How the Biblical Narrative Reveals the Messiah
The Old Testament narratives tell the story of God’s desire to dwell with humanity. This narrative revolves around human rebellion and God’s longsuffering, faithful, covenant love for humans. The Old Testament tells the story of how humans once dwelled with God, rejected that sweet relationship, and how God relentlessly pursued his creation. It speaks of love and judgment, hope and patience, heartbreak and joy. It speaks most of all of God’s outrageous plan to send a head crusher who would defeat the serpent who tempted our ancestors. Christians today can read this story with the benefit of hindsight—knowing who Jesus is and living in right relationship with him. But our ancestors could only look forward longingly to that day when the head crusher would come and finally restore right relationship with God. This is the story of that hopeful, dreadful time between sin’s entrance and Christ’s conquest.
Our story begins in the garden of Eden, where humans dwelled with God and with each other in perfect harmony. Of course, this right relationship would not last, as Adam and Eve quickly succumbed to eating the fruit that shall not be eaten. And while there are all sorts of theories as to what original sin is, the eating of the fruit ultimately represented the temptation that faces us all—to exalt oneself above God. Because of Adam’s and Eve’s decision to disobey the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God issues a series of curses: the serpent would be cursed above all animals, being destined to slither along on its belly; the woman would have intense labor pains and a constant power struggle with her husband; and the ground would not easily yield its produce and the man would struggle to provide for himself and his family and would be forced to deal with the anxiety that comes along with such struggle: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground” (Gen 3:19 NIV).
Buried in the midst of these curses is the ray of hope—the protoevangelium that drives the remainder of God’s revelation in the Old Testament—“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Gen. 3:15). Of course the Hebrew text has no capitalization, and the original readers/hearers of the Pentateuch would not have associated this passage with Jesus the Christ. Nevertheless, the original audience—indeed, even Eve—did associate this passage with the promise of a coming Messiah who would restore the relationship with God that Adam and Eve had broken. Thus begins the narrative arc that carries readers throughout the entire Old Testament and into the New. Who would this head crusher be?
East of Eden
Heading east from Eden, our ancestors made good on God’s directive to be fruitful and multiply. With that first child Eve exclaimed, “I have acquired a man from the Lord” (Gen. 4:1). If Eve thought this man she’d acquired would crush the serpent’s head, she was soon sorely disappointed. Readers find out quickly that Cain’s heart is not for Yahweh, as he brought “an offering.” Yahweh rejected this offering while accepting Abel’s, which was “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock” (Gen. 4:3–4). Readers are further troubled to learn that Abel will not be the head crusher for his own head is crushed by his brother. Humanity’s first two hopes for redemption are gone, and the narrative soon recounts that Seth, Eve’s third son, also dies. Enoch is a bright spot for he “walked faithfully with God” (Gen. 5:22), but again disappointment mounts when readers learn that “God took him away” (Gen. 5:24).
Genesis 5 ends by telling us about a certain Noah, who features prominently in the following several chapters. Will he crush the serpent’s head? It certainly appears so. In the midst of rampant immorality Noah stood tall. He builds an ark according to Yahweh’s specifications, loads up his family and all those animals, then waits for the coming deluge. This must be the head crusher. And yet our longing for redemption is again unfulfilled when Noah exits the boat, plants a vineyard, and gets blackout drunk. Though this man had “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8), he would ultimately fall prey to temptation as well.
The Patriarchal Narratives
Our hope disappointed by Noah’s drunkenness, we now hear of another potential head crusher—Abraham. Chapter 12 opens with a stunning extension of grace:
"Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 'I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.'" (Gen. 12:1–3)
Abram responds positively and “went, as the Lord had told him” (Gen. 12:4). The narrative tension heightens now as we wonder whether Abraham will crush the serpent’s head and restore right relationship with humanity. And though Abraham demonstrates great faith in the near-sacrifice of Isaac (see Gen. 22), he also commits his own share of missteps, such as attempting to hurry along God’s plan of redemption (see the account of his relationship with Hager in Gen. 16; 21:8–21) and lying (twice!) about his relationship with Sarah to protect his own life (see Gen. 12:10–17; 20:1–18). Each of these actions endangered the promise that Abraham would father many nations at the behest of God himself. No, Abraham would not crush the serpent’s head and therefore free humanity from the curse entangling us.
