Calvin Theological Journal 6 (1971) 194-203.
Copyright © 1981 by Calvin Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
RECENT TRANSLATIONS OF GENESIS 3:15
MARTEN H. WOUDSTRA
THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH has always rightly regarded
God's words spoken to the serpent in paradise as consti-
tuting the first glimmer of salvation, the proto-evangelium. This
understanding of Gen. 3:15 has not gone unchallenged. Some
modern Old Testament theologians take sharp issue with it. Says
Gerhard von Rad : "The exegesis of the early church which
found a messianic prophecy here, a reference to a final victory of
the woman's seed (Protevangelium), does not agree with the
sense of the passage, quite apart from the fact that the word
‘seed’ may not be construed personally but only quite generally
with the meaning ‘posterity,’ " (Comm. on Genesis [
Quite a different challenge to the traditional Christian under-
standing of this passage comes from the side of the newer Bible
translations. A comparison of these translations demonstrates a
significant margin of uncertainty with respect to the actual words
God spoke to the serpent. The intent of this brief study is not
to discuss the entire prophecy contained in Gen. 3:15 but to
offer a critical comparison of the various recent translations
offered. The logic for this type of comparison is obvious. If the
church is going to continue to regard these words as a broadly
messianic promise it should be reasonably sure as to what it is
that is being promised. It is at this point that the variety of
English renderings enters in. Which one of the several offered
shall the interpreter choose?
Variant translations of Gen. 3:15 are by no means a phenom-
enon of recent origin. Already the Septuagint rendered the word
shuph, traditionally understood as "bruise" or "crush," by quite
a different word, meaning to guard or to watch. The Vulgate
chose two different words, respectively describing what the
woman's seed would do to the serpent and what the serpent
would do to the woman's seed. The first word, conterere, means
"to crush," while the second word, insidiari, means "to lie in
wait." The fact is also well known that the LXX chose to render
the Hebrew pronoun hu' with autos, making it a masculine,
whereas the Hebrew does not demand anything more than a
neuter. The Vulgate, on the other hand, rendered this same
pronoun with the feminine ipsa, thus giving support to a mario-
The purpose of the following comparison of translations is
primarily to localize the problem-areas which the translator con-
fronts. The scope of this scholion will not permit a full-fledged
discussion and resolution of these problems.
Here, then, is a listing of some of the representative trans-
lations of Gen. 3:15:
ASV And I will put enmity between thee and the
woman, and between thy seed and her seed: he
shall bruise (mg. note: lie in wait for) thy head,
and thou shalt bruise (mg. note idem) his heel.
RSV Essentially the same, minus the notes.
American I will put enmity between you and the woman,
Translation And between your posterity and hers; They shall
attack you in the head, And you shall attack them
in the heel.
JB I will make you enemies of each other
you and the woman, your offspring and her off-
It will crush your head and you will strike its
between your brood and hers. They shall strike
at your head, and you shall strike at their heel.
NAB I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers; He will
strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.
Zurcher Bible Und ich will Feindschaft setzen zwischen dir and
dem Weibe and zwischen deinem Nachwuchs
and ihrem Nachwuchs; er wird dir nach dem
Kopfe treten, and du wirst ihm nach der Ferse
196 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Dutch New En Ik zal vijandschap zetten tussen u en de
Version vrouw, en tussen uw zaad en haar zaad; dit zal u
den kop vermorzelen, en gij zult bet den hiel
Swedish of Och jag skall satta fiendskap mellan dig och
1917 kvinnan, och mellan din sad och henries sad.
Denna skall sondertrampa ditt huvud, och du
skall stinga den i halen.
The following problem areas emerge from this comparison.
(1) How to render the word zerac, traditionally translated
"seed." (2) What pronoun to use to refer to the agent which
will "bruise" the serpent's head. (3) Is "bruise"' (or "crush")
the best word to use here? A subsidiary question is whether the
same word should be used for both activities, that of the woman's
seed toward the serpent and vice versa.
