Hebrew Exegesis of Genesis 3:14-19

Cursed!
Cursed!
  1. I.                   Text

 Genesis 3:14 וַיֹּאמֶר֩ יְהֹוָ֙ה אֱלֹהִ֥ים׀ אֶֽל־הַנָּחָשׁ֘ כִּ֣י עָשִׂ֣יתָ זֹּאת֒ אָר֤וּר אַתָּה֙ מִכָּל־הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה וּמִכֹּ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה עַל־גְּחֹנְךָ֣ תֵלֵ֔ךְ וְעָפָ֥ר תֹּאכַ֖ל כָּל־יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ 15 וְאֵיבָ֣ה׀ אָשִׁ֗ית בֵּֽינְךָ֙ וּבֵ֣ין הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וּבֵ֥ין זַרְעֲךָ֖ וּבֵ֣ין זַרְעָ֑הּ ה֚וּא יְשׁוּפְךָ֣ רֹ֔אשׁ וְאַתָּ֖ה תְּשׁוּפֶ֥נּוּ עָקֵֽב׃ ס 16 אֶֽל־הָאִשָּׁ֣ה אָמַ֗ר הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה֙ עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ׃ ס 17 וּלְאָדָ֣ם אָמַ֗ר כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֘ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ וַתֹּ֙אכַל֙ מִן־הָעֵ֔ץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוִּיתִ֙יךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אֲרוּרָ֤ה הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּֽעֲבוּרֶ֔ךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן֙ תֹּֽאכֲלֶ֔נָּה כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃ 18 וְק֥וֹץ וְדַרְדַּ֖ר תַּצְמִ֣יחַֽ לָ֑ךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ אֶת־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃ 19 בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב׃

  1. II.                Textual, Word, and Syntactical Analysis

 

*נָּחָשׁ: “snake; serpent”

*אר֤וּר: “cursed”; qal passive participle of  ארר,

*גְּחֹנְךָ: belly of reptiles (Holladay, p.59)

*תֵלֵ֔ךְ: “walk”, in the context it should mean “crawl”

*וְעָפָ֥ר תֹּאכַ֖ל: “Dust you will eat.” Being restricted to crawling on the ground is followed by « eating dust.” NET notes point out that the ideas of “being brought low” and “eating what is not the natural diet of the serpent” are symbolic of the humiliating result of the curse.

*וְאֵיבָ֣ה: “hostility.” The root of this word is אֵיב (« to be hostile, to be an adversary [or enemy] »). The curse announces that there will be continuing battle and tension, instead of peace, in the serpent’s life.

*זַרְעֲךָ֖…זַרְעָ֑הּ: « offspring; seed.” The word functions as a collective singular here. Holladay notes that in such usage, the subjects are usually the patriarchs or David. Examples include 1Sam 220; Gen 12:716:10; 22:17; 24:60; 2Sam 7:12; Is 53:10; Gen 38:8, But it can still connote the singular idea, such as in Gen 425, where Seth is identified as “another seed” (זֶ֣רַע אַחֵ֔ר) in place of Abel after Abel’s death and the banishment of Cain.

*יְשׁוּפְךָ֣… תְּשׁוּפֶ֥נּו: They are respectively the “qal imperfect 3rd person masculine singular suffixed by 2nd person masculine singular” and “qal imperfect 2nd person masculine singular suffixed by 3rd person masculine singular” of the verb שׁוף, “bruise.”  The forms agree grammatically with the collective singular noun « offspring. »

*רֹ֔אשׁ… עָקֵֽב: “head…heel”: The text anticipates the ongoing struggle between human beings and the serpent’s offspring. Both of the words are functioning as adverbial accusative here, locating the blow.

*הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה: “I will greatly/surely increase.” The infinitive absolute form the same verb “רבה” following its imperfect verb form serves to emphasize and intensify its original meaning.

עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ: « your pain and your conception.” עִצָּבוֹן means “hardship, pain, distress” (Holladay, p.280), and הֵרוֹן is traditionally the word for “pregnancy” (Holladay, p.84). NET affirms that the two words together form a hendiadys “childbirth pain”, with the second explaining the first. Also,

it is very possible that the term include both physical pain and emotional distress related to the pregnancy, as the root verb of עִצְּבוֹן, עָצַב can indicate.

*וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ: « and toward your husband [will be] your desire. » A future verb is provided according the demands of the context.

*מָשַׁל: the basic meaning is “to rule, govern”, and in this case בּ is inserted before the object. Parallel usage of מָשַׁל with בּ can be found in Gen 1:18, where “heavenly bodies (sun, moon and starts) rule over the day and the night (Holladay, p.220).

*שָׁמַעְתָּ֘ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ: NET notes that the idiom « listen to the voice of » often means « obey. » The man « obeyed » his wife and in the process disobeyed God. Part of the judgmental oracle predicates the reversal of this situation. The man will then rule over his wife, as opposed to “listen her voice.”

