Gen 3:15: The First Promise of the Skull-Crusher
Jesus said that the Old Testament pertained to him (see Luke 24:27,44; 1:45, 5:46; 1 Peter 1:10-12; and all of Hebrews!) Yet, it is not easy spotting him. Where do we start? My conviction is that we should start in the same place the narrative of the bible starts: in the Garden of Eden.
Gen 1-2: The stage for the drama
As we saw last week in Stephen’s article, Adam and Eve enjoyed a pristine relationship with creation, each other, and God in the Garden of Eden. The garden represents the ideal situation: a perfect relationship with God. Man was charged with multiplying and exercising dominion over the whole earth with the garden as home base. God regularly visited Adam and Eve. The pair carried out their work in the lush garden with all provisions met. God simply commanded that they not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. All was Tov (Good).
Enter the antagonist: the serpent. In Genesis 3:1, we are told that the serpent was more “crafty” or “clever” than any other animal. But this is no ordinary serpent—something or someone else is at play. Later, Scriptures reveal that someone as Satan himself. Satan chose to use an animal, knowing that this animal is part of the creation that man was commanded to have dominion over.
Having occupied the serpent, Satan stalks the couple and corners them near the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and talks to them. He questions God’s motives for withholding the fruit from the tree and convinces Eve that a little bite will not kill her and her husband. The couple listens and entertains the advantages of eating the fruit. They should have stopped listening to the snake once it questioned the words of the Creator. They were supposed to be exercising rule over the earth! They should have slapped that snake! But they gave in to temptation and ate from the tree.
The couple immediately knew that they had sinned and tried to hide. God came into the garden seeking His co-rulers, and after questioning them about the situation and it being revealed that they ate from the tree, God exercised His dominion and promptly cursed each party involved. However, in the midst of cursing the serpent in Genesis 3:15, God prophesies of a future “seed of the woman” who will exercise dominion and kill the serpent. The text reads (my literal translation from Hebrew):
I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed
He, himself will crush your head and
You, yourself will crush his heel.
This text has historically been called the “protoevangelium” or “first gospel”—this is the first announcement of the good news of a coming messiah who will fix what we have broken. Historically there are four views on how to interpret Genesis 3:15.
Four Views of Genesis 3:15
A couple of questions that typically drive the debate about this passage are: How would the first hearers/readers have understood this passage? And who is the seed of the woman and the serpent? There are four ways people have interpreted this text.
- The naturalistic view: This interpretation understands the seed of the serpent to be actual snakes and the seed of the woman as humans. Since there is enmity between the two species, then “he” that crushes the snake is seen to be collective humanity. This text describes why humans hate snakes and want to kill them. This view is hard to prove across the canon and lacks sustainability on many levels.
- The symbolic view: This interpretation views the seed of the serpent as the symbol of evil and the seed of the woman as the symbol of good. While there is an element of truth in that both seeds are represented in this fashion in the Bible, this is not all that Genesis 3:15 is saying. In this interpretation, the enmity is seen as a battle of good versus evil.
- Sensus Plenior: Meaning “fuller sense”, this is kind of a subview of the first two views. The interpreter sees two meanings of the text: one to the original audience and another to post-Christ readers and hearers. So while the audience in the OT would have interpreted this text as either naturalistic or symbolic, the audience after Christ would have interpreted this text as pertaining to the Messiah. This seems to suggest then that the authors of Scripture had different goals in mind when writing God’s Word and that one author had no clue it was actually about the Messiah. Did Moses actually think he was just writing about snakes, and then the NT authors were given the “fuller-sense?” Jesus’ understanding of the content of Moses’ writing contradicts this view when He said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46).
- The Messianic view. This interpretation sees the seed of the serpent as Satan and the seed of the woman as the Messiah. I think this view is the best and has sustainable evidence syntactically, literarily, and canonically. Let’s examine this evidence together.
One of the key issues for this passage is the Hebrew word זָרַע Zera (seed). Zera never occurs in a plural form in the Old Testament. In contexts where the seed/offspring should be translated as plural, then plural nouns or pronouns will accompany it. The same is true of singular interpretations as well; context always determines its use. In Genesis 3:15, Moses uses singular nouns and pronouns. Not only that, Moses emphasizes the “he” with an independent pronoun. This pronoun is “extra”—it’s there for emphasis. In Hebrew, the subject of a sentence is connected to either the noun or the verb, very similar to Spanish. So just to illustrate, the phrase “he will crush” in Hebrew would look like “willcrushhe.” However, there are independent pronouns in Hebrew, which an author can use for emphasis.
