Translating Genesis 3:15 – Part 1

In a previous post, I announced that the publishers of the Common English Bible have made available to the public the translation of the books of Genesis and Psalm.  These two books can be downloaded in PDF format.  I have not yet finished reading the translations of these two books, but I promised in my previous post that I would write another post to discuss the Common English Bible’s translation of one specific verse in the book of Genesis.  That verse, which I did not mention in my previous post, is Genesis 3:15.

Genesis 3:15 has been considered by many Christians to be the first Messianic prophecy of the Old Testament. The Christological interpretation of this verse has been accepted by most Catholics and  evangelical Christians as a word of the promise in which the seed of Satan (the demons and the rebellious angels) would strike at human beings and the seed of the woman, Christ, would deliver the fatal blow by crushing the head of Satan.

The eschatological interpretation of this text has become the norm in many Christian contexts and any departure of a Christological interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is considered to be bad exegesis.  As Victor Hamilton wrote in his book, “I believe that any reflection on Genesis 3:15 that fails to underscore the messianic emphasis of the verse is guilty of a serious exegetical error” (p. 51).

In the present post, I will argue against Hamilton’s argument, that is, against the Messianic interpretation of Genesis 3:15 and seek to demonstrate that an eschatological interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is not supported by a proper exegesis of the text.

Genesis 3:15 does not appear in the New Testament. However, many interpreters see the statement of Paul in Romans 16:20 as a reference to the promise of Genesis 3:15. Paul wrote: “And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.”

Victor Hamilton associates the promise of Genesis 3:15 with God’s promises to David.  He refers to God’s covenant with David (2 Samuel 7) in which God promised an eternal kingdom to David through David’s “seed” (2 Samuel 7:16).  Hamilton cites Psalm 89:23 in which God promised to “crush” all those who opposed David.  He also cites the fact that Jesus Christ, the seed of David, is the one “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) who will reign “until he puts all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25).

Hamilton (pp. 50-51) gives what he considers “three phenomena” in Genesis 3:15 that reinforce the Messianic interpretation of the text.

First, the Hebrew masculine word for seed occurs with a third person feminine pronominal suffix, which then is translated as “her seed.”  To Hamilton, this construction is unique and important.  He wrote: “The uniqueness of the construction becomes even more apparent in the Septuagint with its reference to the woman’s sperm–‘her sperm(a)’! (where is the man, the father?)” (p. 50).

Second, Hamilton appeals to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, to confirm his interpretation.  The Septuagint uses the third person masculine pronoun, “he” to modify the word “seed” which in Greek is neuter in gender.  The Septuagint could use “it” to refer to “seed,” but by using “he,” the translators of the Septuagint had in mind one individual, not many individuals.

Third, Hamilton emphasizes that the confrontation between the woman and the serpent is not an accident of history, but something that God himself initiated.  As Hamilton wrote, “It is an event as foreordained as the incarnation of Jesus” (p. 51).

To properly understand the problems translators of the Bible face when translating Genesis 3:15, it becomes necessary to compare grammatical rules between English and Hebrew.  In Hebrew, there are only two genders. Everything is either masculine or feminine.  In English, there are three genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter.  For instance, in Hebrew, the name of a city is feminine.  In English, the name of a city is neuter.  In Hebrew, Jerusalem is a “she.”  In English, Chicago is an “it.”

This is how the lexicon defines the Hebrew word זֶרַע  (zera‘), the word translated “seed” in English: “noun common masculine singular.”  This means that the word will have a masculine pronoun “he” since the word in Hebrew is a masculine word.

Most of the time in the Hebrew Bible the word “seed” has a collective sense.  When it refers to plants, the word means the of seed of trees or the seed of fruits.  At the time of creation, God said: “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth” (Genesis 1:11).

When the word is used of people, it generally means offspring or descendants. When Eli blessed Elkanah and his wife Hanna, he said: “May the LORD give you children by this woman (1 Samuel  2:20 RSV).  The KJV translates the same verse as follows: “The LORD give thee seed of this woman.”

The word also can be used to refer to an individual.  The son of Hagar is called “your seed”: “ I will multiply thy seed exceedingly that it shall not be numbered for multitude”  (Genesis 16:10 KJV).  But the same word can also have a collective meaning: “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count” (Genesis 16:10 NIV).

The same collective idea appears in God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:7:

KJV: “Unto thy seed will I give this land.”
ESV: “To your offspring I will give this land.”
RSV: “To your descendants I will give this land.”
NJB: “I shall give this country to your progeny.”

In my next post, I will discuss how this understanding of the word “seed” applies to the translation of Genesis 3:15.

Read Translating Genesis 3:15 – Part 2 here.

Note:

1.  If you are unable to see the Hebrew letters in your computer, download the Biblical fonts and install them in your computer.  Download the fonts here.

2.  The bibliography for the sources used in this post will be listed at the end of Part 2.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Genesis, Hebrew Bible and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Translating Genesis 3:15 – Part 1

  1. Hi Dr Claude, glad you are tackling this, I have had serious misgivings about the messianic interpretation for a few year but never yet got round to putting them in presentable form, will watch with interest where you go with this, especially as your exegetical powers are somewhat in excess of mine! Pax vobiscum. 🙂

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    • Jonathan,

      I had the same kinds of misgiving about this passage, but never took time to write about it. After you read part 2, let me know what you think.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini

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  2. Pingback: John Calvin on Genesis 3:15 | Claude Mariottini - Professor of Old Testament

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