Recently Phil Johnson posted over at Wrath and Grace on Genesis 3:15, the protoevangelium. It reminded me both of an essay from Jim Hamilton in SBJT and a sermon I once preached on the same verse. The sermon was never recorded, but I thought I’d add my tiny refrain to these excellent treatments of the protoevangelium, the first mention of the gospel.
Genesis 3:14-15. You remember the context, I’m sure. Here in the perfect garden, Adam and Eve, our once perfect parents were allowed to eat from any tree except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Along came the serpent to tempt Eve, and she and Adam both ate, and fell from grace. Now God is pronouncing judgment on all three parties. In verses 14-15, the Lord pronounces judgment on the serpent:
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
The first thing that we notice is that the judgment on the serpent is at the same time a promise of deliverance for mankind. A war has started, one that will rage between two peoples, the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent, which will culminate in a decisive battle between two champions, the serpent himself and a representative of the whole human race. In this battle, the offspring of the woman will crush once and for all the head of the serpent, but in so doing the serpent will crush the heel of the seed of the woman.
From this point, everything is aimed at the fulfillment of this promise. Eve has a son and names him Cain (Genesis 4:1). Cain is the literal offspring of the woman, right? Could this be the one? No, Cain turns out to be the seed of the serpent who strikes down the seed of the woman, Abel. When Eve has another son, she names him Seth, saying “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him” (Genesis 4:25). Do you hear the echo of Genesis 3:15 here? Eve thinks Seth is the one promised. Could this be the one? Seth is the seed of the woman, but not the final one, not the one who would bring about an end to the serpent and the curse. Seth dies. His son Enosh dies. Kenan dies. Mahalalel dies. Jared dies. On and on, they all die. Enoch is an exception, of course, but he’s still taken. They all die under the curse.
And then Noah enters, stage left. Noah is born, and his father Lamech says “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Genesis 5:29). Lamech thinks Noah will be the one to reverse the curse. Could this be the one? No. Noah, though used by God to preserve a remnant of mankind on the earth, dies. Then we come to Abram. God makes a covenant with Abram which centers around offspring, around a promised seed (Genesis 12:7, cf. Galatians 3:16). But there’s one problem. His wife, Sarai, is barren. (By the way, do you want to know why the Old Testament makes such a big deal about barrenness? It isn’t because barren women are lesser women. The Old Testament’s commentary on pregnancy isn’t a statement about your worth, ladies. The reason that barrenness was such a curse in the Old Testament was because if you’re a woman and you’re barren, then you have no hope of producing that final offspring who will crush the serpent and end the curse!) So Sarai is barren, but God promised a seed. Abraham, as you remember, tried to produce that seed with Hagar, and the seed of the serpent came forth instead. Eventually God opened Sarah’s womb and the promised son came, Isaac. Could this be the one? No. Even though he was the promised seed, he was not the final promised seed who would defeat the serpent and destroy the curse. Isaac dies. Jacob dies. Joseph dies. One by one, all the patriarchs die, but the people of God are still looking for the fulfillment of the promise.
That promise is echoed in Balaam’s oracle, when he says “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Number 24:17). That promise is foreshadowed in Judges when Jael takes a tent peg and crushes Sisera’s head (Judges 4:17-22, 5:26). It’s foreshadowed later in Judges when a woman drops a millstone on the head of Abimelech (Judges 9:53). It’s pictured in 1 Samuel when David sends a stone flying into Goliath’s forehead and slays him (1 Samuel 17:48-51). Over and over again, the promise is reiterated, echoed, and foreshadowed because Israel is looking for the fulfillment God’s promise all those years ago.
By the time we arrive at David’s reign, this promise of the head-crushing seed of the woman is thought to come from his line. David is the man from Judah who bears the scepter which will crush the forehead of Moab, the seed of the serpent. Could this be the one? No. David is the seed of the woman who rules over Israel, but he is not the final seed who would decisively defeat the serpent and abolish the curse.
