Not long ago eminent New Testament scholar Scot McKnight tweeted a link to a 2013 post on his blog, "Jesus Creed," where he calls attention to some of the findings of Claude Mariottini's (excellent) book Rereading the Biblical Text: Searching for Meaning and Understanding, which at one point argues that Genesis 3:15 is not in fact messianic. Following Mariottini, McKnight points out that such a conclusion agrees with the likes of Old Testament luminaries Gordon Wenham and Gerhard von Rad, along with some translations, who see the “seed” mentioned in Gen. 3:15 as referring not to an individual, particular, “savior,” but rather to the sum total of descendants to be born to both the woman. So, for example, the following translation is representative of the traditional, messianic sense often seen in God’s words to Satan:
I will put enmity between you and between the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he will strike you [on the] head, but you bruise him [on the] heel. (Translation mine)
Many translations even reinforce the messianic reading of Gen. 3:15 by capitalized the pronoun “He” so as to make an explicit connection between this verse and Christ (cf., NLT, NASB, HCSB).
McKnight and Mariottini on the other hand seem to prefer a collective sense of “seed” which would equate to something akin to the Jewish Publication Society’s translation:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring [or descendants] and hers [i.e., her “offspring”]; they will strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heal. (Jewish Publication Society, Tanak)
In this translation, the singular “seed” is translated as “offspring” or even with the plural, “descendants,” for which the proper pronoun to follow would be a plural, “they,” rather than the singular, “he.”
The evidence adduced for such a conclusion is that the Hebrew word for “seed,” zera‘, can be a collective noun, that is, one that is grammatically singular but plural in meaning. An English example of a noun of this type would be the word “crowd” – a noun singular in form that nevertheless refers to a group, or collection, of people. The same can be true for zera‘. In its collective sense, zera‘ refers to one of four things: (1) seed (or a seed) from which plants sprout; (2) semen; (3) a child; (4) offspring/descendants. It is this last meaning of zera‘ that McKnight and Mariotinni suggest is the sense being elicited in Gen. 3:15. The “enmity” introduced as a result of the Fall is not between a particular descendent of the woman (who has traditionally been thought of as foreshadowing the messiah) and the serpent, but rather between all of humanity and the serpent. Based upon this, McKnight concludes his blog by asking the question: “But the original text, Dr. Mariottini argues, was not messianic. Was Jesus in Genesis 3:15? Probably not.”
So, does Genesis 3:15, which has long been considered the protoevangelium (the “first good news”), really not contain a foreshadowing of the messiah? Although the collective sense of zera‘ is very popular in the Old Testament, it is not the only way it is used. There are examples when zera‘ is not referring to a group, but actually a particular, individual, “seed” or child (e.g., Gen. 4:25, 17:12, 21:13; Isa. 53:10). This begs the question of how it is we can know when zera‘ should be understood as a collective “descendants/offspring” or as an individual “descendant/child?” The answer to this question lies in the grammatical contexts in which zera‘ occurs.
To start with the easiest and most obvious, very often when zera‘ is used collectively, it is either the antecedent of plural pronouns, the subject of a plural verb, or both (this despite being itself formally singular). This is an obvious tip-off that the collective sense is meant. However, in Gen. 3:15, zera‘ is the subject of a singular verb and is the antecedent of a singular pronoun. So, the first item to note is that grammar of Gen. 3:15 does not explicitly demand a collective reading as is the case when zera‘ is the subject of plural verbs and/or the antecedent of plural pronouns. Nevertheless, our job is not done because there are not a few times when zera‘ is clearly a collective based upon other contextual considerations, but is in fact the subject of a singular verb and/or is referred to with a singular pronoun. Yet even in these cases, there is more than meets the eye.
Hebrew has two different varieties of pronouns – one form that is used exclusively for possession or as objects of verbs and prepositions (genitive, dative, and accusative functions), and another form that is used only as the subjects of verbs or in predicate nominatives (verbless clauses). Of the instances when zera‘ is used collectively with singular verbs and/or pronouns in the Old Testament, two things are true: (1) zera‘ is the overt subject of those singular verbs (we’ll return to this below); and/or (2) zera‘ is referred to by only one of the two sets of Hebrew pronouns – the first type listed above (those showing possession or as objects of prepositions or verbs). On the other hand, the collective use of zera‘ is never used in conjunction with singular, subject pronouns, the second of the two types referred to above. (There are two possible exceptions to this phenomenon. The first is Lev. 11:37: “Now should a carcasses of theirs fall on any seed [zera‘] for sowing, it [subject pronoun] is clean.” [translation mine] But even here the sense of “any seed,” kôl zera‘, is “even a particular seed.” The other may be Exod. 16:31 (and the same figure in Num. 11:7), “It [manna] was like [a] coriander seed …” [translation mine] But again, what is most likely in view here is the comparison of a single coriander seed and a single piece of manna, not a pile, or the like, of each.)
