Abstract:In Genesis 3:15, the Lord announces the future coming of a “seed” (זֶ֫רַע) who will bruise the head of the serpent. While many have long considered this verse the protoevangelium, or the first gospel, others have been quick to doubt its “messianic” intention. However, when one examines Genesis 1–3 in context, an anticipatory expectation emerges as the most viable option. Furthermore, once the interpreter understands the promise God gave to Abraham concerning his “seed” (22:17–18) as a contextual allusion to 3:15, it becomes clear that this verse stands as the fountainhead of the Old Testament’s anticipatory hope. Therefore, although the book of Genesis uses neither the noun מָשִׁיחַ nor the verb מָשַׁח to refer to this coming individual, due to the anticipatory hope found within, Genesis 3:15 is best understood as the protoevangelium.
The New Testament presents Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah; the Savior the prophets predicted. When Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people seemed ready, waiting for and expecting the Messiah. For example, when Jesus called his disciples, Philip announced to Nathanael, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth” (John 1:44).1 Additionally, the Samaritan woman asserted, “I know that Messiah is coming” (John 4:25). Even Jesus himself taught the prophetic nature of the Old Testament to the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). Yet despite this professed messianic hope in the NT, one cannot help but wonder, does the OT actually present a messianic expectation?
Although many evangelical scholars are quick to answer this question in the affirmative,2 many contemporary scholars of a more liberal slant are doubtful as to the OT’s true messianic anticipation. McConville aptly describes the situation: “Modern Old Testament scholarship has been largely informed by the belief that traditional Christian messianic interpretations of Old Testament passages have been exegetically indefensible.”3 In this view, the apostles cited the OT solely for apologetic value at the time—and therefore, not in accordance with true critical methods.4 Additionally, those who hold this view assert that those affirming the OT’s messianic nature are inconsistent in that they must read their NT beliefs back into the OT text.5 Yet contrary to this assertion, so long as the interpreter consistently applies the grammatical-historical method of interpretation, a thoroughly anticipatory view of the OT’s nature will emerge.
In order to achieve this goal—and establish the OT’s anticipatory nature—it is necessary to examine the OT’s use of the OT. This article will begin with a brief discussion of the nature of the term “Messiah,” the purpose being to understand what can legitimately be regarded as “messianic hope.” At this point, Genesis 3:15—often referred to as the protoevangelium, or “first gospel”—will be examined in context. Once the original meaning of this passage is discovered, the promises given to Abraham will be examined to identify contextual allusions to this first promise.6 Rather than focus solely on Genesis 3:15 as a stand-alone passage, through considering Abraham’s awareness of this promise, the overarching hope and anticipatory nature of the book of Genesis will emerge as strikingly evident. Ultimately, from start to finish, Genesis is revealed as an intrinsically anticipatory document.
1. Nature of the Term “Messiah”
The term “Messiah” (מָשִׁיחַ)—which refers to an “anointed one”—occurs only 39 times in the OT and is translated as “Christ” (Χριστός) in the Septuagint. This noun originates from the verb מָשַׁח—to “anoint” or to “smear.” According to Van Groningen, “The act of anointing conveys the idea of designation, appointment, or election.”7 As an example, he writes, “When Samuel poured oil on Saul’s head and informed him that the Lord had anointed him a ruler, the first and foremost idea [was] that of informing Saul that he [had] been appointed by the Lord (1 Sam. 10:1).”8 Also, Kaiser traces the primary development of this term:
The way that the title Messiah gained its technical sense happened as Saul was being rejected as king.... Saul had been called the “anointed of the LORD” ... but now David was God’s “anointed,” and “from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power” (1 Sa 16:13). David was called the Lord’s “anointed” ten times.9
Yet this concept was not only related to the appointing of kings, but also to the appointing of prophets and priests who had been anointed for service to the Lord.10 As such, in its initial OT uses, the term seems to simply denote an individual set apart and chosen by God for service.
Ultimately, the NT applies this term to Jesus as “Christ.” Again, Kaiser develops the transition of this term and how it took on a future-oriented eschatological meaning:
The relationship of Yahweh with “his anointed,” the king, was cemented in the Nathan prophecy of 2 Samuel 7. Here David and his line of kings assumed a unique position that guaranteed to him and to his reigning sons a kingdom that would be “established” by Yahweh “forever” (vv. 12–16). Without using the word māšîaḥ, Nathan represented a significant advance in the progressive revelation of what the concept of Messiah entailed.11
With this in mind, one is able to see how the concept of Messiah began to develop and take on a more refined meaning. As such, it is evident that this term began to encompass the anticipatory hope and expectation held by OT believers.12 While OT believers may not have been able to systematize all their eschatological beliefs into the official category of “messianic,” they certainly would have been able to recognize and identify these anticipatory elements found in the OT.
