THE PROTOEVANGELIUM OR "FIRST GOSPEL"
Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, also serves as the first book of the Torah or Pentateuch, spoken of by Jesus as the "Law", the specific expression of God's will.1 The Torah or תּוֹרָﬣ comprises the first five books of Hebrew Scripture (our Old Testament) - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
The book was first called "Genesis", ΓΕΝΕΣΙΣ, the word for "origin" in the Greek Septuagint translation, as it presented both the origin of the world and mankind, and in particular, the Hebrew people. The book in Hebrew was known by its first word בְּרֵאשִׁית - "in the beginning."3 Genesis Chapters 1-11 trace the primeval story of creation, and Genesis Chapters 12-50 recount the patriarchal history of Israel.
This paper is written in the light of a hermeneutic of faith or through the eyes of faith, as described by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI 2005-2013). 5 This paper will focus on the passage of Genesis 3:15, and how it fits within the context of the primeval story of creation. Genesis 3:15 "establishes the trajectory" of salvation history and achieves fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Our goal is to determine the literal sense of the passage, from which all other senses of Scripture derive.6 The New Testament writers and the Fathers of the Church will then be reviewed for the spiritual sense of the passage. 7
Hebrew tradition and the Mishnah name Moses - מֹשֶׁה the author of the Torah. This paper supports the belief that the Law (Torah or Pentateuch) was written in the context of one divinely inspired author, Moses, who served as the originator of the text and served as a collector of literary traditions. This belief is suggested here for 3 reasons. First, Moses is recorded in the Torah as writer and was named the author of the Law by Jesus and the New Testament writers: 2
"Moses then wrote down all the words of the Lord,
and rising early the next day, he erected at the foot of the mountain
an altar and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel."
Book of Exodus 24:4
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words,
for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”
So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water.
And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
"When Moses had written down this law,
he entrusted it to the levitical priests
who carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord,
and to all the elders of Israel."
Book of Deuteronomy 31:9
"When Moses had finished writing out on a scroll the words of the law in their entirety,
he gave the Levites who carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord this order:
Take this scroll of the law and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord, your God,
that there it may be a witness against you."
"We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,
Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."
Gospel of John 1:45
"If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.
But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?"
Gospel of John 5:46-47
"Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness
which is based on the law shall live by it."
St. Paul to the Romans 10:5
"Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds;
but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed."
Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 3:15-16
Second, Dr. Gary Rendsburg has done extensive research into ancient Hebrew morphology and proposes a unity to both Genesis and the Torah.8 For example, he writes that the presence of the epicene personal pronoun is significant in the dating of the Pentateuch. This use of an epicene personal pronoun - one pronoun for both "he" and "she" - signifies ancient Hebrew and was also seen in original Phoenician and Moabite manuscripts as well. The area of the earliest Israelites was also a time of Hittite and Hurrian penetration, neither language of which distinguished for gender. Rendsburg further concludes that the presence of הוא or Pentateuchal HW', since it appeared 120 times throughout the Pentateuch but not in the Prophets or writings, indicates that the "Pentateuch is early and that the JEDP theory cannot be correct."
Third, there is evidence of ancient literary traditions, both biblical and non-biblical, that could serve as sources for the writings of Moses. For example, the Hebrew word for book - סֵפֶר - sefer - appears as early as Genesis 5:1, indicating a written tradition of the generations of Adam. As observed by Jean Astruc in 1753, Moses first appears in the Torah in the Book of Exodus and, while he was an eyewitness for events from Exodus to Deuteronomy, he probably relied on ancient traditions to write the Book of Genesis.10 It is certainly possible that one author could account for such an intertwining and variance of the naming of God, either as a literary device as seen in Genesis 3, or as seen in God's appearance to Moses in Exodus.
The Setting within Genesis
The first 11 Chapters of Genesis portray God retaining dominion and relationship with his creation, in spite of man's sin and disobedience. This is evident from the beginning of the creation narrative, when God creates the universe and mankind - he is the source of all that is. In Chapter 1-2:4 God is called אֱלֹהִים or Elohim, and called יהוה אֱלֹהִים or Yahweh Elohim - Lord God, beginning at verse 2:4 and throughout Chapters 2 and 3.
