Messianic Apologetics

Addressing the Theological and Spiritual Issues of the Broad Messianic Movement

Genesis 3:15: “The Seed of the Woman Crushing the Head of the Serpent” – Messiahship of Yeshua

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel” (NJPS).

Genesis 3:15

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel” (NJPS).

reproduced from the forthcoming Salvation on the Line, Volume III

posted 03 October, 2019


“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel” (NJPS).

There are consequences for Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:1-12). Eve reports to God that the serpent had deceived her (Genesis 3:13), and God condemns the serpent via the word, “Because you did this, more cursed shall you be than all cattle and all the wild beasts: On your belly shall you crawl and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14, NJPS). It is also witnessed that as a result of eating the forbidden fruit, that there will be some sort of conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Further stated is how there will be pain in a woman’s childbirth (Genesis 3:16a), tensions between males and females (Genesis 3:16b), and the difficulties of human living and eventual death are elucidated (Genesis 3:18-19). Both Jewish and Christian readers throughout the centuries have recognized how the Lord’s response to the action of Adam and Eve is largely negative—although it is good to see that in spite of violating the command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:16-17), the human race was not terminated with Adam and Eve. Instead, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, and are introduced to excruciating toil. They forfeit the intimate presence of their Creator.

Among the statements issued by God in response to Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, it is asserted, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will pound your head, and you will bite his heal” (Genesis 3:15, ATS). In historic Christian theology, Genesis 3:15 has been labeled as the protoevangelium or “first gospel,” as the seed or zera here is believed to be a promise of the Messiah to come. As noted by the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, “The ‘first gospel,’ [is] a reference to the statement in Gen. 3:15, which has been taken by some biblical interpreters as predicting the defeat of evil by the victory of Jesus Christ and thus as the first promise or ‘gospel’ of a coming Redeemer.”[1] Genesis 3:15 is often concluded to be intertextually employed or alluded to in the Apostolic Writings, as it involves the arrival of Yeshua of Nazareth (Matthew 1:18; Galatians 4:4-5) and His conflict with Satan (1 John 3:8; Revelation 12:9; 20:2).

Does Genesis 3:15 actually include any promise of a Redeemer or Deliverer to come? Common Jewish examination of Genesis 3:15 takes the conflict between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent to represent the superiority of human beings over reptiles like the serpent. Jon D. Levenson states in The Jewish Study Bible, “The serpent is to lose his legs, slither in the dirt, and suffer from the hostility of human beings (vv. 14-15).”[2] Such a naturalistic approach to Genesis 3:15, denoting a conflict between humans and threatening reptiles, such as serpents (Heb. sing. nachash), is hardly unwarranted. But, does the statement of Genesis 3:15 represent something else, beyond humans having to deal with the threat of being bitten by poisonous snakes and having to defend themselves? It should not be a surprise that other avenues of interpretation have been offered in Jewish resources. The ArtScroll Chumash, for example, takes Genesis 3:15 in an homeletical direction:

“Homiletically, the Sages derive from this description the proper tactics in the eternal war between man and the Evil Inclination, which is symbolized by the serpent. The serpent seduces the Jew to trample the commandments with his heel, and the Jew can prevail by using his head, meaning the study of Torah (Midrash HaNe’elam).”[3]

That there can be applications of Genesis 3:15 beyond naturalistic scenes of human beings in the Ancient Near East striking down poisonous snakes, is actually seen within the Tanach itself. God decreed to the serpent, “upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14b, ATS). When Israel is restored in the future by God, it is said of the nations of Planet Earth, “Let them lick dust like snakes, like crawling things on the ground! Let them come trembling out of their strongholds to the Lord our God; let them fear and dread You!” (Micah 7:17, NJPS). This, at least, permits readers of Genesis 3:15 to explore possibilities for how it could be read and/or applied by later generations.

