Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Is it he, she, they or we who crush the serpent’s head? (Genesis 3:15)

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.


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

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

Posted December 20th, 2016 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Gender in Genesis 1-3, , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

17 comments on “Is it he, she, they or we who crush the serpent’s head? (Genesis 3:15)

  1. Ray Huberts says:

    Wow! Incredibly beautiful writing – congrats.

  2. Debbie says:

    Thank you for doing the hard work of digging into these questions and enlarging our understanding of God’s kingdom workers! This post encourages and inspires not just women, but all God’s people to do good on the earth. Our efforts make a difference as we follow the lead of Jesus, who came “to destroy the devil’s work.”

    • Marg says:

      They do make a difference! God uses our prayers, our actions, and our written and spoken words when we follow Jesus’ lead.
      Bring on the kingdom workers and the kingdom.

  3. Dave says:

    Great article.

    The New English Translation of the Septuagint (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition) translates Gen. 3:15 as,
    “and I will put enmity between you and between the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; he will watch your head, and you will watch his heel.”

  4. Tim says:

    Yet another example of the fact that not only are these ancient foreign languages, but they are written in the context of ancient foreign cultures. Thanks for helping me see even more clearly the need to be open to different ways of looking at the text in order to get at the right understanding for me in my language and culture.

    Well done, Marg.

    • Marg says:

      Thanks, Tim.

      Foreign cultures indeed! I’m very thankful for the wonderful work of John Walton and others who have explored the archaic cultures of the Near East to help us see what the original writers were thinking.

      I’m fairly convinced with John Walton’s conclusion that Genesis 3:15 is about a continuing hostile struggle with no end in sight.

      Despite some pretty big hints in the Hebrew Bible, it’s not until we hit the New Testament that we see that the God of peace, through Jesus, is the one who ends the struggle. Yet as recipients of God’s peace (e.g., Eph 2:13-14), we can act as agents of his shalom.

  5. Marg says:

    A few people have expressed concern about the idea (in endnote 2) that God may have created other people, other than Adam and Eve. They are concerned because the idea of other people jeopardises aspects of their theology of salvation. Here are a few dot points of some of my responses to their concerns.

    ~ Sometimes our theology gets in the way of biblical narratives. Ideally, the narratives should be understood on their own terms.

    ~ Genesis 5:4 does say that Adam had more children than just Cain (who was banished) Abel (who was murdered), and Seth (who carried on the godly line), but the other people mentioned in Genesis 4:14ff are not identified as relatives, and Cain is scared of them. Also, the other people don’t seem to have been living with or near Adam and Eve.

    ~ “God so loved the world . . .”(John 3:16) Jesus is the saviour of the world (John 4:42). These truths remain whether God created other humans or not.

    ~ Jesus is the one and only saviour of Jews and Gentiles, everyone (Eph. 2:13-14). All the redeemed have been grafted into Israel, and form a new Israel (Rom. 11:17ff; Gal. 6:16). Through faith, anyone can become a descendant of Abraham (Gal. 3:29).

    ~ The Adam and Eve and Serpent story in Genesis 3 is a microcosm of the story of Israel. Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, is an important part of Israel’s story. By virtue of Jesus, all humans, regardless of their ancestry, can join in and become part of the next chapter of this story.

    ~ If the idea that God may have created other people is still a concern, it may be a comfort to realise that the biblical record of the flood indicates that these other people were wiped out. (Although, the ancestry of Noah’s daughters-in-law is unclear.)

    ~ I have an article about Paul’s use of Adam as a Messianic type in Romans 5 here.

    I personally cannot see that the biblical salvation story, and Paul’s teaching on it, is jeopardised by the idea that God created other people. Also, I am by no means insisting that the people in Genesis 4:14ff must be understood as non-relatives of Cain.