That is actually what is happening here in Genesis 3:15. Notice in my translation above that in 3:15b I have included “himself” and “yourself.” Moses inserted two independent pronouns to grab our attention and to focus the promise on a single individual. A single offspring from the woman will come to crush the serpent, reverse the curse, and restore the broken fellowship between God and man. The syntactical evidence encourages the messianic view of Genesis 3:15. But is this how the rest of the Bible views it?
Literary Evidence in Genesis
Eve recognizes that the birth of Cain is significant and that he might be the promised seed. But Cain proves to be of the Seed of the Serpent by killing Abel. This reflects the conflict between the two seeds. Seth carries on the promised Godly line or the Messianic hope.
In one of the more “boring” parts of Scripture—genealogies—is hidden a crucial text that reveals what people were thinking post-Genesis 3:15. In verse 29, Lamech’s hope is that the birth of his son—Noah—will be the promise fulfilled: Noah means “comfort” or “rest”. Lamech says, “out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” This a direct literary connection to the curse section in Genesis 3. Notice that Lamech is thinking that his son—an individual—could be the one who will make things right. While Noah is not the Skull-Crusher, he is used by God to secure the promise.
The Abrahamic Covenant bursts with messianic expectation. Abraham is promised three things: offspring, land, and to be a blessing to all the nations. How could a future “seed” be a blessing to ALL nations? This messianic hope is passed on to Isaac and Jacob. There are occasions when Abraham is given a hint at the messiah’s future. In Genesis 22:17-18—the climax of Abraham’s story, it’s prophesied that the seed of Abraham will rule their enemies, which is reflected also in Psalm 72:9, 17. As the story progresses we are able to assemble more of the puzzle about the identity of the Messiah.
When Jacob is dying, he calls his sons to himself so that he can bless them. In doing so he also prophesies something concerning each son. Judah is told “the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet until he comes to whom it belongs.” So according to this the Messiah will not only be Jewish but will also be a king. Numbers 22-24 develop this a little more. Deuteronomy 18:15 says that one day the Lord will raise up a prophet like Moses from among the Jewish people. Moses was a very special prophet. He rescued an entire nation, he led them, he fed them, he interceded for them, he inaugurated the priesthood, and only he spoke to God “face-to-face”(see Numbers 12:6-8). In Deuteronomy 34:10-12, we are told that
And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
By the time the end of Deuteronomy was written, which I think was in Ezra and Nehemiah’s time, the prophet like Moses had not yet come. The testimony of the Torah is that the Skull-Crushing seed of the woman is a Jewish king who will be a second Moses. As we traverse the rest of the OT, these Messianic promises become more colorful along the way. But that journey will have to wait for another time.
Finally and briefly here is some evidence from across the canon. The bookends of the Bible are Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 20-22. The end mirrors the beginning. Here we learn the explicit identity of the serpent and see his demise.
In Hebrews 2:14-17 the author regales us with details of how Jesus regained dominion from Satan by entering into death’s domain by dying—and then kicks the gates open from the inside. In Galatians 3:16 Paul argues that the promises of Abraham were given to a single offspring. And in Romans 16:20 Paul says that the church will crush Satan underfoot, which is possible because of Christ being the head.
The syntactical evidence leans toward interpreting the seed of the woman as a single human being who will crush the head of the serpent. The literary evidence suggests that the original audience understood Genesis 3:15 as a human who would restore the broken earth. As the story progresses, the identity of this human is further revealed as the promised Jewish king, who will rule the world with an iron scepter and crush the head of Satan that ancient serpent. He is also the Prophet like Moses, who will lead his people in a second exodus to the promised New Heavens and New Earth. The canonical evidence supports the view that Jesus the Messiah fulfills the prophecy of Genesis 3:15.
Mark Centers is a guest contributor for CityLight, and is currently finishing an MDiv concentrating in biblical languages. He loves Jesus the Messiah and is passionate about the OT and how the NT uses it. In his opinion, his wife Sarah is the coolest person ever. Additionally, he has four kids who he adores, and everyone in the family loves the Marvel cinematic universe.