Let us tabulate the results on the basis of this threefold di-
As to (1): Most translations have abandoned the literal trans-
lation "seed," probably for reasons of clarity. Sub-
stitutes are: "posterity," "offspring," "brood." The
Dutch and Swedish retain "seed."
As to (2): At this point the range of translations includes
"he," "they," and "it." (Knox, following the Vul-
gate has "she.")
As to (3): Some translations keep "bruise" in both instances
(RSV and DNV). Some substitute an identical
other word in both instances: "lie in wait," ASV
American; "strike at,"
NAB. A third group uses two different words for
the two activities respectively: "crush" and "strike"
(JB) : "treten nach" and "schnappen nach" (ZB) ;
"sondertrampa" and "stinga" (Swedish).
At this point I wish to append a few brief comments with
regard to each of these three translation problems.
Translation Problem One: How to render the Hebrew zerac.-
The substitution of the word "seed" by a more modern word
such as "offspring," or "brood," offers no great difficulty. While
regular Bible readers are used to the word "seed" this word is
certainly not current in the English language of today as a desig-
nation of offspring.
The real question at this point is whether the word zerac 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 which can
only be mentioned very briefly within the compass of this dis-
cussion. The first consideration concerns the parties to the con-
flict which is here foretold. The narrator of Genesis 3 clearly
suggests the presence of an actual snake in the story of the
temptation. He compares this "serpent" with all the other beasts
of the field which the Lord had made. Focussing on this aspect
first of all, the question should be faced: does the word zerac
indicate the "offspring," or "brood" of snakes?
The Lexicon informs us that the Old Testament uses zerac
very infrequently for the offspring of animals. One instance
given by B.D.B. is that presently under discussion. One other
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 zerac oc-
casionally is used as "offspring" in the case of animals is not a
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 a demonic force acting behind and
through the snake, how does this affect the question of the mean-
ing of zerac? 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. Later Scripture abundantly
confirms this opinion. It should be clear that the presence of a
demonic agent in the temptation very definitely affects the
198 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
question of how to understand zerac. The Bible nowhere suggests
that demons can have offspring in the sense of progeny or poster-
ity. When, nevertheless, the word zerac is used with respect to
the serpent it must, when Satan is in view, have a non-literal
meaning. As such this poses no great problem. It only points to
the complexity of the meaning of zerac: literal "offspring" in
the case of the woman, probably also with respect to the serpent,
although there the evidence is less clear, and finally a non-literal
use of zerac when applied to the one whom the serpent repre-
sented as spokesman.
There is still another use of the word zerac which may have
played a role at this point. One definition given by B.D.B. of zerac
is: "seed as marked by moral quality = persons (or community)
of such a quality." Passages listed include Prov. 11:21 ; Jer. 2:
21; Mal. 2:15; Is. 1:4; cf. Is. 65:23; 61:9; 65:9. Newer trans-
lations have captured this aspect of the word zerac quite ad-
mirably. Thus Prov. 11:21b is rendered by JB as follows: "but
the race of the virtuous will come to no harm" (lit.: the zerac
of the virtuous). RSV renders the same phrase simply: "but
those who are righteous will be delivered." Similarly JB trans-
lates 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 zerac may be distinguished from "off-
spring" (ASV renders: "for they are the seed of the blessed of
Jehovah, and their offspring with them").
If this meaning of zerac would play any role at all in Gen.
3:15 then one might, while retaining something of the "off-
spring" 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 God
himself. Upon this view both of these "seeds" could be found
among the children of men. This would then alleviate the diffi-
culty of having to take the word literally in the one instance and
figuratively in the other.
Translation Problem Two: How to render the pronoun hu'.--
In the Hebrew text this pronoun refers back to zerac, which is a
masculine word. Thus the masculine hu' could simply be ex-
plained in this sense. Since in English the word "seed" is neuter
one could defend the choice of "it" as a translation for hu'. This
is the way the King James Version rendered it, though both ASV
and RSV use "he." The Dutch New Version retains "it." This
reflects the ambiguity of the original and, in a certain sense
therefore, might be called a good translation.
