Getting it right but missing the point…

I promised to follow up with more on Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge, so here they are talking with Joyce Meyer about their book, but more interestingly, about the Hebrew term ezer. You have to watch most of the video to get to their discussion of Genesis where the term is used, but you get to enjoy their stereotyping women as emotional and men as rational and you can hear several times how a woman’s heart is beautiful; so yeah, it’s pretty harrowing stuff, but I did it twice. You can do it!

Here’s what they get right: the term referring to the woman as a helper in Genesis 2.18 and 20 is ezer. You know these verses because you’ve heard them a million times. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” And “…but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.” Our English translations because of the imprecision of what kind of help this suggests have afforded the misconception that the kind of assistance a woman provides is somehow indicative of an inferior status. The result is something like this: the man does the main work, the important stuff, while the woman merely provides a slight contribution (read: behind the scenes so no one really knows how much she does!).

The Eldredges, to their benefit, call attention to ezer as a noun meaning help or helping and note its importance to our understanding of the Genesis text because when it is used in other places throughout the Old Testament ezer refers to the kind of help God provides. Psalm 121.1-2, for example, says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” In fact, in all of its other references throughout the Old Testament ezer refers to God and never does it suggest a kind of subordinate relationship to the one needing help.

When we think of God offering help, there is no assumption that this help is somehow not all that necessary, really, very little help at all, or that we as humans are essentially the important actors in this life drama and the occasional help we receive from our divine partner is secondary at best.

And yet, when we turn our attention to the idea of woman as providing help—the only other place in the Old Testament where the word is used—the assumed subordination of women to men has normally followed. Since ezer is usually used only to indicate what God provides, to have it refer to woman as it does in Genesis invites us into a deeper conversation about what this term means and the implications that follow. However, judging from their book and this interview, it also appears this is a discussion that the Eldredges, and many others, truth be told, are not ready to entertain.

Here’s where they miss the point: if woman possesses the ability akin to divine help, how can anyone subsequently stipulate certain places where her wisdom, expertise, knowledge, etc. are prohibited?

When the Eldredges and others say on the one hand that women and men are equal and on the other hand argue, as many do, that certain predetermined gender roles are to be followed, they are saying in effect that societal roles trump Scripture. Women provide help that in some way reflects divine assistance, but since patriarchal social structures are seen by many as divinely sanctioned then limits trump Scripture and patriarchy wins over the more radical and biblical call to full partnership within relationships.

Before I married Bryan his father and I had a conversation in which he told me at many points during his marriage to Bryan’s mother, there clearly needed to be someone in charge, someone who was predetermined to have the final say. Without having such decision-making power they would apparently not be able to handle certain situations. I disagreed with him then mostly because what he said felt wrong even though I couldn’t fully explain why. But today, after more than twenty years of marriage I disagree with his assumption even more vehemently not only because of experience but also due to a better understanding of the biblical reality.

Relying on a couple of verses in Genesis to reflect patriarchal preferences is common practice in many Evangelical circles and the result is not only bad theology but deeply scarred individuals who struggle to fit their gifts and callings into a subordinate place where the subsequent result is confusion and unhappiness. But our response to detrimental theology should not be to dismiss all theology as unimportant or essentially outmoded and thus irrelevant, but rather to create better theology. In this case, knowing the definition of ezer is a good beginning, but this insight must also be the starting point for further rigorous interpretive work and not the end point.

To know that women share some fundamental divine attribute or action should encourage us to explore the vast and various implications. To acknowledge this connection and then dismiss the ways in which this may cause us to rethink our assumptions about God and women, is to give preference once again to a narrow vision of all God may call us to be.

There is no doubt that questioning our long-held patriarchal bias is difficult because is some ways it also challenges our previous beliefs about ourselves, our relationships, and God. This is why Melanie and I hope this blog will offer you the opportunity to engage in conversation that will both challenge and provide comfort. This path is not an easy one, but it is a necessary one if we wish to move our Christian faith beyond the oppressive patriarchal structure it currently inhabits.