God saw that it was good” occurs seven times in Genesis 1, climaxing with a superlative “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Then, in Genesis 2, a startling decrescendo: “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man (‘adam) to be alone’” (Gen. 2:18). That raises an obvious question: Why does Yahweh go through all this rigmarole in the first place? If it’s not good for the man to be alone, why leave him alone for even an instant? Why not mold a matching pair from the dust?
John Paul II viewed the ‘adam’s solitude as an opportunity for self-discovery: “Man finds himself alone before God mainly to express, through a first self-definition, his own self-knowledge, as the original and fundamental manifestation of mankind.” In solitude, the man learns his uniqueness among God’s creatures. As he names the animals, “man ‘distinguishes himself’ before God-Yahweh from the whole world of living beings (animalia) with his first act of self-consciousness.” He discovers himself as “person,” a matchless being with a unique depth of subjectivity.
That’s not wrong, but there’s an explanation nearer to hand. According to Genesis, God repeatedly starts with an initial condition of lack. In the beginning, earth is formless, void, and dark (1:2); at first, the land has no vegetation because Yahweh hasn’t sent rain and because there’s no man to serve the ground (2:5). Creation is a series of speeches and actions to perfect the original imperfection and to glorify the relatively inglorious. In Genesis 1, ‘elohim lights, forms, and fills to transform the original tohu-w’bohu into a brightly-lit, ordered, teeming cosmos. In Genesis 2, YHWH ‘elohim covers the naked land by forming a man, planting a garden, and providing water.
That macrocosmic sequence is replicated on the microcosmic human scale. Like the earth and the land, man begins in incompletion, analogous to a dark, formless, and empty earth, like a desert land without rain or vegetation. As God supplies what’s lacking in creation’s deficiency, so he rescues man from his solitude. The man alone is no more than a “part” (levado), a limb without a body. The ‘adam is, Paul later says, “head” of the woman, but a bodiless head is as monstrous as a headless body. He’s an image of God only together with the woman.
This sheds light on the nature and purpose of the woman God makes. She’s created to be the ‘adam’s “helper” (‘ezer). The English translation is accurate but can carry the unfortunate connotation that the woman’s role is menial (as in, she’s “the help”). The Hebrew noun and verb for “help” are typically used in political and military contexts, never domestic. The city of Gibeon calls for Joshua to “Come, save, help” (Josh. 10:6). The Syrian king Ben-Hadad has thirty-two kings “helping” him (1 Kings 20:16). David’s mighty men help the king, a human manifestation of Yahweh’s help (1 Chron. 12:1, 17-22). Yahweh himself is the helper of besieged Jerusalem (2 Chron. 32:8), of the afflicted and needy (Ps. 70:5), of orphans (Ps. 10:14). In several passages, ‘ezer puns with ‘oz, “strength.” The Psalmists declare, “Yahweh is my strength and shield; in him I trust and I am helped” (Ps. 28:7) and “God is a refuge and strength, a present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
It’s not that the man is omnicompetent and delegates to the woman for the sake of efficiency. Rather, the man needs help so humanity can achieve what humanity is called to achieve. Unless the unique powers of woman catalyze the powers of man, and vice versa, mankind cannot reach its destiny. Without the woman, obviously enough, the man cannot be fruitful or multiply, and therefore cannot subdue or rule creation. The ‘adam is created to be earth’s king, but he can’t become king unless he has a queen at his side. The woman rescues the man from inevitable frustration and mission-failure.
But the help the woman provides isn’t merely functional or vocational. Above all, the man needs a helper so the part he is can fit into a whole, the union of two as one flesh. Without the helper, the man is as half-finished as a chaotic, darkened earth, as fruitless as land without plants and water. Conversely: Woman completes man as light, form, and fullness complete the formless earth. The gift of the woman transforms the man from a waterless waste into the human equivalent of the garden of God. Yes, the ’adam needs a helper to complete the human task. More fundamentally, he needs the woman to be fully human. The woman rescues the man from his solitude so humanity can reach its full glory, because, as Paul says, the woman is the glory of the man.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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