Aug 28, 2006

A Dubious Messianic text in Genesis 3?

Finally someone said it. It's about Genesis 3:15 and the "Serpent Crusher" text. I've long heard that this is one of the first Messianic predictions in the OT. To be honest, however, I've always somewhat doubted it, because I could never find any other textual evidence or contextual evidence that supported this proposition.

Take a look at this recent article on Beginning with Moses by Simon Finders down in Sydney, the Anglican Evangelical stronghold. He's got a good briefing on preaching Genesis 3. Here's an exerpt.

After discussing how to read Genesis 3 in the context of the whole Bible (aka Biblical Theology) which (1) exposes the wickedness of the human heart, and (2) exalts the work of Christ...
Excursus: A False “Biblical Theology” Trail?

Whilst there is no doubt that Genesis 3 points in both these directions, I have long been intrigued by the way in which Biblical Theologians have articulated the latter. It is one thing to say that Genesis 3 exalts the work of Christ. But it is another thing altogether to show exactly how Christ’s work is honoured by our Biblical Theological understanding of Genesis 3. Moreover, in my experience there is a very popular and common Biblical Theological step taken from Genesis 3 that I’m simply not convinced of.

I’m referring to the idea (first articulated by Luther I believe) that Genesis 3:15 is the first explicit statement of Messianic expectation in the Old Testament. From that moment on, so people say, the narrative invites us to await the appearance of the Serpent Crusher- the one who will crush Satan under his feet and thus reverse the effects of the fall. This verse, cast as it is in the chilling context of God’s condemnation of all humanity, offers humanity some hope. For here we see the Christ. As Christian readers of the Old Testament (and especially as well-trained Biblical Theologians) we are taught to see in this verse what we see at every turn in the Old Testament narrative- that God plans to send his Anointed One to deliver humanity from themselves. Jesus is the Serpent Crusher of Genesis 3:15. Or so the story goes . . .

Up to a point, I agree with that interpretation of the verse. Verse 15 certainly jumps out of the otherwise bleak picture of Genesis 3 and shines its hopeful ray of future anticipation upon the reader. I think the narrative does invite us to expect the Serpent Crusher (or Crushers?) to come and to put right that which has been messed up by human sin. But my question is about whether or not this is to be seen as a Messianic expectation. Is this really a foreshadowing of our Saviour Jesus? Certainly as we read on in Genesis we are disappointed to discover that none of the immediate descendants of Eve are “crushing the serpent”- bringing evil to an end. We even reach the end of Genesis feeling frustrated by the continuing spiral of sinfulness which has yet to be reversed. We are left asking the question, ‘Who will crush the serpent’s head?’, ‘When will the effects of the fall be reversed?’, ‘When will we see this promised deliverance?’

I presume that if Biblical Theology has taught us anything, we will find ourselves turning to the New Testament’s articulation of the gospel for our answers. And surely one of our sacrosanct principles of Biblical Theological interpretation (and rightly so) is that we should inquire of the inspired Apostles to see what they make of this part of the Old Testament? So what does the New Testament say about Genesis 3:15?

One of the interesting things about that question is that there is only one place anywhere else in the Bible where deliberate reference is clearly made to Genesis 3:15 (I’m not convinced that either Psalm 110 or Galatians 3 have Genesis 3 in mind). That in itself is unusual in my opinion if Genesis 3:15 is really the fundamental building-block of Messianic expectation that people say it is. Why don’t the Old Testament prophets remind us of the coming Messiah in those terms? Why doesn’t Jesus ever speak of himself as the Serpent Crusher? Why is the New Testament strangely quiet when it comes to unpacking the work of Christ with respect to Genesis 3:15?

Nevertheless, we are not left in the dark to sketch the trajectories of Genesis 3:15 into the New Covenant by ourselves. The Apostle Paul offers us at least one inspired (in the theological sense of the word) thought. I’m speaking of course of Romans 16:20. At the conclusion of his epistle, Paul encourages the Roman Christians with these words: ‘And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet’.

What do we learn, then, about how Paul would answer the questions raised for us by Genesis 3:15 and the unfolding plot of the Biblical narrative between Genesis and Romans? (a) Who is the Serpent Crusher? And, (b) When will the serpent be crushed?

Unless I’m very much mistaken, Paul’s answers seem to be- (a) the Roman Christians, and (b) ‘soon’. It appears to me that Paul’s answer to the “who” question interprets Genesis 3:15 as pointing not to a singular fulfilment in a messianic man, but to a plural (or corporate) fulfilment in the followers of the Messiah. It also seems to me that Paul’s answer to the “when” question points to an eschatological moment the world is yet to see.

