In my previous post I studied the meaning of the word “seed” and how it is used in the Hebrew Bible. In the present post I will study how the English translations deal with the word “seed” in Genesis 3:15.
The word “seed” is used with a double meaning in Genesis 3:15. The word refers to the descendants of the woman (“her seed”) and to the offspring of the serpent (“your seed”). The problem with translating Genesis 3:15 is that the translators tend to introduce their theological views into the text and then translate the verse accordingly. A few examples will suffice.
The translators of the King James Bible (KJV) had an ambivalent understanding of the word “seed”:
KJV: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”
Here the translators used the word “it” to refer to the seed of the woman, but then they used the expression “his heel” to refer to the seed of the woman as a person.
The translators of the New American Standard Bible (NASB) infused a Christological understanding to the word “seed” in their translation of Genesis 3:15:
NASB: “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.”
By using the word “He” with a capital H after a semicolon, the translators of the NASB were declaring that the verse was referring to the work of Christ. The translators of the Holman Christian Standard Bible have the same view, but their translation is ambivalent since they use “He” with a capital H after a period: “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
The translators of the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB), a Catholic translation of the Latin Vulgate, translated Genesis 3:15 from a Mariological perspective:
DRB: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
According to Mariological theology, it is Mary who crushes the head of the serpent. This translation follows Catholic exegesis which calls these words of Genesis “The Protoevangelium,” that is, the first gospel, or the first announcement of the coming Messiah.
According to Catholic theology, in the promise of Genesis 3:15 the woman is placed first to indicate that the enmity is between the serpent and the woman. Thus, according to Pope John Paul II, “the Lord God, in announcing the Redeemer, makes the woman the first ‘enemy’ of the prince of darkness.”
The Hebrew word זֶרַע (zera‘) should be understood as a collective word with a plural meaning. The verse is referring to the descendants of the woman as well as the descendants of the serpent. This is the way the Common English Bible (CEB) translates Genesis 3:15:
CEB: “I will put contempt between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. They will strike your head, but you will strike at their heels.”
The same view was taken by the Tanak (TNK), the translation of the Hebrew Bible published by The Jewish Publication Society. It reads:
TNK: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your offspring and hers; They shall strike at your head, And you shall strike at their heel” (Genesis 3:15).
The words of Genesis 3:15 occur in the context of God’s judgment and speak of the hostility between human beings and the serpent. This hostility was decreed by God as the consequence of what the serpent did in deceiving the woman. In light of the proper exegesis of the text, Gerhard von Rad wrote (p. 90):
“The exegesis of the early church which found a messianic prophecy here, a reference to a final victory of the woman’s seed (Protoevangelium), does not agree with the sense of [the] passage, quite apart from the fact that the word ‘seed’ may not be construed personally but only quite generally with the meaning of ‘posterity.’”
In his commentary on Genesis, Gordon J. Wenham understands the word “seed” to refer to “the human race” (p. 79). Wenham wrote: “While a messianic interpretation may be justified in the light of subsequent revelation, . . . 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 power of evil” (p. 81).
Even the ethical meaning, that the serpent represents Satan and the power of evil, does not reflect the plain meaning of the text which presents the serpent as a real animal, one of the wild animals that God had made (Genesis 3:1).
The New Testament identifies the serpent of Genesis with Satan and the Devil: “And the great dragon was cast down, the old serpent, he that is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world; he was cast down to the earth, and his angels were cast down with him” (Revelation 12:9).
This understanding of Genesis 3:15 is not found in the Old Testament. An intimation of this idea is found in the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon: “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wisdom 2:24).
A Messianic interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is also found in the Targum Pseudo Jonathan. It reads:
“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between the seed of thy son, and the seed of her sons; and it shall be when the sons of the woman keep the commandments of the law, they will be prepared to smite thee upon thy head; but when they forsake the commandments of the law, thou wilt be ready to wound them in their heel. Nevertheless for them there shall be a medicine, but for thee there will be no medicine; and they shall make a remedy for the heel in the days of the King Meshiha.”
