Mary and the Serpent
by Edward P. Sri
The Catholic Church calls the famous passage of Genesis 3:15 the Protoevangelium (which means "first Gospel"), for it is "the first prophetic announcement of the Messiah and Redeemer" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 410). Unfortunately, most Biblical scholars today reject a messianic interpretation of this text. There are three dominant views that say Genesis 3:15 is not a prophecy about the Messiah: 1) the "etiology" view; 2) the never-ending battle view; and 3) the collective view.
In this article, we will demonstrate the shortcomings of these three common views and demonstrate why Genesis 3:15 is in fact a prophecy about the Messiah, His mother, and the future defeat of the devil.
Just a Snake?
1) The "etiology" view: Some conclude that Genesis 3:15 is merely an "etiology"—a story or legend created to explain why certain things happen as they do today. According to this perspective, this passage originally was a story invented by the ancient Jews to explain a number of oddities about snakes: why they move quickly on the ground without legs; why snakes appear to eat the dust of the earth (as ancient people believed); why there is such hostility between people and snakes; and why people are so afraid of snakes (see Gen. 3:14–15).
One problem with this view is that it is fundamentalistic in its approach. It interprets the serpent in a literalistic way, at face value, without adequately considering the literary genre and narrative structure of Genesis1–3. Genesis 1–3 uses highly symbolic imagery throughout the account of creation and Adam and Eve. The Catechism affirms this, noting how Genesis 3 "uses figurative language" even while presenting real events that took place at the beginning of time (no.390). If Genesis 1–3 is comfortable using figurative language, it would be odd for such symbolism to disappear entirely in Genesis3:15 so that the serpent has no symbolic value at all and is intended to be interpreted merely as a serpent and nothing more.
On the contrary, the serpent of Genesis 3 is meant to be understood symbolically. This point is confirmed when we see how the serpent in Genesis 3 is not presented as an ordinary reptile. This serpent figure has intelligence, speech, and knowledge surpassing what Adam and Eve have—something that indicates this is no simple snake on the ground. Furthermore, fort he ancient Jews, the notion of a serpent itself would bring to mind more than an animal. The serpent represents the most unclean animal, the one farthest from the clean animals that can be offered to God in sacrifice (Lev. 11; Deut. 14). The image of a serpent also was used in the Old Testament to describe Leviathan, the sea monster enemy of God (Is. 27:1). It is most fitting, therefore, that ancient Israel associated the serpent in Genesis 3 with the devil (see Wis.2:24), and that the New Testament made that connection explicit (Rom. 16:20; Rev.12:9). As such, Genesis 3:15 is much more than a story about snakes and men.
2) The never-ending battle view: A second interpretation recognizes that Genesis 3:15is a prophecy about the future, but not a prophecy about the Messiah. According to this view, Genesis 3:15 foretells a battle between good and evil, between God and the serpent. However, it is a battle that never ends and has no future victory over evil insight. The woman’s seed will go on striking the serpent’s head, while the serpent will continuously attack the seed of the woman.
Some Christians may object to this interpretation, noting that the woman’s seed seems to be in the tactically stronger position—striking the serpent’s head, while the serpent can only strike at the heel. However, those holding this never-ending struggle view would argue that the serpent does not need to strike the head. By merely striking at the heel, it can successfully attack its enemy with its poisonous venom.
Nevertheless, this interpretation has numerous shortcomings. First and foremost, God’s words to the serpent in Genesis 3:15 are in the context of the serpent being singled out for a curse (Gen. 3:14). This indicates that whatever Genesis 3:15 may mean, it ultimately points to bad news for the serpent. In fact, the serpent’s being cursed is accented in this account, since the serpent is the only character in the narrative that is actually cursed. Adam and Eve are punished, but they themselves are not explicitly cursed. Moreover, Adam and Eve remain standing, while the serpent is cursed to crawl on the ground (cf. Gen. 3:14), which itself is cursed (Gen. 3:17). Finally, God remains in dialogue with Adam and Eve, giving them the chance to admit their fault and repent, but the serpent does not even get a hearing. He is immediately cursed by God.
Licking the Dust
The point making the serpent’s downfall most clear is the humiliating defeatist imagery used in this passage. The language of "crawling on the belly" and "eating the dust" was used in the Old Testament to describe the enemies of the Davidic king when they were defeated: They would bow before the king and "lick the dust" (Ps. 72:9–11; cf. Mic. 7:17). Similarly, the imagery of "crushing the head" or "putting one’s enemies under one’s feet" was used to describe the royal authority of the king who defeated his foes (Ps. 110:1; 2 Sam. 22:37–43; cf. Ps. 8:6).