As I read Romans 16:20, the Spirit casts my mind back to Genesis 3 and encourages me that I myself, as one of God’s New Covenant people, am a Serpent Crusher. I am a part of that great company of Jesus’ followers who will one day enjoy the overthrow of the curse as I dance on Satan’s head. But the Spirit also cautions me not to strap on my dancing shoes just yet. I’m not a Serpent Crusher right now. However, I will be ‘soon’, says Paul, and so I rejoice in that beautiful ‘soon’ of eschatological anticipation so common to the New Testament’s call for patience and endurance.

Of course, when I dance on Satan’s head and the curse is reversed it will be for no other reason than that my Lord Jesus defeated and disarmed Satan in his death and resurrection (Colossians 2:13-15, Hebrews 2:14-15). In that more muted sense, Jesus is anticipated in Genesis 3:15. But as far as Paul is concerned, Genesis 3:15 is not a prediction about Jesus and it’s not a prediction about when Jesus came the first time. It’s a prediction about the very end of time when God will finally and perfectly make everything right, when the effects of the curse will no longer be felt, and when God’s own people will enjoy the spoils of Christ’s victory themselves.

This is my question: Is it possible that the populist Christological interpretation of Genesis 3:15 has seen people exalt their debt to Luther and the Biblical Theological meta-narrative over and above sensible exegesis and sound hermeneutical principles?

I’m well aware that I’m taking a shot at a pretty “sacred cow”. But it’s important that we ask: Have we got it wrong? Should we speak of a “Serpent-Crusher” at all? Or should we prefer to speak of ourselves as “Serpent Crushers” even whilst we acknowledge our debt to Christ in making us one of that number?

In my sermon on Genesis 3 I deliberately resisted the lure of heading down this popular Biblical Theological track. I tried instead to be guided by the emphases of Genesis 3 and the New Testament in how I concluded and applied the passage.

11 comments:

Spooh said...

I would have to say that I'm not entirely comfortable with Simon's conclusions for the following reasons:

1. The line of thinking that he debunks did not begin with Luther but was infact present in rabbinic teaching from a very early stage - and in terms of Christian theology it was also present Roman Catholic teaching prior to Luther.

2. The passage in Gen 3:15 alternates between a one on one conflict between a seed of Eve and Satan and also the seed (plural) of Eve and the seed (plural of the devil) hence we have the godly line continuing through Seth and the ungodly line of Cain - and so Simon's approach to Rom 16 remains intact. But surely Gen 3:15 suggests more than the ongoing conflict between the the offspring of Eve and the offspring of the Devil? I'm at logger heads with Simon over the reference to Gal (I presume chapter 3:19ff.), I think that passage clearly identifies Christ as the seed (singular) of Eve and I don't see it a stretch to assume that its the same seed (singular) mentioned in Gen 3:15.

On the whole though I think its a great briefing - and I think the clash between the godly offspring and the offspring of Satan is often downplayed and needs to be brought to the fore which Simon helpfully does for us - but I'm afraid I'm not going to go all the way with him just yet.

Spooh said...

I would have to say that I'm not entirely comfortable with Simon's conclusions for the following reasons:

1. The line of thinking that he debunks did not begin with Luther but was infact present in rabbinic teaching from a very early stage - and in terms of Christian theology it was also present Roman Catholic teaching prior to Luther.

2. The passage in Gen 3:15 alternates between a one on one conflict between a seed of Eve and Satan and also the seed (plural) of Eve and the seed (plural of the devil) hence we have the godly line continuing through Seth and the ungodly line of Cain - and so Simon's approach to Rom 16 remains intact. But surely Gen 3:15 suggests more than the ongoing conflict between the the offspring of Eve and the offspring of the Devil? I'm at logger heads with Simon over the reference to Gal (I presume chapter 3:19ff.), I think that passage clearly identifies Christ as the seed (singular) of Eve and I don't see it a stretch to assume that its the same seed (singular) mentioned in Gen 3:15.

On the whole though I think its a great briefing - and I think the clash between the godly offspring and the offspring of Satan is often downplayed and needs to be brought to the fore which Simon helpfully does for us - but I'm afraid I'm not going to go all the way with him just yet.

TheBorg said...

Although I am with Spooh on this one my sympathies are with Simon. Walter Kaiser's treatment of this verse did'nt satisfy me entirely although his biblical paradigm of organic revelation at least gives one a platform for understanding Gen 3:15.

Scott said...