That there is some issue with how to approach Genesis 3:15, particularly in terms of Messianic significance, can be deduced with how English Jewish versions choose to translate hu yeshuf’kha rosh v’attah teshupennu ‘akeiv, “he he-will-crush-you head and-you you-will-strike him heel” (Kohlenberger).[4] The Hebrew hu is the masculine pronoun. Several English Jewish versions have rendered this literally as: “he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt wound his heel” (Leeser Translation 1853), “He will pound your head, and you will bite his heal” (ATS), “he will crush you on the head and you will bite him in the heel” (Keter Crown Bible), “He’ll strike you at the head, and you’ll strike him at the heel” (Friedman),[5] “He will boot your head and you will bite his heel” (Alter).[6]

However, per some of the potential ambiguities regarding zera, “offspring, descendants” (HALOT),[7] being either singular or a singular representing a collective plural, other English Jewish versions have employed the plural “they” in Genesis 3:15: “they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel” (1917 JPS), “they shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel” (NJPS), “they will bruise you on the head, and you will bruise them in the heel” (Fox),[8] “they shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel” (Israel Bible). (The English Christian Common English Bible also has, “They will strike your head, but you will strike at their heels.”)

At least one English Jewish version has the neuter “it”: “it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Jerusalem Bible-Koren).

While it would not be entirely unacceptable to render the Hebrew hu or masculine pronoun “he” via the plural “they,” with zera representing the collective posterity of the woman Eve—“I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your brood and hers. They shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel” (NEB)—it cannot go unnoticed how Genesis 3:15 playing a role in Christian theology might affect Jewish approaches, in how a singular “he” could be applied to some later figure involved in a conflict with the crafty serpent. Liberal Christian examiners of Genesis 3:15 see no reference to some future Deliverer figure, in spite of historical interpretation.[9]

Going beyond a naturalistic interpretation of humans needing to beware of poisonous snakes, some ongoing conflict between good and evil, can be deduced from this passage, first involving those who ally themselves with such parties: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring” (Genesis 3:15a, ATS). But, does Genesis 3:15 at all anticipate some kind of a showdown between a singular good person and a singular evil person?

The Greek Septuagint translated Genesis 3:15b with autos sou tērēsei kephalēn kai su tērēseis autou pternan, “he will watch your head, and you will watch his heel” (NETS), employing the masculine nominative (case indicating subject) singular autos. Various Christian examiners have seen hu rendered as autos to be supportive of Genesis 3:15b being interpreted as Messianic in the Third-Second Centuries B.C.E., by the Septuagint’s Jewish translators. Sometimes offered as corroborating evidence, is how the Targum Onkelos paraphrased Genesis 3:15, leaving the singular pronoun “he” intact:

“And I will put enmity between thee and between the woman, and between thy son and her son. He will remember thee, what thou didst to him (at) from the beginning, and thou shalt be observant unto him at the end.”[10]

The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan moves Genesis 3:15 in a different direction, but noting how resolution to the conflict will come in the time of King Messiah:

“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between the seed of thy son, and the seed of her sons; and it shall be when the sons of the woman keep the commandments of the law, they will be prepared to smite thee upon thy head; but when they forsake the commandments of the law, thou wilt be ready to wound them in their heel. Nevertheless for them there shall be a medicine, but for thee there will be no medicine; and they shall make a remedy for the heel in the days of the King Meshiha.”[11]

Protestant commentators on the Book of Genesis, in encountering “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15b, RSV), have to sort through the Hebrew text, ancient translations, and some history of interpretation. Is there some expectation of a Deliverer figure planted within Genesis 3:15? Gordon J. Wenham, in summarizing a brief selection of Jewish and Christian views, thinks that Genesis 3:15 is appropriately viewed as Messianic only in retrospect, but not from the original perspective of the narrator:

“Certainly the oldest Jewish interpretation found in the third century B.C. Septuagint, the Palestinian targums (Ps.-J., Neof., Frg.), and possibly the Onqelos targum takes the serpent as symbolic of Satan and look for a victory over him in the days of King Messiah. The NT also alludes to this passage, understanding it in a broadly messianic sense (Rom 16:20; Heb 2:14; Rev 12) and it may be that the term ‘Son of Man’ as a title for Jesus and the term ‘woman’ for Mary (John 2:4; 19:26) also reflect this passage (Gallus; cf. Michl). Certainly, later Christian commentators, beginning with Justin (ca. A.D. 160) and Irenaeus (ca. 180), have often regarded 3:15 as the Protoevangelium, the first messianic prophecy in the OT. While a messianic interpretation may be justified in light of subsequent revelation, a sensus plenior, it would perhaps be wrong to suggest that this was the narrator’s own understanding. Probably he just looked for mankind eventually to defeat the serpent’s seed, the powers of evil.”[12]