But, how about Hamilton’s claim, a claim used by many preachers, that the Septuagint speaks of the woman’s sperm which is, according to some interpreters, a reference to the Virgin Birth of Christ. Since a woman receives sperm from a man to conceive a child, then the woman’s sperm mentioned in Genesis 3:15 must be a reference to the Holy Spirit “overshadowing” Mary (Luke 1:35).
What Hamilton does not say in his book is that the Hebrew Bible does not use the word “sperm” but “seed.” “Sperm” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word for “seed.” In addition, the Septuagint also has the same word, “sperma,” for the serpent. The Septuagint speaks of the “spermatos” of the woman and the “spermatos” of the serpent.
Although the Messianic interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is very attractive and it has served as the foundational text for many good sermons, I think this interpretation should be abandoned because it does not reflect a proper interpretation of the text. I agree with the translation of the Common English Bible and with the translation of the Tanak. The Hebrew word for “seed” in Genesis 3:15 should be understood in the sense of “descendants” or “offspring.”
You also should read my post on John Calvin on Genesis 3:15.
NOTE: For a comprehensive collection of studies on the Book of Genesis, read my post Studies on the Book of Genesis.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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If you are looking for other series of studies on the Old Testament, visit the Archive section and you will find many studies that deal with a variety of topics.
Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Pentateuch. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982.
Von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1-15. Word Bible Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, Publishers, 1987.
Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Dr. Mariottini. But in my mind they raise what I consider a deeper issue, one concerning the nature of Scripture: is it a unified, progressive revelation from God? If it is, then shouldn’t we expect to find allusions to things that aren’t made more specific until later on? Doesn’t the broader context of Scripture, even if it is written later, have something to say about referents of words that we find difficult to determine, especially in such a foundational prophecy as this? And are we even warranted in limiting the knowledge of the person who uttered the prophecy simply because we find it ambiguous?
I’m thinking of Peter’s interpretation of Psalm 16:8-11 in Acts 2:30ff. As I read that passage in the Psalms (specifically verse 27), I can find no immediate basis for understanding it as David referring to anyone other than himself. And yet Peter says that not only was David referring to Christ, but consciously so. “But he was a prophet and knew…” (Acts 2:30). Peter does not seem to be thinking of himself as “reinterpreting” the Psalm, but of giving its real meaning.
Thank you for your comment. I am sure you read both Part 1 and Part 2 of my post. My purpose in writing this post was to say that Genesis 3:15 is not a prophecy about Jesus Christ. It is because people take this text as prophecy that we misinterpret the text completely.
Look at what Calvin wrote about Genesis 3:15: “I interpret this simply to mean that there should always be the hostile strife between the human race and serpents, which is now apparent; for, by a secret feeling of nature, man abhors them.” And Calvin was not a liberal. You should read Calvin on Genesis 3:15.
Actually, I didn’t read Part 1—but now I will. And thanks for the Calvin reference. I’ll make sure to read him, too.
Thanks, Dr. Mariottini.
You are welcome. After you read part 1, you will understand my argument.
Thank you for showing us how this verse was taken out of text and twisted to make a prophetic message. I heard it all my life that this is the first prophecy of Jesus Christ. When you said you were going to write on this I read Calvin on this and this is what baffles me. I went to churches which claim they follow Calvin, yet Calvin clearly says exactly what you are saying. I actually wrestled with this all night. This morning I woke up and told God I have had enough of childish beliefs. I started reading the Bible through and will remain committed to that until I am through. Checking a lot of commentaries and making sure that I really understand what it says.
Thank you for reminding me about what Calvin wrote about Genesis 3:15. I read Calvin many years ago and had forgotten his argument. Now you know that Calvin did not see Genesis 3:15 as a prophecy of Christ. Calvin was a man who loved the truths of Scriptures and who sought to provide the correct interpretation to the Bible to his listeners. I just wish more people would read what Calvin had to say on Genesis 3:15.
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Gen 3:15 is a direct prophecy about our LORD JESUS CHRIST. Scripture testifies that. Read Gal 3:16, then Gen 22:18 and then Gen 3:15. The seed is CHRIST.
