Was Adam’s mate intended as a subservient assistant, or an equal partner? A lot hangs on the meaning of an innocent-looking Hebrew preposition in Genesis 2:18, where God says, “It is not good for the human to be alone. I will make for him a help(er) negedō.” What this little word means is foundational for the relationship of male and female in Biblical theology.
The word neged is used 143 times in the Hebrew Bible. Its basic meaning is “face to face,” from which it branches out into a range of meanings. It is used in Psalm 23:5: “You prepare a table before me, right-in-the-face-of my enemies.” Eleven times in Nehemiah 3 it refers to points on Jerusalem’s wall “opposite/next to” a particular reference point on the map. It is used similarly seven times in Ezekiel, including one place where a door was “opposite/facing” or “across from” another door (Ezekiel 40:13). The word is used 36 times in the Psalms, either with someone’s “eyes” as its object, meaning “in my / your / their presence,” or it can convey this meaning without the term “eyes,” as in Psalm 51:3, “My sin is ever before me.” Likewise, in Ruth 4:4, Boaz urges Naomi’s closest kin to buy her land in the presence of the elders and all who are sitting in the gate: do it “face-to-face” with everyone on the scene. Likewise, God declares that David’s wives will be violated by another man in an “in-your-face” divine action “before all Israel and before the sun” (2 Samuel 12:12). Psalm 10:5 declares that God’s judgments are so high above the wicked that they are far “from his face” (minnegedō).
While neged is often used to express the general idea of presence or sight, some of these verses clearly express the notion of “facing” directly across from the object of the word, a meaning which most closely approximates the root meaning of the word. In Joshua 3:16, Israel crosses the dried-up Jordan River at a point “opposite Jericho.” Three times in 1 Chronicles (5:11, 8:32, 9:38) we are told that a family lives “alongside” or “opposite” another group as a point of reference. Such a meaning of “directly opposite” is echoed in the use of this word in Genesis 2:18.
God declares that the male human being needs a companion who is a point-by-point counterpart to himself (to borrow language from Koehler-Baumgartner’s lexicon). An animal will not do. A robot will not do. Any being that is a less-than-equal companion will not do. What is needed is a person who corresponds to the man almost like a mirror image, someone of whom he can say, “Bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh!” Not a clone, to be sure; if two of us are identical, one of us is not necessary. What is needed rather is someone who is a perfect match, who sees their partner eye-to-eye, on the same level, who corresponds with their partner at almost every point.
Such is the image that God gives us of the intended one-flesh partnership between male and female, hinging on that one little word neged. The language here does not resolve the debate over gender equality and male leadership, but it certainly provides major fuel for the discussion.
I think it is no small detail that the decree that the man shall “rule” (yimshal) over his wife is located within a divine curse (Genesis 3:16), and is either a prediction of evil, or is part of the curse itself being pronounced by God. Such in my view does not appear to have been God’s original intent. I and others with me long for a return to the time before the curse, where relations between male and female appear to have been characterized by joyful mutuality, like what we see in this image of our two ancestors, face to face on a level with each other, matched at almost every point.