Arguments for Subordination in Genesis

Arguments for

Subordination in Genesis


People have argued that subordination of the woman to the man is indicated in Genesis 2 in four ways:

(1) The wife is to be a “help meet”, i.e. a subordinate assistant.

(2) She is named by the man, something done by a superior to an inferior.

(3) She was made from his rib, and is therefore beneath his head.

(4) She was made second, and is therefore subordinate to him.

Are these arguments supported by the text?


Help Meet

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone;

I will make him a helper fit for him.”                         (Genesis 2:18)

The King James Version used the term “help meet for him”, and the term “helpmeet”, or even “helpmate”, has entered the English language by a misunderstanding of the phrase. Some people, on reading the text, tend to imagine that the phrase means an assistant, a subordinate helper. The Hebrew word is ezer and can mean a helper of any kind, whether superior or inferior. Ezer occurs 21 times in the Old Testament. Frequently the word refers to God as the helper, a stronger helping a weaker.

Our soul waits for the LORD;

he is our help [ezer] and shield.     (Psalm 33:20)

The word “helper” is neutral: it does not in itself indicate that the woman should be inferior or superior to the man. The man’s need was for someone suitable in the work God planned for him. The animals were unsuitable precisely because they were not on a level with himself: he couldn’t discuss with them, receive advice from them or be encouraged when he felt inadequate. And it was God’s intention, as Genesis 1 indicated, that men and women should be in authority over the earth and the animals.

The point of Genesis 2:18 is that the man needed a human being like himself. The animals were not suitable helpers (Genesis 2:20). They were not in the image of God. The preposition “for” in the phrase “a helper fit for him” can be translated as “corresponding to” or “equal and adequate to”. The most suitable companion for any task is one who has either the same abilities or abilities complementary to those lacking in oneself. And this is what God supplied: a human being. And because the woman was human like the man, she too would not find animals to be suitable companions for the task in hand. She too needed a “suitable helper”. It is no better for a woman to be alone than for a man.

It has been suggested that God, though superior, acts out an inferior role when He in His grace stoops to help mankind. We all do this when we help someone: we put their needs ahead of our needs or our convenience. In this sense, the woman as a “helper” was to be supportive, as Adam would need to be to her. As the New Testament says: “Be subject to one another” (Ephesians 5:21). But the stress in Genesis 2 seems more to be on a suitable helper; both were to be God’s helpers in God’s work: as Paul says of himself and others using the similarly supportive term “servant”:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.                (1 Corinthians 3:5)

... through love be servants of one another.                (Galatians 5:13)

“God is the helper superior to man; the animals are helpers inferior to man; woman is the helper equal to man.”[1] In His divine foresight and planning, of course, God no more had the intention of creating a man without a woman than a woman without a man. There is no point in making a key without a lock. If the man in Genesis 2 was (as we believe) biologically a man, then it presumes that God’s intention was also to create a woman. Only thus could they be fruitful and multiply (1:28). Genesis 2 reinforces the teaching of chapter 1 that God made man and woman suitable for each other so that jointly and complementarily they should carry out His work on earth for which He created them.



Since there are a number of instances where God who is superior names or renames people, it is argued that the man’s naming of the animals indicates his superiority over them.

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. (Genesis 2:18-20)

When, therefore, the man says, “She shall be called Woman” (Genesis 2:23), it is argued that this indicates an inherent hierarchy in creation: man is superior to woman, woman is subordinate to man.

However, neither the text here nor any other passage in the Bible draws such a conclusion from the naming of the woman; rather the opposite. A careful reading of the text shows that authority or rule is not the point of this passage; it is companionship. Man has power over the animals (as does the woman, Genesis 1:28). By contrast, the woman is on a level with him because she is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). God suggested the need for a partner. In His foreknowledge, God no doubt knew what He planned, but the need for a suitable companion was demonstrated for human benefit by showing the unsuitability of animals. Animals can be companions for humans but not to the full extent of other human beings. The woman was created not only to be a companion for man but also to be a vital part in the process of creating more humans – mankind. The man couldn’t do this on his own, nor could the woman. They both needed each other.