However, the rendering "he" has also some very ancient and
venerable support. The Septuagint chose that word (Greek:
autos). This choice is all the more remarkable since the Greek,
in distinction from the Hebrew, has a choice of masculine, fem-
inine, and neuter. 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.
But grammatically the pronoun hu' refers back to zerac. Since
zerac, whether taken as "community," "race," or as "offspring,"
involves a plurality, the translation "they" can certainly be de-
fended. It need not detract from the broadly messianic under-
standing of the passage, though the Septuagint rendering would
clearly make this understanding much more explicit. But the
Old Testament arrives only gradually at the idea of a personal
It is possible, of course, that the choice of the plural pronoun
"they" in some of the modern versions proceeds from a view
which is incompatible with the understanding of this passage as
a protevangelium. However we cannot be sure of motivations.
The mere choice of the plural pronoun is not impossible gram-
matically and can be combined with the broadly messianic un-
derstanding of the passage, the singular being comprised within
the plural. Even the
get around the reference to "your head" and "you," both singu-
lars, when spoken of the serpent. In other words, it is the head
of the serpent, not that of his zerac, which is in view here. And
again, it is the serpent, not his zerac which will "bruise" the heel
of the woman's zerac.
200 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Another thing of importance to note at this point is the fact
that the Hebrew, by using the independent personal pronoun
hu', thereby kept the verb forms of "to bruise" in the singular.
There would have been the possibility, consistent with other
Hebrew usage, of following the singular zerac with a plural verb
form. Such usage is quite common when it comes to collectives
such as zerac. But the use of hu', in itself not necessary in an
ordinary Hebrew predicate, served to place emphasis on the basic
unity underlying the plurality.
Translation Problem Three: How to render "shuph"?-This
question has several aspects. (1) Should a relatively weak word
be used, such as "strike at," or a stronger one, such as "crush"?
(2) Should one and the same word be used for what the
woman's "seed" does to the head of the serpent and for what
the serpent will do to the heel of the woman's "seed"? (3) What
is the exact meaning of shuph? (4) What is the temporal scope
of the activity here envisaged in the context of the divine pro-
nouncements upon man, woman, and serpent?
None of these questions can be treated in complete isolation
from any of the others. Perhaps we might start by calling atten-
tion to the relatively heavy emphasis which the passage places
on the idea of "enmity." This word, by virtue of its forward
position in the Hebrew sentence, a position which interrupts
somewhat the normal flow of the Hebrew sentence structure,
indicates the true purpose of the divine deliverance at this point.
It would seem that the conclusion is warranted that the em-
phasis was placed not so much, or at least not in the first place,
on the victory gained in this conflict, but on the fact of the
conflict itself and on the way in which this conflict was to express
itself as long as it lasted.
If this should be the correct understanding of the passage's
chief intent, the choice of a weaker word as a translation of
shuph would not be out of place. The purpose of the passage,
upon this assumption, would not primarily be to describe the
outcome of the conflict but rather the way in which this conflict
was to express itself as long as it lasted. In this connection it can
easily be seen that if "crush" were to be chosen for what would
happen to the head of the serpent and if this crushing blow
were to be linked with Christ's victory over the devil at the cross,
then, in terms of this passage at least, the enmity of which it
speaks could no longer be exercised. One of the combatants
would have been knocked out. Yet, as was noted, it was this
enmity and its mutual expression in terms of the Hebrew verb
shuph that was made to stand out in this passage.
The problem confronting us here could easily be solved if the
meaning of this Hebrew word was itself unambiguously clear.
On this point there is no unanimity among Biblical expositors.
Hengstenberg, (Christology, I, p. 26) confidently asserts that the
verb in the other two O.T. passages where it occurs "undeniably
signifies: ‘to crush,’ ‘to bruise.’” Von Rad, in his commentary
ad loc., states: "Philologically the verb shuph cannot be ex-
plained satisfactorily." The current Hebrew lexicons appear to
support this latter contention. Even this does not settle all ques-
tions, but it should be kept in mind.