Related to this, a theme common to many modern treatments of the Messiah in the OT is the recognition that this study cannot be tied solely to the Hebrew term “Messiah,” but rather, must encompass criteria other than strictly terminological ones.13 Furthermore, although the label “messianic” may be the most common category into which to group the promises of God concerning this coming individual, many of these future oriented and eschatological promises do not specifically mention the term “Messiah.” Interestingly, Kaiser goes so far as to assert that perhaps a more accurate term for this individual than Messiah—based on word frequency alone—would be “Servant of the Lord.”14 Therefore, due to the variety of terms related to this “messianic” concept, it seems best to group all promises pertaining to this coming individual together under the category of “anticipatory.” This corresponds well with the NT proclamation of Jesus as “Christ,” because this NT term encompasses many OT concepts.15
If this is done successfully, and OT texts that use neither the noun מָשִׁיחַ nor the verb מָשַׁח are able to be grouped into this “anticipatory” category, then the OT will be found to contain vast amounts of information concerning this topic. As such, rather than develop the Jewish concept of Messiah solely related to the terms מָשִׁיחַ and מָשַׁח, it is vital to examine the OT in search of all future oriented, eschatological hope. Again, if done properly, Scripture will align with Scripture to reveal the intrinsically anticipatory hope of the OT.
One example of this—which will be examined in the remainder of this paper—is the book of Genesis. Since Genesis does not use either the noun מָשִׁיחַ nor the verb מָשַׁח to refer to a royal figure, some are quick to dismiss this book’s relevancy to the messianic topic.16 Alexander writes,
For the majority of contemporary biblical scholars the book of Genesis has little or nothing to say about the Messiah or associated concepts.… The expectation of a unique future king or Messiah is commonly assumed to be a late development in Israelite thinking, possibly arising as a result of the demise of the Davidic monarchy at the time of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC.17
However, when one examines the future oriented, eschatological hope found in Genesis, it becomes clear that this book contains much revelation concerning this coming individual. Ultimately, this conclusion allows the book of Genesis to be understood properly, as an intrinsically anticipatory document.
2. Genesis 3:15 as Protoevangelium?
When commentators discuss the anticipatory nature of the OT, they often identify Genesis 3:15 as the first promise of deliverance in the Bible. In this passage, God announces to the serpent, “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.” From this passage, many commentators affirm the hope of a coming “seed,” a concept that is ultimately developed further in the rest of the OT as the hope of a coming Messiah. For example, Kaiser states,
Genesis 3:15 has commonly been called the protoevangelium (the “first gospel”) because it was the original proclamation of the promise of God’s plan for the whole world ... it gave our first parents a glimpse ... of the person and mission of the one who was going to be the central figure in the unfolding drama of the redemption of the world. The “seed/offspring” mentioned in this verse became the root from which the tree of the OT promise of a Messiah grew.18
Quite a few biblical scholars agree with this point. For example, Aalders writes, “Genesis 3:15 has been rightly called ... the ‘protevangelium,’ the first proclamation of the gospel of grace.”19 Kidner asserts, “There is good New Testament authority for seeing here the protevangelium, the first glimmer of the gospel.”20 Additionally, DeRouchie and Meyer claim that “Genesis 3:15 provides a ‘seed-bed’ of Messianic hope.”21 As such, Genesis 3:15 is frequently cited as the first anticipatory promise in the OT. However, this assessment of Genesis 3:15 as a Messianic promise is by no means unanimous.
Many other scholars firmly argue for the opposing viewpoint, namely that Genesis 3:15 does not offer any hope of a coming Redeemer, but rather simply describes a struggle in the “animal kingdom,” a struggle between humans and serpents.22 As such, these individuals claim that there is no semblance of a promise given. For example, Barr insists that “there is no Protevangelium here, no promise of a future struggle with evil, no promise of final salvation.”23 Additionally, Preuss states, “Any interpretation [of Genesis 3:15] as a ‘protevangelium’ is out of the question.”24 These scholars claim that there is no prophetic element to Genesis 3:15 whatsoever. As such, they argue that in order to see any future cosmic struggle between a coming “seed” and the serpent, one must read back into this passage later portions of Scripture. In essence, this perspective asserts that in order to view Genesis 3:15 as a promise, one must alter its original meaning in such a way that effectively distorts it beyond recognition.
