Father Abraham

Father Abraham

DAY 9 OF 10

Pointing to Christ, Singularity of Seed: Galatians 3:1-18

Now there is a sense in which Abraham is the father of all believers throughout history — men, women and children. We are all a part of his family, his children and his heirs. But as we will see, the New Testament makes it very clear that we enjoy this status because we have been joined to Christ who is the special seed of Abraham.

Let’s think first of the ways the Bible draws attention to the singularity of Abraham’s seed. Perhaps the most significant passage that focuses on this issue is Galatians 3:16. There we find these words:

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.

In this passage, Paul referred to the fact that in Genesis God made promises to Abraham and to his seed, or offspring. But notice how Paul commented specifically on the expression “seed,” saying that God did not make promises to Abraham and to his seeds — that is, to many people — but to Abraham and his seed, that is to one person, Christ. 

Paul argued this way by noting that the Hebrew word zera which is translated “seed” is a singular word. The same was true for the Greek word sperma in the Greek translation of the Old Testament available in Paul’s day. As Paul noted, God did not say to Abraham that the promise was to Abraham and his seeds (in the plural) but to his seed, in the singular. 

Now on the surface, it would appear that Paul’s point of view was straightforward. Abraham’s inheritance came to just one seed, or one descendant because the word is singular. But Paul’s argument about the singularity of the word “seed” has raised all kinds of difficulties for interpreters. The problem may be put in this way. It is true that the word “seed” or zera is singular in form, but many times in the Old Testament, including in the stories of Abraham’s life, the word “seed” in its singular form must be taken as a collective singular in meaning, a singular word that refers to a group. The Hebrew word zera or “seed” is much like our English word “offspring.” Even though this word is singular in form, it can refer to just one offspring or “descendant” or it can refer collectively to many offspring or “descendants.” 

For instance, the term “seed” or zera is definitely plural in meaning in Genesis 15:13. There we read these words that God spoke to Abraham.

Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.

Here, the word “descendants” translates the singular Hebrew word zera, but the word is clearly plural in meaning. This verse speaks of the seed as “their own” in the plural, and the verbs “they will be enslaved and mistreated” are also plural in Hebrew. 

Of course, Paul knew that the singular form of the word “seed” referred to more than one person many times in Genesis. In fact, Paul himself used the word seed in a plural sense in Galatians 3:29 where he wrote these words, 

You are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

In the Greek of this verse, the phrase “you are” translates este, a plural verb. And “Abraham’s seed” is synonymous with the word “heirs,” kleronomoi, which is also plural.

In this light we have to ask a question. If Paul knew that the singular form of the term “seed” could refer to more than one person, why then did he stress its singularity? In all likelihood, Paul had in mind one particular passage in the life of Abraham, Genesis 22:16-18. In these verses, the term “seed” is definitely singular in meaning. Consider this literal translation of these verses:

By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you … have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.

Unfortunately, many modern translations render this passage as if “seed” were a collective singular. But we have to remember that this verse is part of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. And here the word “seed” referred not to Abraham’s descendants in general, but to Isaac, Abraham’s son. The verb, “shall possess,” is singular in the Hebrew, and notice also that the pronoun in the phrase “his enemies” is singular. 

Genesis chapter 22 and the chapters that follow spend time distinguishing Isaac, the son of Sarah, from his other sons, the son of Hagar, and the sons of Keturah. Isaac was the special seed of promise, the one whom God had chosen as Abraham’s only heir. So, before Isaac’s birth, Genesis usually speaks of Abraham’s “seed” as a collective, meaning “descendants” in the plural, but here the word has a focus on Isaac as the special singular descendant who would inherit Abraham’s promises. 

In this light we can understand Paul’s basic point when he referred to the single seed of Abraham. Paul noted that in Genesis chapter 22 God did not make promises to Abraham and directly to all of his descendants. He pointed out that the singularity of the word “seed” in Genesis 22:16-18 indicates that the promises were passed to Isaac, Abraham’s special son and heir.  

About this Plan

Father Abraham

This reading plan explores the account of Abraham's life in Genesis from a distinctly Christian perspective in order to answer questions such as: What did these stories mean for those who first received them? And what do...

We would like to thank Third Millennium Ministries for providing this plan. For more information, please visit: http://thirdmill.org

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