While there is nothing particularly wrong with trying to understand what the statement of Genesis 3:15b meant to Adam and Eve, when originally hearing it—or even those within the community of Ancient Israel later on—that Genesis 3:15b was read with a Messianic tinge to it in Second Temple Judaism, cannot go overlooked. This does play some role in one’s study of the Messiahship of Yeshua. In his resource The Messianic Hope, Rydelnik appropriately concludes

“Not surprisingly, many scholars recognize that ancient Jewish sources read Gen 3:15 (and other passages) messianically but dismiss their interpretations as far-fetched. Is it not also possible that these ancient Jewish interpreters were sensitive to the nuances of the text, read them carefully, and understood their meaning? It is just as likely that the LXX, the Targumim, and the midrashim read Gen 3:15 messianically because that was the true meaning embedded in the text.”[13]

Conservative Protestant examiners will strongly take “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15b, NIV), to indicate future Messianic fulfillment in the person of Yeshua of Nazareth.[14] Of particular importance are statements appearing in the Apostolic Writings, which give testimony to a conflict between Yeshua the Seed, and Satan the serpent:

  • “Now the God of shalom [peace] will soon crush satan under your feet. May the grace of our Lord Yeshua be with you” (Romans 16:20, TLV).
  • “[T]he one who practices sin is of the Devil; for the Devil sins from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the Devil” (1 John 3:8, PME).
  • “And the great dragon was thrown down—the ancient serpent, called the devil and satan, who deceives the whole world. He was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Revelation 12:9, TLV).
  • “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are too, and they shall be tortured day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10, TLV).

While it might be easy for some layreaders to quickly conclude that English Jewish versions translating the Hebrew pronoun hu or “he,” with the plural “they,” are fomenting a conspiracy against Yeshua—evangelical theologians are bit more tempered. In his resource The Messiah in the Old Testament, Kaiser recognizes, “the very fact that the noun ‘seed’ is a collective singular deliberatively provides for the fact that it may include the one who represents the whole group as well as the group itself. The fact that there is such a one specified in this text as a male descendant of the woman opens up this text to its messianic possibilities.”[15] Even when one concludes that hu in Genesis 3:15b, “He will crush your head, and you will crush his heel” (TLV), represents a Deliverer to come, religious Jews could apply this to someone other than Yeshua of Nazareth. Some Protestant examiners see the “seed” or “offspring” in some collective sense, at least, in that there are specific righteous persons in the Biblical narrative, whose examples culminate in the person of Yeshua of Nazareth. Kenneth A. Matthews notes,

“This hope for the appointed ‘seed’ is unveiled progressively by the offspring of Eve through Seth (‘another seed’, 4:26; his genealogy, 5:1-32), through Noah’s offspring (9:9), and the seed of Abraham first described in 12:7 (with 12:1-3). Moreover, this promise points to the Mosaic community, which defined itself as the offspring promised to Abraham (e.g., Exod 32:11-14; Deut 11:8-12).”[16]

John E. Hartley similarly affirms how there would be conflict between human beings and poisonous snakes—something to be fully realized in the ultimate conflict between the future Messiah and Satan:

“From then on there would be enmity between the serpent and the woman, between the offspring of both. ‘Offspring’ (seed) is singular, connoting all offspring. Serpentine creatures would strike at the heel of humans, inflicting harm, but the offspring of women would defend themselves by striking a blow, often a fatal one, on the head of these creatures. Thus God gave humans the hope of mastering frightful serpents. Metaphorically, this statement meant that humans could rise above natural disasters and forces of evil to fulfill God’s commands.

