In our previous two posts, we considered the Tree of Life as a sacrament, both as a sign and seal of the Edenic Covenant of Works, and as a type of the eternal life found in Christ. In this article, we will examine the sacramental nature of the animal skins given by God to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, arguing that these served as a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace.
Regarding the animal skins as a sacrament may come as a surprise, given that many of the great Reformers did not consider them such, nor did they all accept the promise of Gen. 3:15 to be strictly covenantal in nature. Nevertheless, a tentative argument can be made—in continuity with some Reformers—that Gen. 3:15 is a redemptive covenant promise and the animal skins act as a kind of sign and seal that is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. In order to do this, we must first examine in what sense Gen. 3:15 is what many theologians have called the “proto evangelion”—the first promise of the Gospel. We may then explore whether the animal skins may function as a covenant sign that signifies the covenant promise.
The Covenant of Grace
One of the important facets of the Covenant of Grace is that it has many covenantal iterations, or “economies” or “dispensations,” often referred to as covenants in and of themselves, with each revealing different aspects of God’s plan to redeem mankind from Satan, sin, and death. Within Reformed covenant theology, there has been general consensus—with some exceptions!—that there are at least four dispensations of the Covenant of Grace: the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant, all of which are fulfilled in Christ. There has not been consensus, however, about whether Genesis 3:15 can be considered part of the Covenant of Grace.
After God discovered that Adam and Eve sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit—and had increased their shame by hiding from Him and covering their nakedness—He gathered Adam, Eve, and the serpent together to receive the divine curse. In the midst of his curse, God utters a promise of hope in his curse of 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” (Gen. 3:15). While it is clear that this promise is redemptive in some sense—given that it promises the crushing of the serpent’s head—it isn’t obvious that God is entering into a formal covenant with Adam and Eve, at least a covenant in the vein of the Covenant of Works or the Abrahamic Covenant. The promise is given in the context of the divine curse, it is itself framed as a curse, and the recipient of the promise is the serpent—not Adam and Eve. Furthermore, the word “covenant” (berit) does not appear. Nevertheless, many facets of a redemptive covenant appear in this promise.
While covenants are often given within the context of blessings (cf. Gen. 15; 2 Samuel 7), curses are almost always associated with them as well. The promise given to Abram in Genesis 15, for example, includes the promise that God will utterly destroy the inhabitants of the promised land (Gen. 15: 14-16). The Mosaic Covenant includes detailed curses, both as a description of how God will defeat Israel’s enemies and also how God will treat Israel like enemies if they break the covenant (Deut. 28). In many OT covenants, the blessing God bestows on the recipients directly correlates with the cursing and death of his people’s enemies. For God to curse the serpent—who clearly is an agent of Satan (cf. Rev. 12:9)—and promise that the offspring of the woman will defeat him is for God to speak a promise of blessing and redemption for God’s people.
The redemptive element of this promise is well-attested among the Reformers. John Calvin (1509-1564) argues that the Lord spoke for the sake of man, not the serpent, for “consolation for their misery, because they would receive that God is still propitious to them.” The English Puritan William Perkins (1558-1602) argues that the promise of Genesis 3:15 is the first revelation of the “covenant of grace,” which is “nothing else than a compact between God and humankind touching reconciliation and life everlasting by Christ, [. . .] first of all revealed and delivered to our first parents in the garden of Eden, immediately after their fall.” In keeping with Calvin and Perkins, Lutheran pastor and theologian Johannes Brenz (1499-1570) argues that Genesis 3:15 is “the first sermon about the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” While future covenants—such as the Abrahamic Covenant and Mosaic Covenant—will provide clearer and more specific promises that are ultimately fulfilled in Christ, each of these covenants seem to be in continuity and greater fulfillment of the promise of Genesis 3:15—one which promises salvation through the promised seed who will defeat everything the serpent represented to Adam and Eve: namely Satan, sin, and death.
The Animal Skins
If Genesis 3:15 can be understood as a kind of covenant promise, then we would do well to look for a covenant sign. The most obvious sign within the context of the passage is the animal skins given by God to Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness (Gen. 3:21). While many Reformers—including Calvin and Luther—did not consider the animal skins to be sacramental, there are some notable exceptions. Perhaps the most eloquent argument for a sacramental understanding of the animal skins comes from Johannes Brenz:
God does not leave [Adam and Eve] without a sign of his favor. Indeed, after he sees that Adam and Eve had listened with all diligence to the proclamation of the gospel about the seed of the woman, and that faith had been begotten from it along with peace of conscience, he added something like a sacrament—garments made from animal skins. [. . .] God clothed them so that by this sign or sacrament he might attest that he had received them in grace and would care for their salvation, guarding and preserving them. [. . .] Our sacraments are established for this same purpose, so that by them we too might strengthen our faith.
Here, Brenz argues that the animal skins function as a covenant sign, signifying by the covering of the animal slain for them, they would be protected from Satan and restored to covenant relationship by God’s grace.