By the time we reach the kingdom period in Israel’s history, the promise of the head-crushing seed has really taken form. It flows under the entirety of the Old Testament like a wide subterranean river, feeding every spring, shaping every story, molding every encounter.
Israel sings about this promise again and again in the Psalms. Serpent-crushing is held out as a promise for all Israelites who trust in the Lord (Psalm 91:13). When in captivity, Israel longs for the seed of the serpent (the children of Babylon) to be crushed against rocks (Psalm 137:9). There’s no way of getting around the brutality of this image, but what Israel is truly crying out for is the fulfillment of the promise in Genesis 3:15. They see Babylon as the serpent, and they’re looking to the crushing of the offspring, the seed, of the serpent, and the reversal of the curse.
So this idea of head-crushing as the promise of deliverance for Israel works its way into their songs. It is what they long for. And interestingly enough, the promise develops in the Psalms. Psalm 68 says “But God will strike the heads of his enemies, the hairy crown of him who walks in his guilty ways… that you may strike your feet in their blood, that the tongues of your dogs may have their portion from the foe” (Psalm 68: 21-23). Psalm 110 says “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’… [God] will shatter [heads] over the wide earth” (Psalm 110: 1, 6). Here God becomes the one who will crush the serpent, but in so doing he doesn’t remove the victory from the seed. “That you may strike your feet in their blood,” “Until I make your enemies your footstool.” God is the one who will crush the enemy, but he will do it through the promised seed.
The prophets look forward to the fulfilling of this promise, and as time goes on the promise is seen in greater and greater light. Isaiah says “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1) Every act of deliverance which God performed in the past is seen as crushing the serpent and the seed of the serpent. Habakkuk says “You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck” (Habakkuk 3:13) Isaiah again says “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?” (Isaiah 51:9). The Psalms recount this as well, saying “You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness” (Psalm 74:14).
So Israel hopes, and Israel waits. The prophecy of a promised seed who would crush the head of the serpent and restore all things grew bigger and grander through time as God continued to speak through his prophets. And then we get to something we cannot understand. Isaiah, in speaking of this promised seed, whom the Jews came to call the Messiah, the one anointed by God, says this: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4). Why is the promised seed, the hope of Israel afflicted this way? “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (v. 4). The Messiah, the one who brings peace, will be crushed like the serpent, pierced like the dragon, for us and for our sins. Why? Because you’re the seed of the serpent, and so am I. Our sins have separated us from God– we’re snakes. But God made a promise to the woman all those years ago, that one day he will redeem what was done in the garden. One day he will rescue the sons and daughters of Eve. And so he will.
About seven hundred years after Isaiah’s prophecy, a boy is born of the tribe of Judah. Angels and shepherds attend his birth, and great things are spoken of him. He grows into a man, and claims to be the Son of God. At every turn he casts out demons and heals the sick, working with great power and teaching with great wisdom. Could this be the one? Some of his followers thought that this man Jesus would finally crush the serpent and restore peace to the seed of the woman. But certain Jews got ahold of Jesus. The Pharisees, whom Jesus had referred to as a “brood of vipers” on more than one occasion, arrested him, beat him, and sentenced him to death. We know the story. Jesus Christ, who claimed to be the seed of the woman come to destroy the serpent, hung pierced and crushed on a cross, hanging there like a snake on pole.
Three days later some of Jesus’ followers were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus and met a stranger on the road. He asked them what they were talking about, and they shared with him their hope that Jesus was the Messiah and how that hope was crushed when Jesus was. The stranger’s response? Foolish ones! Don’t you know that it was necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them that the seed of the woman had to have his heel crushed in order to crush the head of the serpent (Luke 24:25-27).
You see, the cross was not a defeat for Jesus. It was the definite plan of God to crush the head of the serpent once and for all by redeeming all those who had lived under a curse. Just as the bronze serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness, so Jesus had to be lifted up in the form of a snake, in the form of sinful flesh, so that all of us snakes could look to him and be healed.
“One day we shall all be men and women.” –George MacDonald