  6. Alex Krause says:

    As a Christian, I initially thought Gen. 3.15b spoke of a natural hazard similar to the “sweat of the brow” and “in pain you will bear” judgments. It was the reoccurring motifs in the rest of the bible which pointed to the this thematic statement as metaphorical. In this ‘judgment address’ the Lord speaks to this entity behind the animal in a different way than to the humans.
    As to the similar nature or action of the verb in 3.15b, both speak terminally to the actors (a bite of a serpent was usually fatal as is a crushed head). Even though the verb is identical, the translation should reflect what snakes do (bite, pierce), while feet ‘crush’. The end result is stated first (judgment on the serpent), so it is not chronological but logical order of address.
    Some folks see both judgments as simultaneous (Jesus’ death crushed the serpent) but Heb. 9.28 says it is a separate event.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Alex,

      I love the wording of your comment, especially, “In this ‘judgment address’ the Lord speaks to this entity behind the animal in a different way than to the humans.” I don’t quite follow your meaning in the last sentence, though.

  7. Anna says:

    The bible is about the dichotomy of the flesh vs the spirit. ‘I will put ENMITY between your seed and her seed. Just as Moses ‘lifted up the SERPENT in the wilderness, so was the SON of MAN (flesh, serpent) lifted up in Judea. ‘The flesh counts for nothing; it is the spirit that gives life.’ Jn 6:63. This dichotomy is plainly seen in the two trees, two seeds, two mountains, two women, two cities. One was of the flesh and one of the spirit.

    The old covenant with the nation of Israel was external, seen, temporary, of the flesh (serpent). The New is internal, unseen, eternal, of the spirit (Messiah’s spirit dwelling with us, the new temple).

    The old covenant nation of Israel worshipped the creation more than the Creator. They worshipped manmade idols of ‘wood and stone:’ stone temple, stone tablets, wooden altar, wooden ark, cherubim, etc. All of which were UNLAWFUL images of things in heaven, earth and sea.

    Peter was ‘ha satan,’ and Judas was ‘devil.’ The Hebrew word for ha satan means ‘Adversary or Accuser.’ The law accused every last person on the earth as it was meant to do. It was a schoolmaster that revealed sin and one’s need of a Savior. ‘The law brings WRATH.’ The Israelites would not LISTEN to God’s voice and demanded a mediator so God gave them a legislator, Moses, and he gave them ‘laws they could not keep’ (Ezekiel chapter 20) so that by refusing to hear his voice speaking through the Messiah, the law would be their death knell, as images were forbidden. They were objects of God’s wrath.

    We should not call anyone ‘Rabbi, Father, Teacher, Preacher, Pastor, Reverend, etc. for Jesus said not to, ‘..for you are all brothers and all have the same Teacher.’ Matt 23:8-10. We should not follow the same path the Israelites did and not listen to his voice and follow another for the new covenant makes us all equal in God’s sight. Anything that elevates, divides, excludes was of the old covenant.

    We have a new and better one. New priesthood, new law, new name, new wine, new song, new city, new Jerusalem = new creation in Christ Jesus. From external, seen, temporary, fleshly to internal, unseen, eternal, spiritual.

    Let us all grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the honor and glory, praise and worship, power and strength for all eternity.

    • Marg says:

      I agree with some of this, Anna, but not all of it.

      It is true that “the flesh”–a metaphor referring to the sinful or selfish nature–is opposed to the Spirit, but it would be a mistake to think the flesh refers to physical flesh or the body. I’m not sure if you think that, but I just want to clarify the point.

      We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we are inseparably body and spirit, both now and in the future when we will have a body like Jesus’ resurrection body (Phil. 3:20-21). To separate body and spirit, and regard the body as evil is a belief that entered the church through Platonism, not through Jesus. Again, I’m not sure if you think that, but I want to make this point.

      I also don’t think we can make a distinction between external and internal. I know the KJV says “the kingdom of God is within you”, but it should be translated as “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21b). “You” is plural” in this verse.

      Right now the kingdom of heaven (i.e. the kingdom of God) is both visible and invisible, but I don’t think it is internal as opposed to external. Rather, God wants us to experience the reign of Messiah Jesus in community as well as individually.

      There is somewhat of a dichotomy between the Old Covenant(s) and the New Covenant, but I don’t think there is a dichotomy between body and spirit/soul, between external and internal, or between visible and invisible. The real dichotomy is death and life.

      In other respects, I think we are on the same page. We indeed have a new and better Covenant, a new inclusive priesthood, a new law of love, and we are a new creation with the hope of a new, restored earth (2 Cor. 5:16-18; Rom. 8:20-25).

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