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Galatians 3:16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.

How does one rescue Paul from the obvious blunder(?), considering that in Genesis "seed" although singular in form is clearly plural in meaning:

Genesis 13:[15] For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. [16] And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.

If the seed is to be multiplied to number beyond the dust of the earth, obviously its plural.

And a followup: Since Hebrew seemingly only has the singular form of the word seed, does this blunder demonstrate a lack of acquaintance with Hebrew and thus lead to the realization that Galatians is Deutero-Pauline rather than an authentic Pauline epistle?

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I'd like to see this question edited to remove such a strong bias. I see that you are biased, but I'm not sure it makes for a better question. – DonJewett Apr 9 '14 at 7:48
@davidbrainerd Paul is making an argument to the Gentiles-not the Jews. The Jews knew intuitively that the 'singular' seed meant them-for the Promise was to Isaac(not Ishmael), and Jacob(not Esau). Paul's argument that we(Gentiles) are partakers of Abraham's blessing through faith in Christ presupposes that Christ is the fulfillment of the Law-a point he makes in the following chapter. – Tau Apr 9 '14 at 8:08
Or perhaps he's not arguing from the Hebrew, but from the Greek LXX.... – Dan Apr 9 '14 at 12:11
The apparent contradiction between Gal. 3,16 and Gen. 13,16 is there, whether you read the latter in the MT, the LXX, or any other version. – fdb Apr 9 '14 at 18:05
Regarding your followup, I think you'd have a hard time finding many scholars who classify Galatians as Deutero-Pauline. If Paul didn't write Galatians, he probably didn't write anything at all. – Bruce Alderman Dec 19 '14 at 22:42

No Blunder at All

The word "seed," whether Hebrew or English, is often used in a figurative sense to refer to one descending from another (and not normally to the actual sperm or egg of the parent that is the source of propagation). The word can have a singular or a collective meaning. Even a collective meaning, however, is viewing the individual elements as a unit together, as a whole. So even the plurality contained within the collective is considered as a single unit.

Thus, to the contrary, it clearly does not have a plural meaning, at least not apart from the collective. The Hebrew could have used a plural form (it is not that the language was incapable of forming a plural of the word), but God does not so move the writers of the Old Testament.

This singular as collective is Paul's emphasis in the distinction. Now let's reexamine Genesis 13:15-16 (using the KJV, as you did... other translations over translate this by putting "descendents" or "offspring," both of which lose the collective idea that the Hebrew carries).

15 For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. 16 And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.

The Promise here is that the land is going to go to Abraham, and to his seed, "for ever." At this point, there are two meanings the term could have:

  1. A reference to the singular son, Isaac.
  2. A reference to the collective of descendents, those who Abraham begets.

That the collective is in view is evident from v.16; but of course, the collective will itself manifest by further generation from the original singular, Isaac (Gen 21:12; Rom 9:7; et. al.). Thus, in Gen 35:12, God can say to Jacob a similar promise, even referencing that Isaac is part of that promise, "And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land." The promise to the seed stays constrained, being given to a specific lineage. But it is also constrained in a different way by Gen 21:12, "for in Isaac shall thy seed be called."

So we see that the #2 meaning above is a special type of begetting from Abraham. Physical offspring are not "called" out (they are generated through sexual reproduction), and so the promised seed that God was referring to with Abraham was to be generated by calling. In truth this is the type of offspring that God had made the promise to, and that He was engendering through Abraham all along (Rom 4:13), to any who would believe (Rom 4:16) the word of God (1 Pet 1:23). Which word started the promise of the seed back in Gen 3:15, and is just being constrained to Abraham's physical and spiritual line in this promise.

It is this call to believe in God's promise that Esau obviously despised and Jacob sought diligently (Gen 25:31-32; Heb 12:16; of course Jacob was trusting in his own devices to attain to the promise, rather than trusting God to make it come to pass without Jacob's help). Thus faith in the promise (specifically, promised ONE) is what differentiates even the physical seed of Abraham (ethnic Israel) from the promised seed within the physical (believing Israel; Rom 9:6-7). It is the remnant of faithful within Israel that obtains the promise (2 Kg 19:30-31).

The physical lineage having the specific promise terminates in Jesus Christ, the seed of David (Rom 1:3), the seed of Abraham (Heb 2:16), who we learn was the terminal point of the promise from Gal 3:16. Christ has no physical offspring, but He does still engender spiritual offspring through the word. And it is this collective seed, those who heed the calling of the word to believe the promise of God in Christ, as Mike quoted in his answer, Gal 3:29...

And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

The spiritual seed is the collective of the faithful (whether Jew or Gentile; Eph 2:14-16), generated by the call to believe the promise of the single physical seed that terminated the physical line of where the promise focused. These are those that will be heirs (again, Gal 3:29; Rom 8:17; et. al.).

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+1 for this answer, explaining Paul's referal to 'seed' being spiritual seed. – Tau Apr 10 '14 at 4:14
Actually the language does not have a plural of the word! – Gregory Magarshak Sep 6 '15 at 19:22

It is not about grammar but about the mystical interpretation of Abraham's seed that both the Hebrew and the Greek scriptures argue according to Pauline theology:

He is not laying stress on the particular word used, but on the fact that a singular noun of some kind, a collective term, is employed, where τὰ τέκνα or οἱ ἀπόγονοι for instance might have been substituted. Avoiding the technical terms of grammar, he could not express his meaning more simply than by the opposition, ‘not to thy seeds, but to thy seed.’ A plural substantive would be inconsistent with the interpretation given; the singular collective noun, if it admits of plurality (as it is interpreted by St Paul himself, Rom. 4:18, 9:7), at the same time involves the idea of unity. The question therefore is no longer one of grammatical accuracy, but of theological interpretation. (SAINT PAUL’S EPISTLE TO THE GALATIANS J. B. LIGHTFOOT)

Once we see that Paul's reference is to a mystical unity represented by the word 'seed' we can understand the expression would be more like saying only 'apple' seeds are blessed not apple, pear and grape seeds. One seed, not seeds. But even here the point is not a grammatical one but from the references in the scripture to Abraham's seed in a theological context.