“A few late Jewish writers and the church fathers found in this verse a fuller meaning that would one day be realized in the Messiah, when a representative of all humans would strike the serpent, the representative of the forces that oppose God, with a fatal blow. That victory would put an end to the enmity between the serpent and humankind. As Scripture unfolds God’s design, it becomes clear that the one to achieve such a major victory is the Messiah (Rom. 16:20), but it would take centuries before any audience would see that meaning in this text.”[17]

It cannot go overlooked, however, that John H. Walton, a rather well known and highly regarded Old Testament theologian, does not see any sort of Messianic expectation or hint in Genesis 3:15. Among his reasons, he thinks that Genesis 3:15 is absent elsewhere in the Tanach’s Messianic expectation:

“Usually it is on the basis of other texts of Scripture that such a fulfillment is identified that transcends the original context. Otherwise, such an identification has no authority. In this case, however, the rest of Scripture does not help us. Messianic expectation of Israel developed around the concept of a future king of David’s line….We should also note that the rest of the Old Testament never makes reference to Genesis 3:15 in the development of its messianic expectation….there is no biblical identification of Christ as the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, there is no authority link to support that interpretation. It is therefore haphazard to adopt a messianic interpretation of the text.”[18]

Victor P. Hamilton deliberates on Genesis 3:15, not quite being sure whether it is a prophecy of a Messiah to come, but still recognizing it as good news of some sort. His issue with Genesis 3:15 being a Messianic prophecy is whether or not the Hebrew hu being rendered by the Greek autos in the Septuagint, should be given as much weight as it often is among evangelicals:

“…[O]ne should not force an interpretation on her offspring that the expression cannot bear. The LXX translates the Heb. zar’āh (lit., ‘her seed’) as spérmatos autēs (lit., ‘her seed’) and the Vulg. as ‘her semen’ (an oxymoron if there ever was one!) in order to see a hint here of the virgin birth of this seed (the absence of a sperm-supplying father) if farfetched indeed….

“The question is: How should we translate the anticipatory in ‘it will strike at your head’—‘he’ or ‘they’ or ‘it’? The ancient versions offer the various alternatives. Few are inclined to follow Vulg. ipsa, ‘she’ (!). LXX has autós, ‘he,’ even though the antecedent is spérmatos, which is neuter in Greek. One might have expected autó instead of autós. The LXX seems to have had a messianic understanding of the verse, for, as has been pointed out, the independent personal pronoun hû’ occurs more than one hundred times, but this is the only one that the LXX translates literally with autós, although the Greek idiom would require the neuter. Nevertheless, one must decide whether the LXX should be allowed to carry so much weight here and whether it offers the correct understanding of the original intention of Gen. 3:15.

“We may want to be cautious about calling this verse a messianic prophecy. At the same time we should be hesitant to surrender the honored expression for this verse—the protoevangelium, ‘the first good news.’ The verse is good news whether we understand zera’ singularly or collectively…”[19]

When Adam and Eve heard the statement, “he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15b, NRSV), what could they have understood this as implying? It is fair for us in the Twenty-First Century to recognize that the two first humans barely understood the world outside of the sheltered confines of the Garden of Eden. For anyone to argue that Adam and Eve had a complex understanding of a Messiah figure to come, is a complete impossibility. That some conflict would emerge in history, and that some resolution would come to the problems that they had introduced by eating the forbidden fruit, is the absolute most they could have understood. Any view of the zera, the seed, offspring, or posterity being applied to Yeshua of Nazareth—or any Messiah figure for that matter—is a value judgment made by later generations of readers. While today’s Believers in Yeshua of Nazareth conclude that Genesis 3:15b first foretells of His arrival to defeat “the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world” (Revelation 12:9, NASU), this verse hardly provides us with a full picture of Messianic expectation. Believers in Yeshua of Nazareth can recognize the importance of a word like Genesis 3:15b, but more examination is required.

The issue in Genesis 3:15 does come down to the placement of “he”: “he will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel” (CJB/CJSB). As Kaiser deduces, “Herein lies, even if only in germ form and somewhat enigmatically stated, the roots of the messianic doctrine.”[20] More has to be evaluated throughout the course of the Biblical narrative, but that something is to take place in the future regarding the problems introduced by Adam and Eve, should not be casually dismissed.

