Seed or Descendants (Gen. 22.17)?

With the rise of social media, the spread of misinformation has likewise increased. Facebook memes and twitter retweets facilitate the dissemination with only a click of a button.


Unfortunately, Christians, who sincerely love the truth and zealously believe they are defending it, are not immune from online sophistry.

Bible Translations

Never has this been more apparent than in the matter of translating the Bible.


It is natural for emotions to run high with regard to this issue. After all, it is the word of God (1 Thess. 2.13; Lk. 11.28; Heb. 4.12), which is “holy” (Rm. 1.12; 2 Tim. 3.15-16) and true (Jms. 1.18; Jn. 17.17). The Bible must therefore be “handled aright” (2 Tim. 2.15). To tamper with the Scriptures is not only an affront to its author, causing those who do so to be “accursed” (Gal. 1.6-9), which leads “to their own destruction” (2 Pt. 3.16), it seriously jeopardizes the souls of those who are mislead by the corruption. If you care about God, his word, and the souls of humanity, a fervent love will impel you to become agitated when the hearts and minds of your neighbors are being deceived (cf. Acts 17.16).


However, temperance, along with a healthy dose of “knowledge…brotherly kindness, and love,” is sorely needed, especially when dealing with such an emotionally charged topic (2 Pt. 1.5-7). Sadly, when it comes to Bible translations, these vital Christian character traits are often the very ingredients which are missing from the mix.


Certainly, every translation of the Bible, from the KJV to the NIV, has its strengths and weaknesses. That is the nature of the beast, for languages do not always correspond well, and the humanity of the translators can also get in the way. Since that is so, it is essential that we examine the translations with a critical eye.

Regrettably, however, many attempt to critique the various English translations of the Bible (e.g., KJV, NKJV, ASV, NIV, etc.) with no knowledge of the original language whatsoever, and without any appreciation for the translation process itself.


Indeed, far too often it is those who know the least about the subject who spread the most falsehood about the various versions. In so doing, though they are zealous for the truth, and no doubt believe they are doing God a service (cf. Jn. 16.2), they are speaking against that which they “know not” (Jude 10).


We must be zealous for the truth (Rm. 12.11). We must be prepared to defend it with every fibre of our being (1 Pet. 3.15). But we must not defend the truth with error.

Frequently, scores of criticisms are levied against the various translations with no basis in fact. Equally so, Bible translations are often defended unjustifiably, whereas they actually offer either an imprecise or an incorrect rendering of the original language, and, hence, need adjustment.

In this series of studies, therefore, we’ll be exploring the various versions from time to time, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses, in an effort to sharpen our knowledge of the sacred text and enable us to take a more balanced approach to this issue. Hopefully, this will also help us mature in the faith.


Genesis 22.17

The present example accentuates the problem. Sincere, but misguided souls, who wish to promulgate the perception that the NKJV is an utter “fraud,” suggest that the translation “lightly or wickedly changes” God’s “words.” Genesis 22.17 is frequently cited as a case in point. Their reasoning goes like this:


In Galatians 3.16, Paul argues that the promise of salvation was made available to Abraham’s “seed.” The apostle’s argument rests on the singular form of the word: i.e., one seed (offspring), not “many,” for “he does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your seed,’ who is Christ.” In other words, salvation does not come through the children of Abraham, but, ostensibly, through one descendant of Abraham; namely, Christ.


Next, the critic turns his attention to the NKJV rendition of Genesis 22.17, which reads:

blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.

It is then contended that while the KJV gives us “seed” in this passage, the NKJV “changes” the text to the plural form—“descendants”—thereby contradicting Paul’s argument and falsely teaching that salvation comes by “race” (the Abrahamic people) instead of by Jesus.


Respectfully, the NKJV does nothing of the sort. Paul’s singular “seed” argument in Galatians 3.16 stems from his citation of the next verse (Gen. 22.18), not verse 17. There, the NKJV reads: “In your seed (singular) all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” It is thus Genesis 22 verse 18 which gives us the promise of spiritual blessings upon the nations by means of a singular seed.


Verse 17, conversely, addresses a personal promise to Abraham himself, that God would bless him with many descendants: “blessing I will bless you” etc. This is clear from the rest of the verse, which explains that Abraham’s seed will be multiplied; he will have as many descendants “as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore” (see also, Gen. 13.16; 15.5; 26.4; Heb. 11.12). Hence, this remark promises that “many” children will bless Abraham as their father.


