Lə-ḇad-dōw is the word usually translated into English as ‘alone’. It is actually a Hebrew prepositional phrase of the same grammatical structure of the Hebrew phrase in Chapter 1, bə-ṣal-mōw, which is translated as ‘in the images of Him’. Lə-ḇad-dōw is a very common expression in the Hebrew scriptures, with over 200 usages. Thus, we could say that its meaning would be quite easy to derive, even though, on the other hand, that would also mean many different usages to decide from as to which God meant exactly here.
The main word in lə-ḇad-dōw is ‘bad’, a word which literally means a pole or bar that is used to lift something. Figuratively, and by implication, it could connote a variety of related words such as strength, only, self, separate (as in making a distinction among things or people).
Badad is the verb form of bad, and it could mean to be by oneself, i.e. alone as in solitary, to be separated or divided from another; and as well it could mean to do by oneself without any participation or involvement of another. This way it further connotes self-strength that makes one self-reliant, self-sufficient, and in some cases, self-absorbed or self-centred.
The root phrase lə-ḇad has three senses; only, self or in addition to/ separate from, with the most common one scriptural usage probably being ‘self’ and connoting self-strength. When suffixes are added to it the meaning changes.
- If the suffix î is added then it becomes lə-ḇad-dî meaning ‘by my strength, by myself or I only’.
- With addition of the neuter suffix, āh, we have lə-ḇad-dāh meaning ‘it only or itself’.
- If ōw (him) is added, then it will become lə-ḇad-dōw meaning ‘himself’/itself OR he only/it only.
- If the suffix, ḵā (you), is added to lə-ḇad-dōw, it becomes lə-ḇad-də-ḵā which would then mean ‘you yourself’ i.e. all by yourself or by your own strength.
A few examples of Biblical usage;
Gen. 26:1 And there was a famine in the land, separate from (lə-ḇad) the first famine that was in the days of Abraham.
Gen.43:32 And they set on for him by himself (lə-ḇad-dōw), and for them by themselves (lə-ḇad-dām), and for the Egyptians, which did eat with him, by themselves (lə-ḇad-dām): because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.
Exo. 18:14 And when Moses’ father in law saw all that he did to the people, he said, What is this thing that thou doest to the people? Why sittest thou thyself alone (lə-ḇad-də-ḵā); and all the people stand by thee from morning unto even?
Judges 6:37 Behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only (lə-ḇad-dāh) and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said.
Neh.9:6 You Lord alone (lə-ḇad-də-ḵā) have made heaven; the heaven of heavens and with all their hosts…
Isa.37:16, 20…You are the God alone (lə-ḇad-də-ḵā) of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made the heavens and the earth…that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you [are] the Lord only (lə-ḇad-də-ḵā).
Job 31:17 nor have I eaten my morsel myself alone (lə-ḇad-dî) and the fatherless did not eat of it.
1Ki 18:6 So they divided the land between them to pass throughout it: Ahab went one way by himself (lə-ḇad-dōw), and Obadiah went another way by himself (lə-ḇad-dōw).
What one would readily notice in all these uses of the phrase lebad (cognate forms), is that even though it is most frequently translated as ‘alone’, the contexts of the passages of usage reveal that there was nothing ‘solitary’ about the persons in question. By this observation one would begin to see the insufficiency of the word ‘alone’ in some of the readings.
For example, Moses counselling the people [by] himself did not at all mean that he was solitary or lonely. In fact, Moses was overwhelmed with too many people all around him. Also, Ahab and Obadiah when they split up to look for the lost horses and mules ‘themselves’—each alone on his path—did not mean that they would have been solitary on the different paths they chose. There must have been other passers-by on the same road that they were walking. Instead, Ahab and Obadiah separated (or parted ways) so that each could independently, without the participation or help of the other, search for what they were both looking for.
Also, Job did not mean to say that he had eaten his morsel in the ‘presence’ of the fatherless. He meant that he had not been selfish or self-centred with his resources. What King Hezekiah meant to communicate was not that God is the only God in existence—even though He truly is— but that by Himself, that is, by His own strength and power, and without the help of anyone, God had created all the kingdoms of the earth including Assyria, and thus it was a little thing for Him to defeat the Assyrian might. In other words, Hezekiah said, “God, you, all by yourself, are the God of all the kingdoms of the earth.
Nehemiah 9:6 could also read, “You Lord, [all by] yourself , without the help of any other, have made the heaven and earth”.
SOLITUDE OR SUFFICIENCY?
As we have seen above, while lə-ḇad-dōw does give the sense of being alone, its connotation is not limited to solitude. It also implies self–sufficiency, independence, segregation and self-reliance. That is, the state of doing something on one’s own without any external participation of another.
Based on the context of 2:18-21 we see that the human was indeed solitary to begin with. What is interesting, however, is that even after he was not anymore in solitude—animals were around—he was still alone. His aloneness, therefore, was deeper than solitude. It was not just the need for company, but the need for a mate. All the animals were in twos. Humanity as well was supposed to be in twos. And what would characterise a mate for the human? The same thing that characterised a mate for the animals; one of his own kind, a mirror image of him, one that would be fit to stand with him on the same level of nature. The aloneness of the first human therefore was not just a need for company but the need for another of its kind.
The solution God puts forward for this identified aloneness also proves that the aloneness was not a need for company or companionship. Had that been the case, God would have said He would make him a companion or friend (rê-ʻêh). A solution of ezer, that is, help, suggests a problem of insufficiency of strength.
This takes us back to the literal meaning of bad. It is a pole used in carrying or lifting something. By so doing, in Hebrew, a pole (bad) connotes strength. This kind of understanding of bad is proven in the scriptural usages quoted above.
If we therefore look at the phrase lə-ḇad-dōw in word-for-word, we will have; into (lə) one pole (ḇad) of him (ōw); into one pole of him.
Figuratively, it would mean; [to be] in part strength of him OR [to be] in his part strength. Basically, to not be operating in full strength/capacity/potential.
God is always self-sufficient and self-reliant, but we cannot say the same thing for humanity. In Genesis 2:18, God Himself tells us as much that He did not deem it good that mankind be individualistic in his existence. Jethro, when talking to Moses, meant, “Why are you doing this all by yourself without any help…this thing that you do is not good?” (vs. 14, 17). There were people all around Moses, but he did the counselling work independently with no external assistance. The problem therefore was not solitude or the need for companionship, it was a need for a burden being carried by one to be shared between two (or more people); it was a need for help.
Also, in the light of the exegesis above, it is clear to see that the problem identified in Genesis 2:18 was not a marriage issue. Suddenly, the narrative ceases to have the appearance of a lonely male-human that God went on to form a female companion for. It seems more like a general problem that pertained to all humanity that God identified. In other words, God does not like lone work; He likes to see partnership and community among living beings; among humans and among animals. The world as we know it, and evidently as God created it to be, runs on social interactions.
Jesus sent out His disciples to do ministry in groups. The Apostles in the early church era followed the same pattern. Jesus talked about two agreeing in prayer. This is not to say that God hates one, or that He approves the efforts of individuals any less. I would rather just say that this is because God is love and He has a special liking for relationship and loving togetherness. He Himself is Deity, and He works in partnership with Himself, “And the Gods said, let us make…”
Therefore, we could rephrase the English rendering of Genesis 2:18 with a better understanding of lə-ḇad-dōw, and quote it as follows;
“It is not good for the human to labour [in the earth] all by himself; that is, only by the strength and ability of one; I will make to (or for) him help (ʻê-zer kə-neḡ-dōw’)…”