Jesus in Genesis 3:15?

Does Genesis 3:15, which has long been considered the protoevangelium (the “first good news”), really not contain a foreshadowing of the messiah?

In the midst of God pronouncing a number of effects that result from Adam and Eve’s decision to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “to obtain wisdom,” Gen. 3:15 offers a ray of hope. God promises that there is a particular child to come who will deal the death blow to the serpent. Through the continued use of genealogies, the Old Testament is at pains to demonstrate that many of its most important characters are descendants of the first family begun by God in Gen. 1 and 2 (cf., Gen. 5, Luke 3:23-38). What hangs over each of their stories is whether or not this one is finally the seed of the woman promised by God in Gen. 3:15. Is it Cain? Is it Abraham? Is it Samson? Samuel? David? Solomon? Any of the kings of Israel or Judah? The Old Testament ends without that particular seed being born. But the New Testament provides an answer and why for instance Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam. 


Not long ago eminent New Testament scholar Scot McKnight tweeted a link to a 2013 post on his blog, “Jesus Creed,” where he calls attention to some of the findings of Claude Mariottini’s (excellent) book Rereading the Biblical Text: Searching for Meaning and Understanding,which at one point argues that Genesis 3:15 is not in fact messianic. Following Mariottini, McKnight points out that such a conclusion agrees with the likes of Old Testament luminaries Gordon Wenham and Gerhard von Rad, along with some translations, who see the “seed” mentioned in Gen. 3:15 as referring not to an individual, particular, “savior,” but rather to the sum total of descendants to be born to both the woman. So, for example, the following translation is representative of the traditional, messianic sense often seen in God’s words to Satan:

I will put enmity between you and between the woman, and between your seed and her seedhe will strike you [on the] head, but you bruise him [on the] heel. (Translation mine)

Many translations even reinforce the messianic reading of Gen. 3:15 by capitalized the pronoun “He” so as to make an explicit connection between this verse and Christ (cf., NLT, NASB, HCSB).

McKnight and Mariottini on the other hand seem to prefer a collective sense of “seed” which would equate to something akin to the Jewish Publication Society’s translation:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring [or descendants] and hers [i.e., her “offspring”]; they will strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heal. (Jewish Publication Society, Tanak)

In this translation, the singular “seed” is translated as “offspring” or even with the plural, “descendants,” for which the proper pronoun to follow would be a plural, “they,” rather than the singular, “he.”

The evidence adduced for such a conclusion is that the Hebrew word for “seed,” zera, can be a collective noun, that is, one that is grammatically singular but plural in meaning. An English example of a noun of this type would be the word “crowd” – a noun singular in form that nevertheless refers to a group, or collection, of people. The same can be true for zera‘. In its collective sense, zera refers to one of four things: (1) seed (or a seed) from which plants sprout; (2) semen; (3) a child; (4) offspring/descendants. It is this last meaning of zera that McKnight and Mariotinni suggest is the sense being elicited in Gen. 3:15. The “enmity” introduced as a result of the Fall is not between a particular descendent of the woman (who has traditionally been thought of as foreshadowing the messiah) and the serpent, but rather between all of humanity and the serpent. Based upon this, McKnight concludes his blog by asking the question: “But the original text, Dr. Mariottini argues, was not messianic. Was Jesus in Genesis 3:15? Probably not.”

So, does Genesis 3:15, which has long been considered the protoevangelium (the “first good news”), really not contain a foreshadowing of the messiah? Although the collective sense of zera‘ is very popular in the Old Testament, it is not the only way it is used. There are examples when zera is not referring to a group, but actually a particular, individual, “seed” or child (e.g., Gen. 4:25, 17:12, 21:13; Isa. 53:10). This begs the question of how it is we can know when zera‘ should be understood as a collective “descendants/offspring” or as an individual “descendant/child?” The answer to this question lies in the grammatical contexts in which zera occurs.

To start with the easiest and most obvious, very often when zera is used collectively, it is either the antecedent of plural pronouns, the subject of a plural verb, or both (this despite being itself formally singular). This is an obvious tip-off that the collective sense is meant. However, in Gen. 3:15, zera is the subject of a singular verb and is the antecedent of a singular pronoun. So, the first item to note is that grammar of Gen. 3:15 does not explicitly demand a collective reading as is the case when zera‘ is the subject of plural verbs and/or the antecedent of plural pronouns. Nevertheless, our job is not done because there are not a few times when zera is clearly a collective based upon other contextual considerations, but is in fact the subject of a singular verb and/or is referred to with a singular pronoun. Yet even in these cases, there is more than meets the eye.

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