Sunday, September 30, 2012

The "Protoevangelium"

Genesis 3:14-15, particularly v15, are referred to in Evangelical and protestant theology as the "protoevangelium", or "first gospel".
The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
The "offspring" referred to in v15 is surely Jesus, who, though struck down by the power of Satan, will ultimately rise and destroy him forever! This meaning is celebrated every time the passage comes up in my church (which is very often; we do an overview of creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration every few months on average that always touches on Genesis 1-3); it is commonplace in commentaries dating back to Martin Luther. One commentary I read even talks about how "seed", as some translations render "offspring", is a hint to the virgin birth of Jesus. It's a beautiful idea; even as He is condemning the mother and father of humanity for the first sin, God gives them a preview of His plan for redeeming their descendants through His son.

While everything this interpretation asserts the passage says is certainly true, every time it is brought up my inner cynic can't help but detect eisegesis, reading a desired meaning into a text rather than reading the meaning out of it. Was anyone's first impression on reading Genesis 3:15 really "it's talking about Jesus!"?

I see three possible interpretations for v14-15:
  1. The literal interpretation: God is talking to the snake as a snake, not as Satan, and promising enmity between snakes and people, as fulfilled in Indiana Jones, Snakes on a Plane, and many other examples.
  2. A partially metaphorical intepretation: Satan's "offspring" are the "children of the devil" mentioned in 1 John 1:30 and John 8:44, Eve's "offspring" are simply humankind; the "enmity" is referring to Satan's antagonizing and destroying of humanity.
  3. The prevalent, entirely metaphorical, "protoevangelium" interpretation: Eve's "offspring" is Jesus, and the last part is a promise of His redemption of humanity and final destruction of Satan.
A few observations to help us decide which of these is most likely:

The same word (zera) is used to refer to Satan's and Eve's "offspring", or "seed". Therefore, it seems more natural to also interpret the second "offspring" in the same way as the first, since it is used in the same context with the same word as the first. This means that both must be plural, or both must be singular. Though the "he" used in the last part of v15 might suggest that they are to be taken as singular, suggesting some singular, representative "offspring" of Satan in opposition to Jesus raises far more questions than it answers and originates many rabbit-trails off into parts of Revelation talking about various figures. I'd rather not get into that. If we take "offspring" as being plural, the "he" might simply refer to an unnamed, representative descendant of Eve, as in Genesis 24:60.

Also, the same word (shuwph) is used to describe what Satan and the seed of the woman will do to each other. I can't see any justification, then, for translating one use of it as "bruise" or "strike" and the other as "crush" as the NIV does. It is translated as "crush" in Job 9:17, but the point is that both uses of the word here, in the same context, should be interpreted the same. This implication of a two-sided, give-and-take battle is problematic for the second and third interpretations. Certainly there is nothing people can do to harm Satan, and at the same time no one argues that the struggle between Jesus and Satan will be evenly matched.

The only hope for the protoevangelium interpretation lies in the fact that whatever Satan and Jesus do to each other, Satan does to Jesus' heel while Jesus does it to Satan's head, which is obviously more important. At the very least, this seems to rule out the second interpretation. But left unanswered is the question: who are Satan's offspring, or seed, with whom Jesus will have enmity? Two possibilities:
  1. The fallen angels who sinned and allied themselves with Satan. But these angels are/were of equal status to Satan, and as far as familial analogies are concerned, Satan is much more like their eldest brother than their father.
  2. People who reject God and follow Satan, willingly or unknowingly. Jesus says that the Pharisees are of "[their] father the devil" (John 8:44); Paul calls Elymas the magician a "son of the devil" (Acts 13:10), and indeed John says that whoever does not practice righteousness or love his brother (i.e. an unrepentant sinner) is not a child of God but of the devil. (1 John 3:10) So this interpretation seems more likely, except for saying that God is predicting enmity between Jesus and these offspring. But Jesus did not come into the world to condemn, judge, or destroy sinners (John 3:17), which God was perfectly capable of doing without sending Him, but to save them. Talking about God putting enmity between Jesus and the very people He came to save is extremely counterproductive to the gospel.
So, even if you allow Eve's "seed" to be singular and Satan's to be plural, this line of interpretation makes no sense and raises contradictions. And so the most likely interpretation of Genesis 3:15 is the first one: God is cursing the snake as a snake, not as Satan in disguise. Taken literally, all the above interpretive problems instantly vanish and the language of enmity and striking makes perfect sense. We are simply left with the question: Why is God punishing the snake (and its descendants) if Satan was simply acting through it?

I won't try to get into the unknowable details of how God's justice applies to non-human creatures. I am reminded of Jesus teaching in Luke 17:1: "Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!" Perhaps to demonstrate how seriously He takes sin, God curses the snake for its mere involvement in bringing sin into His creation, even as a mere agent of Satan. At any rate, this interpretation certainly has the least wrong with it and I feel the best about it. So, next time you find yourself trying to escape or kill a snake (or watching Indy do so), you can say to yourself: "That's a sin thing."

Addendum: I have realized there are two other possible ways to make the protoevangelium interpretation work: Satan's "seed" could simply be sin itself, though this seems a strange way to use "seed" when it (and its other usage in the same verse) normally refers to people; alternately, the enmity between Jesus and sinners could be purely one-sided. But based on the immediate context the literal interpretation still seems to be favored, with Jesus' happening to mostly fulfill this prediction best considered to be a cool "easter egg" orchestrated by God. At the very least, it is infeasible that this verse is primarily "about" Jesus. You have to ask yourself, what would it have meant to the people receiving it?

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