HE will bruise the serpent’s head. In fact HE had. And no one can do that mighty work other than our blessed LORD. If not HE, who?
Oh.. May the LORD be gracious to our understanding.
Read what John Calvin wrote about Genesis 3:15: John Calvin on Genesis 3:15.
Thank you. I have wrestled with Christian theology for a long time, but have questioned the occurrences taking place in Genesis 3 for a long time also. This is backing up what the original meaning/meaning should be interpreted as, “seed” in the passage of Genesis 3: Vs. 15.
I believe that many Christians read more into Genesis 3:15 that what the text says. Read my post on what John Calvin wrote on Genesis 3:15.
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I agree with you. Very good. Thanks.
Thank you for your comment. This is one of those topics that I believe has been highly misunderstood.
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Dear Pastor, Mariottini, I found part 1 very informative and feel comfortable with the concept of the “seed” being understood in a plural sense. However, as I am coming from the Catholic tradition I would be interested in your opinion of the notion of “the woman’s the seed” being construed as an anti-type to the seed of the serpent?
Good question. Since you accept the fact that the word “seed” has a plural sense, the idea that the seed of the woman is an anti-type of the seed of the woman makes sense, because in both cases the word “seed’ has a collective meaning.
Thank you for your comment and thank you for visiting my blog.
I write as a complete novice so forgive my presumption. What I don’t understand, and perhaps it’s my ignorance of the use of semi-colons, but why can’t the “it” used in the King James version refer to “emnity” and “his heel” to Adam? Why can’t bruising the Serpent’s head simply mean bringing delusion and confusion to him and to those who emulate him in challenging God. And, why can’t bruising Adam’s heel simply mean rendering his and his descendents’ actions compromised and without true fulfillment/completion?
Thank you for your comment. The text is difficult to understand and it has caused much confusion to translators and readers of the Bible.
The “it” of the King James cannot refer to “enmity because of the context of the passage. If the word “seed” is understood in the sense of “descendants” or “offspring” then the seed cannot be Adam. You should read my post on John Calvin on Genesis 3:15.
Thank you for visiting my blog.
Regarding your comment that the Messianic reference to Genesis 3:15 should be abandoned. The word seed, zera, can be translated in the singular or plural as in descendants. Genesis 3:15 is obviously saying that the spirit that deceived Eve through the serpent would be defeated through the lineage of the woman. A lineage consists of many “seeds.” So it is not inappropriate to say this passage is not messianic.The Messiah Jesus came through that lineage. The DNA of anyone is carried through the female. Mary’s lineage (recorded under her husband’s name as was the custom) described in Luke is traced all the way back to Adam, while Joseph’s in Matthew starts from Abraham and is traced upward to Joseph. We are thus shown that the lineage of the woman Mary, that birthed the Messiah Jesus, is traced back to Eve and is the line of seeds that would fulfill that first messianic prophecy in the Bible.
Correction: I meant to say that is is inappropriate to say that this passage is not messianic.
Thank you for visiting my blog. You should also read my post on John Calvin’s interpretation of Genesis 3:15.
Interesting confusion. After all these years and still we debate the truth of this scripture. Referring us constantly to Calvin’s interpretation is simply that referring us to Calvin’s interpretation and believe you me as you have revealed there are many opposing interpretation. What concerns me is the doctrine of Mary. That is far more vital than even the discussion of the seed. Why? If this interpretation of Mary is correct it feeds into a host of other assumptions about her that I cannot find in scripture but I am asked to simply believe. It is the foundational stone for why we are all Mary’s children and that she is without sin, seated at the throne with her son and the myriad of other things that new Testament hardly confirems. That doctrine if misunderstood has a more serious weight than who will crush whose head and hurt whose heal. Why? Because it is a a given that that process will happen if God said it will. Regardless to whether we understand all of the participants or not. My five cents.
Your “five cents” is worth more than just a few pennies. Genesis 3:q5 is not speaking of Mary. This interpretation finds no biblical support. I guess, that people will be dealing with the interpretation of Genesis 3:15 until the Lord comes.
Thank you for your comment.