I have a blog post that receives many visits around Christmas time. It 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 (CEB) 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.)
“They” makes sense when we realise that the story of Adam and Eve is not primarily the story about the first humans, or about the only humans, God created. 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.” 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 Genesis 3:15 in regards to the assault on both the head and the heel, indicating that the offspring of Eve and the offspring of the snake are similarly intent on destroying the other.
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 proto evangelium, 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.
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). 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, zera “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.” 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 version of the Old Testament, has a masculine singular pronoun (autos) in Genesis 3:15b, rather than a grammatically correct neuter pronoun; it thus gives the sense of “he.” So perhaps “he” is the actual sense meant by the author of Genesis 3:15b.
Oddly, the verbs in the LXX version do not have an obvious meaning of either bruise, crush, or strike. Rather, the verbs in the last two phrases 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 possible translation of Genesis 3:15b. Despite the Hebrew text having a masculine pronoun and a masculine verb (= “he will strike”), and despite the Greek having a masculine pronoun, the Douay-Rheims Bible and the Jerusalem Bible translate 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, italics added).
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. Furthermore, most 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 may 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 many Roman Catholics and some other Christians believe that “she” refers prophetically to Mary the mother of Jesus. They believe that Mary, as the “new-Eve” and mother of Jesus, will crush and defeat the devil through her role as Theotokos. (See, for example, Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, 17.)
Most Christians believe that Genesis 3:15 foretells the defeat of the devil, but whether this defeat will be achieved through a female or male descendant of Eve, or through her corporate offspring, is not spelled out in Genesis 3:15. Interestingly, a few translations leave the question of the actual gender of the “seed” unresolved. The KJV and ESV have, “It will bruise …” The NET Bible has “Her offspring will attack your 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 as 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 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 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 our nations.
 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.”
 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?
 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.
 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 earliest, clearest evidence of the proto evangelium interpretation occurs in Irenaeus’ second-century work Against Heresies 5.21.1 (circa 180 CE). Irenaeus quoted Genesis 3:15 and plainly identified the woman as Mary and the seed as Jesus. This interpretation quickly became a common interpretation among Christian theologians.
Justin Martyr, writing earlier in around 160 CE, however, had previously compared Mary to Eve and stated, “And by [Mary] has [Jesus] been born, to whom we have proved so many Scriptures refer, and by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him …” (Dialogue with Trypho, 100).
Hundreds of years later, in January 1546 in his last sermon at Wittenberg, Martin Luther stated, “Is Christ only to be adored? Or is the holy Mother of God rather not to be honoured? This is the woman who crushed the Serpent’s head.” (Source)
John Walton observes, however, that “there has never been unanimity … [and] Calvin was more inclined to see in the seed the corporate body [church] of Christ.” Walton, Genesis (NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2001), 233-234.
Interestingly, the Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan (AKA Jerusalem Targum) of Genesis 3:15 contains a messianic prophecy that indicates there will be an antidote to the snake’s strike in the days of the Messiah.
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between the seed of thy son, and the seed of her sons; and it shall be when the sons of the woman keep the commandments of the law, they will be prepared to smite thee upon thy head; but when they forsake the commandments of the law, thou wilt be ready to wound them in their heel. Nevertheless for them there shall be a medicine, but for thee there will be no medicine; and they shall make a remedy for the heel in the days of the King Meshiha. (Source: Sefaria)
The date of this targum (Aramaic translation) is uncertain but it was not written before the fourth century CE.
 In Revelation 12:9, the snake is identified as “the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” In Genesis 3:1, however, the snake is described as a wild animal made by God. Nevertheless, it is very smart, can talk, and is deceptive.
 Walton, Genesis, 225.
 The Onkelos Targum of Genesis 3:15 somewhat reflects the LXX.
I will place enmity between you and the woman, and between your descendants and her descendants. He will remember what you did to him in the beginning and you will watch for him until the end. (Source: OU Torah)
The Onkelos Targum, an ancient Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Torah, is believed to have been originally produced in Israel in the early second century CE but later edited in Babylon in the fourth or fifth centuries. It is the official Babylonian, or eastern, targum of the Torah.
 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 “she” 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”).
 Philo acknowledges the masculine language in the LXX but nevertheless believes “he” refers to the woman:
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)
 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. Walton, Genesis, 226.
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Virgin Mary and Eve, crayon & pencil drawing by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO © 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. Used with permission from the artist. Prints and cards of this drawing can be purchased online at the Monastery Candy store here.
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