Another good example of how theology gets read back into texts where it doesn’t belong is provided by the argument that the gospel first appears in Genesis 3:15. The singular “seed” of the woman, who will crush the head of the serpent, is taken to be a prophecy of the coming messiah. It’s known as the “protevangelium”. The argument cannot be defended exegetically as we shall see—and as even Calvin reluctantly admitted:
…other interpreters take the seed for Christ, without controversy; as if it were said, that some one would arise from the seed of the woman who should wound the serpent’s head. Gladly would I give my suffrage in support of their opinion, but that I regard the word seed as too violently distorted by them; for who will concede that a collective noun is to be understood of one man only? Further, as the perpetuity of the contest is noted, so victory is promised to the human race through a continual succession of ages. I explain, therefore, the seed to mean the posterity of the woman generally. (Commentary on Genesis)
But the point I will emphasize is that it illustrates the pervasive failure of dogmatic theologies to respect the integrity and boundaries of the text.
They will bruise your head
The hostility between the serpent and the woman is part of the curse pronounced against the serpent—along with having to go on its belly and eat dust “all the days of its life”. The serpent, like the woman, has a limited lifespan, but conflict will continue between the descendants of the serpent and the descendants of the woman. A good parallel is provided by 1 Samuel 20:42—the point is that the relationship between the two “families”, whether for better or for worse, will continue indefinitely:
Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my [seed] and your [seed], forever.’”
“Seed” (zeraʿ) is singular but, as commonly in the Old Testament, means “descendants, posterity, progeny, race” (eg. Gen. 15:5; 26:4). It would be difficult to account for a singular offspring of the serpent. The singular pronoun properly refers back to the singular “seed” and does not denote an individual. We may compare Genesis 16:10, which reads literally:
The angel of the Lord said to her, “Multiplying I multiply your seed, and it is not numbered from multitude.”
So there will be hostility in the future between the descendants of the snake and the descendants of the woman: people will bruise or crush the heads of the snakes; the snakes will bruise or crush the heels of people.
In a lively riposte to Ben Witherington Peter Leithart draws attention to 2 Samuel 7:12 and suggests that this provides the closest syntactic parallel to Genesis 3:15:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your [seed] after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.
The singular offspring here is Solomon, but I would argue that Solomon represents the beginning of the line of David’s descendants, whose kingdom will last for ever (2 Sam. 7:13). We have something similar in Genesis 15:3-5. Abram says to God, “Behold you have given me no [seed]…”—meaning that he doesn’t have a son. God then takes him outside, points to the stars, and says, “So shall your [seed] be.”
In any case, these passages provide no support for the idea that “seed” may refer to a descendant singled out after many generations. “Seed” denotes either the whole posterity or, where an individual is in view, the beginning of the posterity (cf. Gen. 21:13).
The imperfect tense, according to Wenham, is iterative: “It implies repeated attacks by both sides to injure the other. It declares lifelong mutual hostility between mankind and the serpent race.”1 “He will bruise your head”, therefore, should not be taken to refer to a singular event such as the cross.
Nothing in the passage points to the final victory of humanity over the descendants of the serpent. Humanity is no more victorious over the seed of the serpent than the seed of the serpent is over humanity. Indeed, it is part of the character of the curse that the state of hostility will continue indefinitely—so Calvin speaks of the “perpetuity of the contest”. The most that may be said is that the enduring conflict between humanity and serpents constitutes a reminder of the seductive and dangerous force of the original temptation to “be like God”.
Von Rad’s summary, therefore, seems to me about right:
So far as the struggle itself is concerned, it is completely hopeless. Wherever man and serpent meet, the meeting always involves life and death…. It is a struggle of the species (“between your seed and her seed”), and as such there is no foreseeable hope that a victory can be won by any kind of heroism…. The terrible point of this curse is the hopelessness of this struggle in which both will ruin each other. The exegesis of the early church which found a messianic prophecy here, a reference to a final victory of the woman’s seed (Protevangelium), does not agree with the sense of the passage, quite apart from the fact that the word “seed” may not be construed personally but only quite generally with the meaning “posterity.”2
Other Jewish texts
A messianic meaning is perhaps hinted at in the Septuagint translation, which has the masculine singular “he” (autos) referring back to the neuter noun “seed” (sperma), and a clear future verb: “he will watch your head, and you will watch his heel”. But the change of action (“watch” rather than “crush, bruise, strike at”) has also rather obscured the idea of a messianic victory over the serpent.
According to the retelling of the incident in the first century text The Life of Adam and Eve the conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman will continue “until the day of judgment” (Adam and Eve, 26:4).
