The sequence of three speeches of God in Genesis 3:14-19 (to the serpent, the woman, and the man) illustrates biblical justice, which is to say a justice that does more than punish ; it sets things right and corrects what is wrong.
The sequence begins with the only curse God directs at a living thing. The serpent alone is cursed “out of every living thing of the field” (Gen. 3:14). It is a curse that makes his life a living death. He moves along his belly, which makes him an abomination to Israel (Lev. 11:42). He eats dust instead of the food that God gave from the earth (Gen. 1:29f), a theme to which we shall return when we come to the man and find that this is the dust of death (3:19). The serpent feeds on death, not life. He who said “you shall not surely die” (3:4) has become the living embodiment of death itself.
The serpent’s lie about death is the most fundamental thing God must correct. The woman and her man will surely die, and they must be made to know this. But God will also do something about it. He sets enmity between the future of this living death and the future of the one who will be “the mother of all living” (3:20).
The language for this future is procreative, as it centers on the seed of the serpent and—startlingly—the seed of the woman: “I will set enmity between you and the woman,” God tells the serpent, “and between your seed and her seed” (Gen. 3:15). This is like talking about the woman’s semen or sperm (words for “seed” in Latin and the Greek, respectively), an important point that is masked by the prudish term “offspring” used by our repressive recent translations.
What the prudishness represses is the second great reversal of ordinary procreation that we get in Genesis. First, the woman comes from the man (2:23), which of course is the opposite of ordinary childbirth, in which man comes from woman. And now, second, we hear of a woman’s seed, a procreative power that belongs to the woman. This runs counter to ancient thinking, which knew of the formative power of male seed, which is quite visible, but knew nothing of DNA and the woman’s ovum, which is microscopic. So the reference to the woman’s seed is meant to get our attention. It turns the ordinary course of things around.
We hear of a woman’s seed three more times in Genesis, each hinting at how God fulfills what he says here. Eve’s seed is Seth (4:25), who will continue the human race after the first murder. Hagar’s seed, beginning with Ishmael, shall be “multiplied beyond number” (16:10), bestowing a blessing beyond the bounds of Israel. And finally there is Rebecca’s seed (24:60), which includes Jacob, who becomes Israel—but also his twin brother Esau, whose fraught relationship with Jacob is at the center of Genesis’ story of the logic of otherness, where the one is always for the blessing of the other, even when the one and the other look more like a curse to one another.
The God who created heaven and earth can turn things around. He brings blessing out of curse, life out of death, redemption out of disobedience, over the course of a very long story. The church fathers were not wrong to see the beginning of the long story of redemption here, in the very first thing God has to say about the disobedience of his creation. His first words about sin are not punishment or curse for human race, but a justice that aims at reversing the work of death.
This passage came to be called the proto-evangelion , the first preaching of the Gospel, because the startling notion of a woman’s seed looks ahead to Jesus, who is born of a virgin without the seed of man. But we should add: the long story of redemption only gets to Jesus through Israel. Jesus, the king of the Jews, is the one who “crushes the head” (Gen. 3:15) of the living death, only because he is the successor of Seth, and even of Ishmael, and above all of Jacob, with his fraught relationship to Esau. Christological readings of the Old Testament need to be founded thus on what I would call “Israelogical” readings. Genesis’ own references to the seed of women demand this.
The news about Israel includes the good news about Israel’s Messiah, the woman’s seed who crushes the head of the serpent. A powerful future begins to work itself out here. But not without pain. Next we come to God’s word to the woman.