Altercations: Abraham, Abimelech, and God’s Awesome Faithfulness

Introduction

Genesis chapter 20 is a peculiar passage. We can ask many questions of it. Why is it there? What purpose does it serve?

Yet with all of Scripture context is king. When we begin to see the passage as it is meant to be seen, in it’s broader context, it makes more sense. So let’s look briefly at the broader context. What are some things from earlier on in Genesis that could shed light on Genesis chapter 20?

Messianic Promises

Genesis 3:15

The first promise we see in Genesis is of a seed that will come and crush the head of the serpent. A descendant of the woman, who by implication of destroying God and mans enemy, will set things back the way they were supposed to be. When we look at Genesis we see glimpses of hope for this very descendant.

Genesis 3:15 is the protoevangelium. It is the first gospel. However, quite ambiguous at first, and at times the line of the seed looks hopeless; we, as the story continues, see the serpent-crushing-seed in full glory. Thomas R. Schreiner rightly says, “We can fairly say that the OT is animated with an eschatological hope. Gen. 3:15 forecasts a day when the seed of the woman will triumph over the seed of the serpent,” though as we will see, “subsequent history appeared to mock the promise.”[1]

We will look at what the immediate understanding of the pronouncement was to Adam and Eve at the outset of Genesis. We will see that they had hope that a seed would be born that would bring some form of deliverance but beyond this we cannot be sure of their understanding.[2] Then we will briefly trace the development and understanding of the Genesis 3:15 promise through the OT and see that we leave the scene still looking for the promised hero of the story. Finally, in the NT we see things happen and come together in ways that could never have been imagined, something like true fiction. We look at the birth of the seed of the woman and explore the culmination of the promise in the victorious King in Revelation who has once and for all crushed the head of the serpent of old.


As we look at this theme in Scripture, we cannot merely look at a word study.[3] In part because the verb for “crush” in Genesis 3:15 is seen only four times in the Old Testament. It is seen twice in our passage and once in Job 9:17 and once in Psalm 139:11 but in both of these cases it is not used with the same imagery. However, we should not make the false conclusion that we do not see Scripture return to this theme. It is more helpful as we look at this passage to look at the scenarios[4] or links that are used to recall the Genesis 3:15 promises and not merely a word study. As Hamilton says the “announcement of judgment on the serpent provides fundamental imagery that is reused and interpreted throughout the rest of the Old Testament”[5] even if שׁוּףּ is not used. As Hamilton says elsewhere, “the themes of biblical theology are broader than individual words.”[6]

In the immediate understanding of the verse, the seed refers to a singular seed but as we see, as the story continues, it also entails a collective aspect.[7] The immediate understanding of the text is seen by the name Adam gives to his wife. Adam names his wife Eve, that is, life-giver, and not death (Gen 3:20).[8] Through this, Adam shows that he has hope. Perhaps, he even hopes to once again enter back into the garden and enjoy renewed and undeterred fellowship with God once the evil serpent gets what is coming to him. Stephen G. Dempster says, “in light of the immediate context, the triumph of the woman’s seed would suggest a return to the Edenic state.”[9]

Later we see that Eve bore Cain and thought she had the serpent crushing seed. She said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (4:1) Michael Horton explains that without the definite article, we are especially dependent on the context. Therefore, in light of Genesis 3:15 this verse could be understood to mean, “the man,” that is, the seed.[10] Adam and Eve had hope. They expected a seed (singular), in their lifetime that would bring some form of deliverance, though we cannot be certain as to the extinct of the deliverance for which they hoped.

However, as we read on in the story we see that Eve’s hope is unfounded. Cain was the seed of the serpent and killed his brother Abel (cf. John 8:44; 1 John 3:8-15). Yet she continued in expectation. We see this with the birth of Seth (Gen 4:25). The curse wrought because of rebellion in the garden was not revoked and death spread to all men. We see this in the refrain, “and he died,” in Genesis chapter five yet we see hope of deliverance through Enoch’s experience.

In Genesis chapter six, we do not see the crushing of the serpent as is hoped for but we do see preservation of the line of the seed of the woman, and in fact of all humanity. Actually, careful reading of Genesis will lead one to see the importance that the book places on seed and their preservation. This is especially clear and miraculous in light of the NT and the barrenness of certain women at crucial points along the line of the seed.18

In the first chapters of Genesis, we see a foggy hope of a seed to come that will crush the head of the serpent. However, it is not until further down the road of revelation that the identity of that seed becomes clearer. In fact, we do not even know if the promise is ultimately fulfilled through a collective seed or a singular seed at this point of the OT.[11]

There are important pieces that we must gather from the first few chapters of Genesis that are important if we want to fit the puzzle together at the end. We must note the hope established from the beginning (to reenter Eden?). We must see the importance placed on the seed of the woman. It is also important to remember the crushing language employed. It is with these and similar themes that we can trace the serpent crushing seed through Scripture. At first, the promised one is vague but as we continue, we pick up more pieces that fit in place in unexpected ways. To culminate in what the apostle Paul will call foolishness.