Even though God places our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, they break their relationship with God by their sin - חַטָּאת of disobedience. Their fall leads to punishment, and eventual expulsion from the Garden.
But then God showed mercy, when in Genesis 3:15 he speaks of someone in the future who will "crush the head of the serpent." This is a sign of God's love for his creation; in spite of man's disobedience, he gave mankind hope for the future.
God punished Cain after he killed Abel, and told him "the ground is cursed because of you." But then God mitigated his punishment and afforded Cain protection by placing a mark on him (Genesis 4:8-15). Sin continued to spread to such a point that even the heavenly ones breached the natural order by taking earthly wives (Genesis 6:1-4). God regretted he had made the human race and was going to "blot out" man - but then he found favor with Noah (Genesis 6:6-8). God then delivered Noah from the Flood in the ark. Even though men created the Tower of Babel, God blessed the generations of Shem and gave Terah a son named Abram (Genesis 11:26).
Thus, in spite of man's continued sin and disobedience, God stayed true to mankind in spite of their persistence in sin and continued to show love and mercy to humanity, a recurrent theme in salvation history that was first presented in Genesis 3:15.
The narrative structure of Chapter 3 offers insight into the meaning of the text. The chapter begins with the serpent, who suggests to the "woman" to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (verses 1-5). The serpent cleverly tells the woman that if she eats the fruit of the forbidden tree, "you will be like God." There is a subtle but significant change in the naming of God by the serpent - he called God simply Elohim and not Lord God (Yahweh Elohim). The woman then echoes the serpent by also calling God Elohim in 3:3.
The woman succumbed to the serpent's lie and ate of its fruit and gave the fruit to the אָדָם - Adam, the word for both "Adam" and "man" - and he ate (3.6).
In his investigation of what happened, the Lord God first questions Adam and then Eve (verses 8-13). God does not question the serpent. But he renders punishment in opposite order - first to the serpent (verses 14-15), then to the woman in verse 16, then to the man in verses 17-19.
This sequence parallels the order of appearance in the narrative in Chapter 3. The serpent appears first in the chapter, and is named first in the series of punishments - he is the first to blame, as he was the instigator. The woman is the one who appears second, and the third in appearance is Adam, and he is the last to be punished. Yahweh and the serpent are the characters who signify pivotal change in the story line.
Dr. Sofia Cavalletti comments that there are two interesting if not unique occurrences during the adjudication part of the narrative in Genesis 3:14-19. God directly curses the serpent only; this occurs nowhere else in the Bible. But God only punishes the man and woman. And the gift of mitigation by God for the man and woman occurs during the punishment of the serpent. There is a prophetic sense to the passage in Genesis 3:15, for, during the punishment of the serpent, God refers to the future, that there will be one "who will crush the head of the serpent." There is hope for the human race!
One observes the waw-consecutive of narration throughout the passage, with the waw-imperfect form of discourse and waw-perfect form providing the background. Following the act of disobedience, the Lord God places his punishment upon the serpent in verses 3:14 and 3:15. As the structure of the punishment is in the form of two pronouncements, which are relatively independent of each other, the two verses are considered individually.
Then the LORD God said to the serpent:
One cannot help wonder at this point - who is the serpent?
"Cursed are you above all the livestock,
and all the wild animals
and from all the wild creatures;
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust all the days of your life."
Genesis 3:14 NIV
The serpent speaks, the only animal that does so in the primeval story of creation.
The serpent tempts the woman to be disobedient to the Lord God.
The serpent "demotes" God by calling him Elohim and not Yahweh Elohim as the narrator.
The serpent actually infers that God is a liar - "No, you will not die..." (v 3:4).
Is the serpent just a clever animal?
The Hebrew scholar Umberto Cassuto makes the important point that not only is it a question of the serpent speaking, it is what the serpent is saying: "the serpent here speaks solely for the purpose of inciting against the will of the Lord God!" Cassuto notes the serpent in the tradition of Israel at the time was a symbol of evil.
Since the serpent is opposed to God, and leads astray God's creation, one cannot help deduce that the serpent is or has become an evil force. Certainly one sees development of this concept throughout Scripture and Patristic tradition.
God strictly cursed the serpent, but did not curse Adam (3:17) or Cain (4:11), but only the ground that they would toil.
