The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this… I will put hostility between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; her offspring will attack your head, and you will attack her offspring’s heel.’ (Genesis 3:15 NET)
Christians have classically identified Genesis 3:15 as the Protoevangelium, the first announcement of God’s plan to eventually redeem humanity from the grips of the Devil. For those who are committed to understanding the Bible according to theological frameworks centered around Creation, Fall, and Redemption, this reading of the verse is crucial. For, just as man and woman have fallen into the hands of sin, death, and Satan, God promises to one day crush the cunning serpent once and for all. By this act, God will plunder and restore all of Creation.
In my view though, this interpretation of Genesis 3:15, along with the Creation, Fall, and Redemption hermeneutic which it serves, obscures the main priorities of the Old Testament. For once the Christian reader has ingested Genesis 1-3, he is now encouraged to abandon the rest of the Old Testament in favor of the New. He need not remain stifled in the thick of Israel’s historical experience and political expectations but may proceed to the spiritual and eternal redemption wrought through Christ’s sacrifice. This reader may classify Israel’s gritty national history under the heading “The Fall of Man” and advance onward to what is truly important: Christ’s propitiation for sins on the cross.
In this way Genesis 3:15 is appropriated for a system that reduces the significant content of the Hebrew Bible to Genesis 1-3 and a few supposedly messianic texts. The verse, at least when governed by this reading then, thus proves complicit in the Christian’s neglect of the Hebrew scriptures.
Naturally, I would caution against this reading of the text. There is little evidence that either the author of Genesis 3 or the early Christians recognized in this passage any reference to Jesus’ defeat of Satan. While Satan’s demise is an important motif in the New Testament, the early Christians do not appear to have registered Genesis 3:15 as a relevant text.
Treading upon snakes
Despite its prestigious place in evangelical theology as Protoevangelium, there is no direct quotation of Genesis 3:15 in either the Old or the New Testaments. There are, however, a couple of potential allusions to it. The Aland Greek New Testament, for instance, lists Luke 10:19 and Romans 16:20 as having verbal parallels with Genesis 3:15. Let’s investigate those parallels.
- In Luke 10:18-19 Jesus says that his disciples have been granted authority to trample (πατέω) “snakes (ὄφις) and scorpions and all the power of [Satan]” after they have returned from a successful exorcistic tour.
- In Romans 16:20 Paul writes “the God of peace will soon crush (συντρίβω) Satan under your feet.”
In both texts Satan or his agents are smashed under foot by the faithful, seemingly in accord with Genesis 3:15. Still, Genesis 3:15 is probably not the intended subtext for the following reasons.
- The Hebrew word meaning “bruise” or “strike” (שׁוּף) in Genesis 3:15 does not necessarily imply the use of the man’s foot to crush the serpent’s head. The same word is used for the lashing out of the serpent and so we could just as easily envision here the man striking the snake with a stick (cf. Isaiah 14:29, 27:1).
- Luke and Paul predominantly (if not exclusively) knew their scriptures according to Greek translation. In Genesis 3:15 the Septuagint translators replaced the idea of striking with the idea of watching (τηρέω). The snake will watch the man’s heel and the man will watch the snake’s head. Clearly the Jews who created and read the LXX did not recognize Genesis 3:15 as a prophecy of the serpent’s destruction, but rather of a perpetual struggle.
The idea common to Luke 10:19 and Romans 16:20 then—that Satan and his serpentine minions will be tread underfoot—must derive from somewhere else. In my view that somewhere else is Psalm 91.
How Satan became a snake
Since Psalm 91 assured the righteous of divine safety from manifold evils, it was in the foreground of early Christian thought (cf. Matthew 4:6/Luke 4:10-11, Hebrews 1:14). The Greek version of the passage translates verse 13 like so: “Over the asp and basilisk you will tread (ἐπιβαίνω), and you will trample (καταπατέω) the lion and the serpent (δράκων).”
While the psalm was not originally written with demonic forces in mind, Christians and other second temple Jews began interpreting it as such as interest in spiritual warfare and apocalypticism grew (cf. 11Q11, Matthew 4:6). The Greek translation of verse 6 was instrumental in this development: the Hebrew reads “You will not fear… the destruction that wastes at noonday,” but the LXX has “You will not fear… the demon (δαιμόνιον) of noonday.” With this textual novelty established, Jews found it natural to interpret the whole the psalm in terms of a spiritual battle between angels and demons. It is quite likely, therefore, that the appropriation of Psalm 91 for exorcistic purposes in the second temple period proceeded entirely independently of reflection upon Genesis 3 and its serpent-adversary.