This applies to our discussion at hand because the pronoun used for the “seed” (zera‘) of the woman in Gen. 3:15 is, in fact, a singular, subject pronoun (the second type of Hebrew pronoun referred to above). Not only is this type of pronoun, when in the singular, never used with the collective nuance of zera‘, but conversely, in those verses where zera‘ is the antecedent of a singular, subject pronoun, every one refers to a particular zera‘, a “child” (e.g., Gen. 21:13; Lev. 17:12, 21:13, 22:24). Thus, the grammatical/syntactical relationship between the subject, pronoun, and verb in Gen. 3:15 is one that belongs to the so-called counting, rather than collective, sense of zera‘.
There is yet another feature that is noteworthy about the pronoun used in Gen. 3:15. Hebrew verbs, much like say, verbs in Spanish, are inflected for person, number, and where relevant, gender. Thus, a subject pronoun used with a verb is completely unnecessary because all of the information about the subject of a Hebrew verb is intrinsically marked in the verb form itself. Nevertheless, the author of Genesis does not leave zera‘ to stand as the subject of the verb it governs alone (here it is “bruise”), but rather adds a grammatically superfluous pronoun to serve as the subject of the verb. It would be akin to saying “Jack, he ran up the hill,” rather than simply, “Jack ran up the hill.” In Biblical Hebrew when this phenomenon takes place the desired effect is either emphasis or the removal of potential ambiguity. In this case, because the singular, subject pronoun along with zera‘ is always used to convey the sense of a particular “child” rather than the collective “offspring/descendants,” the author is removing ambiguity over how zera‘ should be understood. The singular, subject, pronoun is added in order to rule out the collective nuance of zera‘. On the other hand, if the zera‘ of the woman was meant to be understood in a collective sense and thus demand the pronoun “they” rather than “he,” the pattern used in the Old Testament to communicate this is (a) to not have used a subject pronoun at all; and/or (b) to use a plural subject pronoun. The use of the singular, subject pronoun in Gen. 3:15 not only particularizes who will be doing the “bruising,” but also gives marked, limiting, anaphoric information about its antecedent. The grammar of Gen. 3:15 demands that the zera‘ of the woman is not the sum total of her offspring or “descendants,” but rather one, particular zera‘ – a “he.”
It is noteworthy that another particularized, non-collective, use of zera‘ occurs in close proximity to Gen. 3:15, and this is quite purposeful. In Gen. 4:25 Eve, when celebrating the birth of Seth, says, “God has given me another child (zera‘) in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.” The placement of the Cain and Abel narrative is immediately after God’s pronouncements of judgment for the Fall of which Gen. 3:15 is a part. Therefore, the promise of a particular child (zera‘) that will conquer Satan is a glimmer of hope that hangs over the story of the children born to Adam and Eve. However, that hope is shattered when it becomes clear that neither Cain nor Abel will be that promised zera‘ of Gen. 3:15 as the former kills that latter. This is why when Seth is conceived his birth is heralded with the same language used in Gen. 3:15. With Seth, whose name means “he was given,” there is a purposeful association between him and the “seed” of Gen. 3:15. Thus we have dangled before us a tantalizing clue – something big is going to happen in God’s plan involving Seth. This is precisely why the rest of the Old Testament is so concerned with tracing his lineage via genealogies. From a pan-canonical perspective, we ultimately find out that from the “seed” of Seth comes the true “seed” of Gen. 3:15, namely, Jesus (see Luke 3:38).
So to return to McKnight’s original question, “Was Jesus in Genesis 3:15?” Well, not exactly. Since the incarnation and the advent of the second person of the Trinity do not occur until the New Testament, Gen. 3:15 is not “about” Jesus in a strict sense. Nevertheless, to say that the protoevangelium is not about Jesus on the propositional level, is not to say that it isn’t very much messianic, and indeed this is a prime example where the rest of Scripture imbues Gen. 3:15 with a great deal of messianism despite any of its formal absence at the semantic level. What does seem to be clear though, is that ruling out Gen. 3:15 as a messianic text due to a collective reading of “the seed” (zera‘) is grammatically unsupported.
In the midst of God pronouncing a number of effects that result from Adam and Eve’s decision to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “to obtain wisdom,” Gen. 3:15 offers a ray of hope. God promises that there is a particular child to come who will deal the death blow to the serpent. Through the continued use of genealogies, the Old Testament is at pains to demonstrate that many of its most important characters are descendants of the first family begun by God in Gen. 1 and 2 (cf., Gen. 5, Luke 3:23-38). What hangs over each of their stories is whether or not this one is finally the seed of the woman promised by God in Gen. 3:15. Is it Cain? Is it Abraham? Is it Samson? Samuel? David? Solomon? Any of the kings of Israel or Judah? The Old Testament ends without that particular seed being born. But the New Testament provides an answer and why for instance Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam. The New Testament reveals that Jesus is in fact that particular seed promised in Gen. 3:15.