Skinner claims that a messianic application of Genesis 3:15 “is not justified in grammar.”25 Additionally, Vawter asserts that this “interpretation, which became extremely popular during the Middle Ages and has penetrated many ecclesiastical documents ... we owe to the allegorizing of early Christian writers.”26 Von Rad agrees, “The exegesis of the early church which found a messianic prophecy here, a reference to a final victory of the woman’s seed (Protevangelium), does not agree with the sense of the passage.”27 Therefore, those in the non-anticipatory camp claim that there is no legitimate basis to view this verse as the protoevangelium. As such, they assume that those in the early church allegorized this OT text in order to fit it into their Christocentric worldview.
Yet on the contrary, when one examines Genesis 1–3 in context, the hope of the protoevangelium emerges completely apart from an appeal to allegory. Ultimately, by applying the grammatical-historical method of interpretation to Genesis 3:15, an anticipatory understanding emerges as the most viable option.28 Once this understanding emerges, and interpreters develop the OT’s anticipatory expectation, they can properly understand the patriarchal hope of “seed,” ultimately pointing to the hope of a coming Redeemer.
3. The Context of Genesis 3:15
In Genesis chapters one and two, God creates the heavens and the earth (1:1). As he progressively creates different features of the universe, the text records that after each day, “God saw that it was good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). In his new creation, God freely dwells with his people—Adam and Eve—in an unspoiled earth (cf. 3:8–9). Yet into this perfect world, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve, and they sin against God by eating from the forbidden tree (2:17; 3:6). As a result, the universe plummets into chaos. In 3:14–19, the Lord describes the curse brought upon the world: “Cursed is the ground because of you ... for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:17b, 19b).
However, into this seemingly hopeless situation, God declares to the serpent in the presence of Adam and Eve, “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” (3:15). Here, God promises Adam and Eve “seed” or “offspring” who will one day bruise the serpent’s head.29 Although some may think it odd that the promise refers to the woman’s “seed,” given the context in which the serpent had just deceived Eve—and thereby brought the curse upon all creation—it seems quite fitting that her “seed” should be responsible to bring punishment. However, this punishment will not be accomplished without both sides sustaining injury in the process. While Walton points to the repetition of the verb שׁוף (“bruise”) to assert that the verse gives no hint of the victor’s identity nor of the eventual outcome, his argumentation seems at best tenuous.30 Quite simply, for a human to שׁוף (“strike”; or contextually “crush”) the head of a serpent implies a mortal blow, while for a serpent to שׁוף (“strike”; or contextually “bite”) the heel of a human, at most suggests a potentially mortal blow. As such, it seems best to conclude that in this conflict, it is the “seed” of woman who will claim victory over the serpent. At this point, it is necessary to determine the identity of the serpent as well as the identity of the “seed.”
From the context, it is apparent that this serpent is no ordinary snake.31 When Genesis 3:1 first introduces the serpent, the text states, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” Due to its supernatural ability to speak (and thereby tempt), even Adam and Eve would have likely recognized a difference between it and a natural snake. As such, although Adam and Eve may not have been able to identify the serpent as “Satan,” they would have been able to notice its abnormality among the rest of the animals. Commenting on this concept, Alexander states, “While the author of Genesis stops well short of identifying the serpent as Satan, it is clear that the serpent acts against God.… The serpent is more than an ordinary snake.”32 In similar fashion, when developing the identity of the serpent, Collins describes it as the “mouthpiece of a Dark Power” and concludes by referring to it as the “Evil One.”33 At the very least, based on the context, the text presents the serpent as the “crafty” or “diabolical” one (3:1), as the serpent’s tempting—and Adam and Eve’s subsequent disobedience—ultimately undoes all that God had previously declared good (cf. 1:31). Although the text does not explicitly call the serpent the “evil one,” it does seem to be a fitting title, as through its tempting, the curse is brought upon creation. Again, while this evil one will attack the “seed” of woman, ultimately the “seed” of woman will be victorious.
Who then, is the “seed” of woman? In light of the serpent’s identity, the “seed” of woman is the one who will attack and be victorious over the serpent, the evil one. While the “seed” of woman will suffer a great wound (“bruised on the heel”), he will be the one to destroy (“bruise the head” or “crush the skull” of) the serpent. The Hebrew term זֶ֫רַע can refer to either “seed” (plural—as in descendants) or “seed” (singular—as in descendant). It is because of this flexibility of usage that many commentators take differing interpretations of this passage. For example, by taking this as a strictly collective promise, some rule out the possibility of any messianic relevance. For Westermann, the primary reason that Genesis 3:15 cannot be considered as protoevangelium is that “seed” must be understood collectively rather than singularly. Additionally, he claims that it is “not possible that such a form has either promise or prophecy as its primary or even as its secondary meaning.”34 Barr calls Westermann’s assertion a “crushing rebuttal of all such suggestions.”35 Yet one must consider if this really is a crushing rebuttal at all. Although it is true that “seed” (זֶ֫רַע) never occurs in the plural in the OT and therefore is frequently used collectively, those such as Barr and Westermann seem to arrive at conclusions far too quickly without truly considering the text. Therefore, their conclusions warrant examining the text in greater depth concerning whether the term “seed” should be taken as singular or plural.
