Playing Fast and Loose?

Playing Fast and Loose? August 8, 2007

The recent Ensign article by the Hafens has already seen discussion at T&S and FMH. I’d like to add a comment, but first point out that I appreciate the tone and direction it took. I have found good guidance and much to think about in the Hafens’ other writings. I have no wish or motive to make them or the Hebrew professor upon whom they relied look bad, but they have presented a flawed argument, which attempts to correct ignorance (a good and noble thing) but unwittingly does so with misplaced apologetics (a bad thing.)

My focus is on the following statements.

a) “the Hebrew for help in “help meet” is ezer, a term meaning that Eve drew on heavenly powers when she supplied their marriage with the spiritual instincts uniquely available to women as a gender gift.”

b) “Genesis 3:16 states that Adam is to “rule over” Eve, but this doesn’t make Adam a dictator….over in “rule over” uses the Hebrew bet, which means ruling with, not ruling over.”

All well and good… except point a is quite a stretch and point b is poorly argued Hebrew, which which I must respectfully disagree.

I appreciate that the article parses correctly and avoids the common trap of slurring what should be “a-help (pause) meet-for-him” into “a help-meet (or worse, helpmate) for him.” “Meet” does indeed mean what the article says, something like “suitable for” or “equivalent to.” But lexically speaking, ezer has nothing to do with “spiritual instincts uniquely available to women as a gender gift.” I see how that is arrived at, but it’s not what the word means.

Ezer (think of Ezra “God is a help” or Azriel/Eliezer “God is (my) help”) is applied only to two characters in the Bible- Eve and God. If you’re in a group of two, and the other member is God, that’s a fairly elite group. In other words, Eve is some kind of divine aid to Adam, and the nature of that help is not subordinate, like that of a secretary, a gopher, an assistant, or when parents say of their three-year old “he’s such a good helper.” It’s God-like aid. God is a help and clearly not subordinate, and that’s apparently the kind of aid Eve is. Since this ezer-ness is channeled through Eve, the proto-typical female and not Adam the male, I can see why one might extrapolate to what they said. Nevertheless, I think it’s inaccurate as they stated it, and discussing the background might have helped. Perhaps they or an editor were motivated by space concerns.

As for the second part… I think the claim is both unnecessary and that it is indefensible from a scholarly perspective. The claim is that the preposition bet (the letter b) should be translated as “with” not “over.” This is problematic for several reasons.

First, bet has many translational values in English- “in” “into” “at” “on” “by means of” “when” “among” and also “with.” However, “with” is fairly rare and somewhat indirect. Most often when the Hebrew writers wanted to say “with” or “in the company of” they use ‘et or ‘im (the consonantal inverse of Arabic ma’a, the typical Arabic word for “with”).

Second, as in many other languages, some verbs have a fixed preposition for governing objects. In English, for example, one listens, but one listens to something. When the verb “to listen” has an object, the preposition used between the object and the verb must be to. Similarly, the Hebrew verb “to rule” in the Genesis passage is mashal. When mashal governs an object, the mediating preposition is always bet. It is clear from all other occurrences of this verb that the meaning is one of ruling, governance, authority etc.. A king mashals b- his people. Joseph mashaled b-Egypt in Gen. 45:8. There are lots of other examples establishing this.

Temporarily setting aside the Genesis passage, every occurrence of mashal b– requires the translation of (insert higher authority) ruling (insert appropriate preposition here) (insert lower authority here). What should that preposition be? In English, one rules over something.

In other words, if the author had wanted to say “rule with” instead of “rule over” he had a choice of much better and clearer words to use in Hebrew, ‘im or ‘et. When we look at the semantics of mashal b- elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, we find that it always means “to rule over something, exercise authority over.” I find it utterly illogical that the author decided to use the normal phrase for “rule over” if “rule with” was intended, particularly since this would be the sole occurrence of mashal b– meaning “rule with” and thus easily misunderstood.

Why then, this translation in the article? I believe it’s purely a case of misplaced apologetics. The authors (and President Kimball) apparently view this passage as prescriptive, as the way God intends things to be, the ideal. I do not. I think it’s descriptive. In other words, I view Genesis as describing the natural circumstances of their now-fallen state, our earthly imperfect impulses and conditions, not the heavenly ideal. I can see why someone concerned with equality who also viewed the passage as prescriptive would want to soften it.

I applaud their article, and their willingness to read and interpret the scriptures seriously.

For those interested in further reading on ezer and “help meet,” it looks like this list includes a Bible Review article along with some LDS treatments.

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