God tells the serpent that he shall eat dust - עָפָר - afar all the days of his life. Man was formed of dust (2:7), and God reminds Adam that "thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return (3:19)."
What is the perception of the serpent in subsequent Biblical writings? The Old Testament Book of Wisdom reads:
"For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil,
death entered the world,
and they who are in his possession experience it."
The Book of Revelation specifically names the ancient serpent the devil and Satan.
"And the great dragon was thrown down,
that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan,
the deceiver of the whole world -
he was thrown down to the earth,
and his angels were thrown down with him."
The Fathers of the Church further elaborate on this subject. St. Augustine, in his commentary on chapter 3 in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, states "This serpent, however, could be called the wisest of of the beasts not by reason of its irrational soul but rather because of another spirit - that of the Devil - dwelling in it."
"I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
He will crush your head,
while you strike at his heel."
This passage is striking! A message of hope is given humanity, for, even though God begins to punish the offenders, he speaks of mankind having offspring -so his blessing on mankind of future generations has not been removed. This is in itself a declaration of mercy.
God informs the serpent he will put enmity between the serpent and the woman. This is reinforced by the second part of the sentence, “between your offspring and hers.” The Hebrew word זֶרַע - zera - is the same for “offspring” and “seed”, accounting for the difference in English translations, but in both cases the word is masculine.
The second sentence begins with a personal pronoun. The word may refer either to the “woman”, or may refer to the offspring or seed of the woman. Thus the beginning of the second part of Genesis 3:15 is translated primarily in two ways. Both the Latin Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims translations convey this passage as “she will crush your head, while you strike at his heel “... whereas the King James version, the Revised Standard Version, and the NIV read “he will crush your head...” In view of the epicene personal pronoun (one form to indicate both male and female sex) as described above, both are correct!
Who is the "woman"?
Adam calls her “woman” - אִשָּׁה - ishah - until he names her Eve - – hawwah - in Genesis 3:20, the "mother of all the living."
God then makes clothes for them, then says, "'Behold the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever,' he sent them forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken" (Genesis 3:22-23). Of interest, two of the words, "hand" יָד - yad, and "know" יָדַע - yadah, are closely related.
In summary, Genesis 3:15 has a prophetic nature to it, for there is a promise in the future of redemption, that someone will crush the head of the serpent. God's judgement upon the serpent contains a promise of ultimate victory through the woman by her offspring. This concept will be developed in a spiritual sense throughout Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.
New Testament Writers
St. Matthew, in speaking of Mary being with child, sees the fulfillment of two Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, that of Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:1-4, in Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:20-2:6).
St. Paul addressed original sin, and calls Adam "a type of the one to come," referring to Christ in his Letter to the Romans. The word for Adam and man is the same in Hebrew, and Jesus called himself the Son of Man.
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man
St. Paul uses similar language to Genesis 3:15 to refer to Christ crushing Satan:
and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned -
sin indeed was in the world before the law was given,
but sin is not counted where there is no law.
Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses,
even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of
who was a type of the one who was to come.
Then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
St. John in his Gospel was the first to implicitly refer to Mary as Eve, the “woman” of Genesis 3:15.
1 St. John's Gospel refers to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as woman at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-5). When Mary informs Jesus that they have no wine, he calls his mother “woman,” that his “hour has not yet come.”
On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee,
and the mother of Jesus was there;
Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples.
When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him,
"They have no wine."
And Jesus said to her,
"O woman, what have you to do with me?
My hour has not yet come."
His mother said to the servants,
"Do whatever he tells you.
As Jesus was dying on the cross, he called out to his mother, "Woman, behold your son (John 19:26)."
When Jesus saw his mother,
and the disciple whom he loved standing near,
he said to his mother,
"Woman, behold, your son!"
Then he said to the disciple,
"Behold, your mother!"
And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
Father George Montague notes that “woman” was not the customary way for a semitic son to call his mother, so that together in these two scenes, “woman” suggests much deeper symbolism. Jesus is the offspring of the woman, and by naming Mary with this title, Jesus is suggesting that the earlier promise of salvation is being fulfilled. Montague sees this motif of the conquest of satan through the woman’s son in Revelation 12. St. John continues in Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation to refer to the "woman’ clothed with the sun." One can trace development from the “seed of the woman” and painful birth in Genesis 3:15-16 to the concept of the “woman in travail” in Micah's prophecy of the Messiah coming from Bethlehem to the "woman in travail" in Revelation 12:2-5. He further notes that the word "offspring" in Revelation 12:17 is the same word used in Genesis 3:15 for the "seed" of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent.
