Friday, 7 January 2011

Head and heel: "prophecy" in Gen. 3:14-15

Then God said to the serpent, "Because you were used as a tool of Satan, I cannot continue to let you be the most beautiful creature in the garden. You will now be lower than any of the animals and will crawl on the ground eating its dust. Also, I will place a hatred of sin in the heart of the woman and her descendants. This hatred of sin will find its ultimate expression in One of her offspring. Satan, like a striking serpent, will try to kill Him, but as a man crushes the head of a poisonous snake with his bare heel to save his children - knowing he will die - so the Savior will sacrifice His own life to save those who love Him, and He will utterly crush the serpent's head.
That's Genesis 3: 14-15, probably as few have read it (or into it) before. The credit for this fulsome paraphrase goes to Jack Blanco in The Clear Word, a version of the Bible popular among Seventh-day Adventists.

Blanco is hardly the first Christian writer to find in these verses a prophecy of Christ. I first came across this bit of exegesis as a kid, when I should have been doing something really useful like reading Superman comics. Being just a kid I was puzzled. Exactly how does this verse refer to Christ? I guess it would have been clearer to me if The Clear Word had been around back then, but it wasn't, and I decided that this whole interpretation trip was obviously far too deep for someone like myself.

Here are those same two verses in the JPS:
Then the LORD God said to the serpent,
"Because you did this,
More cursed shall you be
Than all cattle
And all the wild beasts:
On your belly shall you crawl
And dirt shall you eat
All the days of your life.
I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your offspring and hers;
They shall strike at your head,
And you shall strike at their heel."
So where's Satan? Where's the One? Where's the prophecy? Not there. They're not in the text. It's an etiological account of why snakes get around without legs and cause most humans to react with fear and revulsion. Is there more significance to it than that? Maybe, but if so it's certainly not evident in the text itself. Anything more is pure speculation. The Oxford Bible Commentary states it succinctly:
The various punishments imposed by God on the guilty (3:14-19) all have aetiological bases: serpents have no legs and are thought to 'eat dust', and bite human beings but are killed by them...
So why does the New Berkeley Version - a Reformed translation popular when I was growing up - provide this interesting footnote to those verses: "First promise of the Redeemer, Victor over sin and Satan." A more recent and egregious example comes from the footnotes of the God's Word translation.
The snake was Satan, the devil... Satan bruised Jesus' heel in the crucifixion, but Jesus crushed Satan's head by defeating the power of sin in the world through that very same crucifixion. 
Yeah? Says who? To find that in these verses you have to read it back into the text. It's not even an intertextual reference. How could you make an intertextual reference to something that hadn't been written about yet?

Beats me.

It's not fashionable in certain circles to use the term eisegesis any longer, but if you wanted a clear example of the phenomenon, this could be it. To read these verses as prophecy, first you need to put on your metanarrative blinkers.

Metanarrative. The idea is that there is a grand narrative, a saga, a big story that gives sense to the world, "an overarching story that defines your reality and who you are within it." There are, according to the theorists, competing metanarratives, but the Christian metanarrative is the true story about sin, death, saviour and salvation. Metanarrative is especially significant as a concept, according to Don Cupitt, in Reformed theology.
John Calvin in particular stuck so close to Augustine and was so Grand-Narrative-minded that preachers in his tradition (variously called Reformed, Calvinist, Presbyterian or puritan) long tended to maintain that the entire story, the Plan of Salvation, was implicit in every verse of Scripture...
And so it's deemed okay, even necessary, to go on a treasure hunt through Genesis, trying to find ways to tie it in to a theology that only emerged long after. The problem is not only that the Old Testament is pillaged for dubious proof texts, but that the standard metanarrative has gaping holes in it anyway. Is it worth rescuing? Death and suffering long predate the rise of human beings on this planet. Nature has always been red in tooth and claw. We didn't do it!

Apart from that obvious objection, there is no undisputed metanarrative in the Bible, only in the minds of certain of its interpreters. You have to mutilate the scriptures to make them "fit" into a metanarrative. Which is, in my opinion, what Jack Blanco has done. The pack of cards doesn't stack up, so you flick the Jokers off to the side and replace them with some more convenient cards from an entirely different deck. Creative writing for Blanco, creative exegesis for conservative scholars.

This prophecy exists only in the eye of the beholder.


  1. Not only where is the prophecy but where is Satan? This account says nothing about any Satan. Of course the connection was made later.

