The Suitable Helper

God made human beings in His image, male and female, so that they could fulfill the Creation Mandate. For this reason He instituted marriage and pronounced that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Insofar as a man does not “cleave” to his wife in a literal sense, to “become one flesh” refers to more than just sexual union itself. The pronouncement presents marriage as the bonding of two persons (“cleave”) resulting in marital oneness (“one flesh”). But why is this oneness of persons described in terms of sexual union?

We recall that a person’s body and soul form a functional unity. Thus when the soul yearns for someone, the body longs for that person (cf. Psalms 63:1). The bonding of soul is in this sense also the bonding of body, and vice versa. In sexual union the bonding of the body, soul and spirit of two married persons reaches its fullest expression. This is the most intimate communion between two human beings, and it has the potential of resulting in an offspring, which then unites the couple further through a biological bond. This explains why sexual union is needed to consummate the marriage and seal the marital bond. There is hence no better way to represent marital oneness than sexual union. It thus implies that not only divorce (Matthew 19:4-6), but also polygamy, are against God’s will. For a man cannot realize this wholistic oneness, represented by the one-to-one act of procreation, with more than one woman concurrently.

Since marital oneness is wholistic, when God created Eve to be Adam’s “helpmate” (Genesis 2:18), she is designed to help him fulfill the Creation Mandate in every aspect, not just in procreation. In fact a woman can contribute to the Creation Mandate without being married. In other words, when God said it was not good for the man to be alone and hence created a helpmate for him, He did not do so just for the man’s personal good but also the good of His creation as a whole. The Hebrew word for “helpmate” is used in the Old Testament mostly to refer to God as our “Helper” (see for instance, Psalms 54:4). Eve’s status as a “helpmate” is hence not second-class. There are two kinds of help. The first: “I am able to do this myself, but I am occupied with something else; please help me.” The second: “I am not able to do this myself; please help me.” From experience, a wife’s help consists of both kinds.

If a woman is able to render the second kind of help beyond procreation, it implies that there are significant differences between men and women beyond the biological. This is widely observed and has been confirmed by social science (see for instance, Moir 1998). Women’s contribution to God’s purpose for humanity would then be complementary, and not just supplementary, to that of men. In fact, it is clarified that Eve was a helpmate “suitable for him.” The Hebrew phrase literally means, “like opposite him,” with the sense of, “matching him.” The phrase most naturally expresses “the notion of complementarity rather than identity” (Wenham 1987: 68).

Even with respect to having children, a man complements a woman not just in procreation but also in parenting. The mother’s role in raising children is indisputably indispensable. But the father’s role has been recognized as also indispensable. According to sociologist David Popenoe (2009: x), “strong families with involved fathers in life-long marriages are irreplaceable for a strong and stable moral order, for adult well being, and ultimately for the well being and success in life of their children.”

Acknowledging that women’s contribution is complementary actually uplifts the status of women to true equality with that of men. A wife is a help-mate, not help-maid. But equality in status does not necessarily mean equality in responsibility. The designation of Eve as help-mate does imply that Adam was given the role of being ultimately responsible and, in that sense, bore the burden of leadership. For even when God is a man’s Helper, it is the man and not God who is ultimately responsible for how he lives.

But if a wife complements her husband in every aspect, he would, and should, actively involve her in decision-making. In fact only then can they be functioning as “one flesh.” But being the one ultimately responsible, the husband also has the “privilege” of having the final say. We suppose not many wives would begrudge this in view of the responsibility that comes with this privilege. This is especially so because, as originally intended, the husband is to live out his God-like qualities of love and justice and make decisions accordingly. In a pre-Fall context it would be natural for him to do so. We shall see how the Bible makes adjustments in a post-Fall context.

Actually in the pre-Fall context it would be hard to say who effectively, in practice, is the leader. For when two persons are created without sin or self-centeredness to be united in love as “one flesh” to complement each other, they are “wired” to function practically as “one item” not just in terms of procreation, but also in direction. This is well illustrated in the account of the Fall in Genesis 3, albeit in a negative way. Eve was deceived by the Serpent and was tempted to disobey God. When she yielded to the temptation, Adam was with her; but instead of stopping her, he followed suit. It indicates his agreement with her in her act of disobedience. Adam and Eve “stand together as ‘one flesh’ at this point as well” (Fretheim 1994: 361). God rebuked Adam for listening to his wife in this matter (Genesis 3:17). Functioning as “one item” with her should not have resulted in disobedience to God.

