The Messianic Expectation of Genesis 4:1 (Part 2)

Exegetical History of Gen. 3:15

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki (1040-1105) has had a detrimental influence to the messianic understanding of Gen. 3:15. Preceding Rashi (the common acronym referring to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki) Christianity undisputedly interpreted Gen. 3:15 as the protoevangelium. Indeed, the Midrash and even David Kimchi recognized Gen. 3:15 as the first messianic prophecy in the OT.[1] Rashi, however, understood Gen. 3:15 naturalistically referring to the hostility between humanity and snakes. From his stirring, the debate ensued with many prominent Christians newly interpreting the text in similar naturalistic explanations. Among these were the reformer John Calvin, and modern scholar, John Walton.[2] Hamilton notes that more conservative writers opt for the messianic interpretation of Gen. 3:15, while the more critical commentators suggest that the messianic view has been more a product of eisegesis.

The classic protoevangelium interpretation of Gen. 3:15 has nonetheless survived long and resilient debate.  Rydelnik observes four main interpretations of the text: the naturalistic view, the symbolic view, the sensus plenior view, and the messianic view. The three interpretations prior to the messianic view all seek to reformulate and disregard the illustrated messianic figure of Gen. 3:15 with complex syntactical obscurities and isolated exegesis.

The naturalistic view hinges on one’s rendering of זַרְעֲ (zera, seed) as collective, not singular, but this is “simply incorrect” in regards to lexical analysis.[3] The symbolic view, holding the same interpretation of ‘seed’ in the collective sense, thus facing similar lexical inconsistencies, insinuates issues for the messianic view based on the equality of the blows expressed and the ‘deadly’ description of the serpent. These additional arguments, however, do not damage the messianic view in the slightest. Matthews states, that it is not the force of the blow, but rather “the location of the blow distinguishes the severity and success of the attack.”[4] Rydelnik argues, “An acceptable messianic view would hold that both blows are deadly – indicating that the Messiah will indeed die and through His death have victory over the serpent.”[5] Moreover, the symbolic view often praises the connection of naturalistic imagery and meaning as to promote its accuracy. “Continuing the imagery of the snake, the strike at the human heel is appropriate for a serpent since it slithers along the ground, while the human foot stomps the head of the vile creature.”[6] Nonetheless, since the imagery is an appropriate one, it does not resolve the illustration as a mere naturalistic one. It is simply a profound appropriation to the messianic interpretation of the text. Sensus plenior adopts the same lexical strategy as the naturalistic view and holds that the collective sense of ‘seed’ necessitates the original intent to be non-messianic. Yet, those who adhere to a sensus plenior view admit the possibility of a later messianic correspondence with the progressive revelation of history. Wenham states:

While a messianic interpretation may be justified in the light of subsequent revelation, a sensus plenior, 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 powers of evil.[7]

Nonetheless, being that the naturalistic view provides no formidable compulsion to dismiss original messianic intention, sensus plenior needlessly accommodates mistaken scholarship.

The messianic view claims, “Gen. 3:15 ultimately predicts the coming of a future individual (a ‘seed’) who will have victory over the serpent through his own death.”[8] Ancient interpretations highly favor such messianic interpretations for Gen. 3:15. Rydelnik states, “This messianic reading of Gen. 3:15 is evident in the Septuagint and the rabbinic literature of the Targumim Pseudo-Jonathan, Neofiti, Onqelos and the Midrash Genesis Rabbah 23:5.”[9] Additionally, the earliest attestation for the messianic view is found in the early church fathers Justin (ca. 160 CE) and Irenaeus (ca. 180 CE).[10] It is no moot point “that this text was understood by the Jewish community to point to the Messiah almost three hundred years before Jesus was born.”[11]

The few scholars who have held a messianic interpretation of Gen. 3:15 adequately argue through contextual correspondence, syntactical clarification, ancient interpretations, and innerbiblical exposition. It is this holistic examination of Gen. 3:15 within its context that provides the best evidence for messianic intention by Moses and the OT writers. “It is no surprise that the very first messianic prophecy should occur within the context of the fall.”[12] The entrance of sin in the world necessitated a means of redemption, and the messiah took the form of that salvation. Therefore, understanding the messianism of the protoevangelium, one can examine whether the messianic depiction of Gen. 3:15 promotes the messiah as a God-Man.

[1] The Midrash states, “Eve had respect to that seed which is coming from another place. And who is this? This is the King Messiah.” Kimchi states, “Messiah, the Son of David, who shall wound Satan, who is the head, the King and Prince of the house of the wicked.” Both are cited in Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic? (Nashville, TN.: B&H Academic, 2010), 123.

[2] J. H. Walton, Genesis, New International Version Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 233; John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. J. King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 1:167.

[3] Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope, 132. “The word can also be used with an individual meaning as well,” seen in Gen 4:25.

[4] Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11, The New American Commentary (Nashville, Tenn.: Holman Reference, 1996), 245.

[5] Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope, 133.

[6] Mathews, Genesis 1-11, 245.

[7] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, vol. 1 of Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 81.

 [8] Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope, 134.

[9] Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope, 137. See R. A. Martin’s analysis of the LXX in Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 40. “The LXX seems to have had a messianic understanding of the verse, for, as has been pointed out, the independent personal pronoun hu occurs more than one hundred times, but this is the only one that the LXX translates literally with autos, although the Greek idiom would require the neuter.” Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, New International Commentary On the Old Testament Series (Nashville, Tenn.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 199.

[10] For an extensive list of Messianic view supporters throughout history, see Herbert W. Bateman IV, Darrell L. Bock, and Gordon H. Johnston, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2011), 471.

[11] Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 40.

[12] Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Messianic Christology (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1998), 14.


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