Jesus in Genesis 3:15?

Many people think Jesus is present in the words of Genesis 3:15.

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring [seed] and hers [seed, who is Christ];
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.

But others don’t. Who gets it right? How do we decide? Does the weight of Christian interpretation decide? Or does sound historical exegesis decide? Does the latter constrain limits or does the former expand limits?

Well, my colleague, Claude Mariottini, in his book Rereading the Biblical Text: Searching for Meaning and Understanding, probes this one and contends the typical Christian reading is not supported by sound exegesis. He uses as his example of the traditional view, Victor Hamilton, who says “any reflection on Genesis 3:15 that fails to underscore the messianic emphasis of the verse is guilty of serious exegetical error” (11). Note that word “serious” … how serious is not clear but he’s tipping his hat toward some serious level of disapproval.

Some translations tip their hands enough to reveal interpretation. KJV: “… it [seed of the woman] will bruise thy head, and thou [personal seed] shalt bruise his [now woman's seed is a person, but who?] heel.” NASB: “He [capital means Christ] will bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.” HCSB seems the same as NASB. A standard Catholic translation (DRA) has “she [Mary] shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”

But Claude says the Hebrew word for seed, zera, is a collective noun with a plural meaning. At work here is the word seed is (1) the descendants of the woman and (2) the descendants of the serpent. So the Common English Bible and the Jewish TNK. Thus, “they will strike at your head and you shall strike at their head.” Gerhard von Rad said there was no messianic prophecy in the original context. Gordon Wenham says much the same though in light of subsequent revelation leads some to messianic. Instead, the original author did not see it that way.

Yes, some NT texts are possible riffing off of Genesis 3:15, in particular, Romans 16:20 (scroll over reference and it will appear), and then also 2 Sam 7:16; Psalm 89:23; Galatians 4:4 and 1 Corinthians 15:25. A targum finds messianism in Genesis 3:15 (TgPseudoJonathan).

But the original text, Dr Mariottini argues, was not messianic. Was Jesus in Genesis 3:15? Probably not.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Norman

    I don’t think Scot’s colleague Claude Mariottini fully grasp what the original author of Genesis had in mind. Paul clearly reads and interprets parts of Genesis allegorically as he does Gen 2:24 in Eph 5:31 and the story of Hagar in Gal 4:24.

    Gal 3:16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.

    Of course the seed which Paul declares is Christ then becomes the many (the church/body of Christ) fulfilling Abrahams seed prophecy as well. I would venture that Abraham’s seed is a continuation of the Gen 3:15 seed analogy of the Genesis authors.

    This author feels confident that he understands the original intent of the Jewish purpose of Genesis and I would propose that is the biggest error that sterile readings of Jewish literature by modern scholars make. He is conjecturing about what he thinks Genesis means not taking into account the vast historical reading and interpretations of Genesis all through the 2nd Temple period by the Jews themselves. Since Genesis was likely a product of 2nd Temple literature period its intent is likely polemic and heavily messianic throughout its presentation from Chapter 1 to 50.

    If the author thinks original sound exegesis was reading Genesis in a literalist manner as say the modern YEC do then he is going to come to weak conclusions in an attempt to support his thesis. Fundamentalist and Critical historical scholars both make the same mistake IMO when it comes to declaring the original intent of Genesis.

  • Rick

    Apart from the singular v. plural issue, as Christians are we not interpreting in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? And therefore, does not such interpreting mean we sometimes see passages in a new light?
    An Anglican podcast put it like this: if someone refers to the “Hebrew Scriptures”, it brings to mind something that is not recognizing the revelation of Christ. On the other hand, if someone refers to the “Old Testament”, there is a sense that it is seen in the context of the revelation of the New Testament.

  • residentoftartarus

    Yes, I think the messianic interpretation is wrong here as well. The Gen 3 story is clearly etiological in nature and so the obvious etiological interpretation of Gen 3:15 should be preferred over an eschatological one. This is not to say that there aren’t eschatological accents in the Book of Genesis (e.g., the tree of life) but that this probably isn’t one of them.

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    Scot, your colleague posits the wrong question to begin with. No text written prior to the birth of Jesus had Jesus in mind; it’s only through inspired, apostolic reflection on those ancient texts that we begin to see Jesus in them (and I think the church is invited to follow their lead – albeit cautiously).

  • Phil Miller

    No text written prior to the birth of Jesus had Jesus in mind; it’s only through inspired, apostolic reflection on those ancient texts that we
    begin to see Jesus in them (and I think the church is invited to follow
    their lead – albeit cautiously).

    I don’t know if I’d go as far as that… I don’t know that I’d say that the writers had Jesus in mind, but I do think it’s OK to say that through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, there are texts that foreshadowed Jesus.

    I’m reminded of Hebrews 11:26, where it says Moses “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” I don’t believe the author is saying Moses really envisioned Christ, but He believed in God’s faithfulness, and that had a trajectory that was headed toward Christ.