Therefore, when the serpent is described as eating the dust and having his head struck by the woman’s seed, this foreshadows the humiliating defeat of the serpent. At the same time, the woman’s seed who issues this blow is depicted here as a royal figure that will emerge victorious over the serpent as the Davidic kings of old defeated their enemies.
The Mystery of the Seed
3) The collective view: A third interpretation recognizes that the woman’s seed will defeat the serpent, but fails to see this seed as pointing to the Messiah. According to this view, the Hebrew word for "seed" ("zerah") should be interpreted collectively, as referring to the woman’s offspring in general, not an individual child. Eve’s descendants all the way down to Abraham’s family and the nation of Israel are the bearers of this promised victory over the serpent. Those holding this position conclude that Genesis 3:15 foretells the serpent’s defeat, but says nothing about an individual messiah coming to accomplish this.
While it is true that the Hebrew word zerah often refers to a collective group in the Old Testament, it can also refer to an individual. In fact, the next time zerah is found in the Bible, it is used to describe an individual newborn child, Seth, the son of Eve (Gen. 4:25). Moreover, while zerah is often used to describe an immediate offspring, it also can refer to an individual in the distant future. For example, in 2 Samuel 7:12, God tells David through the prophet Nathan that He will "raise up your offspring [zerah] after you" and this zerah will build the temple and have an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam. 7:13–16).
On one hand, this seed (zerah) of David points to Solomon who represents an initial, partial fulfillment of this prophecy. Solomon is David’s son who succeeds him on the throne and builds the temple in Jerusalem. But Solomon did not possess a never-ending kingdom. Thus, the zerah in this prophecy ultimately points to a future royal son who will fulfill God’s promises, possessing a kingdom that will be established forever. That future, royal zerah is revealed in the New Testament to be Jesus Christ (Rom.1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8; Heb. 1:5).
The First Messianic Prophecy
Early Church Fathers such as St. Justin Martyr (AD 150) and St. Irenaeus(AD 177) saw Genesis 3:15 as the first messianic prophecy in the Bible. And this messianic view is certainly rooted in the New Testament. Revelation 12:1–9 reveals the woman having an individual son (Jesus), whose coming brings about the defeat of "that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan" (Rev. 12:9)—clearly a depiction of Genesis 3:15’s fulfillment.
But this messianic interpretation is found even in the ancient Jewish tradition before the coming of Christ. For example, Jewish targums (Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Scriptures) from the third century BC portray Genesis 3:15 as being fulfilled "in the days of King Messiah," and the second century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint also interprets the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 as an individual.
Finally, this messianic view has a basis even in the text of Genesis 3:15 itself. First, all of the other major figures in this drama of Genesis 3—the man, the woman, God, the serpent—are understood as individuals. It seems quite unlikely that the seed of the individual woman, who is prophesied by the individual God to emerge victorious over the individual serpent, is itself a figure that is not also to be seen as pointing, at least to some extent, to an individual.
Second, we saw earlier that "eating the dust" and "crushing the head" imagery was used in the Old Testament to portray a king defeating his enemies. Since that imagery is employed in Genesis 3:15 to describe the woman’s seed, the seed should be seen as a royal son—an individual king—just as it is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to depict the victories of a single king.
In conclusion, Genesis 3:15 presents a mother figure associated with a royal son who will bring about the defeat of the serpent, striking its head and forcing it to eat the dust like a king defeating his enemies. Notice how the passage focuses our attention on the woman in this dramatic prophecy: The woman takes center stage in relation to the kingly offspring, while the man is left out. Who will this mother of the royal son be? Mary, of course, as we have seen several times in our reflections on Our Lady in Scripture (see especially Jn. 2:4; Jn.19:25–27; Rev. 12). Indeed, as the Catechism notes, "Many Fathers and Doctors of the Church have seen the woman announced in the Protoevangelium as Mary, the mother of Christ, the ‘new Eve’" (Catechism, no. 411).
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Edward P. Sri is a professor of theology and Scripture at the Augustine Institute
in Denver, Colorado. He is the author of or contributor to several Emmaus Road books, including his latest book, Queen Mother
, which is based on his doctoral dissertation. This article published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
. All rights reserved.