Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

Interpretive Challenges in the OT #2 – JPS Translation of Gen. 3:15

with 3 comments

serpent-and-foot-ktWhile reading through my JPS Torah I came across this translation of Gen. 3:15:

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.

Notice anything different? I mean, besides the obvious bold and italicized font? At the heart of this problem is whether “offspring” is an individual, referring to a specific child, or whether it is to be taken as a collective singular, referring to many children. The Hebrew term for “offspring/seed” (zera’ – I’ll use the 2 English words interchangeably) is a masculine noun but is somewhat flexible. In Gen. 4:25 it clearly refers to one person (Seth), whereas in Isaiah 41:8 it refers to Israel as a nation. If one takes “offspring” as referring to an individual (as in the Christian tradition), then the following pronouns (in bold) would be “He shall strike…” and “his heel.” If one takes “offspring” as a collective singular then the JPS translation can be substantiated.

How do we figure this out? Well, rather than deliberately retrojecting the NT understanding of “seed” into Genesis lets first argue from the text itself. In the OT, “seed” seems to follow both lines of thinking mentioned above. Since the woman’s seed struggles against the Serpent’s seed, we can infer that it has a collective sense. But since only the head of the Serpent is represented as crushed, we can expect an individual to deliver the fatal blow and to be struck uniquely on his heel. Additionally, biblical Hebrew employs a grammatical gender (“he,” “she”) agreeing with its it’s antecedent. In other words, “seed” is a masculine noun and should thus be followed by masculine pronouns – “He shall strike” and “his heel.” But that only eliminates whether or not the phrase should be translated “she”, which is totally out of the question (but used some older Catholic translations!). The real problem is if it should be translated “they” or “he”. The most impressive evidence against “they” is the Greek Seputagint (LXX), our oldest translation of this text (third or second century B.C.), which translates this phrase with “he” (autos). This is noteworthy given that the Greek antecedent is neuter (sperma), which means that the oldest translation of Genesis deliberately avoided “it” and understood 3:15 as referring to one person (see R.A. Martin, “The Earliest Messianic Interpretation of Genesis 3:15” JBL 84).

Who, then, is the seed of the woman? The immediate seed is probably Abel, then Seth (Gen. 4:25 – “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel”). The collective seed is the holy offspring of the patriarchs (Gen. 15:5; 22:17). After Genesis we do not hear again of the promised seed until God promises David a seed (2 Sam. 7:12), which should also be understood in both ways. Moving to the NT, the unique fulfillment of this seed promise, however, is Jesus Christ, who comes into the world through the seed of the woman: the patriarchs and David. Paul refers to the seed of Abraham as the individual Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16) but then also includes the church in Christ as Abraham’s seed (Rom. 16:20; Gal. 3:29).

Conversely, the seed of the Serpent is/are not little snakes, nor demons (since Satan does not father demons), but most likely those who are in rebellion against God. There are the elect, who love God (John 8:31-32), and the reprobate, who love themselves and are of their father, the devil (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8). Each main character in Genesis, then, is portrayed as either the seed of the woman (like Abel and Seth) who carries on God’s promise of Gen. 3:15, or the seed of the Serpent (like Cain) that reproduces the Serpent’s unbelief. In the end, although both individuals will be grievously wounded (“strike” and “crush”), this struggle with the Serpent is ultimately won in the suffering of that Seed (Isa. 53:12; Luke 24:26, 46-47; Rom. 16:20; 2 Cor. 1:5-7; Col. 1:24; 1 Peter 1:11).

Therefore, I believe we can agree in part with the JPS translation (and others) of “they shall strike” and “their heel,” but only if they mean a collective seed and are not simply avoiding the singular notion for fear of adopting a Christian worldview (of Jesus!). The better translation would keep the singular intact, “he shall strike” and “his heel,” which suggests a promised offspring that will project a new spiritual race into this fallen world.


Written by Josh Philpot

April 21, 2009 at 5:57 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Great post Josh. You dealt nicely with the Hebrew text and it is useful in talking with Jews who would not want to force NT doctrine on OT passages, but rather to show that OT doctrine leads us to NT passages.


    April 21, 2009 at 7:39 pm

  2. Josh,

    Two Questions: 1) Your concluding paragraph left me a bit confused. Are you arguing that the JPS translation is viable but you would prefer a translation that maintains the singular force?

    2) Does either translation have an impact on how we read biblical theology or do both lead us to the same conclusions?


    April 29, 2009 at 1:09 pm

  3. Randall,

    Good questions:

    1) The final paragraph is meant to infer that the JPS is only partly correct, since the “seed” does have plural connotations. However, the text is clearly singular in its form and immediate context, and therefore should be rendered singular in the translation. Although I’m not familiar with the JPS translation process, I can’t help but assume that they translated the pronouns as “they” to guard against any Christian typological references. So, to answer your question, I do NOT think the JPS translation is viable based on the text, although we should not rule out entirely the collective sense of “seed.”

    2) Both senses of “seed” have an impact on the larger theological structures of the Bible, but there is no way to explain that exhaustively in this comment. Suffice it to say, I think if “seed” is ONLY plural, which I cannot accept, it casts doubt on many other passages in the OT and the NT. The result is a misunderstanding of 2 Samuel 7, the Servant in Isaiah, and ultimately Jesus’ role as the Lamb of God (as well as many other texts).

    Josh Philpot

    April 29, 2009 at 1:31 pm

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