Hey guys, thanks for your comments. Here's my thoughts. I spent some time with OT profs of differing views and methodologies concerning how to read the OT. What I strongly beleive is that when we read the OT we have to do so with respect for later revelation, that we have to be resposible to the NT, but not in a way that will undermine the plain sense of the OT in its original context. Henri Blocher, Gordon Wenham, Brevard Childs, John Walton, Walter Kaiser, Walter Brueggeman and others have commented on this passage and I've read their ideas. What I want to say is this: this passage can't, in my view, be considered Messianic because: if we accept Mosaic authorship of Genesis, then there was no fully developed Messianic idea yet in the Israelite religion. We do have reference to a king in Deut 18, but kingship, and the theology of kingship, don't develop until much later in the OT canon - esp. in 1 amd 2 Sam and 1 and 2 Kings, along with the Zion theology of the Psalms and the Prophets. BUT, there is evidence that appears to be agreed upon by Dumbrell, Walton, Blocher, Brueggeman, Kaiser, Alexander, and Wenham that Adam and Eve are portrayed as vice-regents and priests under God in the garden of Eden. When we focus on the NARRATIVE of Genesis 1-11, I agree completely with Simon that what one would expect is that Eve's man-child will be the one who will defeat the Serpent and gain access back into the garden. What becomes clear, however, esp. as Gen 1-11 progresses, is that Cain, and the rest of the offspring, and then Noah and his offspring, are not going to be able to get back into the holy place with God. Man has been driven out and so when we get to the Terah Toledoth (Gen 11:27 ff.) and we learn that God has reached out to Abraham and the promises of a seed, blessing and so forth are made, it becomes clear that something much larger is in store. So while I think that we can say, in the end, that the Serpent Crusher is the Lord Jesus Christ, I'm not sure that it can be said definitively that this is a Messianic text. It certainly is a proleptic text, it is an expectant text of a strong individual, but the fullness of what it signifies can't be known until later revelation. Hence, the themes that Clines and Alexander point out - Seed, Blessing, Land, Royal Genealogy and so-on that are prevelant throughout Genesis - are the themes that establish the groundwork from which the rest of the Biblical narrative arises. So when we do finally get to Revelation and the King of Kings and Lord of Lords defeats that nasty Serpent, the Dragon, we finally have closure and we can see how that text becomes fulfilled. Now, there is however, more to the text than just it's proleptic hope for a crusher. It also seems to establish a maxim that there will be strife between humanity and whatever the Serpent represents. This is on my list of things to look into further and at this point I have not. I know that Blocher sees the serpent being representative of ancient wisdom cults and so-on. That's an interesting proposition, but I don't know much more than that. Also, if in the end we can say that Jesus is the serpent crusher, since there is corporate solidarity under the Messiah, namely the Body of Christ, it should not be too much to say that we too can be serpent crushers. But here we do need to be careful, because if the crushing of the serpent is something that only Jesus can do, then the idea of corporate solidarity goes to far to include the church in that role.

TheBorg said...

Hey Scott,

Thanks for a very solid reply. I need to read it slowly and get back with a post. Today is Saturday; tomorrow is a busy day for me..(Yup I´m a missionary priest)Will try and work out a reply.

Love the exchange of ideas.

Scott said...

Actually, let me say one more thing. I DO think that the Lord Jesus Christ steps into the role of the Serpent Crusher in Revelation. At the same time, there is nothing "kingly" about the verse in Genesis - nothing in the context or language of the passage - and hence nothing Messianic. So I think what both Simon and I agree upon is that the text is at the same time, non-Messianic, yet fulfilled by Jesus and the church. Perhaps it seems like we are splitting hairs. But I think it is important to treat the text carefully.

As to what Spooh said about Galatians 3, I think that there we have a typological fulfillment that hinges on the idea of corporate solidarity between Israel (the seed of Gen 12) and Jesus.

michael jensen said...

But it's in the Mel Gibson movie...so it must be true!

Spooh said...

Hi Scott - I've just posted on another sacred cow of ours, namely 'Gen 22', I'll be honest, I've been a bit light on the treatment and I'm still trying to figure it out but maybe you'd like to have a go at critiquing it?

Anonymous said...

The more I read Simon's briefing the more I'm starting to come around to what he's on about. I'm still not 100% there but he has made me aware of upholding treasured 'sacred cows'.

The Rev. David Beckmann said...

Scott:
I can appreciate the idea that we survey Scripture for Messianic themes and then evaluate particular texts on the basis of those themes as to whether or not they are Messianic. At the same time, all of Moses and the prophets speak of Christ. When considering Moses, you mention that there was no developed Messianic concept, but consider the whole sacrficial system and the feasts (which Jesus used to great affect, according to St. John). There was no secondary literature developing on Messianic prophecy as far as we know, but Heb. 11 sheds a lot of light on what was understood in those days - apparently more than was inscripturated.