4. Singular or Plural “Seed”
In Genesis 3:15, most modern English translations (NASB, ESV, NIV, HCSB, NLT) use the third person singular pronoun “he,” as in, “he shall bruise your head.”36 Although this is a valid translation of the Hebrew masculine singular pronoun הוּא, for a proper understanding, one must consider the antecedent of this pronoun. Since Hebrew has only two grammatical genders (masculine and feminine) while English has three (masculine, feminine, and neuter), it is occasionally necessary to translate a Hebrew masculine or feminine pronoun as a neuter (it) where appropriate in English. In this verse, the antecedent of הוּא (he) is זֶ֫רַע (seed), which grammatically is masculine, but as Martin points out, “actually ... is a collective noun of which the natural gender is neuter.”37 Therefore, Martin concludes that perhaps a more accurate translation reflecting the intent of the Hebrew הוּא should be either “it” (as in KJV) or “they,” rather than the standard “he.” In either case, the point must be made that the purpose of the pronoun is ultimately to refer back to the “seed” of Eve as announced in the first half of the verse. As such, from the Hebrew grammar of this verse, at first it seems that one is unable to argue either for or against an individual understanding of “seed.”
4.1. “Seed” in the Greek OT
As Martin points out, it is quite interesting to consider the Septuagint translation of Genesis 3:15. When the LXX refers back to the antecedent “seed” (σπέρμα), which is grammatically neuter in Greek, the translators use the masculine pronoun αὐτός (he) rather than the neuter form αὐτό (it). This is quite startling because while the Greek antecedent requires a neuter pronoun, the LXX translators break the rules of Greek grammar to translate this word as a grammatical masculine. Additionally, by tracing the 103 times the pronoun הוּא occurs in Genesis, Martin determines that “in none of the instances where the translator has translated literally does he do violence to agreement in Greek between the pronoun and its antecedent, except here in Gen. 3:15.”38 Why then, do the translators render this verse in this way? Ultimately, Martin concludes by asserting that this was the translators’ way of indicating a “messianic understanding of this verse.”39 Lewis agrees: “Sperma is a neuter noun in Greek and would have taken a neuter pronoun had the translators not thought of an individual.”40 Therefore, the translators had in their mind the concept of a coming individual; a coming “seed.”
As such, it becomes evident that the translators of the LXX intentionally translated the Hebrew in such a way that Genesis 3:15 stands as the first pronouncement of the anticipatory and messianic expectation of the OT.41 However, at this point one must wonder whether or not the LXX translation is either a correct or an incorrect interpretation of Genesis 3:15. Based on prior understanding of the context as well as of Genesis as a whole, scholars differ greatly in their opinions. For example, even Martin, who pointedly argues for a messianic interpretation of Genesis 3:15 in the LXX, makes the concession that “such an interpretive translation by the LXX does not mean that this is the correct understanding of the Hebrew text. Rather this LXX translation is further evidence of the intensification of messianic expectations among the Jews in the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Jesus.”42 Likewise, Lewis, after recognizing the intent of the LXX translators, claims that this is likely the “earliest known” messianic interpretation of Genesis 3:15.43 Therefore, while recognizing the messianic understanding of the LXX translators, both Martin and Lewis deny that these translators correctly understood the original meaning of Genesis 3:15, and rather, imported their own meaning.
While acknowledging that the LXX translation could be flawed and that (as Martin points out) the interpretive claims of the LXX do not necessarily imply a correct understanding of the Hebrew text, one cannot help but wonder, what if the Greek translators correctly interpret Genesis 3:15? What if (contra Lewis’s claim), these translators were not the “earliest to recognize” the anticipatory and messianic nature of Genesis, but rather, the original readers of Genesis were?44 When one examines and traces the context of Genesis 3:15 and the development of the promise of coming “seed” throughout Genesis, it becomes evident that there was in fact anticipatory hope and expectation of a coming individual long before the LXX translators began their work.