Naming in the Bible can express authority. But naming can also be a way of acknowledging the work of God. In Genesis 4:25, for example, Eve named her third son Seth.

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel ...”                                                               (Genesis 4:25)

The stress is not on Eve’s authority but on the purpose that Seth was to fulfil: “Seth” means “given” or “appointed.” Likewise when Hagar named God in Genesis 16, she was not expressing authority over God:

... she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “Thou art a God of seeing”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”                                                                      (Genesis 16:13)

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’

                                                                        (Genesis 16:13, NRSV)

In human terms, the one who names another expresses some authority simply by being there first, as the man was before the woman was created. But in Genesis 2:23 the man does not give the woman a name. “Woman” is not a name but a generic description, and it is one already used in the description of God’s action (of taking the man’s rib and making it into a woman) in the previous verse.

and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman                                                                           (Genesis 2:22)

Further, there is a substantial difference between the way the man named the animals and calling his new partner “woman”. Of the animals it is recorded: “...and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (verse 19). The name for each animal was entirely a matter of the man’s choosing. When, however, the man called his new companion “woman”, he was acclaiming the action of God:

Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called Woman [ishshah],

because she was taken out of Man [ish].        (Genesis 2:23)

As the texts explains (“because she was...”), these names arise from the action of God not from the action of the man. As well as calling her woman (ishshah) he mentions himself by a new generic description for the first time: “man” (ish). Hitherto man has been adam. If naming is always expressing authority, is he, by describing himself in this new way, also expressing authority over himself? It is consistent to consider that in both cases he is exclaiming at the sameness and mutual suitability which exists between them.

Finally, there is the conclusion drawn by the text itself. It is not “Therefore a woman leaves her father and mother, cleaves to her husband and he rules over her.” It is the opposite:

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.                                                 (Genesis 2:24)


We conclude, therefore, that there are no adequate grounds for thinking that calling her “woman” indicates in itself any intention that she was to be subordinate to him or that he was intended to rule over her.[2]


Made from the Man’s Rib

It has been argued that the woman was not made from his head which would indicate that she would be equal or superior to him, but from his side and therefore she is inferior to him.

Matthew Henry (about 1700) quaintly and attractively commented in reply:

The woman was ... not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.

                                                            (Commentary on Genesis, page 12)

Matthew Henry’s sentiments go back at least as far as to Calvin (1509-1564), and are probably a reply to some of the many elaborations made in earlier times on the account in Genesis. Though attractively expressed, they are, nevertheless, being read into the text by the commentator. The reason according to Genesis for creation in this manner is that the woman should, unlike the animals, be a human being like the man: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”.


Man Made First

It is argued by reference to 1 Timothy 2:13 that because Adam was formed before Eve, man therefore ought always to be in authority over woman, husbands over wives, brothers in the ecclesia over sisters. We discuss possible interpretations of 1 Timothy 2 and its use of Genesis on pages 89-92.

In Genesis 2 itself, there is no suggestion that the order of creation has any bearing on who should teach or lead whom. On the basis of the general use of ezer, helper, it could be argued that the intention was that the woman should lead the man, where necessary, in the right direction, just as God (superior) helped Israel (inferior).

On the other hand, the fact that the man had received commands from God before the woman was formed (Genesis 2:15-17) would have given him some superiority, at least of knowledge and experience. It would be his responsibility to pass this information on to his wife, as presumably he did (unless God spoke to her directly also). By the time she encounters the serpent (Genesis 3:1-4) she knows the command. Both man and woman are considered responsible in the garden of Eden, but there is no indication of leadership based on the order of creation.


[1] P. Trible, quoted in Women in Ancient Israel, by G. I. Emmerson.

[2] See pages 257-262 in Beyond Sex Roles – What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family by Gilbert Bilezikian (Baker Books, 1985 & 1999). This book gives a critique of James Hurley’s Man & Woman in Biblical Perspective (IVP, 1981) upon which Michael Lewis draws for Man & Woman – A Study of Biblical Roles (The Testimony, 1992). Bilezikian, page 261: “We conclude that there is no support to be found in Genesis 2:23 for the theory of male rulership over woman within the creation model.”

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