Is it he, she, they or we who will crush the serpent's head? Genesis 3:15A popular post of mine at Christmas time is one that features this amazing image of Mary consoling Eve. On my website, but even more so on social media, I’ve received criticism that the picture isn’t “biblical”.

This picture is a work of art that depicts concepts of redemption and hope, and even power, and I think it does this wonderfully well and with integrity, especially when we realise that the focus is on Mary’s belly. It’s all about the baby Mary is carrying.

The main criticism I’ve heard about the picture is that Mary is the one who is crushing the snake’s head. But is this depiction of Mary as head-crusher really faulty? Just who is it that will strike or crush the serpent’s head?

They, Israel, will strike . . .   

I’ve recently started using the Common English Bible and I was surprised to read its version of Genesis 3:15. In the CEB God says to the snake, “I will put contempt between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. They will strike your head, but you will strike at their heels.” (Italics added.)[1]

They!

“They” makes sense when we realise that the story of Adam and Eve is not primarily the story about the first humans, or the only humans, God created.[2] Rather, it is the story of the couple who were the first people in an ancestral line that would include Israel.

The Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible, is all about Israel, and Adam and Eve are the beginning of Israel’s story. Peter Enns and Jared Byas go further and state, “The Adam story is a story of Israel in miniature, a preview of coming attractions.”[3] The remainder of scripture enlarges on Genesis 3:15ff and is about the hostility between the children of Israel, the offspring of Eve, and the various enemies of God’s people, the offspring of the snake.

The two factions will be continually at war and attack, or “strike”, at each other. The same verbal root is used in regards to the assault on both the heads and the heels, indicating that each enemy is similarly intent on destroying the other.[4]

He, Jesus, will strike . . .

Instead of “they”, most English translations have “he” at the beginning of Genesis 3:15b: “He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Many Christians have been taught that this “he” is Jesus who will deliver a fatal wound to the devil’s “head” despite receiving a wound on his “heel” during his crucifixion. This idea has been given the theological name protoevangelium (a word derived from two Greek words that mean “first” and “gospel”.) Many Christians regard God’s words in Genesis 3:15b as the first proclamation of the gospel of our saviour and deliverer, Jesus.[5]

The Bible tells us that Jesus came into this world as the offspring of a woman (Gal. 4:4) in order to destroy the works of the devil (the snake) (1 John 3:8b).[6] The writer of Hebrews puts it like this:

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death—the devil—by dying. Hebrews 2:14 (CEB)

The Hebrew word translated as “offspring” or “seed” (zera) in Genesis 3:15 is a collective noun and is grammatically masculine. Because it is a collective noun, it “typically takes singular pronouns standing in its place. Therefore when the text says that he will crush your head, grammar cannot determine whether this is a reference to the corporate seed or one representative from among the descendants.”[7] Furthermore, “he” may or may not correspond with the actual gender of the woman’s corporate seed or representative; “he” simply “agrees” with the masculine gender of zera.

In Greek, the word for seed (sperma) is also a collective noun, but it is grammatically neuter. Pronouns agreeing with sperma must also be neuter. Nevertheless, the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (and other Jewish books), has a masculine singular pronoun (autos) in Genesis 3:15b which means “he”.  So perhaps “he” is the actual sense meant in Genesis 3:15b.

Oddly enough, the verbs in the LXX version do not have an apparent meaning of bruise, crush or strike. Rather, the verbs mean watch, guard or keep (in the future tense.) I’m not sure what is meant by: “He will watch your head, you will watch his heel.” Perhaps “lie in wait”, with the sense of always being ready to attack, is the meaning here.

She, a woman, will crush . . .

There is still another English translation of Genesis 3:15b. Despite the Hebrew text having a masculine pronoun and a masculine verb, and despite the Greek having a masculine pronoun, the Douay-Rheims Bible and the Jerusalem Bible translates from the Latin Vulgate which has ipsa (she): “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel” (DRB)[8]

Since the snake and the woman are the main figures being spoken about in Genesis 3:15, the translation or interpretation of “she” is not far-fetched, especially as God tells the snake that the woman will be his enemy.[9] Furthermore, we understand that the words spoken to the woman in the following verse, Genesis 3:16, potentially apply, not just to Eve, but to Eve’s daughters and not to her sons. So perhaps the words in Genesis 3:15 likewise apply especially to Eve’s daughters, or to one daughter in particular.

In the immediate context, the woman in Genesis 3:15 is Eve, yet most Roman Catholics, and some other Christians, believe that “she” refers to Mary the mother of Jesus. They believe that Mary, as the “new-Eve” and mother of Jesus, will crush and defeat the devil.

Most Christians believe that Genesis 3:15 foretells the defeat of the devil, but whether this defeat will be achieved through a woman, or through her corporate offspring, or through just one of her descendants is not spelled out in Genesis 3:15.[10] It’s interesting to note that a few translations leave the question of gender unresolved and have, “It will strike/crush his head . . .”

We, the church, will crush Satan under our feet

In his letter to the Romans, Paul alludes to Genesis 3:15. He tells the Christians in Rome: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). It is God who ultimately brings victory over the enemies of his people and puts an end to strife. Yet, as children of God and agents of Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we all can play a part in bringing about shalom.