4.2. “Seed” in the Hebrew OT
Since the LXX translators seemed to hold to an anticipatory and messianic understanding of Genesis 3:15, it is necessary to consider what the individuals in Genesis are recorded as having believed about this coming “seed.” Kidner argues that these OT individuals would have understood the coming “seed” to be both singular and plural. He asserts that this term “is both collective ... and, in the crucial struggle, individual.”45 As such, Kidner develops the idea of an individual among the group. In other words, he asserts that the “head of the group” (or the “representative”) will be the one acting on the group’s behalf.46 Related to this, Aalders states, “in the use of the words ‘head’ and ‘heel,’ both in the singular, we have a further indication that the conflict would ultimately be settled between two contestants.”47 Therefore, Aalders seems to agree with Kidner in that while the passage envisions two groups, the textual evidence points to the ultimate victory being “gained by one individual among that seed of the woman.”48
However, perhaps most conclusively, Collins has demonstrated through a syntactical analysis of each use of זֶ֫רַע in the OT that “when zera‘ [seed] denotes a specific descendent, it appears with singular verb inflections, adjectives and pronouns.”49 He concludes,
From these data it becomes clear that, on the syntactical level, the singular pronoun hû’ [he] in Genesis 3:15 is quite consistent with the pattern where a singular individual is in view. In fact, since the subject pronouns are not normally necessary for the meaning, we might wonder if the singular hû’ in Genesis 3:15 is used precisely in order to make it plain that an individual is being promised.50
This is intriguing on several accounts. First of all, it eliminates Westermann’s and Barr’s “crushing rebuttal” as an unfounded assertion. Secondly, it aligns perfectly with the interpretation of the LXX translators. And lastly, at the very least, it opens the door to a singular understanding of the promise of “seed” in Genesis 3:15 (while not necessarily excluding an element of collectivity).
This is even more relevant when one considers that the author of Genesis was not limited to the use of the singular pronoun with the antecedent “seed.” In fact, when developing the distinctly plural aspect of “seed,” the author employs the plural pronoun. This is evident in Genesis 17:9, which states, “God said further to Abraham, ‘Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants [or “seed” (זֶ֫רַע)] after you throughout their generations.’” Notice the key phrase: “their generations” (לְדֹרֹתָם). Here, the masculine plural pronominal suffix is used to denote the multiplicity of Abraham’s “seed.” The plural pronoun/pronominal suffix is also used in reference to “seed” in 15:13, 17:7, and 17:8, while the singular pronoun/pronominal suffix is used in reference to “seed” in 3:15, 21:13, 22:17b, and 24:60. As such, the presence of both singular and plural pronouns used in reference to “seed” within Genesis indicates an element of choice. If the author of Genesis had desired to indicate multiple descendants (זֶ֫רַע) in 3:15, he could have used the plural pronoun as in 17:9. However, his intentional choice of the singular pronoun in 3:15 serves to highlight the expectation of a single individual.
Ultimately, in light of Collins’s syntactical study, as well as a consideration of the plural pronoun in 17:9, it seems that the understanding of a coming individual—a coming “seed”—who will bruise the head of the serpent, is the most valid interpretation. At this point, it is necessary to test this hypothesis and determine how the individuals recorded within Genesis would have understood this promise. After tracing the term “seed” (זֶ֫רַע) through Genesis, we will examine the promise given to Abraham in 22:17–18 and its connections to 3:15 in greater depth. The goal is to reveal the anticipatory hope of Genesis as seen through contextual allusions to 3:15.
5. Genesis 3:15 and Anticipatory Hope in Genesis
After God describes the curse brought upon the world in Genesis 3:14–19, he casts Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (3:23–24). He forbids them from ever re-entering. However, in light of the promise given in 3:15, they are left with the hope of a coming “seed” who will defeat the serpent and the serpent’s “seed” (that is, the serpent’s followers, ultimately including the serpent’s influence in the world).51 Since—as discussed above—the serpent may be identified as the evil one, the promise of future victory over the serpent implies the defeat (or elimination) of the serpent’s negative influence from the world. In other words, this victory includes the future destruction of evil. In view of the previously perfect state described in Genesis 1–2, through this promise, it is evident that this individual’s victory will accomplish something great.52 Therefore, once the serpent is defeated and the world rid of its influence, the world will be able to be brought back to its Genesis 1–2 state (void of the effects of the curse—such as sin, sickness, death, pain).53 Also, in view of God’s relationship with Adam and Eve prior to the fall—where he dwelt with them freely (cf. 3:8–9)—this promise seems to include not only a restoration of creation, but also a restoration of relationship. As such, from the content given solely in Genesis 3:15 (within the context of Genesis 1–3), the hope offered to Adam and Eve can be summarized as God’s promise to accomplish three tasks: (1) Destroy evil (defeat the serpent, its seed, and thereby destroy the influence of evil); (2) Restore creation (to the state it was previously, void of all evil, i.e. the Genesis 1–2 state—cf. 1:31); and (3) Allow God to dwell with his people (just as he previously dwelt with Adam and Eve in Eden—cf. 3:8). These three themes are alluded to and developed greatly throughout the rest of the Bible. As such, from the very beginning, one can see that God’s first promise is to send an individual who will come to restore the world.