One may see in an overview that the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, and the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, serve as bookends to the whole of salvation history, the triumph of God through his Son Jesus Christ.
The Church Fathers on Genesis 3:15
St. Justin Martyr (120-165 AD) was the first Church Father to draw an explicit comparison between Eve and Mary: "For Eve, being a virgin and undefiled, conceiving the word that was from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death; but the Virgin Mary, taking faith and joy, when the Angel told her the good tidings, that the Spirit of the Lord should ... overshadow her, and therefore the Holy One that was born of her was Son of God, answered, "Be it done to me according to Thy word."
The concept of Genesis 3:15 being the Proto-evangelium or "First Gospel"
is attributed to St. Irenaeus of Lyons (135-202) from his work Against the Heresies: "For this end did He put enmity between the serpent and the woman and her seed, they keeping it up mutually: He, the sole of whose foot should be bitten, having power also to tread upon the enemy's head; but the other biting, killing, and impeding the steps of man, until the seed did come appointed to tread down his head, - which was born of Mary, of whom the prophet speaks: 'Thou shalt tread upon the asp and the basilisk; thou shalt trample down the lion and the dragon (Psalm 91:13).'"
- St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Chapter 23, Number 7 20
"Christ has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam, and trampled upon his head, as thou can perceive in Genesis that God said to the serpent, 'And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; He shall be on the watch for thy head, and thou on the watch for his heel.' For from that time, He who should be born of a woman, namely from the Virgin, after the likeness of Adam, was preached as keeping watch for the head of the serpent. This is the seed of which the apostle says in the Letter to the Galatians, 'that the law of works was established until the seed should come to whom the promise was made (Galatians 3:19).' This fact is exhibited in a still clearer light in the same Epistle where he thus speaks: 'But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman (Galatians 4:4).' For indeed the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man born of a woman who conquered him. For it was by means of a woman that he got the advantage over man at first, setting himself up as man's opponent. And therefore does the Lord profess Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned, in order that , as our species went down to death through a vanqushed man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm of victory against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death."
- St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Book V, 21, 1
St. Jerome (347-420) translated the Hebrew texts while living an ascetic life in Bethlehem and completed his work in 405. St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible was the standard Bible in Western civilization for over 1000 years! He employed the word she for the epicene form in Genesis 3:15. This of course had a profound effect on Marian devotion. St. Jerome captured the meaning at the time through an expression: "Death through Eve, life through Mary." One still sees today statues of Mary trampling the head of the serpent.
In his Decree on the Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus, published December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX declared: "These ecclesiastical writers in quoting (Genesis 3:15), by which at the beginning of the world God announced his merciful remedies prepared for the regeneration of mankind - words by which he crushed the audacity of the deceitful serpent and wondrously raised up the hope of our race - taught that by this divine prophecy the merciful Redeemer of mankind, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, was clearly foretold: That his most Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, was prophetically indicated; and, at the same time, the very enmity
of both against the evil one was significantly expressed."
In his solemn declaration on the Assumption of Mary, Munificentissimus Deus, published November 1, 1950, Pope Pius XII refers Mary as the new Eve and the Proto-evangelium: "We must remember especially that, since the second century, the Virgin Mary has been designated by the holy Fathers as the new Eve, who, although subject to the new Adam, is intimately associated with him in that struggle against the infernal foe which, as foretold in the Protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15), would finally result in complete victory over the sin and death which are always mentioned together in the writings of the Apostle of the Gentiles (Romans 5:12-6:11; I Corinthians 15:21-26, 15:54-57)."
Of all the modern commentary on Genesis 3:15, Gordon Wenham offers this quite appropriate thought: "While a messianic interpretation may be justified in the light of subsequent revelation - a sensus plenior or the fuller sense - it would perhaps be wrong to suggest that this was the narrator's own understanding."
