In Reforming Marriage, Douglas Wilson quotes Genesis 2:18 (“It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him”) and 1 Corinthians 11:9 (“Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man”) and then draws this conclusion:
As a result of the creation order, men and women are oriented to one another differently. They need one another, but they need one another differently. The man needs the help; the woman needs to help. Marriage was created by God to provide companionship in the labor of dominion. The cultural mandate, the requirement to fill and subdue the earth, is still in force, and a husband cannot fulfill this portion of the task in isolation. He needs a companion suitable for him in the work to which God has called him. He is called to the work and must receive help from her. She is called to the work through ministering to him. He is oriented to the task, and she is oriented to him (p. 19).
I’ve read this book several times and have used it in premarital counseling, but as I read it this afternoon this passage stood out to me and a bunch of questions came to mind.
Are we to think here of men and women, in general, or only of a husband and his wife? Presumably it is the latter. Though the opening sentence speaks of “men and women,” it goes on to speak of how they are “oriented to one another,” and in the context that would be in marriage. Still, it is possible to (mis!)read the next sentence (“The man needs the help; the woman needs to help”) as if it were speaking about every man and every woman, as if women exist to help men. One could wish the wording were clearer to guard against that misreading, but a close reading does suggest to me that Wilson has in mind only husbands and wives.
Still, some questions remain. Is it true that husbands need to be helped and women need to help, and not the other way round? Is Genesis 2 making a blanket statement about husbands and wives, teaching us that the husband is to do the work and needs help in doing it, while the wife is only to assist in the work as her husband’s helper? Does a wife never do the “the labor of dominion” directly, but instead takes part in it only “through ministering to” her husband? May she not be involved in some “labor of dominion” that is distinct from her husband’s particular labor, that she does without ministering to him? Is the husband not to be oriented to her? Is she not in any way oriented to the task (or even to a task that is not her husband’s task)? Is this orientation thing an either/or, either an orientation toward work or an orientation to a spouse? Can it not in some way be both?
Surely “the labor of dominion” in Genesis 1 includes procreation. The command-blessing there is “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” That, as Wilson says on the next page, is something a man cannot do on his own. But is procreation something that the husband does with the assistance of his wife? Is she only helping him do his task of being fruitful and multiplying? Is she involved in procreation only “through ministering to him”? Is he “oriented to the task” of procreation, while “she is oriented to him”?
On the contrary. In the Bible, the mandate given as a blessing in Genesis 1 is given only after the creation of Woman (that is, chronologically after what is reported to us in Genesis 2) and is given to both Adam and Woman:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:26-28).
Both of them are created in God’s image. Both of them, male and female, are blessed. To both of them God gives the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, to have dominion over the fish and birds and animals. There is no hint here that this mandate is given to the man, with his wife in only a helping role. She receives the mandate too. She is to be fruitful and multiply as much as he is, and they take part in this calling together. He helps her and she helps him. He receives her help and she receives his help.
What is true of procreation, of being fruitful and multiplying, is true of the other aspects of this mandate, subduing the earth and having dominion over the creatures. As James Jordan has written, “The cultural mandate is given equally to men and women (Gen. 1:28). In cultural life, the man is to help the woman as much as the woman helps the man.”
It is not only that “The man needs the help; the woman needs to help.” It is also that “The woman needs the help; the man needs to help.” Both the husband and the wife are involved in carrying out the mandate God gave, and both need each other’s help in various ways.
What about Genesis 2, then? Doesn’t God say that he is making the woman to be a “helper comparable to” Adam? It certainly does. But a helper with what?
In Reforming Marriage, Wilson links the help with the “labor of dominion,” but that isn’t mentioned in the context in Genesis 2. At the time God created the woman, the cultural mandate had not yet been given; it wasn’t given, according to Genesis 1, until after the woman was created and then it was given to them both. What about procreation? Again, nothing is mentioned about that in Genesis 2.
One might think more generally of companionship. After all, God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” There is a certain sort of companionship, a certain sort of help, that the wife gives to her husband, a kind of help that he cannot receive from another man or from one of the animals, a kind of help for which he needs someone similar but different, fully human and “comparable to him” but not exactly the same.
That’s true enough. But note, too, the flow of events in Genesis 2. God created Adam first and then created the Garden and put Adam into the Garden to serve it and to guard it, tasks that are later associated with the work of priests. The Garden is God’s sanctuary, the place where God will meet with his people. Adam does not have dominion over it and is not going to subdue it. It is not Adam’s Garden but God’s, and Adam is in it as a priest, a palace servant, commissioned to serve and guard it. That priestly task is given to Adam, along with the gift of all the trees of the Garden (including, obviously, the Tree of Life) and with the warning not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Only at that point does God say that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needs “a helper comparable to him.” If we are to associate the Woman’s role as “helper” here with any task given to Adam, it is not the task of dominion or of procreation or of cultural development, the tasks that hadn’t been given yet, but the priestly task, the task of serving and guarding the Garden, the task of worship and care for God’s sanctuary — and that’s how Paul applies the creation order in 1 Timothy 2: not to all of life, not to cultural work or the “labor of dominion” but to the sphere of liturgy and worship (see the provocative discussion here; my link does not, of course, necessarily imply agreement with everything in this article).
Genesis 2, then, is not talking generally about men and women or husbands and wives and doesn’t indicate that husbands are to be oriented toward their work, while their wives are to be oriented toward them and help them in their work. It’s talking, rather, about a specific sphere, a specific sort of work and help in that work. But the broader mandate, the mandate to fill and subdue and rule the world, God gave to men and women, husbands and wives, alike. Each works, each needs help in many ways, each gives help.