Reflections On Eve
I first met Lizzie DeGear via email, after a mutual friend recognized our soul-sisterhood and introduced us. The email banter went back and forth quickly, and by the time we finally met in person on a beautiful day in upper Manhattan, it felt as if we were old friends. The time went by far too quickly, and the conversation never went dry. When she sent me an audio recording of her talk about how Adam had a womb, I was hooked. I knew the world -- especially the theological world -- needed to hear from this woman. An Old Testament scholar, fluent in Hebrew, I invited her to write our very first essay for The Banquet and to start the journey with none other than the mother of all of us: Eve.
REFLECTIONS ON EVE
By Lizzie Berne DeGear
There is a mystical juiciness we can access whenever we enter the realm of creation stories. These stories ask us to contemplate our origins; they speculate about the creative powers that originated us, our world our cosmos. And, of course, in spinning these tales, the authors themselves engage in a creative act. The human imagination that creates a story about creation enters into that self-same creative mystery!
The most wonderful interpretations of our Bible’s creation stories are those that not only honor the inspired imagination of those who wrote Scripture, but also spark the imagination of those who read Scripture. I recognize that when it comes to interpretations of Eve’s place in the creation story in Genesis 2-4, this spark can be difficult to ignite. We come to these stories after they have been overlaid with thousands of years of institutionally-sanctioned interpretation that has left a thick layer of dust and shame on the texts and on our own God-given powers of imagination. So, I invoke רוּחַ ruach (Gen 1:2, Gen 3:8) to blow that dust and shame off these texts and off our souls as we open the book and begin.
I want to focus in on one small phrase in the biblical account of Eve’s story in Genesis 2:18. Your Bible probably has something like: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helpmeet for him.” This is what it looks like in Hebrew:
לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה-לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ
And this is, roughly, how to sound that out:
Lo-tov hayoth ha-‘adam l’bado e’essah-lo ezer c’negdo
In the biblical narrative, these are words spoken by God. They articulate the impulse that propelled God to create Eve — and that’s an impulse I love to explore.
What was God imagining when Eve was created? I am going to delve into these few Hebrew words and see where they take me. I want to leave room for them to take you somewhere too. So, instead of stringing together a definitive interpretation (which, I admit, can be very tempting for the biblical scholar in me), I will give you a little background on each Hebrew word so that you can explore with me, and then beyond.
The prefix ha- means “the”. Adam is the Hebrew word for “human.” The English word used to translate adam is often “man”: the gender-biased English word for human (as in mankind). But adam means all of us. This is clearest in Genesis 5:2. Take a look in your Bible. How does your Bible translate adam in Genesis 5:2? Go look, I’ll be here when you get back.
Does your Bible translates adam here as “man”? Can you see the limitations of using that gendered word? “Male and female God created them, and blessed them, and called their name adam.”. What English word makes sense to you as a translation for adam? The text needs us to choose.
Ha-adam is part of a wordplay that started in Genesis 2:7. This wordplay does not point to the human’s masculinity (although we reinforce that association when we translate ha-adam as “the man”, don’t we?). Rather the Hebrew wordplay emphasizes our humanity originating from the earth. In 2:7 God shapes the human – ha-adam -- out of the earth – ha-adamah. Listening to this story thousands and thousands of years ago, the people gathered would be reminded that just as their word for human (adam) so clearly came from their word for Earth (adamah), so their very existence came from the planet on which they walked. Why, I wonder, do our English words for human being not make this same connection? Bible scholar Phyllis Trible has suggested the translation “earthling” for adam, as a way to evoke this scriptural connection between human origins and the earth.
We associate the word “good” (tov) with God’s creation. In the first creation story (Genesis 1), every day when God creates, God sees that it is good. In the Gospels, Jesus comes to spread the good news. Here, for the first time in the biblical narrative, we have the opposite. God has created humanity and seen that something is lo-tov. Not Good. God, apparently, is picking up some Bad News from the situation. What is the source of this negativity, this “not good”?