Pope John Paul II, in his 1987 encyclical Redemptoris Mater, reminds us that Mary is the "woman" foreshadowed in that promise made to our first parents after their fall into sin, according to the Book of Genesis (Genesis 3:15) ... The fullness of grace indicates all the supernatural munificence from which Mary benefits by being chosen and destined to being the Mother of Christ."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs that "Genesis 3:15 is called the Protoevangelium or First Gospel: the first announcement of the Messiah and Redeemer, of a battle between the serpent and the Woman, and of the final victory of a descendant of hers."
Genesis 3:15 is a promise, a message of hope for mankind. God created this world and retains dominion over the world. God will not let the force of evil prevail, but will deliver mankind from its grip.
God punished our first parents for their disobedience, but as a sign of his mercy, preserved his blessing of future generations. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden is mitigated by hope of an offspring of the woman.
The primeval story of creation presents God retaining dominion and relationship with his creation in spite of man's disobedience and fall. Ever since Adam and Eve, there has been a struggle between good and evil. Adam and Eve were led to the sin of disobedience, when the serpent achieved victory by leading our first parents astray. But after pronouncing punishment, the Lord God mitigated the sentence by promising an offspring of the woman, a son of man to crush the head of the serpent in Genesis 3:15. God does not give up on his creation!
New Testament Scripture and the Church Fathers saw Mary as the new Eve, the woman whose offspring was Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, who would triumph over evil. Jesus died on the Cross to fulfill his Father's will and redeem mankind.
Genesis 3:15 sets the course of salvation history throughout the Bible and finds fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
1 Andrew Minto PhD. Genesis 1-11: Exegesis and Patristics. Class Lectures and Notes, Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 2004.
2 Navarre Revised Standard Version of the The Holy Bible, Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 1999-2005.
3 Kohlenberger JR. NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1987.
4 JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2000.
5 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. "Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis." Origins 17 (February 11, 1988) (35): 593-602.
6 The Second Vatican Council. "Lumen Gentium" and "Dei Verbum," in Vatican Council II, Austin Flannery (ed): (New York: Dominican Publications, Costello Publishing Company, 1996), 416, 750-765.
7 Pontifical Biblical Commission. The Interpretation of the Bible in The Church. Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1993.
8 Gary A Rendsburg. "Ancient Hebrew Morphology," in Morphologies of Asia and Africa, Kaye AS (ed): Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2007.
9 Gary A Rendsburg. "A New Look at Pentateuchal HW'." Biblica 63 (1982): 351-369.
10 Sofia Cavalletti. The History of the Kingdom of God, Part I: From Creation to Parousia. (Chicago: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Liturgy Training Publications, 2012), 23-60.
11 Gary A Rendsburg. The Redaction of Genesis. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1986.
12 Pope John Paul II. "Original Unity of Man and Woman," in Theology of the Body - Human Love in the Divine Plan, (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1997), 25-102.
13 Menahem Mansoor. Biblical Hebrew - Step by Step, Volume One. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980, 24th Printing, 2007. Volume Two, Third Edition, 1984, 13th printing, 2002.
14 Allen P. Ross. Introducing Biblical Hebrew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001.
15 Umberto Cassuto. A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1978), 138-162.
16 Allen P. Ross. Creation and Blessing: Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996), 130-151.
17 St. Augustine. The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Book XI, Chapter II. (New York: Ancient Christian Writers, 1982), Vol 42:135-136.
18 Father George T. Montague. The Apocalypse. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, 1992), 141-150.
19 St. Justin Martyr. "Dialogue with Trypho", Chapter 100, in Fathers of the Church. New York: Christian Heritage, 1948.
20 Irenaeus of Lyons. "Against the Heresies," Book III, Chapter 23, 7 and Book V, Chapter 21, 1, in The Apostolic Fathers, Coxe AC (ed). Edinburgh: American Edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1885.
21 Andrew Louth. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 90-91.
22 Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854, and
Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, November 1, 1950, on Welcome to the Catholic Church on CD-ROM, Gervais, Oregon: Harmony Media, 2005.
23 Gordon J. Wenham. World Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15. (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), 80-91.
24 Pope John Paul II. God's Yes to Man - The Encyclical Redemptoris Mater. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.
25 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, (Washington, DC: US Catholic Conference, 2000), 115-119, 410.
The Book of Genesis
The Alphabet of Biblical Hebrew