בַּֽעֲבוּרֶ֔ךָ: the original meaning of עֲבוּר is produce of field (Holladay, p.262). with בְּ it functions as a preposition “because of, for the sake of” (HALOT, p.778), “thanks to” (NET).

*בְּעִצָּבֹון֙: עִצָּבֹון is previously used on woman’s labor pain. Here it refers to “hard work, toil, i.e., labor that is very intense and so expending of considerable energy, with a special focus on the physical pain that occurs in very strenuous work”, and in the context, farm work (DBLH 6779, #2)

*עֵ֥שֶׂב: the term refers to the green plants in the collective sense. NET notes that when referring to human food, excludes grass (eaten by cattle) and woody plants like vines. “עֵ֤שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה” here forms a construct chain that is used another three times in the Bible (Gen 2:5; Ex 9:22, 25), meaning “the grains of the field.”

*אַפֶּ֙יךָ: אַף is “area of nose”, namely, “face” (Holladay, p.24)

*לֶ֔חֶם: it can mean 1) grain (for bread); 2) bread; 3) food, nourishment. As a metonymy, the last meaning fits the context best.

*עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה: “until you return to the ground.” The phrase is recalling man’s being created in Gen 2:7, and there is a wordplay on אֲדָמָ֔ה and Adam (אָדָ֣ם).

  1. III.             Translation

 

14So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals! Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her seed; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” 16To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

17To Adam he said, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 It shall bring forth to you thorns and thistles, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19By the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken—dust you are, and unto dust you shall turn.

  1. IV.             Comment on exegetical issues

#1 אר֤וּר אַתָּה֙ מִכָּל־הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה:

The word here translated “cursed” is a qal passive participle form from אָרָר (‘arar). It can either mean “punished” or “banished,” depending on how one interprets the following preposition, for מן can also mean either “from” or “more than.” The issue is significant in that each reading may be accounted for a distinctive type of “theology of animals.” If the preposition is taken as comparative, the idea will be « cursed [i.e., punished] are you above [i.e., more than] all the wild beasts. » On the other hand, if the preposition is taken as separative, then the idea is « cursed and banished from all the wild beasts. » In this case the serpent is condemned to isolation from all the other animals.

Wenham discusses this latter possibility (separative) and thinks it “unnecessary” (Wenham, p.78). For contextual evidence strongly suggests that the oracle is meant to echo the temptation passage (3:1–5), which uses comparative syntactical structure—the serpent was shrewder than all others, and now so more cursed than all others. Several other supportive elements for the parallelism can be listed as follows: 1) “Cursed” (אר֤וּר/ʾārûr) is a wordplay on the earlier “shrewd” (עָר֔וּם/ʿārûm; cf. 3:1). 2) “Eating dust” reflects Eve’s temptation to “eat” the forbidden fruit of the tree and the subsequent downfall of humanity resulted from this eating (Matthew, p.244). However, as Hengstenberg carefully points out, the comparative reading ofמן  “does not necessarily imply that the other animals are also cursed, any more than the words ‘subtle above all the beasts’ imply that all other beasts are subtle” (Hengstenberg, 1:14).

The serpent, judged as such, is more cursed than, say, a dove, which seems to have received no judgment at all in this case. However, there is indeed a degree of cursedness in the rest of creation. Rom. 8:19-21 says that “the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God, for God subjected it to futility. Also in hope, they shall be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.” On the other hand, separative reading can boast support from NT theology as well. The eschatological conflict between the Accuser, namely, the “serpent”, and the son-bearing woman in Rev. 12:3-10 echoes strongly the protoevangelium theme in Gen. 3:15. In that passage the serpent is clearly the archnemesis of God and men that it surely deserves the judgment of humiliation and banishment from the rest of the creation, which by contrast will ultimately be restored. Therefore, I am tempted to read מן as “drastic comparative”, which means the serpent is depicted as, say, a thousand times more cursed than other animals that are implicated only by the direct curse of the land and human. A physicist’s motto is that “quantity makes quality.” Just as the serpent is drastically shrewder than other animals so as to tempt and accuse human beings. The drastic degree of difference in cursedness also creates a condition of quasi separation: “cursed art thou [1000 times] more than other animals, thou shalt crawl and eat dust…and be crushed of thy head by the offspring of the woman.”

#2 V.15c:

The verse sets up three pairs of oppositions that are marked by their continuities as well as nuances. The first part (v.15a) makes it clear that this hostility begins with the beast and the woman as individuals. Yet their experience is to be partaken by their offspring too— וּבֵ֥ין זַרְעֲךָ֖ וּבֵ֣ין זַרְעָ֑הּ (“between your offspring and her offspring”; v.15b). Now what is interesting is in the third part. Verse15c depicts the conflict as being carried on between the first serpent and the woman’s offspring, as if the serpent will survive the first battle against the woman and keep taking on the vengeance from the woman’s offspring.

