The singular seed of Galatians 3:16

What is the purpose of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:16?

(This post is part of a series)

In Galatians 3:16, Paul exegetes a phrase from the Abrahamic narrative: “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say, ‘And to seeds’, as though to a multitude (ὡς ἐπὶ πολλῶν), but as though to one, ‘And to your seed’ (καὶ τῷ σπέρματί σου), who is Christ.” The phrase in question, καὶ τῷ σπέρματί σου, occurs 3 times in the Abraham narrative (Gen 13:15, 17:8, 24:7). Given that the other key terms “of many” (πολλῶν, Gal 3:16) and “covenant” (διαθήκη, Gal 3:15, 17) also occur in Genesis 17 (Gen 17:2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 19, 21) it seems that the text under discussion is Genesis 17:8, in which God confirms that he will give Canaan to Abraham. This confirmation is part of the larger covenant of international blessing, which is contingent on Abraham’s loyalty (Gen 17:1) and includes the sign of circumcision (Gen 17:9–14). What, then, does Paul mean by his insistence that the promises were not given to a multitude, but to the one seed?

Wright rightly rejects interpretations that conclude that Paul is simply employing a “semantic trick”.[1] According to these interpretations, “Paul appears to be arguing, on the basis of the singular form of σπέρμα, that the promises made to Abraham and his seed point exclusively to Christ, not to the patriarch’s many other physical descendants”. The problem is that “in the LXX σπέρμα in the singular, when referring to human offspring, is in fact almost always collective rather than singular”.[2] Wright proposes an alternative view: that the singular form of σπέρμα is

not the singularity of an individual person contrasted with the plurality of many human beings, but the singularity of one family contrasted with the plurality of families which would result if the Torah were to be regarded the way Paul’s opponents apparently regard it. The argument of vv. 15–18 would then run: it is impossible to annul a covenant; the covenant with Abraham always envisaged a single family, not a plurality of families; therefore the Torah, which creates a plurality by dividing Gentiles from Jews, stands in the way of the fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham; and this cannot be allowed.[3]

Wright’s thesis relies on three questionable premises. The first premise is that Paul’s main problem with the Torah was its tendency to create ethnic “boundary markers” for the “people of God” which were inappropriate because the true “demarcation line” of the covenant family is faith in Christ.[4] But this sort of terminology is not the way either the ot or Paul uses “covenant” concepts; it is more akin to the covenantal grammar of the Qumran sectarians who were preoccupied with defining how to “enter” their community. Secondly, Wright takes the word “Christ” as a “corporate personality”, shorthand for the “family of God” who are incorporated into Christ.[5] While this might be conceivable later in the chapter (Gal 3:26–28, and even there it is possible to distinguish Christ from his people), at this point in the argument Christ is quite distinct from his people (cf. Gal 3:13). Wright seems to have read the text from the perspective of now somewhat discredited sociological theories of “corporate personality”.[6] Thirdly, if the Gentiles are blessed by “joining” the covenant family, then the obligations of the Abrahamic covenant (i.e. explicitly physical circumcision, Gen 17:9–14) have been reordered or nullified (Gal 5:2–3, 6, 11). Yet this is precisely what Paul states never happens. Man does not reject or reorder a ratified covenant (Gal 3:15); neither does God (Gal 3:17).

Furthermore, Wright’s assertion that “the covenant with Abraham always envisaged a single family, not a plurality of families” is false unless it is strictly qualified. The promises in Genesis 12:1–3 envisage that all the families (plural, מִשְׁפְּחֹת) of the earth will be blessed in Abraham (Gen 12:3).[7] Abram has his name changed to Abraham precisely because God has made him “the father of a multitude of nations (πατέρα πολλῶν ἐθνῶν)” (Gen 17:5). In one sense, this multitude is one “family” because Abraham is their father. Nevertheless, they remain a multitude of nations. There is no indication in Genesis that the nations will “join” the covenant of circumcision that God makes with Abraham and his seed. There remains a twofold process: nationhood (seed and land) for Abraham will mean international blessing for the multitude of nations in Abraham (Gen 17:6–8). Even Ishmael, although he receives the sign of circumcision as a member of Abraham’s household and is greatly blessed (17:20), is not a party to the covenant (Gen 17:21). Given this context, it seems that Galatians 3:16 intends to make a precise exegetical point about the covenant of Genesis 17. The promises, while they were “for the sake of the nations” (Gal 3:14), are not, in fact, spoken directly to the multitude of nations (Gen 17:5). Rather, they are spoken to Abraham and his seed. Hence it is only Abraham and his seed who stand under this particular covenantal relationship of obligation, for the sake of the nations. The blessed multitude of nations is not required to be included in the covenant; hence they are not required to be circumcised. It is not that the covenant with Abraham has been reordered by Christ in favour of the Gentiles (Gal 3:15 rules this out),[8] but that the nations are not required to enter the covenant at all.

[1] Wright, N. T. The Climax of the Covenant. London: T & T Clark, 1991. Pages 158–59.

[2] Wright, Climax, 158.

[3] Wright, Climax, 163–64.

[4] Wright, Climax, 165, 67, see 155–56 for Wright’s use of the term “covenant family”.

[5] Wright, Climax, 165.

[6] Cf. John W. Rogerson, “The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality: A Re-Examination”, Journal of Theological Studies 21 (1970): 1–16; Gary W. Burnett, Paul and the Salvation of the Individual (Biblical Interpretation Series 57; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 1–29.

[7] Pace Wright, Climax, 166.

[8] Pace Wright, Climax, 155–56.

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