AN INTRODUCTION AND EARLY CHURCH FATHERS, “YES”
That Gen 3:15 is the Protevangelium has traditionally been the understanding of the text since the earliest days of the church. The writings of Justin Martyr provide an early example of the traditional interpretation.
For Eve, being a virgin and undefiled, conceiving the word that was from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death; but the Virgin Mary, taking faith and joy, when the Angel told her the good tidings, that the Spirit of the Lord should ... overshadow her, and therefore the Holy One that was born of her was Son of God, answered, "Be it done to me according to Thy word.”
It was Irenaeus, however, that galvanized the concept of Gen 3:15 as the Protevangelium, that is, as the first announcement of the gospel.
Christ has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam, and trampled upon his head, as thou can perceive in Genesis that God said to the serpent, 'And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; He shall be on the watch for thy head, and thou on the watch for his heel.' For from that time, He who should be born of a woman, namely from the Virgin, after the likeness of Adam, was preached as keeping watch for the head of the serpent. This is the seed of which the apostle says in the Letter to the Galatians, 'that the law of works was established until the seed should come to whom the promise was made (Gal 3:19).' This fact is exhibited in a still clearer light in the same Epistle where he thus speaks: 'But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman (Gal 4:4).' For indeed, the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man born of a woman who conquered him. For it was by means of a woman that he got the advantage over man at first, setting himself up as man's opponent. And therefore does the Lord profess Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned, in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm of victory against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.
It could be argued that the singularity of the woman’s seed—over against the collective interpretation of the noun—actually antedates the church fathers, and is likely influenced by their reading of Gen 3:15 in the LXX, which has “seed” (sperma) in 3:15 in the singular (spermatos).
AN EXAMPLE FROM THE REFORMATION PERIOD: JOHN CALVIN, “NO; BUT, YES”
Reading the woman’s seed as singular and Christological has suffered under the scrutiny of scholarship during the modern period. Calvin, for instance, initially takes the pronouncement on the serpent and the subsequent enmity between the respective seeds etiologically, and so explaining the dread of snakes in man. Calvin states, “I interpret this simply to mean that there should always be hostile strife between the human race and serpents; for, by a secret feeling of nature, man abhors them.” Although Calvin goes on to rightly read that Satan in back of the serpent and consequently the threatening curse is directed at him, he still dissents from the Christological interpretation, and thus from the traditional Protevangelium. He says, “There is, indeed, no ambiguity in the words here used by Moses; but I do not agree with others respecting their meaning; for 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.”
Calvin’s primary objection to the traditional view of the text is that it requires one to severely distort the noun “seed” (Heb. zera‛); they take it as singular when, for Calvin, it is transparently collective. “I explain, therefore, the seed to mean the posterity of the woman generally.” From the painful experience that not all the woman’s seed, “in general,” overcome the serpent, Calvin moves toward a theological conclusion on the basis of NT passages that are less than carefully handled in the text of the Genesis commentary. This conclusion rests on Calvin’s Federalism, with Christ as the Federal Head. Calvin’s position on the text and the doctrine was succinctly replicated by the even abler exegesis of Geerhardus Vos in the middle of the last century.
It appears, therefore, that for Calvin the Protevangelium cannot be the result of a careful interpretation of Gen 3:15; the Protevangelium is, however, a theological doctrine, which may be deduced by the science of dogmatics.
A CONTEMPROARY SAMPLING: JOHN WALTON, “NO; AND, NO”
Walton, like Calvin (and many others), understands the noun “seed” as collective in Gen 3:15. Walton admits that the evidence for either view is ambiguous, but believes that “If we explore the text in light of the author’s intention and the initial audience’s understanding, it is difficult to see how they would conclude that the text foretells the coming of a single person (seed) who would bring victory.” Furthermore, Walton does not believe that the text offers any hope of either side of the respective seed gaining an advantage or victory in the struggle, but that “the verse is depicting a continual, unresolved conflict between humans and the forces of evil.” So, Walton not only departs from the traditional interpretation of the singular sense of the “Seed,” but strides further from the traditional understanding in arguing that Gen 3:15 does not even contain a germ of hope for the seed’s eventual victory; the text presents only trouble for humanity, continual and unresolved trouble.
Walton observes that grammatically the noun “seed” can have a singular pronoun attached to it, e.g., “he will crush,” while still referring to a collective or corporate posterity. “Therefore, when the text says that he will crush your head, grammar cannot determine whether this is a reference to the corporate seed or one representative from among the descendants.”
Regarding the nature of the conflict, Walton argues from the root verb, šwp; and, since the action of the respective parties share this root, nothing indicates that one side or the other will gain the upper hand in the struggle. The KJV, NAS, and ESV respectably translate the verb as “bruise” in both instances, thus maintaining the Hebrew sense in the English text. The NIV, however, appears to allow the traditional interpretation to color its translation by ascribing to the serpent a “crush” to the head, and the woman’s seed a “strike” to the heel; crush clearly reflects more finality than does strike in the context. Even granting that the offensive blows are to be taken as similar or even as the same does not settle the matter. The anatomical parts mentioned, which receive the blows, must also be considered. Surely, a bruised head will fall to a bruised heel, or will it?
Walton says, No; both attacks are potentially mortal, so neither the head-strike nor the heel-strike tells us anything about the final outcome of the struggle. Rather, “both sides are exchanging potentially mortal blows of equal threat to the part of the body most vulnerable to their attack.”
Walton, therefore, directly denies the traditional interpretation that Gen 3:15 provides us with the Protevangelium. Actually, Walton’s conclusions imply that Gen 3:15 does not contain any hint of good news, only continual trouble.