A Deeper Analysis of Galatians 3.16

That said, admittedly, Paul’s argument in Galatians, based on Gen. 22.18, is not without its challenges. Indeed, it is more nuanced than it first appears.

First, the term for seed, in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, is highly elastic. Indeed, the singular form (employed in these verses) can be used to designate either one child, many children, or even a particular line of children. In English, offspring (ESV) is equally flexible, for it may denote either a single child or multiple children. Only context can determine which is meant.

The Hebrew term, zaraka, and the Greek term, sperma, are both singular in form. Yet, there are several verses, such as Gen. 22.17, which demand the plural meaning, since other terms in the context directly associate it with the plural (cf. Gen. 13.16; 15.13; 17.7, 9-10; 26.4, 24; 28.14; 32.12; Jer. 30.10; 46.27).


For example, Jeremiah 46.27 (KJV) reads:

But fear not thou, O my servant Jacob, and be not dismayed, O Israel: for, behold, I will save thee from afar off, and thy seed from the land of their captivity;

Though the singular zaraka (seed) is used, yet, the plural construction of “captivity” demonstrates that God is addressing the children of Israel in Babylonian captivity; not merely one descendant of Israel.


Likewise, the passages which describe the offspring (though singular in form) as comparable to the stars (plural), the sand, or the dust should likewise be identified as plural — descendants.


Second, since that is so, we must reconsider the nature of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3.16.

If he is arguing that the singular form of the word, seed, by itself demands the view that only one descendant of Abraham shall bless the world, then he argues deceptively. As previously shown, the singular form does not, of itself, identify only one child.


G.G. Findlay, among many others, has pointed out that if that is the nature of Paul’s argument, then, on the surface, it “looks like a verbal quibble,” since the word, seed,

“in Hebrew and Greek as in English, is not used, and could not in ordinary speech be used in the plural to denote a number of descendants. It is a collective singular. The plural applies only to different kinds of seed” (5.863).

In other words, the plural, seeds, is never used to identify many descendants anyway — hence, the argument, at best, would be moot.


Barnes likewise shows that if the argument proceeds

“on the supposition that the word seed, i.e. posterity, here cannot refer to more than one person,”

then not only is Paul mistaken, but he appears to be engaging in a

trick of argument, or a quibble more worthy of a trifling Jewish Rabbi, than of a grave reasoner or an inspired man” (340).

Of course, as Barnes clarifies, that is an unacceptable supposition.


What, then, is Paul arguing? In point of fact, Galatians 3.16 is a summary of a much more extended argument in the Bible. It was never designed to be a purely grammatical contention. Rather, Findlay describes it as a “piece of wordplay” which

“is in reality the vehicle of an historical argument, as unimpeachable as it is important” (id.).

Paul’s readers, who would have been familiar with the argument, were expected to fill-in the rest of the story, as it were.


A more fleshed-out version runs as follows.


A Single Lineage

Paul does not argue that Genesis 22.18 identifies only a single descendant of Abraham (as opposed to multiple descendants). The terms, seed and seeds, are never used in that way. Rather, he is referring to the unassailable fact that God chose a single lineage of Abraham to inherit the promise. Consider:


Throughout the Old Testament, the seed-promise, which pledged spiritual blessedness (i.e., salvation) to the human race, is repeatedly narrowed in focus with each generation.


The promise began with Abraham himself: “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12.3; see also Gen. 18.18; 28.14). Eventually, the promise included his seed (Gen. 22.18; 26.4). Hence, Paul correctly specifies that that the promises were made “to Abraham and his seed” (Gal. 3.16).

In time, however, God further clarified that the seed promise was not merely to just any of Abraham’s fleshly descendants. Rather, he explained: “In Isaac shall your seed be called” (Gen. 21.12; cf. Heb. 11.18). Hence, God’s promise of universal blessedness came through a single seed-line — not through Ishmael (Abraham’s firstborn), but through Isaac (Gen. 17.19-21).