If you have ever been in a religious setting where a teacher has brazenly declared that Adam and Eve understood that the Messiah would come, such a teacher has overstated his or her point. But, if it has been stated that Adam and Eve were given a sure word of the crafty serpent one day being struck or bruised, helping to resolve the offense they committed in Eden, then this would be appropriate. It was later generations who searched the Scriptures, i.e., “that everything written about me in the Torah of Moshe, the Prophets and the Psalms had to be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44, CJB/CJSB), who saw the beginning of the Messianic expectation in Genesis 3:15. The original recipients of Genesis 3:15 hardly had to understand its fuller implications.

The 2016 Messianic Jewish Study Bible includes a brief article called “The Seed,” concluding that while there will be conflict between good and evil in history, that the Messiah is the ultimate descendant of the woman. It also makes the straightforward determination that Genesis 3:15 served as intertextual background for various statements in the Apostolic Writings about the spiritual war between the Messiah and Satan:

“The ‘serpent’ mentioned in this prophecy is not a mere reptile, since he is described as an individual with intelligence, speech, and awareness of God. The name is probably a title, describing its nature, not a statement of its shape. This is the serpent in the final conflict between God and his adversary, who will be crushed by the seed mentioned in this text. The ‘descendant’ of the woman here is a generic term for all humanity and the ‘descendant’ of the serpent, of all evil. Yet there is a clear sense that one specific male descendant of the woman will ultimately crush the head of the serpent. In Genesis 3:15, the suffix on the word heel is singular. Even though humanity will conquer the serpent, it will be through the work of the singular ‘descendant of the woman,’ who will crush his head, that evil will ultimately be defeated. Rabbinic sources see this as a messianic prophecy: ‘At his request, God showed Satan the Messiah; and when he saw him, he trembled, fell on his face and cried: “Truly this is the Messiah, who will bruise me”’ (Pesiqta Rabbati 3:6).

“Romans 16:20 identifies the serpent Genesis 3:15 as Satan…In 2 Corinthians, Sha’ul warns…{quoting 2 Corinthians 11:3, 14}. Revelation 12:9 makes it even clearer…Although Genesis 3:15 does not specify a name for the descendant of the woman, the New Testament clearly connects this first messianic prophecy to the Messiah, Yeshua.”[21]


NOTES

[1] Donald S. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 226.

[2] Jon D. Levenson, “Genesis,” in Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 17; also J.H. Hertz, ed., Pentateuch & Haftorahs (London: Soncino, 1960), 12.

[3] Nosson Scherman, ed., et. al., The ArtScroll Chumash, Stone Edition, 5th ed. (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 2000), 17.

[4] John R. Kohlenberger III, trans., The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 1:7.

[5] Richard Elliot Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 24.

[6] Robert Alter, trans., The Five Books of Moses (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2004), 26.

[7] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2001), 1:282.

[8] Everett Fox, trans., The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 23.

[9] Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, revised (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), 93.

[10] BibleWorks 9.0: Targum Onkelos on the Pentateuch. MS Windows 7 Release. Norfolk: BibleWorks, LLC, 2011. DVD-ROM.

[11] BibleWorks 9.0: Targum Pseudo Jonathan on the Pentateuch.

[12] Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, Vol 1 (Dallas: Word Incorporated, 1987), pp 80-81.

[13] Rydelnik, 137.

Kenneth A. Matthews, New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26, Vol 1a (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 247 notes some of the views held by a cross-section of emergent Christianity and later the Reformation.

[14] Derek Kidner, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1969), pp 70-71; Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 40; Rydelnik, 48.

[15] Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 39.

[16] Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, 246.

[17] John E. Hartley, New International Bible Commentary: Genesis (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), 69.

[18] John H. Walton, NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), pp 234-235.

[19] Victor P. Hamilton, New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), pp 199-200.

[20] Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 40.

[21] Barry Rubin, gen. ed., The Complete Jewish Study Bible (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2016), 8.