    The serpent in the history of the goddess was her counselor. (When God Was a Woman-Merlin Stone) The story is a dethronement of both goddess worship and her wise counselor the serpent.

    A snake cursed to crawl makes about as much sense as women NOW being cosigned to have babies painfully. I imagine it was somewhat annoying under the best of circumstances. Since no woman had given birth supposedly , yet, how would Eve know how it felt? The origin stories of Israel are strange and weird, and of course, they borrowed them from previous cultures and gave them the hebrew spin.

    I never could understand why when "Moses lifted up the Serpent in the Wilderness.." it ends up representing Jesus either. All very Egyptian

  2. The snake clearly had a lot of mystical meaning to ancient Near East cultures. I think it's a shame when people take the easy way out and say "it was the devil". It seems to me like you're throwing out everything interesting about the Bible when you superimpose a modern metanarrative.

  3. Not defending this bad reading, but it's perhaps not quite so out-of-left-field as it might sound from your post.

    First, the translations most Christians make use of actually say "he [singular] will strike your head, and you shall bruise his [singular] heel." That sounds very much like Jesus to anyone who thinks that the serpent sounds like Satan. The relationship of a conniving founder of evil to the Satan of the NT era is not especially tenuous if you think about it, especially when the former is a talking serpent: snakes don't talk, so it is easy as to see why someone might infer that something evil interested in destroying humanity was possessing it or using its avatar.

    Also, the serpent::Satan link goes back much further than Calvin or even Augustine. In other words, even though the reading is foreign to the text itself, I'm not sure but it's certainly possible that an apocalyptic reading of this passage is bolstered if not implied within the canon itself (when taken together as an authoritative corpus): in Romans 16.20, "The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet" evokes Genesis 3 imagery, and Revelation refers to Satan as "that ancient serpent".

    These things taken together reinforce and may have even significantly contributed to the influence of the idea of a heilsgeschichtlich metanarrative that you rightly noted.

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  5. If anyone can understand why a time machine is impossible they can readily understand why prophecy about things thousands of years in the future is also impossible.

    If, however, one can believe that a time machine is possible then, well, they are subject to believe just about anything. And, that's good, if you like sci-fi and other fantasy.

    I highly recommend Stargate SG1. No, really, it's great and makes a whole lot more sense than Genesis (even the gods on that show are more believable).

    Here is the question of the week though, does it also require faith from Satan to believe in the devil? And, in case that went over anyone's head...I'm sorry, I can't help you - no one can.

  6. Revelation 12:9 - And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

  7. Eve was a bride of Adam and she replaced her covenantal head, teacher and holy covering with the evil unholy serpent counselor who immediately led her down the path of sin and death.

    The striking of the heel indicates that her offspring will rise up and reject her decisions ultimately killing the serpent counselors so that the New Jerusalem can be ushered in.

    This verse is not about Adam (Christ) nor Eve(church) but their righteous offspring.

  8. That's an interesting piece of eisegesis Richard. Goofy, textually indefensible - but interesting.

  9. This is hardly an eisegesisical interpretation. Consider that we are first told that the hatred will exist between the seed [children] of the devil and the seed [children]of the woman. Then we are informed that the chief representative of the seed ("HE") will bruise the head of the seed of the serpent.

    Ge 3:15 And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, AND BETWEEN YOUR SEED AND HER SEED; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.

    The serpent is the devil (Rev 12) but where does the righteous seed come from?

    Paul wrote 1 Cor 15.45 that Christ was the new Adam and in Ephesian 5.28 the church was the new Eve. Paul said that he labored to bring forth a pure bride for the purpose of creating children ("one flesh").

    Eph 5:28 So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; 29 for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also [does] the church,30 because we are members of His body.
    32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

    So there you have it. Christ is the New Adam and He cleaves to his purified bride for the purposes of creating a holy seed [one flesh] and they are the holy seed that will crush the head of the serpent.

    Isaiah wrote that the Servant of God who sacrifices himself will see his offspring prosper and they will extend His kingdom.

    Isa 53:10 But YHVH was pleased To crush Him, putting [Him] to grief; If He would render Himself [as] a guilt offering, He will see [His] offspring, He will prolong [His] days, And the good pleasure of YHVH will prosper in His hand.

    These are the "Sons of God" that creation is anxiously awaiting.

    Ro 8:19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.