[b-hebrew] Genesis 3:15 and order of ideas

Gary Dikeman grbike at sbcglobal.net
Mon Jan 7 22:04:07 EST 2008

So far no one has proven that the "seed" of the serpent of Genesis 3:15 does not exist. Perhaps we should focus more on the subject "seed" so that we might reach a conclusion. The real question at this point is whether the Hebrew word zera is meant to convey the idea of offspring, or at least whether or not this is the sole intent of the word as used here. The answer to this question depends on several other considerations. The first consideration concerns the parties to the conflict which is here foretold. The narrator of Genesis 3 clearly suggests the presence of an actual "serpent". If we stay within the confines of the book of Genesis he compares this "serpent" with all the other beasts of the field which YHWH had made. Focusing on this aspect first of all, the question should be faced: does the word zera indicate "offspring".

The Lexicon informs us that the Old Testament uses zera very infrequently for the offspring of animals. One instance listed is Gen. 7:3, but this passage is hardly a convincing illustration of the point at issue. The purpose for taking the animals into the ark was not actually to keep their offspring alive. This offspring was not yet present at the time these words were spoken. How could it have been kept alive in the ark? Some modern translations have sensed this problem and have avoided the word "seed" or "offspring" altogether at this point: RSV, "to keep their kind alive"; JB, "to propagate their kind." I believe that an appeal to Gen. 7:3 to prove that zera occasionally is used as "offspring" in the case of animals is not a strong one.

Another point to be considered is whether the story of the fall suggests the presence of more than a mere animal. If the story does suggest the presence of demonic force acting behind and through the serpent, how does this affect the question of the meaning of zera? As to the presence of a force other than a mere animal in man's temptation, I believe that as one reads Genesis 3 one does indeed become conscious of such a force. There is a diabolical subtlety in the serpent's suggestions which points to a sinister background to his words. As such this poses no great problem. It only points to the complexity of the meaning of zera: literal "offspring" in the case of the woman as well as the serpent. 

If we step outside the confines of the book of Genesis; the word zera which plays a definite role at this point, one can find a definition given by the Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon of 1828: semen virile; children, posterity; a child; a race, tribe, people. Passages listed include Prov. 11:21; Jer. 2:21; Mal. 2:15; Is. 1:4; cf. Is. 65:23; 61:9; 65:9. Newer translations have captured this aspect of the word zera quite admirably. Thus Prov. 11:21b is rendered by JB as follows: "but the race of the virtuous will come to no harm" (lit.: the zera of the virtuous). RSV renders the same phrase simply: "but those who are righteous will be delivered." Similarly JB translates Is. 65:23 as follows: "for they will be a race blessed by Yahweh, and their children with them." This passage makes quite clear that the word zera may be distinguished from "offspring" (ASV renders: "for they are the seed of the blessed of Jehovah, and their offspring with them").

If this meaning of zera would play any role at all in Gen.3:15 then one might, while retaining something of the "offspring" notion, understand the two "seeds" to stand for two "races," two "communities," each marked by a moral quality. These communities are headed up by two distinct principals, the one principal being the woman, the other the serpent, each of which had just been set at enmity with the other by YHWH himself. Upon this view both of these "seeds" could be found among the children of men. This would then alleviate the difficulty of having to take the word literally in the one instance and figuratively in the other.

The Greek word for "seed" (sperma) being a neuter, the Septuagint could have followed this up with a neuter (auto). Apparently it felt the personal reference at this point to be strong enough to choose autos instead. And, indeed, something of the personal next to the collective does play a role in this passage.

Since zera, whether taken as "community," "race," or as "offspring," involves a plurality, the translation "they" can certainly be defended. It need not detract from the broadly messianic understanding of the passage. 

If we continue to remain within the confines of the book of Genesis the "serpent" can not be identified as anything other than a pre-Adamic being capable of producing offspring.

G. Dikeman

Houston, TX

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