According to Pauline theology the blessing did not pass to all of Abraham's children but went along a certain lineage and became associated with a Messiah that would one day be born. It is from the Messianic exegetical context where we actually follow Paul's thoughts while the grammatical diversion misses it altogether. The point Paul is making is that the seed of Abraham has a mystical organic unity to it and it was ultimately a prophetic projection to the One who would come and be the spiritual heir of the universe. To further prove it is not about grammar, in similar fashion Paul himself turns the singular concept of one seed, or lineage terminated in the Messiah, into a plural use. By faith he argues that even the Galatians become part of that mystical redeemed unity, or seed, by being united in the collective body of that that single Messiah.

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (NIV, Galatians 3:29)

Clearly Paul was not mucking around in complicated and erroneous grammar but in theological symbolism that he believed was a genuine representation of what the Hebrew scriptures intentionally taught and foresaw and which he was granted the high calling of preaching to the Gentiles.

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The answer is very simple.

First, as already noted by the OP, the Hebrew word for seed (zera`) is both collective and singular. Throughout the Hebrew Bible the particular word occurs in the grammatical singular but with reference to the collective plural sense (and sometimes even to the singular sense); in these respects context is very important.

For example, this word appears twice in the following verse with no hint as to whether the word is singular or collective in meaning, until the last letter of the last word appears in the verse.

Gen 22:17 (Westminster Leningrad Codex)

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The Apostle Paul was referring to this verse in the Book of Genesis when he wrote Gal 3:16, which hinged on the Hebrew letter waw (possessive pronoun masculine singular suffix). In this respect, the Apostle Paul was able to declare that the ultimate promised seed of Abraham was a singular male person based on the plain and normal reading of Gen 22:17.

Isaac was therefore the type, which pointed to that ultimate seed, or son, who would be the sacrifice, and through whom the blessings of Abraham would flow to the world.

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I would have thought the pronoun was singular just due to some element of "attraction" to the grammatical number of its antecedent (not unlike the verb ירש). I understand that this doesn't always happen, but does it actually "force" it to be read as a single individual? (It may; I'd be interested in finding a reference in a grammar if you know of one.) – Susan Dec 28 '15 at 19:03
@Susan Perhaps of relevance, 1 Samuel 14:30 - I don't see any way the antecedent of אֹיְבָ֖יו can be read as semantically singular. That said +1 as this shows Paul's argument is not a blunder since the grammar of 22:17 can legitimately allow for a single "seed". (If this verse can be shown to have previously understood to be interpreted Messianicly, the argument would be stronger.) – ThaddeusB Dec 28 '15 at 20:55
@Susan - Hebrew appears to lean toward attraction of the meaning of the antecedent. For example, I just ran a script to capture the word seed in Scripture near any 3rd person pronoun suffix. Please note Lev 26:16 where vegetation seeds are in view (collective) but the singular personal pronoun masculine appears; but when human beings are in view (see Is 6:13), the 3rd person personal pronoun now is feminine singular because the people are represented by "the tenth," which is feminine. In other words, context appears to be the most important discriminator. – Joseph Dec 28 '15 at 22:38

It is clear, from the text in Galatians that you quoted, that the seed is Jesus. Jesus Himself clarified how this seed goes from a singular to a plural seed:

23 But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. 24 Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain (John 12:23-24)

Here Jesus is speaking about His death and how, if He would have not died, he would have been alone, exactly as a seed: if the seed does not die, it is alone. And Jesus would have actually been alone, being the only human being who never sinned, and so the only one righteous in front of God. But Jesus died, so that we could have the opportunity to be saved, being considered righteous in front of God:

2 Corinthians 5:21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

The text in John 12 continues saying at verse 32:

32 And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.

With Jesus crucifixion He would have not been alone, having many brothers and sisters drawn to Himself. In fact, we find in Hebrews that Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers:

9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. 10 For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren (Hebrews 2:9-11)

So the promise to Abraham in Genesis is refered to Jesus, Abraham's Seed, who would have brought salvation to human beings, so that the seed would become as the dust of the earth, yet starting from a single one.

In other occasions Jesus spoke about the Word of God being the seed (see Luke 8:11), but it's interesting that in John 1, the Word of God is Jesus Himself. When the seed, spoken of in the parable in Luke 8, finds a good ground, it "yielded a crop a hundredfold" (Luke 8:8).

So it is Jesus (the seed) who brings salvation to sinful human beings, so that He is not the only worthy of being considered righteous in front of God, but He justifies (makes just) others too, so that the Father may give to many what Jesus deserves: eternal life.

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Just because the word seed is used in this verse, then in that one, doesn't mean they mean the same thing everywhere. The parable of the sower, seed is the word of God. In the promise to Abraham, seed is his descendants who will be multiplied as the sand of the sea. – david brainerd Apr 11 '14 at 7:38
@david brainerd, I understand your point, but you should consider the possibility that they may actually mean the same thing! As I said, Jesus IS the Word of God (according to John 1), which in the parable is represented as the seed. You speak about the seed (singular) as Abraham's descentantS (plural)... Paul in Galatians 3:16 didn't agree with what you just said. The seed, at the end of the day, is Jesus. So you'd better start from this point in reconsidering everything else. – clami219 Apr 11 '14 at 9:26

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