More to the point, Psalm 91:13, not Genesis 3, was upstream from Luke 10:19, Romans 16:20, and similar texts like Mark 16:18, Acts 28:3-6, and 1 Corinthians 15:32 which depict believers as impervious to snakes, specifically those under their feet. It was through this psalm, not through Genesis 3:15 (let alone its Greek translation), that the early Christians spoke of their stampeding victory and confident power over the forces of Satan both in the present and in the near future.
Sisyphean labors and Promethean anguish
How then should we interpret Genesis 3:15 if not as a prophecy of Christ? I would suggest it is an etiological myth.
The curses awarded in Genesis 3:14-19 introduce continuous struggle into the lives of the characters. The woman will painfully bring forth children from her womb and the man will bring forth sustenance from the ground in toil. If the translators behind the NET and ESV are correct, man and woman are also damned to eternal conflict with each other: “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you” (Genesis 3:16).
As with the man and woman then, the serpent too will suffer a never-ending punishment: he will be locked in a violent and perpetual rivalry with those whom he deceived. Neither he nor the man will truly prevail over the other. Instead, man and snake will forevermore exchange potentially fatal blows. Or, as is reflected in the LXX rendering of the verse, human and serpent will vigilantly and fearfully keep watch of each other as long as they live.
So based on its context within the catena of curses, Genesis 3:15 appears to explain the perpetually troubled relationship between man and serpent. Far from extending the promise of the snake’s defeat, therefore, the verse actually precludes the hope for any eventual truce.
Appendix: Why snakes?
One might wonder based on Luke 10:19, Mark 16:18, and Acts 28:3 why the early Christians were so keenly interested in fooling around with snakes. One reason was Jews had by this point closely associated Satan with serpents.
While Genesis 3 may have played a small part in this development (cf. Wisdom 2:24, Revelation 12:9), God’s primordial warfare with the Leviathan sea-serpent played the key role. As God’s most ancient and powerful enemy, Leviathan was easily incorporated into the Satanic persona. Leviathan, that “twisting serpent” and “dragon in the sea” destined for slaughter on the day of Israel’s political redemption, became entangled in Satan’s demonic identity (Isaiah 27:1, cf. Isaiah 51:9-10, Ezekiel 29:3, LXX Jeremiah 51:34, Job 3:8, 40:15–41:26, Psalms 89:9-10, 104:26, 1 Enoch 60:7-9). Paul’s insistence that believers will soon “crush” (συντρίβω) Satan finds it origin in this chaoskampf motif: “You [Lord] crushed (συντρίβω) the heads of dragons… you shattered (συνθλάω) their heads” (LXX Psalm 74:13-14). The sea-serpent’s image subsequently culminated in John’s Apocalypse; he became the Accuser, the ferocious eschatological dragon-snake who defends and empowers the city of Babylon.
Thus, by freely handling and crushing serpents underfoot the early Christians were making a mockery not just of the beasts, but of Satan, their monstrous master. More than this though, Christian victory over snakes was an eschatological sign like any other (cf. Mark 16:17). It functioned in a way similar to demon-exorcism. It signaled that the lord of demons and snakes was about to be demoted and replaced. Satan and his demonic spirits would no longer rule over the kingdoms of the earth or over the beasts of the field.
The story in Acts 28:3-6 provides an example of how the sign worked.
When Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand. When the local people saw the creature hanging from Paul’s hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer! Although he has escaped from the sea, Justice herself has not allowed him to live!” However, Paul shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm. But they were expecting that he was going to swell up or suddenly drop dead. So after they had waited a long time and had seen nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
Based on Paul’s immunity to the viper, the pagan residents of Malta are forced to conclude that Paul, a murderer in their eyes, has overpowered the goddess of justice. He is therefore, not a man, but a god. Although this isn’t exactly the point Paul would have liked to convey, the spectacle has lead the pagans to question the efficacy of their gods. Though they attribute it to Paul and not to God, these pagans have witnessed the power of a new and more marvelous deity—a deity who is intent on subjugated the nations.