Isaac holds promising potential, particularly given that the biblical text makes no indication that he protested his father’s plan to sacrifice him to Yahweh and Yahweh later appears to Isaac twice (Gen. 26:1–6, 23–25). Yet readers are again disappointed as Isaac follows in Abraham’s deception. Just after Yahweh appears to Isaac and reaffirms the Abrahamic promise the first time, Isaac endangers said promise and compromises his integrity in hopes of preserving his own life (see Gen. 26:7). Isaac will not crush the serpent’s head.
Jacob’s story seems doomed from the start, as his name indicates something about his character that is borne out in the following narrative of his life. This man clearly does not possess the qualities of one who would conquer sin and death. Rather, his story highlights the wonders of God’s grace in choosing sinners to live in relationship with him. Jacob first convinces his brother Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew. Of course we are quick to fault Esau for his lack of foresight and slavery to his stomach, as the author of Hebrews points out in warning to his present and future audiences (Heb. 12:16). Yet Jacob himself is also to blame, for he knowingly took advantage of Esau’s weakness in an effort to elevate his own position in the family’s power structure. Not only that, but Jacob later followed Rebekah’s lead in intentionally deceiving his father Isaac into bestowing Esau’s blessing onto him.
As Jacob grows older he continues to demonstrate lack of character: he deceives Esau a final time (Gen. 33), favors Rachel over Leah (Gen. 29–30), and favors Joseph and then Benjamin over his other sons with disastrous results (see the Joseph narrative). In the midst of all this, Yahweh appears to Jacob not once but three times—twice at Bethel and once at Peniel, where Jacob wrestled God into the early hours of the morning. Jacob certainly seems to be the least likely candidate to restore right relationship with God, and yet God repeatedly seeks him out for a covenant relationship. What is therefore most clear from our journey with Jacob is that God “will have mercy on whomever [he] will have mercy, and [he] will have compassion on whomever [he] will have compassion” (Rom. 9:15).
As Jacob’s narrative ends, it appears that Joseph may be the promised redeemer, as Genesis closes out with the lengthy narrative describing his tumultuous relationship with his brothers (caused in no small part by Jacob himself), which results in the “saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20). Joseph rescues Abraham’s seed from certain starvation, but even he dies, though not before affirming his trust in God’s promise to his fathers (Gen. 50:24–25). And so the patriarchal narratives conclude. God’s people are far from the land he promised to Abraham, and each person in the narrative has proven not to be the head crusher that Genesis 3:15 promised. Nevertheless, readers have learned a valuable lesson about God’s grace and humanity’s utter dependence on it. If Genesis 3:15 is to be fulfilled, it will only be by his great grace and mercy.
Wilderness Wanderings and the Promised Land
The book of Exodus opens with God’s people in slavery in Egypt, their leader having gone to the fathers, and the rise of a new pharaoh “to whom Joseph meant nothing” (Ex. 1:8) and who, therefore, ruthlessly oppressed the Hebrews. The outlook is bleak, even though God has been faithful to multiply Abraham’s descendants (Ex. 1:7, 12). Exodus 2 introduces us to the next potential head crusher, “a fine child” whose mother kept faith with Yahweh by hiding her son from the pharaoh’s genocide (Ex. 2:1–4). This baby grows up in the Egyptian king’s household, but eventually murders an Egyptian and flees the country. Moses, it turns out, is not the promised head crusher. He proves this further by striking a rock when Yahweh commanded him to speak to it (Num. 20). Despite his relationship with Yahweh—who spoke to him “face to face” (Ex. 33:11)— and along with his faithfulness in leading God’s people out of Egypt, overseeing the tabernacle’s construction, and receiving then communicating God’s law to Israel, Moses could not crush the serpent’s head. He could only typologically foreshadow the one to come (Deut. 18:15). Nevertheless, Moses was instrumental in Yahweh’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and in the new way Yahweh would communicate with them—through dwelling among them in the Tabernacle. This was the first step after the exile from Eden toward the tabernacling of the Messiah with his people and the forthcoming indwelling of the Spirit in his people.