God further confined this promise to one branch of the family — Isaac passed the blessing onto Jacob, not his brother Esau (cf. Gen. 25.23, 33; 28.4a; Heb. 12.16-17); Jacob likewise narrowed the blessing to Judah (Gen. 49.10), down through David, until the Messiah, of the “branch of Jesse,” arrived to complete the messianic promise (cf. Ps. 132.11; Isa. 11.1; Acts 7.22-23; Rev. 5.5).

In short, the seed-promise is repeatedly explained in Scripture as referring only to the “single line of Isaac” (Findlay, 5.863).


The promise was

“at first general, and the term used was of the most general nature; but it was shown from time to time that God intended that it should be applied only to one branch or portion of the family of Abraham; and that limitation was finally so made as to terminate in the Messiah” (Barnes, 342).

Hence,

“it was not upon a nicety of lingual criticism that [Paul] was taking his stand, but upon a fact which was not to be called in question; namely, that of the many branches of descendants owning Abraham as their progenitor, there was only one contemplated by the Almighty as destined to inherit the promise” (Huxtable, 20.134).

Accordingly, the fact that God specifically selected an individual line of succession in the family of Abraham shows that God’s blessing comes, not through flesh as such, but through divine election (i.e., the messianic plan). This is precisely how Paul reasons in Romans 9.6-13:

They are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”
And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.

Hence, the narrowness of the term, seed, as used throughout Scripture, shows that God was not merely blessing the fleshly posterity of Abraham — as if one is spiritually blessed just for being of his bloodline. If that were so, then there would have been no need for God to narrow the focus of the promise on Isaac alone — for the descendants of Ishmael were also of Abraham’s bloodline — nor on Jacob alone, etc.


Therefore, it was not through multiple lineages (seeds); but through a single, specific one — one narrow line, father-to-son, in each successive generation, specifically chosen by God, that he distributed spiritual blessedness to all the families of the earth.


This is the first part of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3.16. Even the Jews understood that the seed-promise is distinctly messianic in flavor, flowing through the singular lineage of David.

A Faith-Based Lineage

However, if Paul means that the singular, “seed,” in Genesis 22.18 identifies a single lineage of Abraham (as opposed to a single descendant), then why does he insist that the “seed” is “Christ”? Isn’t Christ a single descendant of Abraham?


Paul explains his meaning in the second part of his argument.

By identifying the seed as “Christ,” Paul is showing that the promise culminates in him, and that spiritual blessedness flows from him as the realization of the promise. Hence, when he says, “to Abraham and his seed,” he alludes to that specific lineage, which started with the patriarch himself and terminated in the messiah.


More importantly, this lineage was unique not merely in its fleshly connection, but in that it involved individuals who were selected by God as lamps keeping the light of spiritual blessedness (and hope in the Messiah) alive in the world. What does this demonstrate?


It shows that humanity’s spiritual inheritance does not come to us through Moses’ law (which succeeded the promise and was independent of this lineage — vv. 17-24), but rather through an elect faith in Christ! Abraham himself believed the gospel of Christ (Gal. 3.6-9). And Isaac, though not the firstborn, was the chosen seed since he was one who looked for the Messiah; and he taught Jacob to do the same; and so forth (cf. Heb. 11.8-16).

Thus, the gentile Galatians, who were being persuaded to abandon Christianity and embrace the Mosaic law instead (cf. Gal. 2.4ff; 3.1ff; 5.1ff), were unnecessarily abandoning the ultimate promise of spiritual blessedness in Christ.


The apostle thus concludes that one does not need to be of the bloodline of Abraham, nor yet be a practitioner of the Jewish law, in order to inherit the blessing of salvation promised through Abraham and his Christ. Rather, you can be of the “seed” (singular; i.e., the spiritual lineage) of Abraham by embracing Christ by faith. Thus, Paul concludes this chapter with this remark:

And if you are Christ’s, then you (plural) are Abraham’s seed (singular), and heirs (plural) according to the promise” (Gal. 3.29).

Likewise, in the next chapter, Christians are described as “the children of promise” “as Isaac was” (Gal. 4.28; cf. 21-31). Isaac was spiritually selected by God to be the seed of promise (the inheritor of the messianic blessing); so also those who embrace Christ have a spiritual election to be the heirs of salvation.