  • residentoftartarus

    Not so fast. Prior to Jesus there was a concept of a coming (eschatological) Davidic king (i.e., the Messiah). So, by saying that a certain text in the OT is messianic we are not saying that it refers to Jesus at the historical-critical level but that it refers to this other concept.

  • RJS4DQ

    Does it make a difference if we view Genesis 3 as an early document (Mosaic, or at least pre-exile) vs. a text edited in the postexilic context?

    I am not a language or ANE expert, so have no firm basis for decision. However, I am not convinced. It seems it may be a post-exilic messianic reference. What would those who say Adam is Israel argue?

  • Doug

    I think people misread Genesis 3:15 because they do not see the text as eschatological. That the text is eschatological seems to be well established by the patterns of genre that come before and after it.

    Genesis 1:1-26 = etiologoical narrative prose
    Genesis 1:27 = poetry with eschatological import
    Gensis 1:28-31 = epilogue exegeting the significance of poetic section

    Genesis 2:1-22 = narrative
    Genesis 2:23 = poetry
    Gensis 2:24-25 = epilogue

    Genesis 3:1-13 = narrative
    Genesis 3:14-19 = poetry
    Genesis 3:20-24 = epilogue

    Genesis 4:1-22 = narrative
    Genesis 4:23-24 = poetry
    Genesis 4:25-26 = epilogue

    The entire book of Genesis is constructed this way (Genesis 1 – 48 = narrative, Genesis 49 = poetry, Genesis 50 = epilogue), and it is no accident that we find the “lion of Judah” reference in the eschatological poetry section of Genesis 49. Furthermore, this pattern of narrative, poetry, epilogue continues throughout the Pentateuach (cf. Numbers 23 and 24, where the Messiah promise of a Son coming out of Egypt is found).

    Thus, Claude Mariottini fails to deal with how the structures and genre use of the Pentateuch guide the reader to see the eschatological significance of what has been marked out in the narrative-poetry-epilogue sections of the text. Had he been aware of this, he might have read Genesis 3:15 in the same way that Paul does in Galatians 3:16. Paul was well aware of the word “zera” and its plural use, yet he insists that it had a singular referent in Genesis (both in 3:15 and in the Abrahamic promises). The reader is able to discern the singular, instead of the plural, by paying careful attention to how the author of the Pentateuch shapes the story to exclude the possibility of a plural fulfillment. When the Pentateuch concludes, therefore, the reader is left looking for a “descendant” of Eve who will crush the serpent, and a son of Abraham who will bless the world, and a prophet like Moses whom the Lord knows face to face. The rest of the Old Testament is a brutally honest depiction of the failure of Israel, collectively, and of Israelites, individually, to fulfill these promises. The arrows point to a Messiah, and Claude misses it.

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    Of course—but let’s not use the name “Jesus,” then. Since clearly the scholar is aiming his critique at common assumptions found in pews, it won’t do to add to the confusion.

    As you know, the most common messianic referent in the Old Testament is (arguably) a plurality, i.e., the nation of Israel itself. But even still, it’s not as if the apostolic interpretation of the writings ignore this and punt the old text over the context and history onto Jesus’ head (like, e.g., Josh McDowell); they deliberately looked for and found “fulfillments” in Jesus’ symbolic actions and then tied them to the ancient texts.

    The real questions is, and the one that Claude should be asking (if he’s not) is: What can we learn from the new covenant apostolic interpretations (methodologically) of the old covenant texts and how can we apply them today responsibly?

  • scotmcknight

    I think Claude would embrace that but not at the expense of historical critical readings of the original text in context.

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    Didn’t Mel Gibson’s movie settle this once for all? Come on guys…

  • http://www.rethinkingfaith.com Rethinking Faith

    Luke 24:25-27 NIV

    He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t know what Lethal Weapon 3 has to do with this…

  • Steve_Winnipeg_Canada

    Haha. Not the one I was thinking of.

  • Jeff Martin

    I agree he posits the wrong question to begin with, but if you are suggesting that we should believe the apostles because they were specially inspired to interpret OT texts I would disagree. It was common practice to massage verses this way. See Kugel’s – How to Read the Bible.

    Overall I think it is best to see things typologically. As John Walton says about Gen 3:15 it is not a messianic verse but it does show a continual struggle between the forces of evil and humanity. I might qualify this by saying between created things made to serve man versus man themselves. It is not of course a big jump at all, and I hope what Christ has done and is doing, and will do can be directly relevant to the solution of defeating evil forces, and those things in life that lead to addictive behaviors.

  • Norman

    I would say that it confirms the intention of the authors of Genesis used to project a messiah figure. Look at the Enoch and Jubilees literature of that period and see how they extensively build upon the messiah concept found in Genesis well before Christ arrived.
    The stories of Genesis poject an outline that is built upon and examined by messianic looking Jews for several hundred years until Christ. Christ brougt ths to a head and then at the Jewish councils of AD90 we see a firm divide between the messianic Jesus following Jews and those who rejected him and decided they had enough of the messiah concept. They went about excluding prominent Jewish messiah literature from their canon and is why the LXX included Enoch but the Masoretic exlcudes it. Those who reject the early Christian embracing of the LXX are following in the footsteps of those Jews who wanted to discount Him not realizing the historical reasons.

