I was listening to a talk the other night by someone from church arguing for a literal six days creation. I think I heard somewhere in the course of his defence of the literal truthfulness of Genesis 1-11 a statement to the effect that we have a prophecy about the future salvation of humanity and defeat of satan through Jesus in Genesis 3:15.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
Whether I heard it or not, it’s a familiar enough “evangelical” argument (see, for example, John Piper’s sermon on “The Fall of Satan and the Victory of Christ”), and it provides an opportunity to consider the widely held view that God puts meanings in texts for us to find that weren’t originally there—or at least weren’t apparent to the original readers of the text. This is one of the nine theses of “The Scripture Project” listed by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays in their book The Art of Reading Scripture:
4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama. (2)
The argument that Genesis 3:15 speaks in any sense of a future victory of Israel’s messiah over satan is simply untenable. The verse describes a continuing, iterated conflict between the descendants of the woman and the descendants of the serpent. Given the role that the serpent played in the garden, it seems reasonable to conclude that this cursing of the relationship between humanity and serpents has in view not merely the dangers of walking in the fields barefoot but the persistent, destructive human aspiration to attain a godlike status. That appears to be roughly the scope of the original meaning. It does not really sound like good news.
There is apparently some extra-biblical evidence that Jews in the third century BC were expecting a victory of the messiah over the serpent satan. But there is no reinterpretation of this verse in the New Testament itself. The nearest we have is a doubtful allusion in Romans 16:20, but the language is quite different and it is God, not any “man”, who will crush (syntripsei) satan. Arguably, a text such as Deuteronomy 28:7 LXX provides the more appropriate background: “May the Lord your God hand over your enemies who have risen against you, when they have been crushed (syntetrimmenous) before you…”. Piper claims that Hebrews 2:14 also alludes to Genesis 3:15, but how he arrived at that conclusion is beyond me. In fact, we have to wait until Justin and Irenaeus in the second century AD before we find the thought that Genesis 3:15 constitutes a protoevangelium. As Gordon Wenham comments:
While a messianic interpretation may be justified in the 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.1
But then the question has to be asked: Is the messianic interpretation justified by later revelation? Do we have good grounds not simply for finding a sensus plenior—an extra level of meaning—in the Genesis text but for distorting or disregarding what is actually said? If Jesus or some New Testament writer had unequivocally attributed messianic significance to this verse, it would be different matter. Otherwise, what reason do we have for supposing that God, as “author of the whole drama”, meant the statement to be understood, in the light of subsequent developments, as a reference to humanity’s future redemption?
- 1. G.J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary, 1987, 81.