Beginning at Moses: Who is the Serpent Crusher?


The legend goes that Ernest Hemingway is eating lunch with some fellow writers at Lüchow’s, a German restaurant near Union Square in Manhattan. Hemingway, with a background in newspaper was known for his writing style, is challenged to write a novel in six words. He scribbles down these six words on a napkin: “For sale: Baby shoes; never worn.” For anyone who has lost a child, these six words put a knot in your stomach. Without explaining the background or incidents, Hemingway captures our affections. Whether this story is true or apocryphal, the point stands—good stories don’t need lots of words. Leaving something to imagination is powerful.

The Sound of the Gospel in the Garden

Not to be outdone, God has crafted the grandest story of all time. However, the story was veiled in darkness until the arrival of the God-man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. The first hint we get at Jesus arrives in Genesis 3:15.

God offers hope for forgiveness and life for the man and woman (Gen. 3:17-19), but he starts with the serpent (v. 15),

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

Genesis 3:15 is what theologians call the protoevangelium. Protoevangelium is Latin for first (proto-) gospel (evangelium). Isn’t there intrigue in the first gospel?

  • Who is her offspring?
  • How will he bruise the serpent’s head?
  • And how will the serpent bruise his heal?
  • How long will this take?
  • Will this immediately reverse the curse?

Those who wish to describe the Bible as a book of rules have never diligently read the Bible. There are rules but they serve the story in a small way—a story about a Hero who comes to crush the head of the serpent. The gun goes off in act one, we find it, and now the rest of the story is spent finding out who pulled the trigger.

It’s important to note a few things. First, God did not verbally punish the serpent for its own sake. Calvin says,

[T]he Lord spoke not for the sake of the serpent but of the man; for what end could it answer to thunder against the serpent in unintelligible words? Wherefore respect was had to men; both that they might be affected with a greater dread of sin, seeing how highly displeasing it is to God, and that hence they might take consolation for their misery, because they would perceive that God is still propitious to them. (Commentary on Genesis)

God speaks to the serpent for man. He does not want him to lose hope or to think all is lost. His posture towards man is still gracious. God desires Adam and Eve to hear the punishment for the serpent to provide hope for a promised Savior.

Second, the parallel structure is ambiguous. I have heard many theologians make the point that the serpent’s bruising the heel isn’t a final death blow, whereas the Savior’s blow will be. For instance, Calvin says,

For in the terms head and heel there is a distinction between the superior and the inferior. And thus God leaves some remains of dominion to man; because he so places the mutual disposition to injure each other, that yet their condition should not be equal, but man should be superior in the conflict.

Some translations replace “bruise your head” with crush (NIV 84). The reason, as Calvin notes, is that the blows are not equal.

However, that clarity is missing from the original narrative. In The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Dr. John H. Walton states that the nature of the serpent’s position on the ground means the strike must occur at the heel. Anyone who has lived in an area with poisonous snakes knows a bite to the heel can be deadly. What’s more Satan’s blow to the Man’s heel was a death blow. Jesus died on the cross. Satan has done his worst, but the Man still lives. On the other hand, the Man strikes a decisive death blow to the serpent. In Evil and Justice of God, N.T. Wright says,

The story of Gethsemane and of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth present themselves in the New Testament as the strange, dark conclusion to the story of what God does about evil, of what happens to God's justice when it takes human flesh, when it gets its feet muddy in the garden and is hands bloody on the cross. (74)

The cross is where see most clearly the serpent’s blow to Man’s heel, and the tomb is where we see the crushing power of the gospel over Satan. In his Letters, Tolkien says,

“The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story—and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”

That’s the protoevangelium in a nutshell.

Beginning at Moses

The beauty of this gospel proclamation is its brevity and intrigue. We fill a lot of the holes in naturally because we know the full story. However, the original hearers (Adam and Eve) and the secondary audience (Israel) were left with a lot of questions. As redemptive history unfolds, God reveals bits of character detail for this Serpent-crusher. Often the readers of Scripture didn’t understand the signs. Luke records an example of this:

13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. –Luke 24:13-27

Notice the phrase beginning with Moses and all the Prophets. That’s shorthand for Jesus went through the entire Scripture to show himself to them. Dr. Michael P. V. Barrett in Beginning at Moses says, “If we know who Christ is, what He does, and what He is like, we should be able to ‘two and two’ together and see Him even if . . . we are not using a red letter edition” (19). We have the benefit of the full revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament so we know who He is, what He does, and what He is like. Use this knowledge as you read through the Old Testament.