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    Indeed – for it is only through the original context that we will come to a more robust understanding of the mission of God fulfilled in Christ (and us in him). Again, hopefully following the apostolic lead here.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Wrong movie: He was referring to

    “Diplomatic Immunity!” (LW 2) :)

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    With respect to typology, that’s exactly what I’m getting at. But I also do think that the apostles’ interpretations ought to be believed precisely because they were appointed to do so (circular enough?). Note too that I’m simply trying to be consistent with my Anglo-Catholic presuppositions on that score.

  • Norman

    Chris you said, “What can we learn from the new covenant apostolic interpretations (methodologically) of the old covenant texts and how can we apply them today responsibly?”

    I agree but the current historical Critical Reading of Old Coveanant text have built in presuppositions that tend to exclude the apostolic hermenutic. I believe there is a bias that doesn’t fully embrace the methodology of the Apostles.
    IMHO that approach undermines the Jesus movement of the early Christians.

  • Jeff Martin

    Chris,
    The NT only states that the apostles have authority for discipline. Granted they, being leaders, were the primary teachers as well being disciples of Christ. But it was their being disciples of Jesus and Paul being a Rabbi more than anything else that gave them this authority and this does not necessarily imply then that the way they interpreted was to be taken as authoritative.

    If you read ancient interpretations on Scripture you will find exactly the same methods used. For instance the Dead Sea Sect applied Scripture the same way, but they used “The Teacher of Righteousness” as their standard where Christians used “Christ”. Christianity was very much so a Jewish sect. The Passover turning into the Lord’s Supper, Circumcision and Baptismal Rites in Judaism turning into Baptism. It should be no surprise then that the disciples used a method that was already in use in Judaism of Biblical interpretation.

    It is also odd to talk of interpretation as authoritative because the Christians simply believed that Jesus fulfilled all things. He was the new Moses giving out a law, the new Israel being tempted as they were in the wilderness. He was the Davidic King, the prophet, and priest. So this was true regardless if you were an apostle or not and so even we today can apply this technique without authority even entering into the conversation.

  • Jason

    Jesus still fulfills all of these prophecies as the representative of a) the line of David, b) Israel, and c) all humanity. Correct? In this way we can easily hold that the original author did not necessarily think Gen 3:15 was Messianic.

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    Jeff, suffice to say that the authority to which I’m alluding and your description of how things shaped up on the ground (so to speak) are not mutually exclusive.

  • Guest

    Dr. Mariottini has thought about these issues much longer than I have, so I openly confess that I could be terribly wrong. I think the underlying hermeneutics between our interpretations are the biggest difference. I see the authorial intent, and any historical reconstructions “behind the text” to be interesting and useful, but the canonical text itself (as a unity) as the locus of revelation.

    Thus, “was” Genesis 3:15 intentionally messianic in the mind of the author (if we can even suppose to access their mind)? Probably not, but we have no idea the text is our only access to it. But, “is” Genesis 3:15 messianic? Most definitely.

    The authors, editors and compilers of the Hebrew Bible regarded these texts as Scripture not because of the original authorial intentention of the human author, but because of the divine intent inscripturated in the text that provides an enduring witness to God’s people. As God’s people, Christians read the text canonically. From a canonical viewpoint, the enduring witness of Genesis 3:15 (including it’s later Christian interpretation) points us to the canonical Jesus, whom we worship as Lord.

  • Guest

    To be fair, I would guess that Claude Mariottini has read John Sailhamer.

  • KentonS

    I’m starting to look at Rene Girard. He takes a view that this verse is about rivalry and desire. That humans are in a perpetual state of conflict resulting from rivalry, but the issue is less about each other and more about the struggle over rivalry/desire itself (represented by the serpent).

    Disclaimer: To a certain degree Girard’s thoughts have become the new hammer in the toolbox, and now everything is looking like a nail. I don’t know how much I’m board w/RG, but this may actually be a nail, so maybe Girard is right.

  • Michael DeLong

    “Was Jesus in Genesis 3:15? Probably not.”

    Scot, I’m curious – do you think Jesus is in any OT verse or passage?

  • wolfeevolution

    Interesting that the Septuagint uses the neuter σπερμα and then refers to it with the masculine pronoun αυτος instead of the neuter pronoun αυτο. My Greek’s a bit rusty; am I seeing this correctly? Could “the 70″ have seen a Messianic prophecy here? At the very least I think we could say that the early church was tipped in the direction of this interpretation by the Septuagint.

    Also, Scot, I don’t think the NASB capitalization here points to the translators’ identifying the seed as Christ. Otherwise, wouldn’t they have capitalized “Him” in “you shall bruise him on the heel”? I think rather they’ve capitalized this as part of standard poetic form; see the two capitalizations of “And” after commas in the same verse.


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