A Series of Answers to Common Questions
In Galatians 3:16, Paul shows that he misunderstood the Hebrew OT. He erroneously thinks that Gods promise to Abraham that through his seed all the nations would be blessed was referring to one specific person. In reality, the word for seed in Hebrew is zera and refers to all of a mans descendants, which in this case includes all of Abrahams offsprings. How can Paul be trusted if he so badly distorts and misunderstands the Hebrew Bible?
Paul didnt misunderstand anything, but accurately exegeted the OT texts and brought out their true meaning. The passage that Paul was citing is Genesis 22:18. Here is the immediate context of that specific text:
"And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice." Genesis 22:15-18 ESV
The word for seed is zera which is singular in Hebrew. This could either be a true singular where only one person is in view, or it can be viewed as a collective singular referring either to a specific line of the descendants of a person, or to all of a persons sons and their descendants after them. For example, zera in the case of Abraham could refer either to Isaac and/or his seed after him, or it could refer to all of Abrahams sons and their subsequent descendants as well, i.e. Ishmaelites, Edomites, Midianites, Israelites etc. The question which we will seek to answer is whether zera refers in this case to one specific line or to several different lines which stem from Abraham.
In the first place, we need to note that Paul wasnt the first one to understand the Hebrew word zera to refer to a specific son, to a specific seed of Abrahams. The Jewish translators of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek, known as the Septuagint (LXX), had already understood zera in this precise manner:
"And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast hearkened to my voice." Genesis 22:18 LXX
kai eneuloghqhsontai en tw spermati sou panta ta eqnh ths ghs anq¢ wn uphkousas ths emhs fwnhs
Note the use of the singular seed (spermati) as opposed to the plural here. When we examine Gods promise to Abraham the reader will be able to see why the singular was used:
"Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your fathers house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and BY YOU all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." Genesis 12:1-3
God tells Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed through him, with the text in Genesis 22:18 stating that this blessing would come through his seed as well.
This now brings us to our second point. Although Abraham had eight sons altogether (cf. Genesis 25) the Hebrew Bible clearly states that this promised blessing was to come through the line of one specific son, that of Isaac:
"And God said to Abraham, As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her; I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her. Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child? And Abraham said to God, O that Ishmael might live in thy sight! God said, No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant WITH HIM as an everlasting covenant FOR HIS DESCENDANTS AFTER HIM. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year." Genesis 17:15-21
"But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac. And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring." Genesis 21:9-13
"And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you. Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it." Genesis 28:10-16
Hence, the seed that God promised would be a blessing to all the nations was Isaac and his offsprings through Jacob. In other words, God intended zera to be understood as a collective singular in connection with Isaac and his descendants after him, thereby excluding all the rest of Abrahams sons and their descendants.
Paul was simply reiterating the fact that Jesus, as a son of Abraham, was the fulfillment of Gods promise to Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through one specific line, i.e. the nation of Israel. As Jesus himself said, salvation would come from the Jews since God had sent his Son to be born as a Jew in order to redeem the world:
"Jesus said to her, Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the womans testimony, He told me all that I ever did. So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world." John 4:21-22, 39-42
Moreover, Pauls use of the Greek singular wasnt ruling out all the rest of the sons of Isaac, but used it in the same way that the above OT texts used the Hebrew word zera, as a collective singular.
In other words, Pauls use of the singular includes not only the Lord Jesus, but also all true believers who become children of Abraham by their faith in Christ. Note what Paul wrote in context:
"Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring (spermati- singular). It does not say, And to offsprings (spermasin- plural), referring to many; but, referring to one, And to your offspring (spermati- singular), which is Christ. Galatians 3:16
"And if YOU ARE (humeis- plural) Christs, then YOU ARE (este- plural) Abrahams offspring (sperma- singular), heirs (kleronomoi- plural) according to promise." Galatians 3:29
Paul uses the singular "offspring" both for Jesus and all believers, showing that his use of the singular wasnt intended to exclude all the others. This indicates that Paul was trying to show that Christ stands in place of the entire group of Abrahams children, that Jesus is the collective head of those who have received the promised Abrahamic blessing by their faith in Gods Son. This is similar to Isaac standing in place of his many descendants (i.e., the Israelites) that sprung forth from him to become the promised seed of Abraham.
Putting it in another way, once believers are united to Christ by faith they form one body with him:
"Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, The two shall become one flesh. But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun immorality. Every other sin which a man commits is outside the body; but the immoral man sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." 1 Corinthians 6:15-20
"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." 1 Corinthians 12:13-14, 27
"He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent." Colossians 1:18
This then results in their becoming spiritual Israelites and therefore the singular seed, not seeds, of Abraham:
"So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God." Romans 2:26-29
"But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in travail; for the children of the desolate one are many more than the children of her that is married. Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise." Galatians 4:26-28
"For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God." Galatians 6:15-16
As renowned Christian OT professor and scholar Walter C. Kaiser noted in reference to the use of "seed" in Genesis 3:15:
" Already in Genesis 3:15 we have come to understand that this seed can be a collective noun and embrace one's whole biological progeny. At the same time, however, there is something distinctively singular and individualistic about this seed, for a certain he will have it out with the Evil One in some future day (3:15), even though he acts only as one of the woman's descendants. Paul picked up the same theme in Galatians 3:16, insisting that the text of the OT said seed (a collective singular noun), not seeds (a plural noun). He was not appealing to some midrashic or rabbinic principle of interpretation, as many have recently argued, echoing the latest eddies of thought stimulated by recent discoveries from Qumran and by rabbinical studies; he was carefully observing that the divine revelation had distinctly chosen the collective singular word over the plural in order to provide for the single but inclusive concept of corporate solidarity between the one and the many." (Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament [Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids MI, 1995], pp. 48-49; bold emphasis ours)
Kaiser goes on to say:
"The word seed must be understood in some exclusive way, for not all of Abrahams biological progeny are intended (e.g., none of Keturahs children or the child Hagar bore Abraham). That is, only a portion of Abrahams seed is marked as being the objects of this designation. This narrowing of the promise is likewise seen in the posterity of Isaac (Esau is excluded) and of Jacob (where the blessing bypassed the eldest son, Reuben, and the next oldest brothers, Simeon and Levi, but came to the fourth son, Judah)." (Ibid., p. 49; bold emphasis ours)
Paul, therefore, did not misunderstand the Hebrew, nor did he assume that the word zera refers to only one person. Rather, Paul correctly noted that the word was referring to a specific group of descendants with Christ being the head of that line or seed.
All scriptural quotations taken from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Holy Bible, unless noted otherwise.
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