Was the gospel told first to the serpent?

Thu, 02/06/2011 - 19:26

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.

Comments

Andrew,

Could Rom. 16.20 follow in line with the idea that humanity will eventually defeat the evil serpent, but that it is a particular neo-humanity grounded in Christ (not Adam, as in 5.12-21) whom God uses to do this? 

Brian, I’m more inclined to think that Paul has in mind the “satanic” opposition of Rome, which would obviously have links with the serpent and “satan” in Revelation. This is “satan” as the “accuser” or antagonist specifically of the people of God. Of course, the eventual victory of the people of God over this adversary is achieved through the witness of a new humanity. But how closely this apocalyptic tradition was associated—in the background, so to speak—with Genesis 3:15 is difficult to say.

Is it merely coincidence that John speaks of the devil, in Revelation, as a serpent, using the same Greek work as the LXX uses to translate Genesis 3:1? And is not the serpent in Revelation defeated and Jesus the Messiah the victor?

While it looks as though there must be some symbolic link between the two deceiving serpents, I don’t see that Revelation 12 makes any reference to the specific statement in Gen. 3:15. The serpent—or rather serpents—of Genesis 3:15 goes on his belly and is trampled on by the descendants of Eve. The serpent of Revelation 12 is cast down from heaven by Michael and his angels—not even by Jesus.

This is a really valuable post on a subject I've been wrestling with myself recently.  I'm no literalist and find the endless wrangling over Genesis distracting.  What does strike me constantly is the sheer profundity and power of the text.  I posted on original plenty and the serpent's lie of scarcity:http://radref.blogspot.com/2011/03/serpents-and-scarcity.html

 

Andrew,

I've been enjoying your blog for a while now. I've got a question about this one. I recently heard a pastor argue that the woman's "seed" that will crush the head of the snake must have some special meaning (i.e. Jesus) because the word for "seed" is singular. The argument is that it must therefore refer to a specific person, because the author would have used the plural if he simply meant the woman's descendants generally.

This sounded pretty tenuous to me, but I thought I'd ask.

Well, I’m afraid the pastor was simply wrong. “Seed” is almost always singular, whether the reference is to an individual or to many. To give an example:

I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed… (Gen. 26:4)

Both in Greek and Hebrew the word for “offspring” or “seed” is singular, but clearly the reference is to the plural descendants of Abraham.

Thanks. That's a great example.

"her Seed"  is referring to one person, we know this because it ends as "... He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel." The word "He" is singular, clearly this is referring one person, not a plurality.

Linda, I made the point above that both in the Hebrew and in the Greek Old Testament the singular “seed” may refer to one descendant or collectively to many descendants. In fact, the collective usage is the predominant one.

With the singular noun we would usually expect a singular pronoun. Here's an example:

The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude. (Gen. 16:10)

The Hebrew word for offspring here is singular but clearly the word refers to many descendants, as in the example from Genesis 26:4 which I gave above. This is reflected in the fact the ESV has “they” after it. But the Hebrew pronoun is singular, so the ASV is more precise:

And the angel of Jehovah said unto her, I will greatly multiply thy seed, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.

So there is no grammatical objection to understanding “seed” as a reference to the woman's plural descendants as it is most often in the Old Testament. Wenham sums up the basic meaning of the verse: 'The human race, “her offspring,” and the serpent race, “your offspring,” will be forever at loggerheads' (Wenham, Genesis 1-15 79). This is how it is understood in the first century Jewish text The Life of Adam and Eve, which envisages an ongoing conflict between humanity and snakes right up until the final judgment:

There will not be left to you ear nor wing, nor one limb of all that with which you ensnared them in your malice and caused them to be cast out of paradise; and I will put enmity between you and his seed: he will bruise your head and you will bruise his heel until the Day of Judgment. (Adam and Eve 26.3-4)

Incidentally, if the “seed” of the woman is meant to be a singular person, i.e., Christ, who is the singular “seed” of the serpent?

To agree that the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent will be "forever at loggerheads" until Final Judgment Day ignores the part "He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel."  The NIV actually says "he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" - a crushed head is deadly while a strike to the heel is not.  This event has to happen before Final Judgement Day - so do you believe it already happened and if so what was it, or do you believe it is still going to happen and what will it be?

Linda, the bruising and striking do not have to be a single event. The verbs could describe recurrent events continuing until the final judgment. And the bite of a venomous snake to the heel could be just as deadly as a crushed head.

Agree the bruising and striking do not have to be a single event, and could be reocurring, and a bite from a venomas snake to heel could be deadly (though the text does not describe the snake as being venomous or non-venomous, so that would be presuming).

You got me wondering about if the seed is singular or plural (or maybe both), so I researched this text and came up with this article, it make you think harder...

http://reformedperspectives.org/newfiles/sco_lindsay/ot.sco_lindsay.gen.3.14-24.html

I appreciate all the thinking you got me to do about Gen 3:15, but you have not told me how you interpret the heel and the head portion.

Linda, I had a quick look through the essay and have a few hasty comments.

Whatever later traditions made of Gen. 3:15, there is nothing in the text itself which requires an identification of the serpent with satan.

The offspring of the serpent are those who, while also being physically descended of the woman, will nevertheless not be at war with the serpent but will be at peace with him.

This would be more plausible if there was some indication in the text that the offspring of the serpent were actually offspring of the woman. The problem is that Cain was as much Eve’s offspring as Abel. Without some literary clue to the switching of identities, the argument seems very unlikely. There’s a big difference between what a passage of scripture actually says and what we try to make it mean in order to support our various beliefs.

In short, God has to put enmity between the serpent and the woman because until he does they will remain colleagues, partners in crime, co-revolutionaries, at peace with one another.

This is reading far too much into the passage. So much of his argument is an attempt to superimpose reformed theology on to a text that really does not want to accept it.

This is because the pronouns shift quite suddenly from talking about groups of people (“offspring”) to talking about particular individual offspring: “he” and “you.”

This seems wrong to me, as I said before. The singular pronouns properly refer to the collective “offspring”.

Paul is clearly leaning on Genesis 3 and is implying that the “heel” that has come down on the “head” of Satan, and that has itself been struck down in the process, belongs to Jesus.

I disagree with this. I don’t think the enemies under feet imagery has anything to do with the crushing the head of the serpent motif. It comes from an entirely different figurative context (cf. Ps. 110:1) and owes nothing to Genesis 3:15.

There is a Jewish scholarly tradition known as "remez," in which a text can seem like a prophecy in light of new information, regardless of the original intent, even in cases where the original intent was not prophetic at all. An example that comes to mind is Matthew's claim that "out of Egypt have I called my son" is a messianic prophecy when clearly Micah's words were historical in nature. This is used frequently by NT authors and thus seems like an appropriate way to look at Scripture, with the obvious caveat that wisdom and sobriety is required. There is an article called "Hints, Allegories and Mysteries: The New Testamint Quotes the Old" that discusses this and other Jewish scholarly traditions. (Bias alert: this was written by my dad)

Even so, I think it is worthwhile to consider the questions you are asking. I appreciate the post.

Oops. Didn't do my homework right. It was Hosea's prophecy (Hos. 11:1) that was attributed in Matthew (2:15)

Jonathan, I had a look at the “out of Egypt” passage here. Thanks for raising the issue and for the link to your father’s article.

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