Q&A: The Seed of Abraham

The Seed of Abraham

Question

Can you comment on Calvin's interpretation of Galatians 3:16 with regard to his point of the "seed" versus the "seeds"? It seems that in the referenced passage(s) (Gen. 12 and/or 13), the collective noun "seed" refers to a multiplicity. Calvin's exegesis concurs. When he comes to Galatians 3:16, he says that Jews have claimed Christians distort the meaning of God's word to Abraham and goes on to answer their objection. Do you think his is a good argument? Are there other approaches to answer the "Jewish" objection?

Answer

Calvin is right that the Jews have a good objection, and that most Christians don't have a good response. But I disagree with his solution. It seems pretty obvious to me that Paul argues from the form of the word, and the associated number of seeds, in Galatians 3:16 ("Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as referring to many, but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ."). Paul bases the number of seeds on the form of the word. The question in my mind is: What Old Testament passages support Paul's argument?

The answer is that "seed" is singular in both meaning and form in two (Gen. 17 and 22) out of three (Gen. 15, 17 and 22) passages in which the language of "seed" appears in the context of a covenant or "promise" (Gal. 3:16). Genesis 12 is often taken as the source of the quote, but there is no covenant or promise in that passage. The most direct parallel is Genesis 22, where the singular seed is Isaac, who was a type of Christ in this specific instance and way (Heb. 11:17-19). I suspect it is this passage that Paul had in mind (cf. his argument in Gal. 4:22ff.), although Genesis 17 also satisfies Paul's interpretation (it is also about Isaac).

Note that it is the earlier passages (Gen. 12 and 15) that use the word "seed" as a collective singular. Both these passages precede the promise of Isaac's birth. But as soon as Isaac is promised (Gen. 17) and thereafter (Gen. 22), the word "seed" is used a simple singular because it refers specifically to Isaac. So, from a redemptive-historical perspective, the collective singular use of the word was superseded by the simple singular use as soon as progressive revelation revealed the identity of the one seed through whom the rest would come. Since Paul was writing after the revelation that Isaac was the one seed, it was natural for him to adopt the simple singular use of the word as the primary meaning.

This is somewhat difficult to see from most modern translations, which interpret the singular form "seed" to have a plural meaning in Genesis 17 and 22, and therefore associate English plurals with the word "seed." However, in Hebrew not only is the word "seed" singular in form, but the verbs and pronouns associated with it are also singular, indicating that "seed" is a simple singular and not a collective singular. In contrast to this, in both Genesis 12 and 15, the rest of the syntax is plural, indicating that "seed" is a collective singular in those passages.

In summary, Genesis itself makes the "one seed" argument. It sometimes speaks of the plurality of the descendants ("seed") that will spring from Abraham, and sometimes of the individual ("seed") through whom these descendants will come. Paul merely referred to this argument and applied it to Christ, since Christ is the one whom Isaac prefigured (Gal. 3:16 w/ 4:24,28).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.