In these three tasks, God promises something great; he promises the future “restoration of creation”; the renewal of all things. Ultimately, in 3:15, God promises to bring the world back to the way it was in Genesis 1–2: very good (cf. 1:31). While nowhere in this passage is the term “Messiah” found, it is pointedly evident that Adam and Eve were given clear anticipatory and eschatological hope. Collins articulates this point nicely:
The rest of Genesis will unfold the idea of this offspring and lay the foundation for the developed messianic teaching of the prophets. We must remember that an author put this text here, and we suppose that he did so with his plan for this unfolding in mind; hence for us to ask whether this particular text is messianic may mislead us: instead, we may say that Genesis fosters a messianic expectation, of which this verse is the headwaters.54
As such, while Adam and Eve would not have—by any means—been able to call this verse “messianic,” given the development of this future-oriented expectation throughout the rest of the Bible (later developed as the messianic hope), this verse clearly stands as the first anticipatory promise of the Bible, the protoevangelium.
Throughout Genesis, the notion of “seed” or “offspring” (זֶ֫רַע) is a major theme. Of the 229 times the word זֶ֫רַע is used in the OT, 59 occur in Genesis. As such, the author of Genesis develops the unique family line anticipating the serpent’s defeat starting with Adam and Eve. Likely, Eve first believed that Cain was the promised “seed” (4:1).55 Yet once he proved to be a murderer (4:1–25), Eve replaced him with Seth, saying “God has appointed me another זֶ֫רַע in place of Abel, for Cain killed him” (4:25). Then, Genesis 5:1–32 traces Adam’s descendants to Noah (through Seth). When Noah is born, his father Lamech (who himself is in the genealogical line waiting for the promised “seed”) declares that Noah shall bring relief from the curse on the ground:56
And to Adam he said . . . (1) cursed [ארר] is the (2) ground [אֲדָמָה] because of you; in (3) pain [עִצָּבוֹן] you shall eat of it all the days of your life. (3:17 ESV)
[Lamech] fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the (2) ground [אֲדָמָה] that the Lord has (1) cursed [ארר], this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the (3) painful toil [עִצָּבוֹן] of our hands.” (5:28–29 ESV)
After the flood, when God makes his covenant with Noah, he states, “I ... establish My covenant with you, and with your זֶ֫רַע after you” (9:9). Subsequently, Genesis 11:10–26 traces this genealogy through Noah’s son Shem to Abraham.57
Furthermore, as this term is traced through Genesis, it is interesting to consider its repetition among the patriarchs. After God promises Abraham a זֶ֫רַע who will bless all nations (22:17–18),58 he promises Isaac that through his זֶ֫רַע “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (26:4). Similarly, God promises Jacob that through his זֶ֫רַע “shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (28:14). After Jacob, the narrative account of Genesis 38:1–30 introduces the זֶ֫רַע of Judah. Ultimately, through the repeated use of זֶ֫רַע, the theme of a coming individual and the hope of future restoration becomes increasingly evident as the book of Genesis progresses. At this point, it is necessary to examine the life of Abraham specifically.
6. Patriarchal Promises (Genesis 22:17–18)
In Genesis 12:1, God commands Abraham to leave his homeland and journey to an unknown country. The Lord then promises that he will make Abraham into a great nation that will, in turn, bless other nations so that “in [him] all the families of the earth will be blessed” (12:2–3). Over the next few chapters, the Lord repeatedly makes promises to Abraham pertaining his זֶ֫רַע (cf. 12:7; 13:15, 16; 15:5, 13, 18; 17:7–8; 22:17–18). He reveals to Abraham that he will ultimately bring blessing to all nations through this זֶ֫רַע. In context, it is vital to consider the genealogical line as traced up to Abraham. Given his ancestral heritage, Abraham appears in the genealogical line through which God has promised the “skull-crushing and creation-restoring seed” to come. However, considering the quick descent of human morality from the days of the flood to Abraham’s time (9:18–28; 11:1–9), as well as the ever-shortening length of human lives (11:10–25), the author of Genesis presents Abraham as one who must have deeply longed for the day when God would fulfill his promise, destroy evil, restore creation, and dwell with his people. Waltke and Yu summarize this aptly, for at this point “the book of Genesis is in want of a proper ending.”59 The promise had been given (first in 3:15), but up to this point, it had yet to have been fulfilled.