Taking my cue from Barrett’s Beginning at Moses, I will share several guides for you as you read. First, the structure of Israel as a nation and the cultus of its worship is built around three offices—prophet, priest, and king. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says,

Q. 23. What offices doth Christ execute as our Redeemer?

A. Christ, as our Redeemer, executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation.

Notice the catechism connects these offices with our redemption—Christ’s work as Serpent-crusher. Also, most of Israel’s stories center on pivotal characters in these offices. As you will come to find out, even the best of these men and women have moral failures. The most well-know may be King David. He was a man after God’s heart, but also a murderer and an adulterer. As you’re reading the Old Testament, you will often find descriptions of someone fulfilling these offices who does so perfectly—with no imperfections or moral failures. Again the Westminster Shorter Catechism offers helpful descriptions of how Christ executes these offices:

A. 24. Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his Word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.

A. 25. Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us.

A. 26. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

So as you read the Old Testament, look for these actions described perfectly. The Psalms is a fertile soil for this kind of discovery. Psalms 2, for instance, is one of my favorite royal Psalms. Also, Micah 5:2-3a where the writer describes the King coming from this lowly city “whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting.”

Second, the Serpent-crusher was God-man. This point is trussed in with our first—because naturally the question becomes Is there a man who could fulfill these offices perfectly? We clearly see man after man failing at doing so. Also, when we examine the passages discussing this perfect Prophet, Priest, and King fulfilling his office, He holds a divine prerogative. How can that be? The Nicene Creed explains,

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

We do not just have a man. Yes, he was fully man, but is also fully God. So as you read the Old Testament, look for a man promised to do things only God should be able to do. Isaiah 53 comes to mind. Isaiah writes, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6b). What man could carry all of our inquiry?

Third, Christ is evident in the covenants God makes. The protoevangelium is a kind of promise from God. Barrett notes, “The promise to Adam and Eve appeared to be in jeopardy [after God flooded the world], but God made a covenant with Noah” (120). Also, “God pledged to Abraham that a seed, ‘the Seed,’ would come into his line who would bless all the people on earth. By repeating the promise to Isaac and Jacob, God identified the specific Abrahamic line through which the worldwide blessing would come” (121). And “God made a covenant with David that the ideal King would be from his family and that He would rule forever” (ibid). So as you read the Old Testament, follow the covenant bread crumbs to discover more about the Messiah.

Last, Christ is evident in Christophanies. Again Barrett explains, “A Christophany was a particular kind of theophany: a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ in human form. . . . Christophanies provide a richly rewarding place to pursue our objective of seeing Christ in the Old Testament” (146). A key term to look for as you read is angel of the Lord. This messenger from God provides several hints that he holds the unique characteristics of Jesus Christ, the God-man. He speaks as Jehovah in the first person (Gen 16:11, 21:17), but also speaks of Jehovah in the third person (Gen 22:12). You will also see the angel of the Lord command obedience (Ex. 23:21-22), forgiveness of sin (Ex. 34:5-7), and worship (Ex. 3:5). So as you read the Old Testament, look for the title Angel of the Lord and see how he describes himself, how he describes God, what actions he takes, and what he demands for himself.

These are not exhaustive. I would recommend picking up Michael P. V. Barrett’s Beginning at Moses as a guide for further study. Start in Genesis and take particular note of chapter three and the first gospel proclamation. Read the rest of the Old Testament like a mystery novel looking for clues about who this Serpent-crusher could be. When you’ve finished the Old Testament and have built your character profile, see if Christ fulfills it. The serpent has done its worst, my friends, but our Savior lives and reigns at the right hand of the Father and his kingdom will endure forever.

Originally appeared in the Theology for Life Journal


Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the project manager for the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is a member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.