Is “Suitable Helper” a Suitable Translation?

A meaningful translation of Gen. 2:18 in today’s context might be: “I will make for him a helper, as one who is his counterpart.”

I’m not revealing anything exegetically new here. Many have commented on this passage in similar ways. I only make the humble suggestions that we need to pay careful attention to: a) our own biases and culture that may affect our perception of words; b) the translation we are reading and not to gloss quickly over newer versions/revisions of biblical translations that aim to be more precise and modern (you probably didn’t realize that some translations, like the ESV, don’t use the word suitable at all in Gen. 2:18); and c) the original languages of the Bible, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

 

I grew up as a second generation Korean-American, meaning my parents immigrated from Korea to the United States and I was born here in America. Naturally, my parents brought their culture and language with them. They infused and comingled their culture with their new environment – and, at times, even adopted American culture and replaced their own. Consequently, I am a product of both my U.S. citizenship and my Korean heritage.

In the Korean language, as well as most every other modern language, there are a plethora of loan-words from English. Some of them are so odd that one often finds oneself scratching their head and thinking, “how in the world did that happen?” For example, the Korean word ha-de is one of the Korean words for a popsicle. Growing up, I had no idea that this was not originally a Korean word, but instead it was meant to be the word “hard” from “hard-bar” (since popsicles are a type of “hard ice cream,” apparently). I remember rolling on the floor laughing when I found this out in college. Really? The name for a popsicle in Korea is merely a poor pronunciation of the English word hard? Another word for popsicle that is more contemporary is “ah-ees-uh ken-dee.” Pronounce that out loud and you’ll get it.

Like many young sons, I wanted to help my dad do some of the cool dad-like stuff he did, such as put in a sprinkler system in the backyard, or build shelves, and the like (by the way, now that I have a son of my own, I realize I was less help and more work for my dad). When he did let me “help,” he would always call out “hel-puh.” Of course, helpuh meanthelper, and I realized that being a helpuh was not really that fun at all. He’d call me when he wanted me to sweep the floor, clean up a mess, or hold a heavy object up on the wall so he could nail it in. I was my dad’s helper, or, to use another antiquated term, his gofer (one who “goes for” coffee or other menial errands), or perhaps even his assistant or intern. I was the one who did the tedious tasks that didn’t require any skill, while my dad got to do the fun and important stuff, like use the table saw or the paint sprayer – the stuff that was too important or too dangerous to let me do, or more precisely, the tasks for which I didn’t have enough skill and ability. I heard helpuh a lot growing up, although not just from my father, but also from other, older Korean men who needed a hand (that’s putting it politely – in reality the culture was that younger people did more menial tasks than older ones; the older could make the younger do whatever he wanted the younger to do, even if there were no familial relationship, and even if they were just a year or two older). Like hade, helpuhwas a formal loan-word that was in common usage back then (I’m told that both words aren’t used that often in Korea anymore).

The well-known words suitable helper in Gen. 2:18 are so engrained in our English speaking culture that it’s difficult to think of Gen. 2:18 in any other terms, even though many translations have tried to adopt better wording to fit the original Hebrew (c.f., ESV, NLT, or the footnote in the NASB). These words come in the midst of the sentence, “I will make him a helper suitable for him” (NASB). Suitable helper might have been a suitable translation 50 years ago, but I suggest that the phrase suitable helper has become outdated and is now misleading in its translation.

Grammatically speaking, the Hebrew phrase ‘ēzer kenegdô is actually a very heavily loaded clause. The word ‘ezer is the noun “help,” or “helper” (when used to describe a person), and kenegdô is a tripartite construction of two prepositions and a pronominal suffix (ke = “like” or “as”; neged = “opposite” or “in front of” – a “counterpart”; and the suffix ô = him). A terse and wooden, but literal translation might be “a help as one standing opposite him,” or “a help as his counterpart.”

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