Few words in the Bible have sparked as many battles as helper. Whole books and doctoral theses have been written on the word, its meaning, and its implications. It’s too bad, this, because helper is a word meant to generate praise and humility.
You know the words of Genesis 2:18. God has completed his work of Creation and has declared that it is all excellent, it is all exactly as it ought to be. Yet still he declares “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Something interesting happens here. God declares that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needs a helper and yet doesn’t just go ahead and create this helper. Not yet. As far as we know, he doesn’t say anything to Adam about a helper. Instead, he tasks Adam with naming all of the animals. As Adam does this, as every living creature parades before him, he sees that none of them are like him—none have been created in the image of God. Adam isn’t lonely. How could he be lonely in a perfect world? But he realizes that in order to carry out his God-given mandate he will need help. Only now does God cause man to fall asleep and create for him a woman. When Adam opens his eyes and sees what God has created for him that he bursts into praise. He looks upon this woman and immediately sees that she is like him.
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.
It is only after he comes to understand his incompleteness that Adam is able to offer God the deepest and most heartfelt praise for such lavish provision. Having experienced need even in perfection, he knows the value of this gift.
The text emphasizes that even in a perfect world something was not good. It shows us that God’s intention for Adam included marriage, companionship and, of course, the sexual relationship and procreation. God does not exist in isolation but in a tri-unity, and man, too, is to live in relationship. To address this need God created a helper for him—a helper corresponding to him and complementing him. This helper is suitable for Adam, meaning that she too is made in God’s image, she is equal to him in dignity and worth, and she is exactly the kind of helper he needs.
There are two dimensions to the word helper that we need to see and understand—the explicit and the implied.
Explicitly the word implies that the woman would have a subordinate role in the relationship. She is to be a helper to the man. It is a role of service in which she is to serve her husband as a helper. Much ink has been spilled in attempting to reconcile equality of value and worth with subordination in role. I don’t know that we will ever do better than to simply point to the godhead. The word translated helper is used nineteen times in the Old Testament with sixteen of those uses referring to God. If God is a helper, no wife can say that such a role is beneath her. A wife is to help her husband, knowing of her equality in dignity and worth and yet willfully subordinating herself to her husband in order to serve him, or more rightly, to serve God by serving her husband.
Where the first dimension of helper indicates a woman’s helping role, the second indicates man’s inadequacy. Too many discussions of the word miss this. These discussions emphasize the woman’s role but not the husband’s insufficiency. Said simply, Eve is a helper because Adam needs help.
I married Aileen because I am incomplete and inadequate on my own. It is not good for me to be alone. In that one-flesh union, my wife and I have become one, no longer two individuals but a single partnership. Ray Ortlund says of marriage, “It is the complete and permanent giving over of oneself into a new circle of shared existence with one’s partner.” This shared existence is a necessity because God did not ever intend for me to live life on my own. He has made me weak, he has made me inadequate, he has made me needy.
It has always been difficult for me to admit need; it took me more a decade of marriage to begin to clearly see my need of Aileen and to content myself with my dependence upon her. But now I know that God gave me a helper because I so badly needed one. I need her. I occasionally like to pretend that I am an independent person and that I could get along very well on my own, but really I know that this is not the case at all. I’m utterly dependent upon her now. If I am to be in any way successful in life, I know it will owe in large part to her efforts on my behalf.
And now I am embracing my dependence and celebrating my need. This is how God made me. He does not want me to pretend that I could do life just as well on my own, that I accept his gift of a wife but think in the back of my mind that I could just as easily get along well without her. There are many men who can exist perfectly well without being married (Jesus Christ being the foremost example); I’m not one of them. By making me aware of my need for help, he has given me a new appreciation for the helper he’s provided. He has given me a whole new love and respect for my wife as the gift that fills what is missing and completes what is lacking. I need her and am dependent upon her. And I am okay with that.