(Painting: "The Triumph of Death," by Lorenzetti, 1342. This painting shows scenes from the fall of Adam and Eve, left, as well as the victory of Christ over death, center and right.)
This week we're looking at Genesis 3, in which there are two short passages that the early church saw as speaking to the realities of Christ and our salvation: Gen. 3:15 and 3:23.
At first glance, you might not think there's anything particularly prophetic about this. It sounds like a rather mundane summary of humanity's ongoing relationship with snakes in our natural environment. Like the lines before it and after it, this verse could easily be read simply as an "etiological curse"--a description of the way things presently are (snakes crawl on their bellies, women have pain in childbirth, and humanity has to labor to produce crops from the earth), with an explanation that these things are the way they are because of God's punishment of sin. In the same way, humans have had a fairly antagonistic relationship with snakes over the centuries: they try to bite us, we try to kill them.
But there's more to this verse. First, it's helpful to remember that in the Christian tradition, the serpent in the Garden of Eden narratives is not simply a snake, but an appearance of the devil (see Rev. 12:9). Second, the opening line, "I will put enmity between you and the woman," seems to suggest something more specific than just humanity's generally adversarial relationship with snakes: it points toward the metaphorical vision of Rev. 12 once again, in which "the ancient serpent" is determined to destroy the woman and her child (often interpreted as Mary and Christ).
Third, it's worth noting that there are other prophecies in Genesis that also use the same word for "offspring" (or "seed") as this verse: the promises made to Abraham, that his seed would inherit the land of Israel and ultimately bless all nations (see Gen. 22:17-18). In some of these instances, the prophecies seem to have in view all of the many offspring of Abraham--the people of Israel and the spiritual family of God's followers--but in at least one case, the New Testament takes this Abrahamic prophecy as pointing specifically at Christ. In Galatians 3:16, the Apostle Paul gives a very interpretation of the prophecy about Abraham's "seed": "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say 'and to seeds,' meaning many people, but 'and to your seed,' meaning one person, who is Christ." Based on this precedent, it has been common in the Christian tradition to take Paul's application of the "seed" as Christ, and to read this back into Genesis 3:15.
So if this verse is a prophecy about Jesus, it quickly becomes clear what is going on here: this is about the ultimate cosmic battle, waged between the devil and Christ, in the events of the cross and resurrection. "He will crush your head," is seen as a reference to the full and final victory of Jesus over Satan in the cross and resurrection. The other phrase in Gen. 3:15, "You will strike his heel," has been taken as a reference to Satan's attack on Christ, seeking to have him killed, an attack that reached its culmination on the cross. (Another possible reading, from LXX, the ancient Greek version of the OT, gives further attention to Christ's victory, not Satan' act: "You will be on guard for his heel.") Indeed, the New Testament portrays the crucifixion as a cosmic battle between Christ and the evil spiritual powers: "Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col. 2:15). So right here, in the story of the world's beginning, we already have a foreshadowing of the ultimate victory that Christ would one day win for us.
One of the other interesting early-church interpretations of Gen. 3 has to do with verse 23: "So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he had been taken." This seems fairly straightforward, doesn't it? It's just a description of Adam's banishment from the Garden, and his future work of trying to grow crops from an unforgiving soil, as had just been referenced in vv.17-18. But many early church fathers saw in this verse something more than just Adam's agricultural career: they saw it as an indication of the mission of humanity, to tame not only the soil but our own flesh as well.
The reason for this reading is that the passage reminds us, not once but twice, that Adam's flesh comes from that very ground (in v.19 and v.23). It's interesting to note that, according to Genesis, Adam was not created from the ground inside the Garden of Eden itself. Rather, Adam was created first, and then placed in the Garden. Gen. 3 identifies the wild, untamed soil outside the Garden as the earth from which Adam was made. In the same way that he is ordered to cultivate the earth, then, he is, by extension, being ordered to cultivate his own flesh. That is to say, it is the duty of human beings to toil and labor against the sinfulness of our natural condition. And this work, just as in God's prophecy about tilling the earth, is a difficult and trying task: we can only subdue this ground of our flesh "through painful toil" (v.17).
If this reading is accepted, then we have here an early hint of the very same teaching that Paul gives us in Romans 8:13-14: "Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live." In the thinking of the early church, we are all missionaries of the Kingdom of God, proclaiming Christ's triumph on the cross over sin, Satan, death, and hell. And the first battlefield of our missionary labors is the arena of our own bodies. Just as we must be witnesses of Christ's victory out in the world, we must also plant the flag of his conquest in the field of our own flesh, and let the Spirit manifest his reign in our daily lives.