The word “helpmeet” is tossed around in nearly every conversation regarding biblical definitions of gender roles. Christians who buy into the standard interpretation insist that this word ordains female subservience, and atheists and agnostics who object to oppressive right-wing Christian structures exploit its awkward unfamiliarity for improved mockery (it doesn’t come up so much in conversations among liberal Christians, and as I’ve said, a self-identified feminist
Christian is not an everyday sighting).
Both of those positions take the default stance that helpmeet=subservient. Obviously, one can’t talk about gender roles in Christianity without addressing the creation myth, and in my post “On being a Christian feminist“, I explained my basis position on the relationship between Genesis and feminism. But the misinterpretation, problematic translation and selective exegesis of this term bugs me more specifically.
The Hebrew word used in Genesis is ezer, from a root meaning ‘support’ or ‘help’. Its relevance to the male/female relationship is not the only time it’s used in the bible, however. In both Exodus (18:4) and Psalms (118:7), it’s used to refer to God with respect to his relationship to humanity. The connotation is that God is loving and supportive, a companion to his creation. The suggestion that God should be considered subordinate to humanity on the basis of this word would be some serious heresy indeed (I’m not much for rule-driven theology, but my subservience to God is one of the few that I would consider non-negotiable).
It’s a completely selective reading of the text and the emotionally evocative, metaphorical language to run with the notion that the word means chattel/property when it’s used to describe women and completely ignore all other references and implications. Even if these other instances didn’t exist, however, the assumption that “help” and “support” means “be silent and obedient” is pretty shaky.
I’m far from a biblical scholar (I’m only able to give chapter and verse references here because I wrote them down when someone else pointed them out to me) nor do I really know anything about Hebrew translation, so take all that for what it’s worth. I’ve been hoping to have the cash to pick up a book called A Lily Among the Thorns, which is a feminist reinterpretation of biblical descriptions of sexuality, for some more rigourous arguments on this front (I’m hoping that the chapter in it on gay sexuality will help me out in how to counter the still-frequently-heard “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” dressed up in prettier language, or at least give me some stuff to think about on that issue).