (well attested as a verb) are non-homonymic homoographs, and that only the two Genesis occurrences exist?

    It’s an interesting idea.

    Matt: I seem to recall a comment on that from another poster, on another blog. I’ll see if I can find it before I make my own.

  10. Bruce Satterfield has a parsing of this phrase that I like. The following is quoted from a paper on his BYU-I web site:

    Before Eve was created, the account reads: “And I, the Lord God, said unto mine Only Begotten, that it was not good that the man should be alone; wherefore, I will make an help meet for him.” (Moses 3:18; see also Gen. 2:18). The phrase “help meet for him” translates the Hebrew words ezer kenegdo. These words are a little difficult for me to translate. Ezer literally means, “help” and is similar in meaning to the English word ‘help.’ However, kenegdo, translated ‘meet for him’, is more difficult to translate. The root word, neged(21), literally means ‘opposite’, ‘in the presence of’, ‘over against’, ‘in front of’, ‘corresponding to’, or ‘aside’.(22) Literally, kenegdo means, ‘opposite as to him’ or ‘corresponding as to him’.

    The sense of the phrase ezer kenegdo is ‘an equal but opposite helper to him’. For example, my left hand is the ezer kenegdo to my right hand; both hands look alike except they are exactly opposite. Both hands are equal but opposite. This is so that they might work better together. Imagine trying to pick up a shovel with two hands that are positioned the same! Again, the ezer kenegdo of the right wing of an airplane is the left wing; they look exactly the same except they are opposite each other. Both wings are equal but opposite. This is so that the airplane can fly. One wing is no more important than the other. The same is true with man and woman. Man’s ezer kenegdo is woman. Both are equal but opposite. It requires both to fulfill the role of parenthood!

  11. Nitsav,

    The prof’s theory is that they are non-homonymic homographs, probably as a result of arcane usage and perhaps erroneous transmission.


    The animal procession, in my view, is a didactic way of making the point that there was currently no “‘zr knegdo” for the adam. The act of naming them further highlights this. When the end of the animals is reached, there was still no “‘zr knegdo”, and so one had to be made from the human’s own substance. It’s not that none of the beasts was an unsuitable “helper”. It’s that none of the animals was of the adam’s same species.


    Thanks for the quote. The objection I would make to Satterfield’s Hebrew is that, as Nitsav mentioned, “helper” is not at all the sense of the Hebrew. When it’s translated like this, it’s easy to see where the misogynistic interpretations come from. As N. said, besides Eve the only one ever to be called a “help” is God. And, as I suggested, it might not originally have ever been the word “ezer” in the first place.

  12. I think he, Satterfield was probably discussing a very narrow point, I have heard him discuss the term much more broadly in the “equal but oposite” realm.
    I have heard scholarly discussion on the animals parding before adam as in, they were there for him to name them, and language itself is the thing that makes man “not alone”

  13. I’ve just spent some time going through Lane’s lexicon of Arabic, lengthy and detailed. I did not find reference to a form idhra meaning “young woman.” I did find a form close to that with technical biological meaning, referring to female (but sometimes male) sexual organs. Either Lane doesn’t contain the reference, it’s been garbled in transmission from the prof’s mouth to Jupiter’s notes to the web, I missed it in my search, or it’s a lexical reach on the professor’s part. If the latter, I consider it a very weak argument.

  14. Hi, Nitsav, Elder Bruce C. Hafen obtained his translation from Professor Don Parry of BYU, renowned Hebrew scholar who is working on the Dead Sea Scroll translation. His email is . I have a feeling he has very good reasons for his translation.

  15. V Hudson,
    If you polled 100 Hebrew scholars, you would find probably 100 who understand Dr. Parry’s reasons and 100 who would disagree with them. It really is an atypical reading.

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