Although the prophecy is considered Messianic by some Jewish sources, it is not evaluated that way by all. In addition, the Jewish community rejects the Messiahship of Yeshua and the fulfillment of the prophecy in Yeshua. If this is the case, are we in error? If we are in error when we ascribe this prophecy to Yeshua, what would be a better position? What would be a reasonable and responsible alternative view? With these questions in mind, let us now examine Jewish explanations of this prophecy and Jewish objections to our view that it is speaking of Jesus of Nazareth.
There are three alternative positions put forth: the Naturalistic position, the Symbolic position, and the Individual position. We will begin with the Naturalistic explanation of Genesis 3:15.
The Naturalistic explanation of the prophecy is the understanding that this is a prediction of conflict between man and snakes. The snake looses its legs in judgment. The snake will experience hostility from mankind.
This position is summarized by Dr. Hertz in the Hertz Pentateuch.
The sight of the serpent will create loathing in man, and fear of its deadly sting will call forth an instinctive desire to destroy it…. Because of its position on the ground, the serpent strikes at the heel of man; while the man deals the fatal blow by crushing its head. Therefore the victory will rest with man.
The Jewish commentary, The Soncino Books of the Bible, makes a similar statement by summarizing the position of the respected Jewish commentator Rashi.
The serpent sinned because of its desire for the woman; the consequence will be the reverse of what it hoped for…. The serpent will not have height and will only be able to bruise man in the heel.
As we continue to analyze this understanding, we need to clearly state some background information. That background information is the fact that the literal Hebrew pronouns are all singular in the text. In spite of this fact, the Jewish Publication Society changed the tenses in the final two phrases of its translation to make the text align with the Naturalistic position.
Jewish Publication Society version reads as follows (italics mine):
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel.
Instead of the final two phrases reading the literal “he(singular) shall bruise thy head and thou shalt bruise his (singular) heel,” the plural pronouns “they” and “their” are supplied. This makes the battle a battle between mankind and snakes rather than between two individuals – the Messiah and Satan.
The Artscroll Tenach translation is geared for Jewish people who can read Hebrew. They do not supply plural English pronouns when translating singular Hebrew pronouns (italics mine).
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will pound your head, and you will bite his heel.
The Artscroll Tenach translates the verse correctly, but they go on to interpret it in the Naturalistic manner anyway, citing the Ramban’s position.
Man will wield the advantage in the conflict between himself and the serpent, for man will pound the serpent’s head, but the serpent will bruise him only in the very heel with which man crushes its brain.
This understanding of the prophecy flies directly in the face of the context. The prophecy demands the appearance of a supernatural deliverer from sin rather than stating that men will be able to kill snakes by stepping on them and that mankind naturally detests snakes. It is a shallow position that is not true in reality.
The Symbolic position states that the passage teaches about a struggle between good and evil people. The seed of the woman are good people. The seed of the serpent are evil people.
The Fragmentary Targum to the Pentateuch takes this position by portraying the conflict as a picture of those who engage in diligent, obedient Torah study in contrast to those who do not engage in conscientious, compliant study. If Torah study is neglected, there is a spiritual void created that will be exploited by Satan. If Torah study is cultivated, the student will be able to overcome Satan.
And it shall be that when the sons of the woman study the Torah diligently and obey its injunctions, they will direct themselves to smite you on the head and slay you; but when the sons of the woman forsake the commandments of the Torah and do not obey its injunctions, you will direct yourself to bite them on the heel and afflict them. However, there will be a remedy for the sons of the woman, but for you, serpent, there will be no remedy. They shall make peace with one another in the end, in the very end of days, in the days of the King Messiah.
The Artscroll Tenach commentary very clearly evaluates the passage as Symbolic.
It may be said that the snake has become the symbol of man’s struggle against his lusts. Thus the verse says significantly: man is given greater strength over his lusts, than they have over him. Man can stamp his lusts on the head, they can at most catch him on the heel. Furthermore, lusts, like a snake, are of the greatest danger to a man when he is careless. By vigilance, he can avoid them. And just as snakes are most dangerous when incited, lusts should not be awakened and excited.
Here the snake is symbolic of lust. Mankind battles his yearnings and has the potential to be victorious.
A respected rabbi, Rabbi Sforno, also take the position that the passage is Symbolic. His position is summarized in the Artscroll Mesorah commentary.
The serpent represents the evil inclination.
Finally, some Jewish commentators take what could be called the Individual position.
Rather than seeing this prophecy as simply Naturalistic or Symbolic of good and evil people, some commentators see the child as the Angel of the Lord (see Targum Jonathan earlier) and therefore Messianic. The Targum Onkelos Translation likewise evaluates the prophecy as individualistic but does not make a strong Messianic connection.
And I will put enmity between thee and between the woman, and between thy son and her son. He will remember thee, what thou didst to him (at) from the beginning, and thou shalt be observant unto him at the end.
In conclusion, while the Symbolic position is the dominant rabbinic position, there is no need to be intimidated by it for a number of reasons. 1) The Hebrew text is singular speaking of literal individuals. 2) The fact that the Hebrew text is singular is recognized, or perhaps we should say obvious, to those who are knowledgeable in Hebrew. 3) The text flows from the individual woman and snake to the corporate seed of the woman and seed of the snake and then back to the individual Messiah and individual Satan. This is a literal prophecy with a literal fulfillment.
The rabbis are divided regarding the significance of Genesis 3:15. They are trying hard to avoid the implications of the singular individual position. However, we are not alone. Rabbi Tanchuma and Rabbi Kimchi and the Targumim state this is a Messianic verse. As a result, our position is well within a Jewish understanding of the prophecy. The Messiah will be a human being, a male. However, He will be of a unique birth because He will also be a supernatural person. In fact, He will be the God/man who will defeat Satan. The Messianic person will be bruised in this battle, but He will victoriously crush Satan’s head.
- ^ Hertz, Dr. J.H., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, (London, England: Soncino Press, 1987), p.12
- ^ Cohen, Dr. A., Soncino Books of the Bible, (New York, NY: The Soncino Press, Ltd., 1992); The Soncino Chumash, p.15
- ^ Scherman and Zlotowitz, Gen. Eds., Artscroll Tanach Series, Bereishis Volume 1 (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1977), p. 130
- ^ Huckel, T. The Rabbinic Messiah (Ge. 4:7), (Philadelphia: Hananeel House, 1998).
- ^ Artscroll Tanach Series, Bereishis Volume 1 (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1977), p. 130
- ^ Pelcovitz, Rabbi Raphael, Sforno, Commentary on the Torah, (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1987), p. 32
- ^ Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p. 145