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Excerpt: Athirst for the Spirit by Nina Heereman

Posted by Theology of Home on
Excerpt: Athirst for the Spirit by Nina Heereman

I was in Steubenville back in February to film an episode of Franciscan University Presents. After filming, Scott Hahn recommended the book Athirst for the Spirit: Biblical Wisdom for Desert Times by Nina Heereman, who is an  associate professor and department chair of Sacred Scripture at St. Patrick’s Seminary. I promptly purchased the book and then couldn't put it down. It is book is a series of essays that beautifully unfolds a Biblical account of womanhood.

Enjoy this little sample of Heereman's fine work.

The St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies is offering 25% off Heereman's book to Theology of Home readers with the code HOME25.

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The Female Archetype

If the original male vocation is crystalized in the priest-kingly figure of Adam, it follows quite logically that the original female vocation is presented to us in the figure of Eve, magnificently encapsulated in the account of her creation in Genesis 2:18–23, where we read:

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 now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens 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. . . . But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made [built!] into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

     “This at last is bone of my bones
         and flesh of my flesh;
     she shall be called Woman,
         because she was taken out of Man.”

Leaving aside man’s original loneliness, on which Saint John Paul II has written beautiful reflections in the Theology of the Body, it is clear that the Bible describes here a profound loneliness which neither God, with whom Adam is still in communion, nor the animated world can relieve. Thus, the Lord himself decides to create someone who would be a helper to Adam, a helper who would be on par with him, or be his equal, which in my view is the best rendering of the original knegdo, which literally means like [and] before him, thus someone who is at eye level with man and corresponds to him.

Maybe this expression, knegdo, delivers the secret of why God was not able to relieve Adam’s loneliness. Though in total harmony with his creation, the Lord is nonetheless infinitely transcendent, of divine and not human nature, and thus precisely not on par with man. Only the Incarnation would reveal that it is God’s eternal desire to raise man to his eye level. But before the Lord accomplishes that plan in the Incarnation, he finds a different way of being present to Adam. He creates for man a helper, on par with him. This helper is built from Adam’s rib and therefore bone from his bone, and flesh of his flesh, a Hebrew way of expressing not only the common human nature but also intimate kinship.

The real theological bombshell, however, lies hidden in the Bible’s connotation of the Hebrew term often translated as helper, ’ezer. Modern ears are very much inclined to misunderstand the meaning of that word. I do not know about English, but in German the word helper has almost become a euphemism for the woman who was formerly simply called the “cleaning woman.” In order to avoid discrimination, we have adopted the term helper. Nonetheless, the term still expresses the notion of someone working in a household for low wages doing the dirty work which no one in the family wants to do or has the time to do. For centuries the term helper was often misunderstood in this way.

A look into a concordance, however, renders a very different meaning. In the Bible, the term ezer is, with the exception of this passage, almost always employed to designate divine help. It can refer either to help that comes from God (e.g., Deut 33:26; Hos 13:9; Ps 20:3; 89:20; 121:1, 2; 124:8; Deut 11:34), as in Psalm 124:8, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Or the term can be employed as a kind of title for God as a helper himself (e.g., Exod 18:4; Deut 33:7, 29; Ps 33:20; 70:6; 115:9–11; 146:5), as in, for example, Psalm 33:20, “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.”

Only two texts seem to constitute an exception, but in reality they confirm the deeply religious sense of the word. Isaiah 30:5 is addressed against those who, in a negative way, are seeking help (ezer) in the support of the worldly power Egypt instead of the Lord. “Everyone comes to shame through a people that cannot profit them, that brings neither help [lo’ l’ezer] nor profit [lo’ leho’il], but shame and disgrace” (Isa 30:5). Jerusalem is put to shame and disgrace because it has sought help (’ezer) in an idol instead of God. As Jean-Louis Ska explains, “It is not without interest to note that the term lo’ l’ezer and lo’ leho’il (no profit) are often used to designate false gods (1 Sam 12:21; Isa 57:12; Jer 2:8, 11; 16:19) or idols (Isa 44:9, 10; Hab 2:18).” Isaiah 30:15, in fact, “define[s] the meaning of the oracle more precisely in showing where Jerusalem can find salvation: in conversion and the trust which draws from the source of its faith in YHWH.” Thus, Ska concludes, “Only God can offer the expected ‘help,’ not Egypt.”

Similarly, in Ezekiel 12:14, the other seeming exception, the term “his helpers” (ezroh) “designates the group in whom Zedekiah puts his confidence in order to escape the mortal danger looming upon him.” As in Isaiah 30:5, ’ezer in Ezekiel 12:14 speaks of a “human help that proves insufficient in saving the king from death.” As Father Ska cautiously proposes: “Maybe we have here an important indication with respect to the meaning of the term ’ezer. It seems to designate a ‘help’ of a very particular kind, such as according to the affirmation of the majority of the texts only God can provide.”

Father Ska then proceeds to examine each occurrence of the term ezer as applied explicitly to the divine help. According to him, all the occurrences of the term ezer have several traits in common: “The help is always personalized; they all describe situations where life is directly threatened; [and] the helping intervention is indispensable for escaping from death.” “Summing up,” he writes, “the help described in these texts supposes always an intervention that happens not far from the frontier that separates life from death. It is indispensable for bringing the faithful back to the world of the living. One understands accordingly that it is almost always God who enters into the scene.”

What may be concluded from these findings? According to the language employed, it seems that woman was created in order to represent God to man. While from a scholarly standpoint this is, though exegetically sound, quite a daunting conclusion, it is surprisingly the very same conclusion which the Catechism draws, expressing this mystery in unsurpassable clarity:

The woman, “flesh of his flesh,” his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church thus affirms that woman was God’s privileged medium of being present to man, that is, to be the locus of God’s saving presence alongside man. In other words, she was created to be a living temple. This is mysteriously underscored by the vocabulary employed in the description of the woman’s creation from the side of Adam. The Hebrew text says that God took one of Adam’s ribs and built (wayyiben) a woman. In the symbolic language of the Bible, woman is “built” just as one builds a temple. In the ancient Near East, temples were considered to be miniature replicas of paradise, that is, of God’s abode and therefore the locus of God’s presence. By the same token, they were a source of living water, that is, the source of all life and well-being. Throughout the Scriptures we can observe a kinship between woman and temple, which is beautifully expressed in Song of Songs 4:12–15, where the female Beloved is described as a paradisiacal garden growing spices that are reminiscent of the temple’s liturgy and anointing oils and as a source of living water which puts her on par with the architectonic description of the temple in Jerusalem. I will come back to this kinship between woman and temple later. For now, I want to focus on the astounding observation that the term helper, employed in the creation account of Eve, seems to imply a divine lifesaving help that God mediates to man in the person of the woman.

*For ease of reading, endnotes used in the book have been removed. 

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