I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Christian Feminism? Exploring the Implications of God Making Man’s “Help” (Part II)

Yesterday, I posted part one (see here) of the three-part post series on the possible beginnings of a Christian feminism. Today we’re exploring the semantic range of êzer, “help meet” (Gen. 2:18, 20), throughout the Tanach (i.e., OT).

The first occurrence after Genesis 2 is Exodus. Here is Moses naming one of his two young’uns. Gershom was the first. The second went like this: “And the name of the other was Eliezer; for the God of my father, said he, was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh” (18:4). Note the conjunction (for, Heb. kı̂y), which indicates the grounds clause for the preceding proposition. Typical in scripture is that etymology is critical to giving and understanding names and naming. Eliezer is a compound, which literally means “God is help.” This verse sets the tone for the remaining Old Testament usages. Here God is commemorated by Moses in the boy child’s name as a “help” against the sword of Pharaoh.

Here “help” carries the sense of a shield, which will become the consistent category throughout the rest of the Old Testament. At very least in this case, there is a clear militaristic tone to the word, as a defense against enemy attack.

The next set of occurrences likewise come from Torah, all of which are from Deuteronomy 33, Moses' final benediction and blessing over the twelve tribes of Israel, just before their conquest of the land. In each instance, Moses invokes Yahweh to be Israel’s “help” against his enemies: “be thou an help to [Israel] from his enemies” (v. 7; cf. v. 26). In verse 29, Yahweh is called “the shield of thy help,” which harkens back to Exodus 18:4, where “help” is put for the function of a shield against Pharaoh’s “sword.”

The next series of uses come from the pen of the royal prophet, King David, in the psalter (10x). In 33:20, help and shield are again brought together. “Our soul waiteth for the LORD: he is our help and our shield.” This coupling is nowhere more apparent than in the triadic repetitio of 115:9—11.

O Israel, trust thou in the Lord:
he is their help and their shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord: 
he is their help and their shield.
Ye that fear the Lord, trust in the Lord:
he is their help and their shield.

In both 20:2, 70:5 and 89:19 “help” connotes the salvific and wholly sufficient delivering power of Yahweh acting on behalf of his people.  Yahweh’s protection of the pilgrim is highlighted in the familiar words of the liturgical psalm, 121:1—2:

            I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
                        From whence cometh my help?         
            My help cometh from the LORD,
                        Which made heaven and earth (comp. 124:8).

Adopting the help/shield of  mosaic usages, the psalmist annexes a broader range for the term, including a comprehensive sense of deliverance and salvation in any tumultuous circumstance, not just war, by Yahweh, Israel’s “help(er).”

Finally, “help” is picked up by three of the major and one of the minor prophets. Isaiah 30:5 speaks of Israel’s idolatrous hope in his alliance with Egypt, in whom Israel sought his militaristic “help.” This synecdoche is made the more obvious by means of a parallelism of specification in Ezekiel 12:14 (which is chiastic also).

            A. And I will scatter towards every wind
B. all that are about him to help him,
B. and all his bands;
A. and I will draw out the sword after them.  

Daniel 11:34 uses the term in the context of an eschatological purging of God’s people. Hosea finish’s the Tanach’s catalogue of the word in the fullest, most comprehensive sense:

            O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me [i.e., Yahweh] is thine help (13:9).

In conclusion, one can draw some general inferences regarding the meaning of ‛êzer or “help” in the Old Testament. The term has a general and a more particular sense. In those contexts that use the word in its more particular sense, it is put as a shield by way of synecdoche; it intimates a sufficient defense against an offensive enemy, the “sword” of an enemy. In nearly every instance, it predicates Yahweh as Israel’s “help.”

In the more general sense, it stands as a symbol for complete deliverance, for salvation from the direst situation or setting—Yahweh is Israel’s “help,” his all-sufficient Rescuer!

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