We can then conclude that it is God’s will that a man and his helpmate provide leadership to their family as equal partners, though God holds the husband as the one ultimately responsible. This is made possible by what happens when a man and a woman get married to become united as “one flesh.”

When God instituted marriage, He declared that a man is to “leave” his parents in order to “cleave” to his wife. The Hebrew word translated “leave” often means “forsake,” with a range of nuances where the forsaking does not necessarily involve leaving in the physical sense. For example, it is often used of God’s people forsaking Him (Deuteronomy 31:16), or of God forsaking His people (Deuteronomy 31:17). It could even refer to forsaking something intangible and impersonal, as in, “he who forsakes reproof goes astray” (Proverbs 10:17).

The Bible does not forbid a man from leaving his parents physically to start his own family. But we know from biblical teaching and traditional culture that a man’s “forsaking” of his parents for the purpose of marriage does not involve abandoning them in any negative sense. Obviously this “forsaking” involves abandoning something. What could this be? It has to be a crucial aspect of the parent-child bond, one that when abandoned, enables him to bond with his wife to function as “one flesh.”

The meaning of this “forsaking” can be demonstrated as follows. A man is in a coma as a result of an accident. The doctors need authorization from the family to operate on him. His parents and girlfriend are available to sign the papers. Who would they approach? The answer is obvious and is presumably the same in every culture. What if the young lady had just become his wife the day before? Who then would they approach? We suppose in most, if not all, cultures they would approach the wife. We submit that this expresses what it means by the man having “forsaken” his parents. With the abandoning of this aspect of the parent-child bond comes a corresponding change in the parent-child relationship, such as not allowing his parents to interfere with how he and his wife should raise their family.

Hence without abandoning that parent-child bond it would be impractical for the man to exercise leadership over his own family, let alone share that leadership equally with his wife. Needless to add, this partnership is shared equally but not exactly. For any partnership to work, someone has to be given the privilege and responsibility to have the final say. God gave these to Adam and we can assume that He made him with the corresponding disposition, and made Eve with the complementary disposition. It is a common observation, at least in a traditional society, that a wife would gladly yield ultimate responsibility to her husband, unless he happens to be an irresponsible man.

But how can it be an “equal” partnership when one partner has the final say? The answer is that both have equal say, though one of them also has the final say. Whenever there is a difference in opinion, the one with the final say is to weigh the two “equal says” impartially and decide accordingly. In this sense, it is an equal but not exact partnership. But how can this work in practice when the one making the final decision is not a neutral party? A God-fearing husband, who recognizes that God holds him accountable for the “final say,” is motivated to be impartial in deciding whether his or his wife’s “equal say” is the “better say.”

This was intended to work in a pre-Fall context, but can it work today? As we shall see, the central teaching of the Bible is about restoring human beings, male and female, to their original image of God with the God-like qualities of love and justice (Colossians 3:10, 18-19). In any case, when two persons, united in body and in spirit, are intent on a God-centered life together, differences of opinion will be fewer and will mainly be on matters not worth fighting over. So coming to a consensus would be the norm in most situations.

People who insist that a marriage must be an “exact partnership” are not being realistic. For this means that both partners have the final say, which is nonsensical; or neither partner has the final say, which assumes that it is always possible for them to reach a consensus. And this assumption is unlikely to be true even in cases where the couple are effectively living separate lives. Even if it is, this is not a real marriage, as the couple are not functioning as “one flesh,” except perhaps in procreation.

It would be better to accept that one partner must be given the responsibility of having the final say, but reject that it must always be the husband. There may be some merit to this suggestion. For some men are more like Eve, and some women are more like Adam when it comes to bearing the burden of leadership. What if one such man happens to be married to one such woman? And even if this is not the case, what happens when, for some other reason, the man could not or would not bear the burden of being ultimately responsible?

It is beyond the scope of this exposition to go further into this debate except to highlight the case of Deborah, the prophetess, and Barak (Judges 4). God commissioned Barak through Deborah to lead an army into battle to deliver His people from foreign oppression. The battle was humanly impossible for him to win. But God promised him victory. Unlike Deborah, Barak obviously did not have the faith to claim God’s promise. So he accepted the commission only when Deborah agreed to accompany him. The record shows that he even handed the responsibility of leadership over to her (Judges 4:14).