Eve: A “help-meet,” or co-warrior?

Examination of the Hebrew in Genesis may imply Eve was created was created as Adam's "sustainer." Digital illustration by the author.

In my last post I summarized a doctoral dissertation by J. J. Van Ee that studies the Creation Mandate in Genesis 1:28. When God tells humanity to "rule" and "subdue" the earth in that passage, a comprehensive study of the Hebrew verbs implies they are actually far harsher than theologians would typically care to admit. I know that claim sounds outlandish and violates centuries of church tradition, but you can look over the 39 comparative witnesses yourself in that post and see that I'm not bluffing. In addition to Van Ee's thesis, here is another free article from the Journal Old Testament Essays discussing the subject for those interested.

When we look up how these terms are used throughout the Bible, we find them most frequently appearing in military contexts. In fact, after the Flood in the opening of Genesis 9, the Priestly author connects the Creation Mandate to typical conquest language of striking “fear and dread” into one’s military adversaries (c.f. the “Song of Miriam” in Exd 15:16; Josh 2:9; Deut 2:25, 11:25; Isa 19:17, ect.).  

Genesis 9:1-2: 

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea...

The idea that the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28 needs to be understood as a military commission in its ancient context reminded me of an odd thing about Eve I remember coming across in Robert Alter’s magisterial translation of Genesis many years ago. 

According to the King James translators, Eve was created in Genesis 2:18 as Adam’s “help-meet.” Most modern Hebraists agree this translation is far too weak. The linguistics and surrounding context much more likely indicate Eve’s equality with Adam with this phrase. I’m not just saying that because I think it’s politically groovy, but based on the actual nuts and bolts of the text. (E.g. Freedman’s free old article here). 

Alter is no exception. He writes: 

The Hebrew 'ezer kenegdo is notoriously difficult to translate. The second term means alongside him, opposite him, a counterpart to him. "Help" is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas 'ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in the Psalms.[1] 

Alter therefore opts for the translation of Eve as a "sustainer beside him" in an attempt to relate the military flavor of the term. I checked Alter’s math this morning by looking over all other 19 uses of the noun ‘ezer in the Bible, and I think he actually may have understated his case. As far as I can tell, possibly every other usage appears in a military context (granted, it has at least two usages within this purview). 

So, here is the proposal I’m toying with (any biblical scholars in my audience are encouraged to shoot me down): 

Based on Van Ee’s contributions, the Priestly source in Genesis 1:28 has the man and woman created for the sake of military conquest of nature. Genesis 2 is usually assigned to the far older J tradition stream, but it seems likely to me that its presentation of Eve as a military comrade for Adam probably shares in this general idea about humanity’s purpose. 

Why does all this matter? 

All of this yields some implications for the Bible’s view of what humanity was created to be. Genesis 1 and 2 do not presume humans were created to be soft, harmless creatures for a docile, easy world. Instead, the Bible seems to imply humanity was created as resilient, conquering warriors designed for violent struggle with the inherent chaos in nature from the very beginning. For these authors, humanity possesses strength for handling the world’s monstrousness, a strength not born from a place of sin or a perversion of human nature, but indigenous to it.

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[1] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2004), 22. 

Comments

  1. But what would Adam and Eve have been subduing, since in the second creation story, there were no animals yet?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The directive of mankind in Genesis 1 is to assault, while in Genesis 2 it is to guard. Not surprising, as the director also differs between Genesis 1 and 2.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am looking forward to more of your content and like your illustrations. Keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete

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