As was noted above, the choice of a weaker word for the
activity by which the enmity expresses itself is not of recent
origin. The Vulgate used insidiaberis for what the serpent was
going to do to the seed of the woman. And the Septuagint used
tereoo (watch, guard) in both instances. Similar approaches can
be found in the modern versions. The lexicons suggest that,
while in both instances the word shuph is used, its meaning in
the second instance may be closer to the Hebrew sha'aph (gasp,
pant after). This may well be the reason why the translation
"lie in wait" (ASV, margin) has been chosen as an alternative
(cf. also the Vulgate: insidiaberis).
In view of the relative obscurity of the meaning of shuph and
in view of other considerations, such as the scope and intent of
the passage, the translation "strike at,"
as found in both
NAB should be given serious consideration. One obvious ad-
vantage of this rendering is that it maintains, also in English,
the parallelism found in the Hebrew. One and the same word
is used for both activities. This translation also removes the
difficulty, experienced by some interpreters, of how to conceive
of the attack of a snake upon a man's heel in terms of "crush-
ing." These are definite advantages.
Are there any disadvantages? Is the Christian understanding
of this verse impaired by the suggested rendering? The first
202 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
answer to this question should be that it is ultimately the sense
of a given passage of Scripture itself that determines what should
be its "Christian" understanding. But in the second place, in
view of what was noted above about the prominence given to
the notion of enmity, and also in view of the fact that this first
"glimmer of salvation" stands at the beginning of man's journey
through time as God's fallen creature, the use of the verb "strike
at" appears well suited to express the thought God had in mind.
Would it not be in keeping with the nature of the scene that
God, at this early point in redemptive history, was looking for-
ward not in the first place to its midpoint, the cross, but rather
that he announced a condition which would prevail from the
beginning of that history to its very end? And if so, would not
a milder term such as "strike at," be preferable? This is not to
deny the crucial significance of Christ's death on the cross as a
definitive blow to Satan's power. Yet, as is well known from
passages such as Rev. 12:13 and 17, the devil's power is still
to be reckoned with. This aspect could be more easily explained
in terms of Gen. 3:15 if the verse did not have in mind primarily
what would happen when Christ died on the cross, even though
that too would be one very significant instance of the "enmity"
and of the way in which this enmity expresses itself.
What should also be noted in this connection is that the sur-
rounding context seems to suggest a situation which reaches as
far as the horizon of time. The snake's curse, woman's childbirth
in pain, man's work in the sweat of his face, these are conditions
that are coextensive with mankind's history short of consum-
mation. Would it be strange if, in this setting, the Lord had
spoken of a perennial and sustained enmity, set and maintained
by him, which was to last as long as time would last? And would
not that be another reason why a rendering such as "strike at"
would have much to commend itself?
It has been frequently pointed out that since in the one in-
stance the head is affected and in the other "only" the heel, this
passage should be taken as an unambiguous indication of future
success and victory on the part of the woman's seed. But others
have countered by saying that the relative position of the two
combatants, man and snake, make the use of these two modes
of attack inevitable. But is a snake bite, even when aimed at
the lowly heel, meant to be any less lethal than when a man
strikes at a serpent's head?
If the above approach to this problem should commend itself,
does it mean that this passage is devoid of the gospel which the
Christian church has found in it? I do not think so. The mere
fact of God's "setting" of the enmity is a tremendous initiative
for good, unexpected and unmerited. Man's alignment with the
forces of evil is broken through. And, though upon this ap-
proach this passage does not explicitly predict ultimate victory
of the woman's seed, nevertheless the One who set the enmity
might also be regarded as implicitly guaranteeing the ultimate
success of those who are on his side. Although much remains
yet to be said in later revelations, what is being said is of such
significance that the term "protevangelium" may be rightly used
to describe it.
-MARTEN H. WOUDSTRA
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