Of course, in order for something to be a true covenant sign, the sign must clearly correspond to what it signifies. In this case, the skins seem to be a divine dispensation given as a proper substitute for the fig leaves Adam and Eve made for themselves to cover their shame (cf. Gen. 3:7). The knowledge of their nakedness seems to indicate a recognition of their guilt—of the fact that their sin has created a barrier between them and God—and an attempt to make a way to continue in relationship without the penetrating gaze of God’s judgment. Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) regards the fig leaves as symbolic of the human attempt to stand before God on the basis of our good works. Likewise, Brenz interprets the fig covering as the vain human attempt to cover their own sin and justify themselves before God. If the fig leaves function as the futile attempt to hide their sin and guilt in order to restore relationship with God, then the animal skins signify God’s divine dispensation of grace to effectively cover their sin and restore a proper relationship with him. Vermigli argues this well:
“Clothes are a symbol of our sin and God’s mercy. [. . .] From this you ought to deduce, allegorically, that the clothing given to us by God can cover our nakedness, that is, strengthen our conscience so it does not shrink from the sight of God.”
Of course, one may admit to the spiritual symbolism of the animal skins and reject Brenz’s contention that the animal skins function as a sacramental sign of the Genesis 3:15 promise. One may tentatively argue, however, that this symbolic covering directly relates to the covenant promise. Satan is known elsewhere in Scripture as the “accuser” whose primary intention is to tempt humans to sin so that he can accuse them before God and incite God’s wrath against them (cf. Job 1:7; Rev. 12:10). Thus, in order for Adam and Eve (and the human race after them) to withstand Satan’s accusations of guilt, their sin must be covered. It seems, then, that the divine covering of sin is one of the fulfillments of the promise that Eve’s offspring will have victory over the serpent, for it frustrates Satan’s intention to damn the souls of men. This leads to how the animal skins—like every covenant sacrament—find their fulfillment in Christ.
Fulfillment in Christ
There seem to be several connections between the animal skins and Christ. The death of the animal in order to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness may foreshadow the death of Christ as the Passover lamb, whose blood provides a covering for sin. Related to this, the divinely dispensed covering for guilt seems to foreshadow Christ’s righteousness that clothes the saints (cf. Matt. 22:11-12; 2 Cor. 5:4-5; Rev. 3:5). As Peter Martyr Vermigli argues concerning the animal skins,
“Even though this clothing calls to mind a dead animal, bear in mind that Christ, having suffered on our behalf, truly covers our sins. This clothing is given by God, because by faith we obtain that which is God’s gift, and not from ourselves. [. . .] But when we become sharers in Christ’s resurrection in reality and no longer merely in hope, the clothing which now seems filthy will be made so glorious as to be called a wedding garment.”
Thus, Christ becomes the true covering for our sin and spiritual nakedness so that through him we might be reconciled to God in fulfillment of the Covenant of Grace.
The connection between the animal skins and the crushing of the serpent is ultimately fulfilled in Revelation 12:9-11, when the “accuser of the brethren” is thrown down, for the church has “conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony”—a connection both to the covering of the slain Lamb and the covenant word of God in Genesis 3:15 and the animal skins. Revelation 7:14 even says that the conquerors have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In that sense, the animal skins as the sacrament to the covenant promises of Genesis 3:15 are awaiting their final eschatological fulfillment, for once “seed of the woman” (the Church) has conquered Satan by the covering of Christ’s blood, they will then be covered with the wedding garment and take their rightful place as conquerors and kings in the new Jerusalem.
Admittedly, the sacramental nature of the animal skins seems more tenuous than some of the other OT signs—such as circumcision, Passover, and even the Tree of Life. Nevertheless, one cannot argue that the animal skins do not bear rich typological significance that is in some sense connected with the promise of Genesis 3:15 and the work of Christ as the Passover Lamb whose blood and righteousness cleanses and covers the saints. Because of this, it is possible within Calvin’s broad category of covenant sacrament to regard the animal skins as a sacrament of the first iteration of the Covenant of Grace, ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
Nathan Johnson is Assistant Dean of Academics, Head of Program, and Teaching Fellow at New College Franklin. He holds two M.A. degrees in Biblical Studies and Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) and an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. He also serves as a Lecturer in Philosophy at Davenant Hall.
For a magisterial exploration of the different dispensations of the Covenant of Grace, see: Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man. ↑
John Calvin, “Genesis 3:15”, in Commentary on Genesis, trans. John King (Baker, 2009), 169. While Calvin argues that “seed” primarily refers to the Church throughout the ages, he admits that ultimately the serpent is crushed through the work of Christ as the head, the Church being the beneficiaries, who imitate Christ in daily defeating Satan in spiritual battles. ↑
William Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbole, or Creed of the Apostles in The Workes of that Famous and Worthie Minister of Christ, in the University of Cambridge, 1:164. This modernized English rendering is given in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012). ↑
Johannes Brenz, “Genesis 3:15,” in Operum Reverendi et Clarissimi Theologi, 1:63. This translation is given in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012). ↑
Brenz, “Genesis 3:21,” in Operum Reverendi et Clarissimi Theologi, 1:63. This translation is given in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012). ↑
Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Genesis 3:21,” In Primum Librum Mosis (1569). ↑
Brenz, “Genesis 3:7.” ↑
Vermigli, “Genesis 3:21.” This translation is given in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012). ↑
Vermigli, “Genesis 3:21.” ↑
The interpretation of “the seed of the woman” and/or Eve as the church through the work of Christ is well-attested among the Reformers. See: John Calvin, “Genesis 3:15”; Peter Martyr Vermgli, “Genesis 3:15.” While Christ might be the singular “seed” who will crush the serpent, the church is understood as the plural “seed” through whom Christ will crush the serpent. ↑