T.D. Alexander sums up well for us. “Although Genesis 3:15 hints at reversal of the alienation arising from the disobedience of Adam and Eve, for the fulfillment we must read further. Here, however, we find the first brushstroke on the biblical canvas concerning a future king through whom God’s salvation will come to humanity.”[12]

Genesis 12

We have seen what the immediate expectation was but what do we see as story of Scripture develops? What more information do we see surface that gives us a hint to the prophesy’s ultimate fulfillment? We have seen that Adam and Eve hoped for a singular seed to be their victor but how do we understand the collective seed and the promised enmity between the two seeds? We have seen that Abel, instead of crushing the serpent, was crushed himself by the serpents seed. We have seen that Seth too, did not crush the serpent. So where is the promised one?

As we ask these questions, we will see a line traced through Genesis and the whole Old Testament, a line of seed and their story. Specifically, a line that has hope, hope in God and His promises, hope in an offspring. As Hamilton says, “People are either seed of the serpent, on the side of the snake in the garden, or seed of the woman, on the side of God and trusting in his promises.”[13] The careful reader of Scripture can see the enmity between the two seeds in Genesis[14] and in fact through the whole Old Testament. There are even physical decedents of the woman, i.e. seed, that are spiritually seed of the serpent.[15]

The Genesis narrative does not go on very long before we see more seed/offspring promises. However, the Abrahamic promises do not continue the language of “crushing” but, as we have seen, we do see the promised enmity. The promise to Abraham is obviously important in many ways but we cannot dive into them here for our purpose. What we do need to see, however, is Abraham’s seed will be given the land (Gen 12:7 cf. Gal 3:16). The land promised, is significant because the righteous seed brings prosperity to the land as they crush and conquer the heads of the serpent’s seed. Thus, maybe Adam and Eve would have been right to think that the promised one would bring in some form of Edenic state.

Hamilton says, “The blessing of all the families of the earth through Abram and his seed (12:3; 22:18) directs readers of the Genesis narrative to a seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head, repeal the curses, and open the way to Eden.”[16] Though we do not have times to look at all the accounts, there are many times in the OT when the two seeds are seen in conflict crushing each other. The seed of the woman is seen time after time crushing the seed of the serpent to obtain the Promised Land, a type of Eden.

New Testament

In the New Testament, we see Jesus is the Promised Seed, the Good News.[17] At the close of the OT as we saw there is no serpent crushing seed on the horizon. But there is good news, stretching back all the way to the beginning of the story. This is not the end of the story. The genealogies link Jesus all the way back to David, Abraham, and even the seed of the woman.[18] The “seed” referred to in Genesis 3:15 and 12 is the same seed. The curse evoked because of sin, is revoked in the promised blessing to Abraham’s seed, who is also the seed which will defeat the serpent; namely, Jesus of Nazareth.

This is the good news; Jesus is the good news. Notice the genealogies point to Jesus as being the Christ that was promised to defeat “the Serpent of old” (Matt 1:1-18; Luke 3:23-38 says, “Jesus… the son of Adam,” i.e. seed of the woman). Jesus’ genealogies recall the promise in the garden, the Abrahamic promise, and the 2 Samuel 7 promise. It is significant “that Jesus is named as being born of (i.e., the seed of) the woman (Gal 4:4) and the seed of David (Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8).”[19] Alexander says, “The NT presents Jesus Christ as the one who brings to fulfillment the divine promises associated with the unique line of seed descended from Abraham.”[20]

Conclusion

We see all through out Scripture that if God did not faithfully and sovereignly (e.g. think of the entail barrenness of women within the line of promise) preserve the line of promise His promise in Genesis to defeat the serpent of old and bless the nations could never have been fulfilled. However, God is a God of covenant loyalty, He keeps all of His promises, so God stepped into the altercation between Abraham and Abenelech and God graciously prevented the line of promise from being destroyed.

Clearly God is our Savior. We don’t nor can we save ourselves. Genesis 20 is just demonstration of this truth. God preserves us and keeps His promises to us even when we fail in big ways.

The promises of God do not come to fruition because we or Abraham is good enough. The promises of God come to fruition because God is a good and faithful God. He is gracious and merciful. Let’s praise the LORD in humility!

_________________

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 25. Similarly, Hamilton says, “From start to finish, the OT is a messianic document, written from a messianic perspective, so sustain a messianic hope” (James M. Hamilton Jr., “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman: Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Genesis 3:15” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10, no. 2 [2006]: 30).

[2] I do think it is clear that they would have realized that the problem was not just any “snake” or snakes in general but the snake that tempted them. The supernatural snake is the problem. I believe this would have been clear to them. They had seen other snakes before that in the garden and after they were expelled as well. In addition, they presumably heard God’s judgment on the snake since they expected its promised foe. So contra Robert Alter who says, “The serpent is by no means ‘satanic,’ as in the lens of later Judeo-Christian traditions” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary [W. W. Norton & Company , Inc.: New York, 1996], 13). I believe, it was not just the “later Judeo-Christian traditions” that saw the satanic nature of the serpent but even Adam and Eve understood this to some degree.