ANOTHER CONTEMPORARY SAMPLING: JACK COLLINS, “YES”
A 1997 article by Jack Collins has shed some light on our question, and has ‘bruised the head’ of the collective interpretation of “seed” in Gen 3:15. Collins’ observations have obvious implications for the doctrine of the Protevangelium (Collins does recognize that these implications are beyond the purview of his note, and thus does not flesh them out).
Most who find the Messianic promise in Gen 3:15 do not deny that the grammar is ambiguous; Collins is no exception. Collins takes serious the LXX translation of the Hebrew. He believes that the use of the neuter singular sperma (“seed”), and the masculine singular pronoun autos (“he”), translating hû' is significant. The mismatch between the gender of the noun and the antecedent pronoun indicates a meaningful intention on the part of the LXX translators, one that is clearly messianic, and one that is looking forward to a singular figure. For Collins, it represents an “interpretation” of the Hebrew that is reflected in the doctrine, Protevangelium.
Collins surveys every (personal) use of zera‛ in the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, with an eye on the syntactical patterns that surround both the collective uses of zera‛ and the instances that have a strictly singular use. He tabulates the behavior of the verb inflections, pronouns and adjectives associated with the noun. The results are that “when zera‛ denotes ‘posterity’ the pronouns (independent pronouns, object pronouns, and suffixes) are always plural.”
Contrariwise, “when zera‛ denotes a specific descendant, it appears with singular verb inflections, adjectives, and pronouns.” Collins also observes that “The pattern for the Greek translations of these passages is identical (at least in the Pentateuch and Former Prophets, where the translation is generally of higher quality, and to the extent it is possible to see a distinction).” He concludes, “from these data it becomes clear that, on the syntactical level, the singular pronoun hû' in Genesis 3:15 is quite consistent with the pattern where a single individual is in view…The evidence of the Greek translator of Genesis 3:15 meant to convey that an individual was promised; this study indicates that his interpretation is consistent with Hebrew syntax elsewhere in the Bible.”
Collins’ study does not in itself provide apodictic certainty that Gen 3:15 is the Protevangelium, but it does go a long way towards an exegetical case for the doctrine from the text of Genesis. The “seed” in Gen 3:15 is singular; and if that is the case, the text points to a particular descendant who will decisively defeat the work of the serpent, while suffering greatly in the struggle for victory.
PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS AND PERSPECTIVE ON THE PROTEVANGELIUM
If, as Collins’ note demonstrates, we are not compelled to understand the “seed” of Gen 3:15 as a collective term denoting general posterity, then we may legitimately conclude that Moses had a singular figure in mind. Although historical theology is not the determining factor in ambiguous texts, it is, nevertheless, somewhat authoritative and something we should be in humble conversation with. The early fathers, encouraged by the LXX interpretation of the Hebrew text of Gen 3:15, as well as significant NT allusions, almost unanimously understood Genesis to be teaching the Protevangelium. Their historical and spatial proximity to the authority of the apostolic ministry cannot be overlooked, neither should it be underestimated. Therefore, as heirs of the fathers, we are to see Jesus Messiah in the promised head-stomping “Seed” of Gen 3:15.
With respect to Calvin’s commentary on the subject, we may be confident yet cautious. If Collins’ analysis is correct, then Calvin and others who take a collective sense of the noun in Gen 3:15 were overlooking significant data. Therefore, we may decline Calvin’s view that the noun is collective; rather, it is singular. We may, however, embrace the theological genius of Calvin and his careful handling and calculation of the doctrine of federal headship.
We can surely appreciate Walton’s desire for discovering the author’s and the audience’s original understanding of the meaning of Gen 3:15. Walton, however, seems to overlook the fact that Moses was writing and the original audience was reading Gen 3:15 as a post-exodus and post-Sinai people. In other words, in order to discover the original meaning of Gen 3:15 one must read it as it was written—read it in terms of the rest of the context of Genesis and the Torah. The micro-grammatical, hair-splitting exegesis that makes viable the precision analysis represented by Collins’ note is itself something foreign to the literary context of Moses; our methodology itself is largely anachronistic. While words and language were radically treasured by ancient Hebrews (that is, after all, a very important way in which Yahweh reveals himself to his people—our God speaks), their understanding of them is nuanced quite differently than ours is.
For instance, Paul, whose masterful interpretation of Torah must shape our own, understood zera‛ in Genesis as singular and meaning Christ (cf. Gal 3:16). Whose hermeneutical method has greater authority? Should we follow Paul’s typological reading or the modern-critical, post-Enlightenment methodology?
Did other ancients read a singular figure in Gen 3:15? It seems quite likely. For Stephen, and doubtless many others, understood Moses himself to be a proto-typal deliverer like the one promised in Gen 3:15, saying of him, “that God was giving them salvation (sōtēria) by his hand” (Acts 7:25). Additionally, we can get a sense of hope in the words of Eve when Cain is born (Gen 4:1). However, Cain’s murder of Abel occasioned Seth’s replacement of the “seed.” Again, Eve’s words are telling, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him” (v 25). In this verse, we find a word-play on the name of the new son, Seth. “Seth” (shêth) sounds very similar to “appointed” (shı̂yth), and Seth’s “appointment” as the replacement “offspring” (zera‛) provides the ground for his name. Finally, we should note that “appointed” in 4:25 translates the same word in the Hebrew that is behind the “put” in 3:15. “Put” is in reference to the divinely established “enmity” that Yahweh “put” (shı̂yth) between the woman’s seed and that of the serpent’s. Seth, therefore, represents a singular figure of hope in reference to the “offspring” of the woman in the earliest chapters of Genesis.
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.
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4