Genesis 2:18

 Translation

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָֽאָדָם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ

And the LORD God said, “For the man to be by himself is not good. I will make for him a counterpart to complement him.

Commentary

creation-of-eve

In the previous two verses, God warns the man that to become sexually aware (eating from the tree of knowledge) means the loss of immortality. But so what? At this point in the story, the woman did not exist. In her absence he could not become sexually active anyway?

The most likely explanation is that verses 16-17 foreshadow and motivate the creation of the woman. In support of this idea, the biblical author devotes the next six verses to her creation. Recall that the earlier creation of the man consumed only a part of one verse. Compare this with the extraordinary detail surrounding the creation of the woman. This is unparalleled and unique in the literature of the ANE1)Quoting Nahum Sarna, “the extant literature of the ancient Near East has preserved no other account of the creation of the primordial woman” (Sarna, 1989) p. 21, all the more so given the patriarchal hierarchies of the ANE cultures.

I just want to emphasize this observation. Of all the other pagan creation stories contemporary with the Garden story, none devote a single word to the creation of the woman.  Rather than an after thought, the Hebrew Bible portrays the creation of the woman as hugely important to the plot of the Garden story.

to be by himself: the usual translation of “to be alone” belies the underlying complexity of the Hebrew from which it is translated.  More importantly, the word “alone” runs the risk of connoting a sense of loneliness, a state simply not in view. A better understanding might be that mankind is incomplete. From a narrative standpoint, the reader is acutely aware that mankind is gender-incomplete. This phrase, then, can be seen as establishing the idea that the woman, to be created later, will somehow complete mankind by providing a complementary gender.

not good: this phrase, לֹא־טוֹב (lo-tov), contrasts sharply with God’s judgment in Genesis 1:31 in which His creation, and especially the creation of mankind, is seen as “very good”. No so in this story. The man by himself is described as incomplete at best and defective at worst. Evidently, the man by himself is not yet capable of fulfilling all of God’s intended purposes.

Interestingly, we know from verses 5-7 that the man’s original purpose was to tend and guard the Garden. However, this verse (18) suggests that the role of cultivator, limited as it is, may not be all that God had in mind. More specifically, this judgment (not good) implies two important ideas: first, the man by himself is not up to the task(s) God has in mind. Second, it suggests that the creation of man may be a multistep process, not a single event. For example, the Garden story can quite properly be read such that God first creates that part of humanity necessary for the proper functioning of the Garden (the man) and then second creates the woman for the flourishing of mankind. Indeed, the creation of the man is preliminary to a more consequential event – the creation of the woman as necessary to marriage, and the consequences of choosing mortality and procreation over a utopian life in Eden.

By judging the man as not yet fit, the author raises the question of what constitutes completion of the human. Knowing what we know about the next 6 verses we learn that God seeks a complement to the male; specifically one that supplies some capability that the man alone does not (or cannot) supply. The question that should leap to the reader’s mind is simply this:

What function(s) require both a man and a woman to fulfill?

Remembering that God warned the man in verses 16-17 that sexual activity would put his immortality at risk, this question is easily answered. The creation of the human is not complete until they are capable of sexual activity.

Many scholars read this as meaning that man is to be a social animal, the emphasis being on companionship (“it is not good to be alone“). This is not a reasonable interpretation on both grammatical and contextual grounds. First, if the problem was loneliness or the lack of companionship, why didn’t God just give the man a pet dog? Or why not a good drinking buddy; someone with whom he could share a beer and go fly-fishing? Or maybe there was just too much work to keep the garden up to God’s standards. But again, why not just create an army of men to do the cultivating.

Second, the Hebrew word for good, tov, has many meanings but they all fall into one of two categories, of which the first is the least common; (1) good in the moral sense of right versus wrong and (2) good in the sense of functional appropriateness, i.e., is the described object fit for its purpose.  A dull plow doesn’t work as well as a sharp one. A light-weight fly rod is not appropriate when fishing for a 1000 lb tuna. Dog poo smells bad.

Given the context of the previous verse (its sexual connotation) perhaps “not good” refers to the functional inability to procreate in the absence of a woman. After all the female is an objective biological necessity for humankind to fulfill its procreative role (c.f., Gen 1:27-28).  We clearly need to think more deeply about what purpose did God have in mind when He made the woman. It is to this question we now turn.