[3] “Too much biblical theology has fallen prey to the word-study fallacy and has failed to see that themes can be developed with synonymous terms. Charles Halton has shown that ‘ancient writers felt no compulsion to provide direct links with their allusion….instead, they borrowed imagery and fused it with their own rhetorical purposes.’ I would suggest that this is exactly what happened in the Old Testament with Genesis 3:15,” says Hamilton (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology. [Wheaton: Crossway, 2010], 77.).

[4] Cynthia Long Westfall says a “’scenario’ is a linguistic term that is used to indicate ‘an extended domain of reference’ or associated bundles of information that lies behind a text. A scenario includes setting, situations, specific items, and ‘role’ slots” (“Messianic Themes of Temple, Enthronement, and Victory in Hebrews and the Epistles” 210-229. In The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments Stanley E. Porter ed. [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007], 212).

[5] Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 77. On the same page he also gives a list of “Imagery from Genesis 3:14-19 in the Old Testament” in Table 2.4. As Hamilton points out, we see imagery of broken heads in Num. 24:17; Jud. 4:21; 5:26; 9:53; 1 Sam. 17:49; Is. 1:4-5; 7:8-9; 28:3; Jer. 23:19; 30:23; Hab. 3:13; Ps. 68:22-24; 74:12-14; 110:6, broken enemies in Ex. 15:6; Num. 24:8; 1 Sam. 2:10; 2 Sam. 22:39, 43; Is. 14:25; Jer. 13:14; 23:29; 48:4; 51:20-23; Ps. 2:9; 72:4; 89:24; 137:9; Dan. 2:34-35; Job 34:22-25, trampled enemies in Josh. 10:24; 2 Sam. 22:39/Ps. 18:39; Is. 63:3, 6; Mal 3:20-21; Zech. 10:5; Ps. 44:5; 60:14; 108:14; 91:11-13, enemies lick dust in Is. 49:23, Mic. 7:17; Ps. 72:9, and stricken serpents in Is. 27:1; 51:9; Ps. 58:5-7, 11; 74:12-14; 89:11; Job 26:12-13; 40:25-41:26.

[6] James M. Hamilton Jr.,“The Seed of the Woman and the Blessing of Abraham.” Tyndale Bulletin 58 (2007): 265.

[7] T. D. Alexander, “Seed” 769-773. In The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology T. Desmond Alexander and Roger S. Rosner eds. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 769.

[8] Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 280-81.

[9] Similarly, Edmund P. Clowney, has said, “The term ‘seed’ is ambiguous in Hebrew: it can refer to descendants as a corporate group, or to an individual descendant. Genesis does not specifically resolve that ambiguity. But as it holds before us the line of fathers and sons, it surely points to a second Adam, a Seed who is appointed like Seth, called like Noah, chosen like Shem, and made a blessing to all the earth as the Seed of Abraham” (The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1988], 42).

[10] See John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2010) 57-58, Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 68, and Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 79. It may also be significant that after Adam names Eve, presumably in an act of faith, God sacrifices an animal to cloth them and cover their guilt (Gen 3:21).

[11] Admittedly, even once we come to the NT it looks at times that the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15 still has a singular and a collective aspect to it and this may be true but it only has a collective aspect to it because of the singular seed. Paul says that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (Rom. 16:20). Yet how are they identified with God’s people, it is through the Christ that crushes Satan and death. I could list other things that identify Jesus, the Christ, as finally and ultimately fulfilling the promise to Adam and Eve but this must suffice here. It is true that we (collective) will crush Satan under our feet; I do not want to be at odds with Paul, only we do it as we are in Christ.

[12] Alexander, The Servant King, 19.

[13] Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 84.

[14] Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 84.

[15] In Table 2.9., Hamilton shows the “Seed Conflict in Genesis.” On the individual level we see Cain and Abel (4:1-16), Ishmael and Isaac (21:8-9), Esau and Jacob (27:41), lastly the Sons of Israel and Joseph. On the collective level we see Pharaoh and Egypt and Abraham and Sarah (12:10-20), Kings of the world (Sodom) and Abraham and his men, Lot, Melchizedek (14:13- 24), Abimelech and the Philistines and Abraham and his people (21:22-34), Abimelech and the Philistines and Isaac and his people (26:14-16), the men of Shechem and Simeon, Levi, and Israel (Dinah) (34:1-29), lastly the Sons of Israel and Joseph (37-44). See Ibid.

[16] Hamilton, “The Seed of the Woman and the Blessings of Abraham,” 261.

[17] We could explore many passages further. For instance: Matt 22:44; Luke 10:17-19; Acts 2:35; Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 15:25; Gal 3:16; 4:4; Eph 1:20-22; Heb 2:5-9, 14-15; 10:13; Rev 12; 22:16. We could also look at the two collective seeds in the NT, those who follow Satan and those who follow their Savior.

[18] Of course everyone is the finally the seed of the Eve but this is a literary devise showing the significance of Jesus.

[19] Hamilton cites Wifall in “The Skull Crushing Seed of the Woman,” 43.

[20] Alexander, “Seed” in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 772.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :) View all posts by Paul O'Brien

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