It seems that there were passages that drew people's attention to a Messianic hope and then others that were Messianic but not so plainly so - obscure until fulfilled. Should we talk about degrees of Messianic texts? Gen. 3:15 may be chronologically the first Messianic reference we recognise in the OT and thus some people could call it foundational in a sense, but it was not so clear as to really move forward a Messianic "profile." Eve apparently didn't get it!

Also, I have referred to the Christological interpretation of Gen. 3:15 without consideration of who first thought of it. It just made sense in light of the New Testament.

Thanks for raising the issue.

Scott said...

Thanks David. I've been round and round on the question of how the OT speaks of Jesus Christ. The question is how does the OT speak to Jesus Christ as he says it does in Luke 24? Greg Beale would argue very strongly in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts that the work the apostles did shows us that they are employing identifiable hermeneutical principles. He is strongly in favor of reading the OT typologically, as am I. I've been pretty heavily influenced by him. Not only because he can show very literarily, textually and thematically why this is true (through painfully precise exegesis), but also because it is the historic catholic and reformed postion. Others, like McConville, House, Walton, Brueggeman are much less interested or convinced that typology works well, House and Walton most especially from a literary point of view. Others like Waltke and Longmann, in my opinion, can be sloppy at certian turns. McConville is more on the typological side of the divide along with Dumbrell. At the end of the day, on the basis of what is actually in the OT text and on the basis of what OT texts are referred to in the NT, I have to conclude that every passage in the OT does not somehow point to Jesus Christ. I beleive that much of it does usually in a typological way. The test that I want to see is how you can show me a text in it's literary context can be shown to point to Christ. There are many, many places this can be done - and have already been done by the apostles in the NT. I, however, cannot, for instance, see anything pointing to Jesus Christ in a text like Numbers 13. So I think it is innacurate to say that what Jesus is saying in Luke 24 means that the WHOLE of the OT, every sentance, somehow points to him. This is where I would fault some of my evangleical friends in Sydney and the UK and other reformed folks I know over here. Instead, if the theme the text is contributing to is examined and tied into the larger thrust of the biblical revelation, from creation to new creation, then you have a shot at getting it right, I think.

Now, on the second point of "more than was inscripturated," it sounds like you might be arguing for the idea of sensus plenior. I think that this is certainly possible, but I have a problem with it for evangelical reasons. Namely, if the revelation that was given to the people it was intended for at the time of its transmission contained more than they could perceive then I think we have a problem with saying that God faithfully and fully communicated. Indeed, the Bible is for us, but it was for "them" first. So what we are left with is "revelation" that wasn't particularly revelatory for those it was given to. It's saying something like, "for now here's what this revelation means, but later on it's going to mean more." Does God speak clearly and fully to his people in their place and in their time? I think he did, but somehow it just doesn't sit right with me to say he only partially did or didn't at all (which some people argue). I think this is really a corolloray for what someone like VanHoozer is arguing for in Is There A Meaining in This Text?. I think that texts can have one and only one meaning. Getting to that meaning, however, is what the interpretive process is all about.

Take a text like Isaiah 7:10ff:

"Isaiah 7:10-17 10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 11 "Ask a sign of the LORD your(1 )God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven." 12 But Ahaz said, "I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test." 13 And he(1 )said, "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah - the king of Assyria."

Here's the famous text from Isaiah that Matthew uses. It is clear from the context that someone present had to be the one that would be a sign for Ahaz, for how could Mary and Jesus, 300 years later be a sign to Ahaz and the royal court? Matthew is not using this text to prove that Jesus' birth fulfills a predictive prophecy (i.e. now this text has come to pass and we finally understand what Isaiah was referring to), but an example of a typological fulfillment. I think there are certainly predictive prophecies, esp. in Isaiah, Zechariah, and so on. On the other hand, if we say that it was predictive prophecy, then is Matthew playing fast and loose with the OT - as many scholars argue? "It's just that old creative Jewish pesher exegesis." I think that this text has to have an historic meaning for Ahaz's day and that's what the text means. If this text explicitly and prophetically refers to Jesus hundreds of years ahead of time, then there's a problem because vv.15-16 give us an historical timeframe and talk about the boy learning to "refuse evil." Blomberg, Beale and others use this text is one of the examples used in the study of how Matthew uses the OT, especially in the first few chapters of his work, because the same could be said about his use of Hosea's "Out of Egypt I called my son," and so on.

Now having said all that, when we get back to Genesis 3:15, I certainly agree with you that the text is obscure. But I think that our best hopes at getting at a good interpretation of it require us to work very hard at trying to understand it in light of it's immediate context. I still think that when the Israelites would have heard this story from Moses (assuming his authorship), whether during the Exodus or after settling in Canaan, there would have been something they would have gotten from it that is somewhat lost on us.