Paul’s Use of ‘seed’ in Gal. 3:16

A Guest Posting by Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.

Discussing Paul’s use of the word ‘seed’ (sperma) in Gal. 3:16 with reference to God’s promises to Abraham as we find them in Genesis, Peter Enns states:

The theology Paul expresses here is true regardless of his appeal to the flexibility of the collective noun zera’. In other words, Paul’s theology does not depend on his taking zera’ as a singular in Galatians 3:16 and then as a plural in verse 29. Nevertheless, Paul’s handling of the OT promises betrays an exegetical approach that would be deemed inappropriate by contemporary conventions, but hardly so for ancient, Second Temple standards. The fact that zera’ clearly means multiple, innumerable offspring in Genesis is not Paul’s point of departure; it is not what controls Paul’s exegesis. His concern, rather, is to drive home a controlling theological point, namely, Christ’s death and resurrection breaks down ethnic, social, and gender hostilities (v. 28). And he drives this point home through a particularly creative handling of his Scripture, one that seizes on the grammatical flexibility of a collective noun.1

One wonders how an interpreter can conclude that Paul’s theology expresses truth if the interpreter has altered the meaning of the text of the original promises given to Abraham by God. It is certainly true that in the OT passage quoted by Enns, Gen. 13:14–16, the term ‘seed’ (zera’) is used as a collective singular. With reference to passages that use this term relating God’s covenant with Abraham—these are Gen. 12:7; 13:15, 16; 15:3; 15:5; 15:13; 15:18; 16:10; 17:7–10; 17:12; 17:19; 21:12–13; 22:17–18; 24:7—there are three instances in which pronouns are used to refer to the term ‘seed.’ In two of these instances, plural pronouns are used to refer to the term ‘seed’ (See Table #1). However, in Gen. 22:17 a singular pronominal suffix is used to refer to the seed that will “inherit the gate of his enemies.”

Table #1: Seed Passages

Plural Pronouns “And He said to Abram, ‘You will certainly know that a sojourner will be your seed in a land not theirs [lāhem lit. “to them”] and they will serve them [wa’ abādûm], and they will afflict them [‘ithām] four hundred years’” (Gen. 15:13).
Plural Pronouns “‘7And I will establish My covenant betwee Me and you and between your seed after you to their generations [ledōrōthām] for a covenant forever to be to you God and your seed after you. 8And I will give to you and to your seed after you land of your sojournings all the land of Canaan for the possession forever, and I will be to them [lāhem] God.’ 9And God said to Abraham, ‘And to you My covenant you will keep, you and your seed after you to their generations [ledōrōthām]. 10This, My covenant which you all will keep between Me and between you all and between your seed after you to be circumcised to you all every male.’” (Gen. 17:7–10).
Singular Pronoun “‘17For I will certainly bless you and I will certainly multiply your seed as stars of the heavens and as sand which upon the lip of the sea, and your seed will inherit gate of his enemies [‘ōybâw].’” (Gen. 22:17).

As Enns observes, “Paul does not identify precisely the OT passage to which he is referring,” yet Enns goes on to assume, “there is no doubt that he is alluding to the promises God made to Abraham in Genesis that his seed would be too numerous to count and that the land of Canaan would be given to them.”2 But, considering the fact that there is a perfectly good instance in Gen. 22:17 in which the term ‘seed’ is a singular term, by virtue of the singular pronominal suffix on the word ‘enemies,’ why should we assume that Paul has in mind those passages in which the text clearly indicates that the term ‘seed’ is used as a collective singular? Given that the OT passages use plural pronouns and a singular pronoun in at least one instance to refer to the term ‘seed,’ it makes perfect sense for Paul also to use the term ‘seed’ in these two senses in his argument in Galatians. The Seed (singular) Who will inherit the gates of His enemies can certainly have been in the mind of Paul to refer to Christ, while Paul could have had other passages in mind when he refers to the seed (plural). In fact, it would also make sense that Paul, assuming he had Gen. 22:17 in mind, would have emphasized that the term ‘seed’ is in fact a singular term indicated by the singular, referring, pronominal suffix. This would have been a necessary observation for Paul to make for his readers in order to distinguish this singular instance from those instances in which the term ‘seed’ is used as a collective singular.

At the conclusion of his discussion on Paul’s use of the Galatians passage, Enns asserts:

What is “proper” exegesis for Paul is determined by his time, not ours, and this recognition must factor into any contemporary discussion of how we explain the NT use of the OT (and subsequently how we are to be faithful to an apostolic model). The fact that such an exegetical maneuver would not be persuasive today (and in my opinion should not be reproduced, a point to which we will return in the conclusion) should not dissuade us from making the necessary observation that Paul’s handling of Scripture here in Galatians 3:15–29 is a function of his Second Temple context. Our first task is to understand what Paul is doing. Only on the basis of this understanding can we proceed to discuss what it means for us today.3

