By Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom
I grew up believing that Woman is the helpmeet, or helper, of Man. This simplistic idea comes straight from Genesis 2:18, or at least interpretations of that verse, and it affected how I understood the place of women for a long time. In my imaginings about my vocation and the role of women in the world, “helper” resided in the back of my head. Helpmeet—a little less than men—not quite as smart, capable, or strong.
In practice, however, I sought out every skill a man was supposed to do because I wanted to be more than a helper. When I worked at camp, I wanted to drive the pick up truck and round up the trash. I learned how to change the oil in my car and replace the spark plugs. When I was 8, I wanted to be the first female professional baseball player in the majors.
I absorbed the skewed translations that made women seem other than man, at best, and sub-Adam, at worst. That’s what I grew up believing, even though I fought to overcome it.
The misleading translation of Genesis 2:18 is a subtle but profound example of keeping women in their (mis)place. The Hebrew word for “helpmeet” is `ezer. The word combines two roots that mean “to rescue or save” and “to be strong.” So another way to translate Genesis 2:18, as Hebrew scholar R. David Freedman does, is: “I will make a power [or strength] corresponding to man.” Hmmmm. I like that.
The other thing I like is that `ezer, or helpmeet, is used 21 times in the Old Testament, and in most of those cases, it is used for God. God is a helpmeet to human beings! In fact, in the context of Genesis 2, the one who is receiving an`ezer is actually worthy of being accompanied.
And this is the key to my blog piece this week – we need more `ezers in our lives. People who are strong and who help rescue us from ourselves and inspire us to live lives truly worthy of rescue. I have had a number of these women in my life, and they have chiseled away at my vices in ways that I could never do alone.
At the top of the list of women who have walked with me is Phillis Isabella Sheppard. I met Phillis when I began teaching at North Park. She modeled many of the characteristics I wanted to develop as woman in theological education—intelligent, wise, empathic, and graceful. Perhaps most importantly, I found her courageous. As an African American womanist scholar in an evangelical school whose majority of faculty were men, I found her strength to be anything but “a little less than the men’s.” In fact, her strength was—like Genesis’ description of woman—something akin to the way God walks with us.
Phillis accompanied me and still does. She helped me better imagine the place of women. She inspired my thinking on what women can do and how they can impact their world. I thank God for offering us human rescuers like Phillis to work alongside her.
Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851 speech “Ain’t I a Woman” was short, descriptive, and to the point. It remains a powerful expression of the strong woman. My paraphrased question: Ain’t I a helpmeet? Sure I am- but only because I had women like Phillis who were my `ezer, who helped liberate my false understandings of what it means to be a woman and freed me to become what God saved me to be in the first place—a woman.