“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement…” – Then President Bill Clinton’s testimony before the Starr Commission, 1998
In Galatians 3:16 Paul seems to pull a linguistic fast one almost Clinton-ian in magnitude in order to make his point. The Hebrew word zera is translated by the Greek word sperma which is translated into English as either “seed” or “offspring”. These words are “collective nouns” which means that though they are in the singular form, they actually refer to many. “Seed” can be singular as in “I swallowed an apple seed” or it can be collective as in “I believe we got enough seed for next year’s planting” or it can be plural as in “I got a bunch of blackberry seeds stuck in my teeth.” And that goes for zera and sperma in their respective languages also. So how do you know if the word is singular or collective? The only way to tell the difference between singular and collective is by the context. Plural is obvious.
So here’s what Paul says:
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16)
There are a handful of places Paul may be quoting from in Genesis, God told Abraham this often. Something else God says to Abraham about his offspring is really important.
And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6)
This is very important for two reasons. First, Paul has already cited this verse as proof that we’re justified by faith, not works. Second, the context is abundantly clear that “offspring” is collective and not singular. So no matter how you slice it, Paul is clearly aware of the plurality of Abraham’s offspring.
So what do you think? Is Paul pulling some funny business with words in order to make his point? I don’t believe he is. Though the point seems strained here, Paul is really just following God’s lead. Consider this:
The LORD God said to the serpent…
“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 3:14)
Did you see what God did there? He started by talking about “offspring” which sounded like warfare between Eve’s children and Satan’s. But then God switched to a singular pronoun “he”. So we understand it to be a singular person because the context made it clear. Or did it? Consider Romans 16:20 “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” The “your” there is plural, as in ya’ll or you’uns. What it shows is that this is a more complex issue than at first blush. When it comes to these covenant promises, there is a way in which the “seed” is singular and in which it is collective.
So it appears that Paul picked up on the thread of the promised seed, which is Jesus, and he just read Abraham that way. He didn’t quote Genesis 15:5-6, which clearly is talking about a collective seed but rather any of the other places where God makes a promise to Abraham and to his seed and Paul’s explanation is that God’s promise is to Jesus through Abraham. I’ll come back to how the collective can be true at the same time the singular is in a moment.
I think the singular interpretation that Paul uses in 3:16 actually helps in verses 19 & 20, which are a bit confusing:
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
Tim Keller in his brief commentary/study guide, Galatians For You said, “The rest of verse 19 and verse 20 are extremely cryptic…No one is sure what Paul means or how this fits into the argument” but Keller then reassures us that it wasn’t crucial to the rest of Paul’s point. And really, he’s right. I can’t be really certain that the way I’m reading this is best and the rest of Paul’s case is so clear that we’re okay if we leave this cloudy. But I think Paul’s handling of collective nouns earlier in chapter 3 gives us some trajectory to think along when we get here.
The law was given to Moses by the instrumentality of angels. I don’t know what they actually did, maybe they were the ones holding the stone tablets as God used his finger to engrave them with the Ten Commandments. But the angels were there when God gave the law to his intermediary, Moses. God spoke to Israel and they freaked out, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exod. 20:19) But the promise didn’t have an intermediary, God spoke it directly to Abraham. But, according to Galatians 3:16, the promise was to Jesus so wasn’t Abraham the intermediary in that case? Nope, since God is one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there was no intermediary when the Father spoke the promise to the Son. Abraham was not an intermediary, he was simply a witness.
So what about the collective nature of the word “offspring”? That is, of course, true also. And, not surprisingly, Paul answers that for us in Galatians chapter 3 as well. “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” The promise is to Abraham’s Seed, Jesus, and we’re heirs to the promise as we’re in Christ. So the promise is made to singular Seed and collective seed since Jesus is bringing in the gentiles to the promise as well.