This word is a compound phrase that can be translated as “in its isolation.” The adam is in itsבד. . For a sense of what this word means, spend some time with these other biblical verses: Genesis 21:28, Genesis 43:32, and Isaiah 5:8. Check out these verses, and jot down your thoughts. Once you get a sense of this word, you can return to Genesis 2:18, with a better inkling of what God finds “not good” in the adam’s current state. But don’t just look into the Bible for clues. Meditate on this l’bado relative to your own life (l’badi is how you would say, “in my isolation”). As a human, when have you been most l’badi? Which parts of you are l’badi right now?
This is a form of the verb “to be.” It indicates a continuing state of being. In this form, the verb has no gender. And speaking of gender, it is significant that the adam is not referred to as a man (Hebrew איש iysh) until after God creates Eve. At this juncture in God’s creative process, adam is a species of sameness, alone with itself in a way that is not good.This story does not ask us to imagine that God created first one gender and then the other. Rather, it asks us to imagine the human condition without gender, without difference.
I love this! This is the Hebrew verb for “I make” or “I do”. First-person creative action! And even more wonderful to behold, since God is speaking here: God’s first-person creation action! No gender is apparent in Hebrew verbs when they are in the first person. And no definitive time either: “I made”, “I make”, and “I will make” can all be heard in this e’essah. And you know what else is so cool? The Hebrew letters that spell out this word “I make/I do” are reminiscent of the three letters that spell out the word “woman.” Take a look [and remember to read right-to-left]:
[Both the א and the ע are ‘glottal stops’ in Hebrew. We don’t know how they were pronounced in ancient times, but in modern Hebrew they are pronounced the same as each other, making these two words even more an echo of the other.]
Scholars have written a great deal about the wordplay in Genesis 2, but I have never read anything pointing out this wordplay. And yet there it is. When I gaze upon the word for “I make/I do” I cannot not see the word for woman.
This chapter (Genesis 2) ends with the איש iysh (man) saying that אשה ishshah is called ‘woman’ because she was taken out of ‘man’ (see Gen 2:23). But notice: that is the man’s take on it — not God’s. God’s first-person creative action -- God’s “I make! I do!” may be seen as the essence of אשה from God’s perspective. Some male humans may be tempted to define female humans relative to themselves, but if a human woman wants to connect with the divine impulse that sparked her own creation, she need look no further than her own creative impulse and her own first-person “I make!” “I do!” As a prayer, try connecting with your own creative capacity and see where it takes you.
This is the word for “help.” Take a moment to think about what associations you’ve had in the past when you have thought about Woman in the Bible being created to be Man’s “help.” As you do this meditation, see what feelings come along with the images that appear in your mind’s eye. Take a minute to jot down those associations.
Now, I offer you all the places in the Psalms where this word for “help”-- ezer -- appears. Psalm 20:2; Psalm 33:20; Psalm 70:5; Psalm 89:19; Psalm 115: 9, 10 &11; Psalm 121: 1&2; Psalm 124:8; Psalm 146:5. Take time for yourself to sit with these images of “help”. What feelings come along with the images of עזר ezer that appear in your mind’s eye? As you read about ezer in Psalms, what new images and feelings associated with “help” are suddenly available?
When you see the divine power indicated by the Hebrew word, ezer, does it make you mad that we’ve been stuck with these other images of help-meet all these years? Ezer is not the secretarial help of pencil skirts and steno pads. It is not the domestic help of home-cooked dinners and a martini served at just the right time. Ezer is God’s power showing up in a way that is real. Ezer is the help that rescues, that creates, that protects. When I see that in Psalms, the word ezer appears frequently in the phrase “God is our help and our shield” I think, “Damn straight Wonder Woman has that unbreakable shield!” Ezer saves our ass.
Perhaps the biggest difference between ezer and the secretarial/domestic helper images is this: Those who call upon administrative assistants and domestic workers do so when they have the power. Bosses enlist the help they need on their terms, and the relationships that ensue reinforce a patriarchal power dynamic. That sort of help makes the boss stronger and assumes the relative weakness of the helper. But when a psalmist calls out for ezer, that call comes from a human adam who knows their own weakness, who feels their own limitations, who cries out from a vulnerable heart. Ezer comes because of our need, not because we call the shots. And because we trust in the saving grace of this ezer, we are not humiliated by the weakness and need that has us cry out – we recognize and accept our human condition. Behold! Our need for ezer is the very thing that pulls us out of isolation.