God is using us and our feet to trample down the devil—feet with shoes on that are “ready to spread the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15).

As Christians, we believe Jesus has struck the fatal blow. We also believe that, as his church, we have been commissioned to continue Jesus’ ministry of bringing hope and healing to the world while the devil is in his death throes. My hope this Christmas and in 2017 is that Eve’s redeemed daughters and sons will rise up and be at the forefront of defeating evil, cruelty and injustice and will help bring shalom to our families, to our communities, and to the world.


Endnotes

[1] The English translation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) by the Jerusalem Publishing Society has: “they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel.”

[2] Are we meant to understand that God created other people? The biblical text shows us that Adam and Eve’s oldest son Cain was aware of humans other than those of his immediate family. He was worried they would attack him when God drove him away from his farmland (Gen. 4:13-15). God acknowledged the existence of these other people and gave Cain a mark that would keep him safe from them. Cain then went to live in a land called Nod (Gen. 4:15). (“Nod” is closely related to the Hebrew word translated as “nomad” in Genesis 4:12 and 14, and refers to wilderness inhabited by nomads.) Cain’s wife may have found his wife there (Gen. 4:16-17). Cain later built a city called Enoch. Who were the inhabitants of this city? Were they only Cain’s descendants?

[3] Peter Enns and Jared Byas, Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood and Abused Book of the Bible (Englewood, CO: Patheos Press, 2012) Kindle location 494.
The authors also draw this parallel: “Ádam was created by God and exiled from paradise for disobeying the command. Israel [beginning with Abraham] was created by God and exiled from Canaan for disobeying the Law of Moses.” Kindle location 517.
John Sailhammer writes that God’s words in Genesis 3:15 are “to be read as programmatic and foundational for the establishment of the plot and the characterization of the remainder of the book [of Genesis].” “Genesis”, The Expositors Bible Vol. 2, (ed.) Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 56.

[4] The same verbal root (shuph) is used for both Hebrew verbs in Genesis 3:15b that are variously translated as crush, bruise, wound or strike (in the future tense.) The repetition of similar verbs indicates the assaults are of a similar nature.

[5] The earliest evidence of the protoevangelium interpretation occurs in Irenaeus’ second-century work Against Heresies 5.21.1 where the woman is identified as Mary, and the seed is identified as Jesus. This interpretation quickly became a common interpretation among Christian theologians. Yet, “there has never been unanimity. In the Reformation period, for instance, Calvin was more inclined to see in the seed the corporate body [church] of Christ.”
John Walton, Genesis (NIV Application Commentary) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 233-234.
Interestingly, the Targum of Jonathan (AKA Jerusalem Targum) of Genesis 3:15 contains a messianic prophecy which indicates that the Messiah will have the antidote to the snake’s strike. The date of this Jewish writing is uncertain but it was not written before the fourth century AD.

[6] In Revelation 12:9, the snake is identified as “the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” However, in Genesis 3:1 the snake is described as a wild animal made by God. Nevertheless, it is very smart, can talk, and is deceptive.

[7] Walton, Genesis, 225.

[8] The Nova Vulgata, a revised Latin translation authorised by the Vatican, has ipsum (neuter) instead of ipsa (feminine). Ipsum grammatically “agrees” with the Latin word for “seed” (semen) which is neuter. Nevertheless, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and some later Roman Catholic scholars believe that “she” is the correct understanding and refers to Mary the mother of Jesus. The Old Latin translations of Genesis 3:15 that predate Jerome’s Vulgate have the masculine ipse (“he”).

[9] Philo acknowledges the masculine language in the LXX but nevertheless believes “he” refers to the woman. He wrote,

And the expression, ‘He shall watch thy head, and thou shalt watch his heel’ is, as to its language, a barbarism, but, as to the meaning which is conveyed by it, a correct expression. Why so? It ought to be expressed with respect to the woman: but the woman is not he, but she. What, then, are we to say?

Philo then gives a convoluted explanation as to why he thinks the woman is referred to as “he”. On the Creation. Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis 2 and 3, LXVII (188)

[10] John Walton expresses doubt that the devil’s defeat is in view:

Given the repetition of the verb and the potentially mortal nature of both attacks, it becomes difficult to understand the verse as suggesting an eventual outcome to the struggle. Instead, both sides are exchanging potentially mortal blows of equal threat to the part of the body most vulnerable to their attack.”
Genesis, 226.

Image Credit

Virgin Mary and Eve, crayon & pencil drawing by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO © 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. Used with permission from the artist. A print of this drawing can be purchased online at the Monastery Candy store here.

Further Reading

John Meade, assistant professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary, has two interesting articles on the “Christmassy” verses of Luke 2:14 and Isaiah 7:14:
Peace on Earth: The Text and Message of Luke 2:14 for Christmas Time
The Ancient Versions on Isaiah 7.14


Related Articles

The Virgin Mary Consoles Eve
The Power of God’s Grace
Peace on Earth
A Thrill of Hope: Jesus’ First and Second Advents