Deuteronomy closes with the death of Moses and the passing of the mantle onto Joshua. The tension rises again as readers wonder whether Joshua, slated to lead the people into God’s promised land and thus fulfill another aspect of the Abrahamic covenant, will crush the serpent’s head. Yahweh grants Joshua great success in leading the people to conquer the land and establish Israel in Canaan. Joshua is even the first significant figure in the Old Testament not to have committed sins such lying, murder, theft, and idolatry. Yet his story likewise ends on a somber note:
Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.” But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the Lord.” Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.” “Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied. “Now then,” said Joshua, “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (Josh. 24:19–23)
Great leader that he was, Joshua was yet unable to sever the people’s bondage to sin, and he himself remained subjected to death.
Upon Joshua’s death the national leadership transitions to a model of successive judges whom God raises up to deliver his people after a period of rebellion and divine punishment. God’s people devolve to the point that by the end of the book of Judges, Israelites are raping and murdering one another—the natural outworking of everyone doing “as they saw fit” (Judg. 21:25).
As the biblical narrative transitions to the monarchy, Yahweh’s last appointed judge functionally transitions the nation from a strict theocracy into a monarchy. The people had grown weary of Samuel’s sons’ amorality, and so with much fanfare, the Israelites demand that Samuel “appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam 8:5). At Yahweh’s behest, Samuel does just this, making Saul the king over Israel. It doesn’t take long to realize that Saul will not crush the serpent’s head, and Yahweh ultimately deposes Saul after a series of sins that demonstrated Saul’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh (see 1 Sam. 13–15).
David’s story is woven into the fabric of Saul’s narrative. He slays Goliath, plays a harp to soothe Saul’s anxiety, and Samuel anoints him as king over Israel (much to his own father’s surprise!). The narrator’s depiction of David is at first unsettling. Will this young boy, who is not even big enough to wear Saul’s armor, really be the next king of Israel? Surely this anointed one would not crush the serpent’s head. Indeed, we will learn that David is not the promised Messiah—he murders Uriah, uses his power to bed Bathsheba, and refuses to execute justice when his son rapes his daughter—but he is a key figure in the unfolding of God’s plan to save humanity.
Yahweh secures David’s reign over the twelve tribes of Israel and gives him military victory over the enemies surrounding Israel. David is at rest, and now he wants to build Yahweh a house in which to dwell. Yet Yahweh demurs, stating instead that Yahweh will build David a house, that is, a dynasty. And despite David’s catastrophic failings to come just a few chapters later in 2 Samuel, Yahweh makes a covenant with him that marks the most significant Christological development since Yahweh promised a seed who would crush the serpent’s head:
When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (2 Sam. 7:12–16 NIV)
This Davidic covenant promised first that David’s son, Solomon, would indeed build that house that David wanted to build for Yahweh. Second, and most importantly, this covenant assured David that a ruler from his lineage would forever reign over Israel: “Your throne shall be established forever.” Further, while God promises to judge those Davidic rulers who sin against him, he also promises that “My mercy shall not depart from him.” The term that NKJV translates as “mercy” is hesed, the Hebrew term for covenant loyalty. Thus, Yahweh is promising to remain in covenant relationship with the Davidic line for all time.