The Targums interpret the verse in terms of a continuing hostility between the “sons” of the serpent and the “sons” of the woman, understood as Israel. When the messiah comes, there will be healing for the sons of the woman, but the messiah is not identified with the “seed” of the woman. Targum Neofiti reads:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your sons and her sons. And it will come about when her sons keep the Torah and do the commandments, they will aim at you and smite you on your head and kill you, but when they abandon the commandments of the Torah, you will be aiming at him and will bite him on the heel, and will make him deathly ill. But there will be healing for his son, but for you, O serpent, there will not be healing, for they will make appeasement at the last, in the day of the King Messiah. (Gen. 3:15)
The verse appears to have been understood as a prophecy not of a coming messiah but of a state of enmity that will last all the way through to an end that is not mentioned expressly in the prophecy.
Defeat of the serpent in the New Testament
If the idea of a coming messiah who will defeat evil is not in the original text of Genesis 3:15, does the New Testament give us any reason to suppose that it constitutes part of the so-called sensus plenior of the text—that we may legitimately read it back into the story?
Jesus tells his disciples, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you” (Lk. 10:19). Perhaps a tradition going back to Genesis 3:15 lurks behind the saying, but as we shall see, it is significant that it is Jesus’ followers who are given the power to treat unharmed on the offspring of the first serpent.
Does Jesus allude to the descendants of the serpent when he calls the scribes and Pharisees “serpents… brood of vipers” (Matt. 23:33; cf. 3:7)? The argument has been made that when “seed” (zeraʿ) is used for animals it means “brood”.
Paul writes to the Romans that the “God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). The context suggests that he has in mind “those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught”, who “do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (16:17-18).
The most that we can say here is that Paul invokes the curse on the serpent as a metaphor for the imminent defeat of those who use serpent-like methods to deceive the hearts of believers. Paul does something similar in 1 Timothy 2:12-14. He forbids women to teach because there are seductive, serpent-like false teachers around who prey on naïve, uneducated women (cf. 2 Tim. 3:6). He doesn’t want a repeat of what happened in the garden.3
John’s description of the “great dragon…, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9) no doubt recalls Genesis 3:15 in some fashion, but the passage provides little warrant for a messianic reading of the cursing of the serpent. The serpent is defeated, on the one hand, by Michael and his angels, and on the other, by those whom he has accused. The saints have conquered him “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of the testimony”, but the victory is gained because “they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11). The enmity in the narrative is between the serpent and the martyrs or the “rest of the offspring (spermatos)” of the woman (12:17). In other words, as in Genesis 3:15 it is not a single person who is at war with the serpent (and its descendants) but a group of people—and it is a group of people, not a singular messiah, which overcomes the serpent.
As I read Revelation (see The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church, 211-23), the final defeat of this serpent, who is the arch opponent of the eschatological church, comes with the overthrow of idolatrous Rome, when the martyrs against whom he made war are raised to share in the reign of Christ throughout the coming ages (Rev. 20:1-6).
And it’s all so unnecessary…
So there appears to be no basis in scripture for interpreting Genesis 3:15 in the traditional messianic sense as referring to a future saviour of mankind who would crush the head of Satan. In fact, it is not until Irenaeus (AD 135-202) that this misreading of the text enters dogmatic tradition (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.23.7; 5.21.1).
What both Jewish and New Testament usage points to rather is the thought that God’s people will be in conflict with seductive forces, which are likely to lead them into disobedience and error, up until a time of judgment.
People will claim, however, that because the Bible is the Word of God and has Jesus as its controlling subject, we are bound to find references to Jesus in all sorts of unlikely places. So, for example, Kevin Stevenson (I think) concludes a rather careful examination of the evidence for the Protevangelium thus:
All this to say, the Bible—the whole of all the parts—is a covenantal and confessional document; it all points to Jesus Messiah as its ultimate subject and object. One committed to Jesus, therefore, cannot read Genesis (or any other book in Scripture) as though he, the Messiah, has not come at all. There is a sense in which text’s meanings morph after subsequent texts and/or events develop in their stream. This is especially true with messianic promise-fulfillment motifs. Hosea originally recounted Yahweh’s faithfulness in the then-past exodus event with the words, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 2:15). Jesus’ advent changed those words forever (cf. Matt 2:15)! So, as Paul said of the “seed” elsewhere in Genesis, in 3:15 also, the Seed… “who is Christ.” Genesis 3:15 is the Protevangelium.
To my mind, what this line of reasoning demonstrates is that dogmatic theologians don’t really trust scripture to say what they think it ought to say, so they put words in its mouth.
In our anxiety to prove the veracity of the Bible—this was as true for the Fathers as it is for modern theologians—we are unwilling or unable to allow it to develop its story in its own fundamentally historical fashion. It is simply unnecessary to make the meaning of texts “morph”. Worse than that, it’s dishonest. It’s like people who make spurious or inflated claims for miracles, consciously or subconsciously excusing themselves on the grounds that God is glorified. God is not glorified. His name is brought into disrepute. Frankly, if we can’t establish a gospel on an honest reading of the texts, it’s not worth establishing.