In one sense, we understand that the serpent seducer is symbolic of sin; along with other sins it generates, it outlives any single human being. But the NET commentary suggests that the statement is personalized for primarily rhetorical concerns. Namely, ancient Semitic tradition emphasizes the corporate solidarity between the progenitor and the offspring by using the name of the progenitor or eponym to signify the people or nation that came out of it. This finds literary expression in many different places in the Bible. For example, Gen. 28:14 “Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth and you [Jacob] will spread out in all directions.” Certainly Jacob will not « spread out » personally, but the sons of “Israel” will.

זֶרַע (seed) is another seminal term in the whole of Genesis. After its first appearance in the creation account (1:11-12; 29), it is then metaphorically used for most of the time in the book (47 out of 59) with a focus on the genealogical lineage of the chosen family (Matthew, 246). The NET exegete remind us that the depiction of ongoing struggle between human beings and poisonous snakes would be particularly meaningful in the ancient Mesopotamian context, where people find themselves to be in inevitable tension with this dangerous species in their daily activities (c.f. Eccl 10:8; Amos 5:19; Saggs, p.309). Therefore we can discern that singularity of the language in v.15c is intended to depict a spiritual reality through symbolic representation of the serpent: the representative of humanity will be in constant conflict with the representative of the snake kind.

#3 Protevangelium?

Christian tradition (going back to Irenaeus) has referred to 3:15 as the protevangelium. According to this view, it is the prototype for the Christian gospel, prophesying Christ’s ultimate victory over Satan. The offspring of the serpent includes the evil powers and demons of the spiritual realm, as well as those humans who persist in the Satanic desire (see John 8:44). As for the woman’s offspring, the history of interpretation has exhibited many dissonant notes. The seed (זֶרַע) may refer to an individual or a collective singular indicating all humanity, extending back to the wicked Cain, at whose door sin is crouching (Gen 4:7). In the latter sense, it will also extend to the whole human race, and ultimately Jesus Christ, “the seed” of the woman (see Gal 4:4).

Matthew observes that in the LXX the Hebrew word זֶרַע (seed) refers to an individual. With the Greek neuter noun σπέρμα for זֶרַע, one would expect a neuter pronoun in the next line “it [αὐτό] will crush your head,” but the Greek has the masculine pronoun “he” (αὐτός) instead. This suggests that the translators interpreted “seed” as a masculine individual (Matthew, p.247). However, the NET exegete rejects this view for grammatical reasons. Gen 3:15b contains a parallel of the woman’s seed and the serpent “hurting” each other, using the same verb (which is obscured by some translations that apply different verbs for them. E.g., NIV « crush…strike ») and same word order. This makes “the allusion to Christ’s victory over the serpent” an eisegesis at best, for there is no hint that the serpent will be defeated in the conflict. Supporters of Protevangelium like to point to the biological fact that while what Satan delivers is a crippling blow to the Seed of the woman (Jesus), the attack to the Serpent’s head is a fatal one. However, a bite on the heel from a poisonous serpent is potentially fatal. Furthermore, that “the serpent is in a tactically weaker position, being able only to strike at man’s heel” is a natural fact. Thus, not all kinds of Protevangelium interpretations can claim legitimate grounding for their creative allegorization. On the other hand, Wenham warns against the undue hermeneutic approach to relegate the verse to a merely etiology, a superimposed meta-story explaining why people in the author’s days were finding snakes a threat in their life. He thinks it is consistent to see the serpent as a symbol for sin, death, and the power of evil, “with mankind eventually triumphing” (Wenham, p.80). But as mentioned above, it is the second half of his suggestion that NET rejects. To render the full imperfective force of the perpetual conflict, the sentence can only be put in this way: he will attack your head as you attack his heel.

From my point of view, reading the biblical text canonically and beyond the local context is inevitable. In Biblical exegesis, the phrase sensus plenior is used to describe the « deeper meaning intended by God.” Although in our hermeneutics, the narrator’s own understanding in the local context is what needs to be ascertained first, I believe subsequent revelations that allude to this passage (Gen 4:7; Jn 2:4; 19:26; Rom. 16:20; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 12) should lead us to anticipate its fuller theo-anthropological and messianic significance.

Bibliography

Hengstenberg, E. W. Christology of the Old Testament ; and a Commentary on the Messianic Predictions, Clark’s Foreign Theological Library ; 2d Series. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1878.

Holladay, W. L., Köhler, L., & Köhler, L. (1971). A concise Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament. (I). Leiden: Brill.

Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M., & Stamm, J. J. (1999, c1994-1996). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament. Volumes 1-4 combined in one electronic edition. (electronic ed.) (i). Leiden;  New York: E.J. Brill.

Mathews, K. A. (2001, c1995). Vol. 1A: Genesis 1-11:26 (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (244). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Saggs, H. W. F. The Greatness That Was Babylon : A Survey of the Ancient Civilization of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. 2nd ed, Great Civilizations Series. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1988

Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains  : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 1: Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

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