Again, Paul explains that the promise was guaranteed “to all the seed (singular), not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham” (that is, Jews and Gentiles who believe; Rm. 4.16). The seed was never meant to identify one individual only; rather, it referenced the singular faith-in-the-messiah lineage, which was elected exclusively by God.

And again, Paul affirmed that "the children (plural) of the promise are counted as the seed (singular)" (Rm. 9.8).


Since Paul applies the singular, seed, to multiple individuals other than just Christ himself, P.E. Huxtable, expositor of Galatians in the Pulpit Commentary, must be correct in his observation that the

“word, seed, still retains its signification of a collective noun, and does not even here denote a single descendant” (20.134).

He clarifies that it

“is usual in the Hebrew idiom to apply to a people the very name, unmodified, of the head from which they derive.”

For instance, the children (plural) of Israel are often merely called “Israel” (singular) — cf. Judges 1.28; etc..

Even so, both terms, “seed” and “Christ” in Galatians 3.16, are meant to embrace all those involved in the messianic order. We, though many individuals, are nonetheless one spiritual lineage deriving our spiritual life from our head, Christ (Col. 1.18). If we are “in Christ,” then we are counted as the seed (the divinely elected heir of the promise of salvation).


It is also worth noting that Paul does not employ the definite article in verse 16 — that is, he does not say, "which seed is the Christ." This may be a further clue that Paul does not mean the anointed-one himself, but he and all his house.


Hence, Paul does not argue that since Genesis 22.18 employs the singular “seed” and not the plural “seeds” that he must refer to only one descendant of Abraham, as opposed to many descendants. The singular vs. plural dichotomy does not revolve around individual vs. individuals — such would involve the apostle in an untenable fallacy and would contradict his own argument (that we are the seed). Rather, the apostle uses the seed promise of Genesis 22.18 (and elsewhere) to distinguish between lineages — one divinely-selected lineage, versus multiple fleshly lines deriving from Abraham.

In that light, Galatians 3.16 is really pregnant with meaning. The seed of Abraham is not fleshly, involving multiple lineages of his descendants; it rather embraces a single lineage, elected by God (clearly shown as such due to the constant narrowing of the promise), and thus it alludes to the nation of Christ as a whole (i.e., “which seed is Christ”), which, though including many individuals, is a single body (1 Cor. 12.12). We become members of that elected nation when we are “baptized into Christ” by “faith” (Gal. 3.26-27; cf. 1 Pt. 2.9). Only then shall we, as “one” seed, inherit the promise (Gal. 3.28-29).


Conclusion

The NKJV rendition of Genesis 22.17, employing the plural form, descendants, is therefore an accurate version. In fact, it is more precise than the KJV — for the passage specifically promises Abraham that he would have “many” offspring, as “many as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore.” It is thus specifically about Abraham having multiple descendants, not merely a single descendant. And the NKJV, not the KJV, accurately distinguishes between the two promises in verses 17 and 18.


Too, its translation of verse 18 is likewise proper — “in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” A more comprehensive analysis shows that the seed-promise is applied in Scripture to many individuals, whom God has elected to inherit the promise of salvation through faith in the Messiah. Both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly explain that the singular, seed promise has an increasingly narrow focus, alluding to the divinely-elected messianic lineage, embracing all who have obeyed the gospel of the Messiah by faith, from the time of Adam (cf. Gen. 3.15), down through believing Abraham, to Christians today (Gal. 3.8-9).


Finally, Galatians 3.16 argues from Genesis 22.18, “seed,” not verse 17, “descendants,” as NKJV critics duplicitously skew the matter. Those who criticize the NKJV’s rendition of Genesis 22.17 on this grounds are practicing a form of the bait-and-switch, misleading themselves and those who listen to them, for the NKJV still gives us the singular “seed” in the passage actually quoted by Paul.


Christians, conversely, ought to conduct ourselves with honesty in the sight of all (Rm. 12.17; 2 Cor. 8.21).

Barnes, Albert. Notes on the New Testament: 1 Corinthians-Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1950. 

Findlay, George G. “The Epistle to the Galatians” in The Expositor’s Bible, Volume Five, edited by W. Robertson Nicoll. New York: George H. Doran Co., n.d.

Huxtable, Prebendary E. “Galatians” in The Pulpit Commentary, Volume 20, edity by H.D.M. Spence and J.S. Exell. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958.

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