At this point, we must examine Genesis 22:17–18 in greater depth. In this passage, the Lord declares to Abraham,
I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring (זֶ֫רַע) as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring (זֶ֫רַע) shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring (זֶ֫רַע) shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.60
From this passage, two primary points are evident (and will be expanded below):
- Individual “Seed”: Just as Genesis 3:15 was a promise of a coming individual “seed,” so too is 22:17b–18 a promise of a coming individual “seed.”
- Universal Blessing: Within the Abrahamic account, the promise of universal blessing intrinsically relates to an “undoing” of the curse brought upon creation in 3:14–19.
In light of these two points, Abraham’s extreme obedience to the Lord’s commands becomes far more understandable (e.g. leaving family and country [12:1–4]; willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac [22:1–14]). For Abraham’s call was not given in a theological vacuum, but rather in a specific historical context in which God offered him a very specific hope. It is now necessary to consider these two points in greater depth.
6.1. Individual “Seed”
This passage presents among Abraham’s many “seed,” one “seed” who will “bruise the head” of the serpent of Genesis 3:15. Although one might assume that each of these uses of זֶ֫רַע is a collective singular (i.e., a plural), Alexander makes a distinction between זֶ֫רַע in 22:17a and זֶ֫רַע in 22:17b–18a. He presents the case that 22:17b–22:18 refers to an individual and not to a group.61 He asserts that (like ESV and contra NASB) the first clause of 22:17 is broken from the second clause of 22:17 “by the imperfect verb ... preceded by a non-converting [waw];” this syntactical arrangement “leaves open the possibility that the זֶ֫רַע referred to in the final clause differs from that mentioned in the first part of the verse.”62 From this perspective, while the first זֶ֫רַע refers to a large number of future descendants, the second זֶ֫רַע refers to a single individual who will be victorious over his enemies.63 Additionally, since there is no distinction made between זֶ֫רַע in 22:17b and in 22:18, Alexander asserts that here, Abraham is promised an individual “seed” who will bring “blessing to all nations.”64
This is further reinforced when one remembers that the Lord had previously given a promise to Abraham in 17:9 which concerned his plural “seed.” As discussed above, in 17:9, the plural pronoun is used to denote the multiplicity of Abraham’s “seed.” However, in 22:17b, the masculine singular pronominal suffix is used: “his enemies” (אֹיְבָיו). If the author of Genesis had wanted to indicate plural “seed” here, he would have employed the same construction as in 17:9. Yet he does not do so. The point is that in 22:17b–22:18, the Lord promises a single individual who will come through the line of Abraham. All in all, the presence of the plural pronoun in 17:9 indicates that the inclusion of the singular pronoun in 3:15 and 22:17b was an intentional decision on the part of the author of Genesis.65
Ultimately, based on the context of Genesis and the genealogical line through which this “seed” is traced, this individual “seed” must be understood as the same individual “seed” promised in 3:15; the same “seed” that God had promised would crush the head of the serpent.66 The grammatical similarities between these passages are not coincidental—and Abraham certainly would have recognized this when the Lord revealed his covenant in 22:17–18.67
Furthermore, Alexander not only offers grammatical support for the hope and understanding of an individual “seed,” but he also develops the contextual evidence:
Of significance is the fact that [Genesis 22:17–18 forms] part of a much larger picture in Genesis which centres around a unique line of descendants. The book of Genesis not only intimates that this lineage will eventually give rise to a royal dynasty, but also anticipates that a future member of this line will conquer his enemies and mediate God’s blessing to the nations of the earth.68
Again, by the nature of this account (and of the hope progressively revealed within Genesis), the author of Genesis offers clear contextual allusions that Abraham’s promise is intrinsically related to the promise of 3:15. As such, God offers Abraham the hope of a coming “seed” who will bring the world back to its Genesis 1–2 state.
