Joseph Fitzmyer writes regarding Genesis 3:15:
“Moreover, this verse does not mention משיח [Messiah], or even have a hidden reference to a coming Messiah, despite the later interpretations often given to it in both the Jewish and Christian tradition” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The One Who Is to Come [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], 28).
The language and imagery of Genesis 3:15 is reused all across the Old Testament and into the New. Further, the blessings of Genesis 12:1-3 are the direct answer to the curses of Genesis 3:14-19, and the Balaam oracles in Numbers 22-24 connect Genesis 3:15 to Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 49:8-12, so that we see that within the Pentateuch itself Genesis 3:15 exercises a profound influence on the gathering lines of promise. This is picked up in the Prophets and the Writings and rightly understood by, among others, the Apostle Paul, who explains that the blessing of Abraham has come to the Gentiles in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:14, cf. 3:16).
For more detail, see these two essays:
“The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10.2 (2006), 30–54.
“The Seed of the Woman and the Blessing of Abraham,” Tyndale Bulletin 58.2 (2007), 253–73.
I am really having a hard time seeing a messianic interpretation unless you are taking a sensus plenior interpretation as it relates to all subsequent revelation. It seems that many translations have missed the point on a couple issues in particular (i.e. the fact that crush and bruise are the same word). However, I think that given my interest in both contextual and canonical exegesis, I cannot slap a protoevangelium label on this text given the context, but in the canon it seems welcomed and cherished. I think T. Desmond Alexander is helpful by stating that v.15, “anticipates the creation of a royal line through which the terrible consequences of the disobedience of the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden will be reversed.” (Special emphasis on the “anticipates”). But it is merely anticipated not concretely seen in the text, so if you start from Gen.1 and read to Gen. 3 there is no way you are going to get a messianic understanding, unless you already have that lens made up by previous presuppositions, but one will not get that by simply reading Gen.1.1-3.15. That’s why I side with Fitzmeyer in some regards, but I think we just need to differentiate between what is in Genesis 3.15 and what is in the canonical context.
I sincerely don’t mean to sound flippant, but Gen 3:14-19 specifically discusses snakes, why they crawl on their bellies and have no legs, why so many people have an innate fear of them, etc. The story of the expulsion from the garden addresses man’s relationship to the natural enviroment and why survival in the ancient near east was so difficult. Everything in the “curse” addresses the physical conditions that exist in a harsh desert environment. It also provides an explanation of why death happens, but there clearly is no idea expressed that would imply that death leads to hell (or, in this passage, and many other Torah passages, even to heaven). Fitzmyer’s statement concerning Gen 3:15 seems to accurately reflect what the text states. There is no message of messiah or of a coming messiah in this narrative.
Thank you for this. It’s encouraging to see someone else who holds this view.
I agree with Jim!
I recommend the articles Jim linked above. 🙂
1. Pace RD and Dodson, It would be quite artificial to construe Gen 3:15 in isolation to the Pentateuch generally. On a conservative view of unitary authorship, as well as a liberal view of redacted composite authorship, the Pentateuch is a literary unit. Genesis inaugurates a number of seminal (pardon the pun) theological motifs, foreshadowing their subsequent recurrence and elaboration in the remainder of the Pentateuch. Therefore, the audience is supposed to read the Pentateuch backwards as well as forwards. We’re expected to recognize later developments in the Pentateuch narrative in continuity with these inceptive motifs, in a dynamic, progressive pattern of promise and fulfillment. Moreover, even Deuteronomy leaves many things hanging and awaiting further elaboration and realization.
Genesis has an open-textured, forward-leaning perspective. The viewpoint of the Pentateuchal narrative is both prospective and retrospective.