This word modifies the word ezer that we just explored. It describes how this ezer -- this help -- will function. The rich complexity of these words together has been lost in translation, especially in the conveniently short, yet oddly nonsensical translation: “help-meet.” My computer’s word-correct has no problem with helpmeet. But I do. Has anyone bothered to really define it?
This word c’negdo is actually a cluster of three words, and it is a bit difficult to explain. This compound phrase combines the prefix c’ (which means “as” or “like”) and the suffix o (which means “to it” or “its”) with the word neged. Neged is a preposition, a verb, and a noun. It is up to the person hearing or reading this story to discern the meaning of the word here. Here is a little background on each meaning of neged.
As preposition, neged means “right in front of, facing, in the presence of.” For instance, when God gives Moses the tablets at Mt. Sinai, and Moses begs God to come among the people, because they are so in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, God replies with a promise:
“I hereby make a covenant. Right in front of all your people I will perform marvels….” (Exodus 34:10)
The word translated as “right in front of” in this Exodus passage is neged. (Interestingly, the word translated as “I will perform” is the word e’essah that also appears in our phrase. God’s first-person “I make/I do” again!) So -- taking this phrase to mean “right in front of it” - what does it mean that God will create an ezer c’negdo? A help right in front of the adam? I think of the loneliness and the desperation in those psalm-prayers to God – the ones you just sat with -- that call upon God’s help – ezer -- to show up in the psalmist’s real life. And the joy and relief and saving grace to be found when God’s help does finally show up. I think of God gazing upon the adam’s isolation (your isolation, my isolation) and seeing that the adam needs to experience God’s help in actual relationship, right in front of us, in human interaction. ezer c’negdo is that help made manifest, right in front of the adam.
As a verb, neged is used when one informs another. In Genesis, the verb “to inform” appears 32 times, and each time, it is when one character is getting news that they didn’t have before. This is the first time a form of this word neged appears in the Bible. The second time is when God asks the adam, “Who informed you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11). So what does it mean, then, that in response to the “not good” of the adam’s isolation, God creates an ezer c’negdo? A help to inform the adam? God unleashes first-person creative action, makes divine help manifest, and creates someone to instruct this lonely adam.
As a noun, neged means captain, ruler, leader. It is the word often used to describe Saul in 1 Samuel, and David in 2 Samuel (for examples, see 1 Sam 9:16 or 13:14 and 2 Samuel 6:21 or 7:8). Isaiah uses the word in 55:4. The Bible I have here translates the verse as:
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
How does your Bible translate it in Isaiah 55:4?
So, what does it mean, then, that God didn’t stop creating humanity with one kind of adam, and sensed that the one adam needed another to offer help as its leader? What does it mean to you that Eve is this leader?
I end this reflection with the hope that your own explorations of God’s words in Genesis 2:18 will lead you to new places, and that those places will be tov (good) and that they will save you from bad, isolation. I end with three questions that are bubbling up in me as we close:
To those of us who are human men: if we can’t see the help we’ve been given, are we still, on some level, stuck in our isolation? If as men, we do not let women inform our experience of being human – experience formed from women’s first-person experience of their own “I make” and “I do” – then have we yet found our way out of the loneliness and separation that God knows is not good?
To those of us who are human women: are we the help we’ve been praying for? Do we have an obligation to inform our male counterparts of all that we know, based on our first-person experience? Have we fallen away from the leadership we are called to?
To all of us together: Have patriarchal structures blinded us to see what is right in front of us? Do we each need an Other -- a human community with different experience than our own – so that we can face them, learn from them, and trust the authority of their experience different than our own?
Lizzie Berne DeGear is a chaplain, Bible scholar and Catholic feminist theologian in New York City. She teaches psychology and religion and has been joyfully leading Bible Study at her church for 15 years. Her most recent course -- Women’s Power in the Bible -- began with the insight that Adam had a womb.