John Calvin on Genesis 3:15

In two previous posts (here and here), I tried to explain why the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 should not be interpreted as a prophecy of Christ.

Michele Beck, one of my students at Northern Seminary, commenting on my post, called my attention to what John Calvin wrote about Genesis 3:15.  I want to thank Michele for her comment and for her reference to John Calvin.

I had read John Calvin’s commentary a long time ago and had forgotten about his views on Genesis 3:15.  I am sure, however, that Calvin’s words have influenced my own views of Genesis 3:15, but, in the preparation of the two posts mentioned above, I did not consult Calvin.

Many evangelicals today strongly view Genesis 3:15 as a Messianic prophecy, that is, that the seed of the woman is a reference to Christ.  In the view of many, anyone who does not accept Genesis 3:15 as a promise about Christ is not interpreting the text correctly.

Victor P. Hamilton, wrote in his book Handbook on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982): “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. 50).

John Calvin was a great interpreter of the Biblical text and yet he refused to interpret the seed of the woman as a reference to Christ.  His understanding of Genesis 3:15 is not a liberal interpretation of the text.  Rather, Calvin was looking at the plain meaning of the text and arrived at the correct interpretation of the text.

Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 3:15 is long, but it is worth reading it.  What follows below is John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 3:15.  I took the liberty of dividing Calvin’s commentary into small sections to facilitate the reading.

John Calvin on Genesis 3:15:

15. I will put enmity. 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. It is regarded, as among prodigies, that some men take pleasure in them; and as often as the sight of a serpent inspires us with horrors the memory of our fall is renewed. With this I combine in one continued discourse what immediately follows: ‘It shall wound thy head, and thou shalt wound its heel.’ For he declares that there shall be such hatred that on both sides they shall be troublesome to each other; the serpent shall be vexatious towards men, and men shall be intent on the destruction of serpents.

Meanwhile, we see that the Lord acts mercifully in chastising man, whom he does not suffer Satan to touch except in the heel ; while he subjects the head of the serpent to be wounded by him. For in the terms head and heel there is a distinction between the superior and the inferior. And thus God leaves some remains of dominion to man; because he so places the mutual disposition to injure each other, that yet their condition should not be equal, but man should be superior in the conflict. Jerome, in turning the first member of the sentence, ‘Thou shalt bruise the head;’ and the second, “Thou shalt be ensnared in the heel”, does it without reason, for the same verb is repeated by Moses; the difference is to be noted only in the head and the heel, as I have just now said. Yet the Hebrew verb whether derived from שוף (shooph,) or from שפה (shapha,) some interpret to bruise or to strike, others to bite. I have, however, no doubt that Moses wished to allude to the name of the serpent which is called in Hebrew שפיפון (shipiphon,) from שפה (shapha,) or שוף (shooph).

We must now make a transition from the serpent to the author of this mischief himself; and that not only in the way of comparison, for there truly is a literal anagogy; because God has not so vented his anger upon the outward instrument as to spare the devil, with whom lay all the blame. That this may the more certainly appear to us, it is worth the while first to observe that the Lord spoke not for the sake of the serpent but of the man; for what end could it answer to thunder against the serpent in unintelligible words? Wherefore respect was had to men; both that they might be affected with a greater dread of sin, seeing how highly displeasing it is to God, and that hence they might take consolation for their misery, because they would perceive that God is still propitious to them. But now it is obvious to and how slender and insignificant would be the argument for a good hope, if mention were here made of a serpent only; because nothing would be then provided for, except the fading and transient life of the body.

Men would remain, in the meanwhile, the slaves of Satan, who would proudly triumph over them, and trample on their heads. Wherefore, that God might revive the fainting minds of men, and restore them when oppressed by despair, it became necessary to promise them, in their posterity victory over Satan, through whose wiles they had been ruined. This, then, was the only salutary medicine which could recover the lost, and restore life to the dead. I therefore conclude, that God here chiefly assails Satan under the name of the serpent, and hurls against him the lightning of his judgment. This he does for a twofold reason: first, that men may learn to beware of Satan as of a most deadly enemy; then, that they may contend against him with the assured confidence of victory.

Now, though all do not dissent in their minds from Satan yea, a great part adhere to him too familiarly — yet, in reality, Satan is their enemy; nor do even those cease to dread him whom he soothes by his flatteries; and because he knows that the minds of men are set against him, he craftily insinuates himself by indirect methods, and thus deceives them under a disguised form. In short, it is in grafted in us by nature to flee from Satan as our adversary. And, in order to show that he should be odious not to one generation only, God expressly says, ‘between thee and the seed of the woman,’ as widely indeed, as the human race shall be propagated. He mentions the woman on this account, because, as she had yielded to the subtlety of the devils and being first deceived, had drawn her husband into the participation of her ruin, so she had peculiar need of consolation.

It shall bruise. This passage affords too clear a proof of the great ignorance, dullness, and carelessness, which have prevailed among all the learned men of the Papacy. The feminine gender has crept in instead of the masculine or neuter. There has been none among them who would consult the Hebrew or Greek codices, or who would even compare the Latin copies with each other. Therefore, by a common error, this most corrupt reading has been received. Then, a profane exposition of it has been invented, by applying to the mother of Christ what is said concerning her seed.

There is, indeed no ambiguity in the words here used by Moses; but I do not agree with others respecting their meaning; for other interpreters take the seed for Christ, without controversy; as if it were said, that some one would arise from the seed of the woman who should wound the serpent’s head. Gladly would I give my suffrage in support of their opinion, but that I regard the word seed as too violently distorted by them; for who will concede that a collective noun is to be understood of one man only? Further, as the perpetuity of the contest is noted, so victory is promised to the human race through a continual succession of ages. I explain, therefore, the seed to mean the posterity of the woman generally. But since experience teaches that not all the sons of Adam by far, arise as conquerors of the devil, we must necessarily come to one head, that we may find to whom the victory belongs.

So Paul, from the seed of Abraham, leads us to Christ; because many were degenerate sons, and a considerable part adulterous, through infidelity; whence it follows that the unity of the body flows from the head. Wherefore, the sense will be (in my judgment) that the human race, which Satan was endeavoring to oppress, would at length be victorious. In the meantime, we must keep in mind that method of conquering which the Scripture describes. Satan has, in all ages, led the sons of men “captive at his will”, and, to this day, retains his lamentable triumph over them, and for that reason is called the prince of the world, (John 12:31.) But because one stronger than he has descended from heaven, who will subdue him, hence it comes to pass that, in the same manner, the whole Church of God, under its Head, will gloriously exult over him. To this the declaration of Paul refers,

“The Lord shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly,”
(Romans 16:20.)

By which words he signifies that the power of bruising Satan is imparted to faithful men, and thus the blessing is the common property of the whole Church; but he, at the same time, admonishes us, that it only has its commencement in this world; because God crowns none but well-tried wrestlers.

Those who desire to read Calvin’s commentary on Genesis can read it here.


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.

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 John Calvin on Genesis 3:15

  1. Michele Beck says:

    Thank you Professor for the name mention. Thank you for your blog. Much is to be learned and you are a great teacher.


  2. Pingback: [ad hoc] Christianity , Archive » Episode #21: Blogosphere roundup, June 1, 2011

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