2. As for “snakes”:
i) Walton, in his commentary, argues that the cursing of the “snake” is not a just-so story about how snakes lost their legs, but a typical ANE imprecation directed at a venomous snake in a striking position.
ii) In addition, the ANE was rife with ophiomancy and ophiolatry. “Snakes” had cultural connotations above and beyond venomous reptiles. Take Pharaoh’s uraeus, which was the emblem of his “divine” authority and power. That occultic background figures in the Mosaic confrontation with Pharaoh and his court sorcerers. Same thing with the fiery/bronze serpent narrative in Numbers.
iii) Let’s also remember that the Pentateuch is full of angelophanies. Numinous beings.
It’s naïve to read Gen 3 without considering these subtextual and intertextual connections and connotations.
“The story of the expulsion from the garden addresses man’s relationship to the natural enviroment and why survival in the ancient near east was so difficult.”
That one-dimensional reading is demonstrably false. As a number of scholars have documented, Gen 1-2 not only records the origin of physical space and time, but the origin of sacred space and time. The narrative embeds theological motifs which prefigure the Sabbath and the tabernacle–so that physical space and time encode sacred space and time.
As I said before, it’s a methodological error to interpret Gen 1-3 atomistically. Verses and passages in Gen 1-3 should be construed diachronically, with a view to the narrative arc of the Pentateuch–and beyond, where the abrupt denouement of the Pentateuch itself points beyond itself to an as-of-yet unrealized expectation.
“Moreover, this [Gen 3:15] verse does not mention משיח [Messiah], or even have a hidden reference to a coming Messiah…”
The second clause would be a valid objection if true. However, the first clause is just a straw man. “Messiah” is merely a catch-all label for an elaborate theological construct which draws together many different strands of OT expectation. That technical term needn’t be used for a Messianic theme to be present. And we wouldn’t expect any single verse to encapsulate the whole complex of Messianic themes which define the idea. Fitzmyer is committing the word-concept fallacy.
@DrJimHamilton what year do you think the idea of a messiah began?
My understanding is that the idea of the messiah was not developed until many years AFTER the writing of Genesis. So I don’t understand your essay.
It would be like asking what did George Washing think about the flying of a plane into the World Trade Center? Since that event did not occur till AFTER Washington, he would not have an opinion on it.
My interest is the study of early Christianity, especially it’s roots on the revolt of the Maccabees, and the techniques of Philo of Alexandria. As well as the first hundred or so years of formation and development.
I am always happy to meet others that are also interested in any of those topics, and welcome contact.
I agree with previous comments from Steve Hays,
Thanks for the reply but Steve’s comments don’t actually go to my question. I was asking you what year do you think the idea of a messiah in Judaism actually began?
So when are you teaching Messiah in e OT again? I’m waiting…
Lord willing, I’m on Sabbatical in the Spring of 2011, so the best option might be the one week course on Daniel that I’m teaching in Jan of 2011,
I am not presuming to answer for Dr. Hamilton, but will offer my two cents. The entire collection of Christian beliefs was revealed over time – not only “messiah”, but every single concept of Christian faith came not instantly, but in progressive revelation. The belief that is necessarily entailed in Hamilton’s position is the Christian doctrine of Scripture – that God has revealed himself to us in his written and living word. Because God is truth and unity, we can be sure that the Scriptures present a true and unified message. This includes seminal ideas that are only fleshed out later. I would also add that Genesis is part of a larger book (Pentateuch) that was most likely written after the events recorded in it, which based upon the language of Deuteronomy indicates that a fairly nuanced conception of Messiah (the concept, if not the term) was already in play. There are other things we could address, like the difference between idea and the word-marker used to encapsulate the idea (for example, John’s use of the term “logos” to capture the incarnation), as well as various Bible construction theories and how they might influence the discussion (i.e. Wellhausen, although I think it is logically demonstrable that such theories are irrelevant in the context of Christian doctrine of Scripture).
I am a historian, not a supernaturalist, so I was more looking for a year, but thanks for the answer. I study the history of early christianity, mostly the first hundred years or so. And back as far as it’s inspiration, or antecedents like the revolt of the Maccabees. I welcome talking to others that are also interested in that either on the webulite.com chat of by email ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
Although as I said, I am a historian, and don’t really get into the supernaturalism of the topic.
Leave a comment