What is “proper” exegesis in Paul’s time may certainly have had an influence on Paul, but proper exegesis of any time and in any culture must also be governed by the nature of truth and logic, part of what we refer to as the first principles of thought and being. Modern interpreters are not imposing upon Paul’s time an anachronistic standard of truth and logic in communication. These principles are timeless and universal. These principles were discovered, described, and expounded by Aristotle several hundred years before Paul’s day. Irrespective of the fact that Aristotle’s culture was quite different than Paul’s, truth and logic are the same for all. Modern interpreters cannot accept an exegetical method simply because it was accepted in an ancient and/or in a different culture. Any exegetical method, ancient or modern, must be evaluated in terms of the universal and timeless principles of truth and logic. Enns wants to accept the manipulation of the text simply because it was common practice in the time of Paul:

But from an exegetical point of view, what Paul’s exegesis here in Galatians shares with ancient interpreters is a creative handling of grammatical ambiguities/flexibilities. In fact, the type of exegetical move displayed here by Paul is far too common a phenomenon to document in the space provided here, other than to say it is a staple of, for example, Qumran exegesis and rabbinic interpretation. What a word means in its context does not necessarily trump what it could mean with a bit of prodding.

Such a phenomenon is often referred to as “atomistic” exegesis, meaning particular words or phrases are looked at in isolation, without being informed by the immediate or broader contexts and thus more open to manipulation. Again, it is not the case that these early interpreters did not know what they were doing. Rather, such techniques were simply accepted means of handling texts.4

But surely no modern biblical interpreter can or should accept an exegetical technique that manipulates the text simply because “such techniques were simply accepted means of handling texts.” Should not modern interpreters hold to the first principles of thought and being in evaluating the techniques that were accepted in other ages and cultures?

Additionally, Enns’ argument seems to lead to the conclusion that the modern interpreter should not reject the interpretive techniques of any biblical interpreters employing the accepted means of handling texts in any other age or culture. So, this would seem to say that we should not reject the allegorical techniques of Origen since his exegetical method was “determined by his time, not ours.” What about the exegetical conclusions of the Gnostics? Were not their techniques also determined by their times, not ours? If the modern interpreter cannot judge the techniques of other interpreters who were employing the techniques of their own times, then whose exegetical conclusions should be accept? Unless there are some universally true principles of interpretation that are true for all times and cultures, there seems to be no means of adjudicating between conflicting exegetical conclusions that have been produced by the techniques that were “simply accepted means of handling texts” in other times and cultures.

There also seems to be a self-referential problem with Enns’ assertions about the importance of the historical dimension of the hermeneutical practices of the NT authors. He says, “If we neglect this vital historical dimension [i.e., the significance of Second Temple literature], we run the risk of assuming universal normativity of our own culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations.”5 However, is not Enns himself assuming a universal normativity of his own culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations when he interprets the historical and cultural dimension of the hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature? How does he know what were the culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature unless he read and interpreted these pieces of literature? And, how would he come to discover what were the culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature? He certainly could not have interpreted Second Temple literature employing their own culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations before he learned this from these very pieces of literature. But, what hermeneutical expectations did he use to interpret Second Temple literature so as to come to learn their hermeneutical expectations? Since he could not have known the culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature before discovering these in Second Temple literature, he must have employed some other set of hermeneutical expectations by which to interpret Second Temple literature in order to discover their culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations. The only set of hermeneutical expectations available to him before he learned of the culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature were hermeneutical expectations that were not the hermeneutical expectations of Second Temple literature. It seems to follow then that there must have been some universally normative hermeneutical expectations that allowed him to enter into the study of Second Temple literature by which he could come to learn about their culturally-embedded hermeneutical expectations. This seems to indicate that Enns’ reluctance to allow for universally normative hermeneutical expectations is flatly self-defeating. Without some normative hermeneutical expectations, it would not be possible for Enns’, or anyone else, to come to learn about the hermeneutical expectations of any other cultural group.

I’m sure this brief argument would not convince Enns, or perhaps many others for that matter. However, it at least calls into question Enns’ use of the Galatians passage as support for his view of the use of the OT by NT authors.

© 2016 Thomas A. Howe, Ph.D.
Professor of Bible and Biblical Languages
Southern Evangelical Seminary

1 Peter Enns, “Fuller Meaning, Single Goal,” in Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, eds. Kenneth Berding and Johathan Lunde (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 183.

2 Ibid., 181.

3 Ibid., 185.

4 Ibid., 184.

5 Ibid., 172.


One comment on “Paul’s Use of ‘seed’ in Gal. 3:16

  1. David says:

    I shared this on facebook, and it generated quite the discussion. I must say it seems straightforward to me, but caused quite the stir among my more theologically minded friends.

    One of them objected to this reasoning by asking, “Then why did Paul say, ‘the promises’ (plural) in the first part of Galatians 3:16?” He is adamant that Paul cannot be referring to one particular place in Genesis, but he must be referring to all the promises, and so must be referring to every instance of the word seed in those passages.

    I had a lengthy reply to him, to no avail, but I’m curious if Dr. Howe (either one!) would comment on the fact that Paul says, “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises [plural] made.”

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