Solomon comes to power upon David’s death, is granted supreme wisdom, builds the temple, and promptly violates the Deuteronomic ideals of kingship (compare Deut. 17:14–20 with 2 Chron. 1:14–17). He is not the head crusher. With the death of Solomon and fragmentation of his kingdom upon his son’s ill-advised decision to reject the people’s request that he treat them better than his father Solomon had, the reader is thrust again into the Old Testament’s messianic tension. Who will crush the serpent’s head? It wasn’t David, it wasn’t Solomon, and certainly it won’t be Rehoboam or any of the kings of the renegade northern kingdom of Israel. And while we catch glimpses of hope in a few of the kings of Judah—Josiah, Hezekiah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jotham—none of these conquer sin and restore humanity’s right relationship with God. As in the book of Judges, the narratives of God’s people during the divided monarchy (the period during which Israel and Judah were separated) record a downward spiral into sin, with a few moments of obedience here and there. This spiral culminates first in Israel’s exile and then in Judah’s exile.
Before, during, and after the divided monarchies of Israel and Judah, prophetic voices continually called God’s people to covenant faithfulness to him. They spoke boldly about the importance of keeping Torah and walking in right relationship with Yahweh, along with the covenant curses that Yahweh would bring for the people’s failure to heed their voices. They also spoke of a time when a Davidic ruler would come and reign in justice and righteousness. These prophecies described and pointed forward to the head crusher, the one in David’s line who would finally fulfill the promise of Gen 3:15. D. G. Firth organizes the prophetic witness to the head crusher under five categories: “restored/renewed Davidic kingship,” “justice and righteousness,” “security,” “restored creation,” and “promise of the Spirit.” No single prophet paints a full picture of the head crusher, but taken together, it is clear that they point to someone far above any of the figures we have seen thus far. A full survey of the prophetic witness to Christ is beyond the scope of this essay, so the following focuses on the messianic portrait developed by Isaiah.
Isaiah contains what are probably the most well-known prophecies of this coming one. He would be born of a virgin and named Immanuel (Isa 7:14). He would “a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (Isa 8:14). He would be a Davidic ruler who reigned in justice and righteousness:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LordAlmighty will accomplish this. (Isa. 9:6–7)
And yet he would also suffer greatly: “despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain…took up our pain and bore our suffering…punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted…crushed for our iniquities…oppressed and afflicted…a lamb to the slaughter…cut off from the land of the living” (Isa. 53:3–8). All this so that “my [Yahweh’s] righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). This one, this one would crush the serpent’s head and set right what was made wrong in Eden.
The New Testament Hope
The Protestant Christian canon ends with Malachi, the final writing prophet in the line of people who spoke about the coming Messiah, who would finally crush the serpent’s head. Malachi concludes with a final word about this coming one:
Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction. (Mal. 4:4–6)
Turning the page in your Bible brings you to Matthew’s Gospel, which opens with the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew starts with Abraham to confirm Jesus’s Hebrew lineage, then traces Jesus’s family down through David to confirm his Davidic descent. Here, finally, is the head crusher. Several chapters later, Jesus confirms that John the Baptist, who opens his ministry in Matthew 3, is “the Elijah who was to come” (Matt. 11:14 NIV). The Gospel writers take great care to confirm repeatedly that Jesus Christ is indeed Messiah, the one prophesied so long ago in Gen. 3:15 (see, e.g., Matt. 2:4–6, 14–15; 4:12–17; 13:13–15, 34–35). With the Gospels having established that Jesus is the Messiah, the rest of the New Testament develops a full Christology.
Reader, rejoice! After a long line of people who failed to deliver God’s people from bondage to sin and death, Christ has come to set his people free from the curse that Adam brought upon the world so long ago in God’s garden. Readers now can look back on the Old Testament narrative through a Christological lens, but God did not grant this to the original readers. They expectantly awaited what we have now experienced. Let us worship God for his goodness, faithfulness, and his crushing defeat of the serpent!