6.2. Universal Blessing
It is necessary to consider the curses of Genesis 3:14–19 in light of the blessings promised to Abraham. Hamilton presents the case that the curses of Genesis 3 “are matched point for point in the blessing of Abraham.”69 He develops this assertion in part from Fishbane, who states, “It cannot fail to strike one that these three blessings [land, seed, and earthly blessing] are, in fact, a typological reversal of the primordial curses in Eden.”70 In essence, Hamilton argues that the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant is a promise to reverse the curse. As such, the covenant given to Abraham must be understood as just that: the amplification and development of the first promise—the protoevangelium of 3:15—as the covenant is intrinsically designed to undo the curses of 3:14–19. For example, Hamilton cites seed conflict (3:15) as being undone when all the families of the earth are blessed (12:3; 22:18; 26:4); gender conflict (3:16) as being undone when barren Sarah has a “seed” to make a great nation (11:30; 12:2; 17:16); and land conflict (3:17–19) as being undone when God promises to Abraham’s “seed,” “I will give this land” (12:1–2, 7).71 In light of these promises, Abraham receives the hope that the fallen and sinful world will one day be corrected through the Lord’s provision.72
Therefore, just as the hope offered to Adam and Eve could be summarized in God’s promise to accomplish three tasks—(1) destroy evil; (2) restore creation; and (3) allow God to dwell with his people—so too can the hope offered to Abraham be summarized in the same three tasks. The Lord promised to Abraham that he would: (1) destroy evil (defeat the serpent through the “seed” of Abraham—22:17b–18); (2) restore creation (bring blessing to all nations—12:3; 22:18); and (3) allow God to dwell with his people (dwelling with them forever—17:8). The same hope offered to Adam and Eve was the same hope offered to Abraham.73
Additionally, even the concept of “universal blessing” or “blessing to all nations” (12:3; 22:17–18) alludes to prior revelation—Genesis 1:28. Beale develops this point in depth: just as God commissioned Adam and Eve prior to the fall to fulfill his mandate of universal dominion by spreading his fame to the far reaches of the world (1:28), God likewise commissions Abraham to accomplish the same task (12:3; 22:17–18).74 Beale writes,
Recall that the commission of Gen. 1:26–28 involves the following elements, especially as summarized in 1:28: (1) “God blessed them”; (2) “be fruitful and multiply”; (3) “fill the earth”; (4) “subdue” the “earth”; (5) “rule over ... all the earth.” The commission is repeated to ... Abraham: “I will greatly  bless you, and I will greatly  multiply your seed ...; and [3+4] your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies [=“subdue and rule”]. In your seed  all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 22:17–18). God placed Adam in a garden, and he promised Abraham a fertile land. God expresses the universal scope of the commission by underscoring that the goal is to “bless” “all the nations of the earth.”75
As such, the pointed grammatical and contextual allusions to Adam and Eve’s commission (which was also given to Noah in similar form [9:1, 7])76 undoubtedly serves to connect the promise of 3:15 with the promise of 22:17–18. This allusion reinforces the anticipatory hope and expectation related to Abraham’s genealogical line. Furthermore, this allusion would have made it clear that for the commission of Genesis 1:28 to be fulfilled (a commission given prior to the fall), the curse must first be undone (as foretold in 3:15). Therefore, in light of this grammatical connection, God reminds Abraham that 3:15 is the solution whereby all nations of the world can truly experience God’s blessing. In light of the clear connections between Abraham’s promises and 3:15,77 it is apparent that Abraham was given a very unique privilege.78 He was given the promise that through him would come the long-awaited “seed” who would crush the head of the evil one and bring about the restoration of creation. Ultimately, through Abraham’s radical faith in God’s promise, the anticipatory hope and eschatological nature of Genesis 3:15 become pointedly evident.
Through examining the future oriented hope found in Genesis, one cannot help but be amazed at the consistency of God’s Word. In view of the diverse OT terms related to Jesus’s position as “Christ,” it seems best to use the term “anticipatory” as the category into which to group all promises pertaining to this messianic and eschatological hope. While Genesis uses neither the noun מָשִׁיחַ nor the verb מָשַׁח to refer to this coming individual, due to the anticipatory hope found within, Genesis certainly presents the hope of a future “seed” (זֶ֫רַע) who will destroy evil and bring the world back to the Genesis 1–2 state. Just as God promised Adam and Eve, God likewise promised Abraham that his “seed” will: (1) destroy evil (defeat the serpent through the “seed” of Abraham—22:17b–18); (2) restore creation (bring blessing to all nations—12:3; 22:18); and (3) allow God to dwell with his people (dwelling with them forever—17:8). Therefore, in view of the anticipatory nature of the first promise of the Bible as well as the record of how the patriarchs understood this promise, one cannot help but appreciate Genesis 3:15 as the protoevangelium. As the first book of the Bible, Genesis stands as the unique book of beginnings; not only the beginning of humanity, but also the beginning of God’s restorative work.