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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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.