In the primeval garden, Adam and Eve rebelled by trusting in the word of the serpent rather than the word of God. God immediately pronounced judgment on his fallen image bearers and the ultimate, eschatological judgment on the serpent (Gen 3:14-19). In the midst of this judgment is the protoevangelium, the first gospel. The tragic events that disrupted the harmony of the entire created order, including the shame and alienation of man and woman in the presence of God, would not be the final word—God’s grace would be (Gen 3:15).
Yahweh announced a promised future seed who would be born of woman, engage in mortal combat with the serpent, and ultimately crush his head (Gen 3:15, Heb 2:14). The history of Christian interpretation, until the rise of modern criticism, has overwhelmingly agreed that the “seed born of woman” is a reference to the last Adam, the greater Son of David, Jesus Christ, who will establish his eternal kingdom and restore harmony to creation in a new heavens and earth (Gal 4:4, 1 Cor. 15:45, Matt 22:42-45, Luke 1:32).
Victor P. Hamilton writes,
This verse is one of the most famous cruxes of Scripture. Interpreters fall into two categories: those who see in the decree a messianic import and those who see nothing of the kind. The more conservative and traditional writers (e.g., Schaeffer, Leupold, Vos, Kidner, Aaldres, and Stigers) opt for the first approach, but the bulk of authors in the critical camp (e.g., Skinner, von Rad, Speiser, Vawter, and Westermann) fail to see any promise of a Messiah in this verse and agree that far too much has been read into it. At best, according to this school, the story is an etiological myth that explains why there is hostility between mankind and the serpent world” (The Book of Genesis, 1-17, The New International Critical Commentary on the Old Testament, 197).
Contemporary scholars William D. Reyburn and Euan McG. Fry suggest that there is nothing more being taught in Genesis 3:15 than the perpetual conflict between humanity and the snake population, in which humanity will finally prevail. (A Handbook on Genesis, 91).A straightforward reading of the biblical narrative must reject this conclusion. Later revelation clarifies that this is no ordinary snake but the very embodiment of evil—Satan himself (Rev 20:2, 1 John 3:8). Snakes as such were a part of the good creation of God. This serpent is emphatically not good (Gen 1:25). The serpent is not simply an animal, nor is he a symbolic force of evil in the world; rather, he is a personal being who will produce spiritual offspring (his seed) who will follow in his rebellious footsteps.
Alec Motyer explains,
We can certainly go further than saying that ‘the serpent symbolizes’. For within the narrative-complex of Genesis 1-3, snakes are a part of the good creation of God (1:24). The serpent of 3:1ff., therefore, in a way that Genesis does not explain, is not a part of that creation, for it is not an animal pure and simple; it reveals itself as far from what the Creator would call ‘good’ and, indeed, this serpent is not ‘it’ but ‘he’, so that the woman enters into conversation as with another person. The revelation of ‘the serpent’ and this attitude towards him is sustained throughout Genesis 3” (Look to the Rock, 34).
As Derek Kidner notes, “the first glimmer of the gospel . . . makes its debut as a sentence passed on the enemy” (Genesis, vol. 1 of Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 70-71). The serpent of Genesis 3 plays a central adversarial role in the cosmological drama of redemption as the representative head of a rebellious, parasitic kingdom. Likewise, the biblical narrative leads the reader to conclude that the seed of woman is not a generic reference to humanity as such but a specific reference to an human individual: the singular seed. The entire cosmos is caught up in a divine drama of spiritual war, a battle of rival kingdoms with opposing representative heads.
Regarding the protoevangelium (first gospel), Demarest points out, “This gracious announcement in the third chapter of the Bible constitutes the basis of all God’s merciful dealings with his people” (The Cross and Salvation, 81). Galatians 3:16 removes any ambiguity regarding the identity of the promised seed: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” The promise to Abraham was a continuance of the “seed promise” in Genesis 3:15 and finds its culmination in the cosmic authority of Jesus Christ—and, by extension, all who are united to him by faith.
John Currid summarizes in his commentary on Genesis:
Jesus is the seed who is descended from Eve and went to do battle against Satan. The remainder of Scripture is an unfolding of this prophecy of Genesis 3:15. Redemption is promised in this one verse, and the Bible traces the development of that redemptive theme (Genesis, Evangelical Press Study Commentary, vol. 1, 131).
Interestingly, even Walter Kaiser, who argues that a text should not be informed by any subsequent biblical texts in ascertaining meaning, agrees that Genesis 3:15 is a messianic text. He argues that “it gave our first parents a glimpse, even if only an obscure one, of the person and mission of the one who was going to be the central figure of the unfolding drama of redemption in the world” (The Messiah in the Old Testament, 37). Kaiser affirms the use of the label protoevangelium (first gospel) for Genesis 3:15 and quotes Charles Briggs in Messianic Prophecy that the text is “the germ of promise which unfolds in the history of redemption” (The Messiah in the Old Testament, 38, 41) Kaiser also contends that the “‘seed/offspring’ mentioned in this verse became the root from which the tree of the OT promise of a Messiah grew” (The Messiah in the Old Testament, 37-38).
It is difficult to understand how he can draw such conclusions about Genesis 3:15 by employing his analogy of antecedent Scripture and rejecting the responsibility to pursue divine intentionality in interpretation based on canonical context. In the introduction his volume The Messiah in the Old Testament, Kaiser acknowledges that all texts have “connections with a continuing future,” but only allows the past to have an informing role in interpretation (The Messiah in the Old Testament, 25).
If an interpreter rules out any chronologically subsequent texts as having an informing role in biblical interpretation, then how can the interpreter draw any conclusion about Genesis 3:15 except the one drawn by modern biblical criticism? Such an approach would simply conclude that there is ongoing hostility between serpents and human beings, and human beings will ultimately prevail. Kaiser is applying the analogy of subsequent Scripture to draw his conclusions.
As Raju D. Kunjummen asserts,
The reader of Scripture who might have an uncertain concept of the serpent in Genesis 3, after reading through the entirety of Scripture including the book of Revelation, will have a revised (and more exact) conception of the whole so that his sense of the identity of the serpent is more complete and exact (Grace Theological Journal 7 no. 1, “The Single Intent of Scripture,” 94).
Kunjummen’s comments are also accurate with respect to the identity and mission of the seed born of woman. Reading the Bible in light of the canonical whole is the way God intended for us to read and interpret the canon of Scripture that he has provided. Kaiser recognizes Genesis 3:15 as the protoevangelium and the seed of woman as the central figure in redemptive history precisely because his reading of the Bible as a whole has informed, revised, and completed his understanding of the meaning of Genesis 3:15.
Genesis 1-3 has a cosmic frame of reference and is eschatologically oriented, providing patterns that “recur throughout redemptive history and reappear in the eschaton with the revelation of Jesus Christ on the final day,” as J.V. Fesko has noted (Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1-3 with the Christ of Eschatology, 13-38). From the beginning of the created order to the consummated end, the scriptural witness points the reader, with progressive clarity, toward understanding the meaning of all things, including biblical interpretation, in light of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.
As we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ today, we would do well to keep the protoevangelium (first gospel) in Genesis 3:15, always in mind. It reminds us that preaching is warfare. Sinclair Ferguson lists Genesis 3:15 and Luke 24:25-46 as key texts for biblical interpretation and preaching. He conjectures that Jesus began his conversation with the weary disciples on the road to Emmaus with Genesis 3:15: “We could say that