The Hebrew word in question, לְבַדּ֑וֹ (ləvaddo), is a compound Hebrew word consisting of a preposition (), a noun (vad), and a suffix (do) — lə + vad + do. Its literal translation options are: {to, for, by} + {alone, self, part} + {his, him}, which might be reasonably rendered “for himself” or “by himself“.  While this can be reasonably translated as alone, the literal translation (and the context) suggests something functional is missing. A man, by himself, is incomplete. The man (or in the figurative sense, mankind) needs an additional component to achieve full functionality.

Recall that in the previous verse God warned the man that the knowledge of good and evil/bad (da’at tov vara`) puts his immortality at risk. However, the warning is moot since the woman had not yet been created. Could this be what the author has in mind? Perhaps the author is referencing the need for the female counterpart necessary to bring God’s warning into its full realization. Indeed, most (all?) scholars understand this verse to be a foreshadow of what is to come.

a counterpart to complement him: translated from עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ  (ezer kənegdo ), the Hebrew meaning of this phrase is notoriously hard to capture. Let’s start with the second word, neged2)kənegdo is actually a compound word formed by adding a prefix and a suffix to the word in question, negedwhich can be understood in two important ways:

First, neged, and its more familiar synonym,  פָּנִים (panim), describe a spatial orientation in which one object, A, is placed before (or in front of) another object B.

Second, while neged and panim are synonymous, neged connotes that one of A or B is conspicuous and significant in some way determined by the relationship between A and B. One of the more obvious basis for a relationship in the Bible is covenant. Thus, neged, not panim, is used in covenantal contexts3)see Harris et al, ref. 1289a as, for example, when God’s law is read before (neged) all of Israel (see Deut 31:11, Josh 8:35, or Ezra 8:3).

In this verse (2:18), the author’s use of neged and the obvious observation that the ability to procreate lies not with the man, but in the lack of a procreative partner. This partner, then, will be someone who is neged to the man and will supply the missing functionality.

Now, what of ezer? Its cognate word in Ugaritic, a close relative of Hebrew, connotes rescuing or saving.  Ezer is used over 80 times in the Bible, often in a context in which military assistance is being rendered (think of the U.S. Calvary riding to the rescue of the wagon train). Gordon Wenham suggests that the author’s use of ezer 4)(Wenham p 68) suggests that the man’s abilities are inadequate5)see, for example, Joshua 1:14; 10:4, 6; 1 Chr 12:17, 19, 21, 22 and, in keeping with the understanding of neged explained above, is consistent with the idea that the woman is to make up the [procreative] deficit. In this sense enabling procreation makes makes the woman a rescuer or savior of sorts – not of the individual man, but of the species. In the absence of the female, mankind will be unable to survive as a species outside of Eden.

Supporting this idea is its meaning as used in many famous biblical names. Consider,

  • Azarel = God has helped
  • Azriel = My salvation is God
  • Azariah = “The LORD has saved”
  • Ezra = “The LORD saves”
  • Ebenezer = “The stone of help”

Had the biblical author meant to describe the woman as someone to help out around the home, or till the fields, or any of the myriad chores of life, he could have used a number of perfectly good words such as eved (servant), chaver (companion, associate), shareyt  (minister, royal assistant) and so forth. The author seems to be pretty clear that God means to create a partner for the man who (1) complements him by providing a missing capability (see above) whose purpose (2) is not intended to be an assistant or servant in any meaningful sense. Rather, she is to be an ezer, i.e., a counterpart to the man so that the human species may procreate and survive. In this sense, she a savior. As Bernard Lewis, arguably one the greatest historians of the Levant, said when speaking of Islamic terrorism,

Women are half the world, and mothers of the other half.”

It is an inherent role of the woman, Genesis 2 seems to argue, to save mankind from the excesses of the man. Moreover, as we’ll learn in the next few verses, it is likely the author had marriage in mind — in the sense that, while reproduction requires at least one man and one woman, marriage serves to civilize male sexual promiscuity by channeling it to the service of procreation.

Marriage, as described in the next few verses, is advanced as an institution that provides stability to those cultures that view marriage, not as a means of expressing love or fulfilling sexual desire, but serving as a glue, a binding covenant between families and nations. It is in this sense that the woman is an ezer to the man. Her role rescues mankind by civilizing the male’s sexual activity and so forming the foundation of  biblical marriage — an institution that is vital to the flourishing of humankind.

Preliminary Translations

My translation conventions can be found here.

Mechanical

And-said the-LORD God not-good to-be the-man for-himself. I-will-make-for-him a-companion as-facing-him

Literal

And the LORD God said, for the man to be by himself [is] not good. I will make for him a rescuer as-opposite-him.

Commercial Bible Translations

  • (nas) Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”
  • (kjv) And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
  • (niv) The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
  • (net) The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him.”

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