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The Woman, the Seed, the Serpent

Jimmy Akin

Genesis 3:15 is one of the most famous passages in Scripture, since it offers the first, veiled prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. In broad outlines, Genesis 3:15 speaks of future conflict between a Woman, her Seed, and the Serpent that deceived man in the Garden.

What many do not know is that this conflict is spoken of in other places as well—even outside of the Bible. Stories crop up across multiple ancient cultures about a conflict between a woman, the child she gives birth to, and a snake or dragon. This appears over and over in ancient mythology. It is even reflected in the constellations our ancestors projected onto the stars of the sky. The constellation Hercules is using its foot to crush the head of the constellation Draco, the Dragon. In mythology, Hercules had a divine father (Jupiter) and a human mother (Alcmene), making Hercules half mortal and half divine—a distorted understanding of the Incarnation. Further, in some accounts, the constellation Draco guards the golden apples (forbidden fruit) from Hercules. These apples had the unusual property that any mortal who picked them would die. Hercules also had trouble with another snake-constellation, Hydra, whose poison finally killed him.

This is one example among many, and it is difficult for the Christian student of mythology not to conclude that the original prophecy of the conflict stuck in mankind’s cultural consciousness and kept appearing under different forms down through the centuries.

The proper understanding of the conflict is, of course, the one found in Genesis, since this one is protected by divine inspiration. On the literal level, the prophecy may refer simply to the fact that there will be hostility between humans and snakes, a hostility that history has certainly borne out. However, on the spiritual level the prophecy involves far more than this.

The figure of the serpent does not merely represent an individual snake or even all snakes, but the actual Devil himself (cf. Rev. 20:2). Similarly, the other two figures in the passage—the Woman and “her Seed”—do not merely refer to Eve and one of her righteous sons (Abel or Seth), or even to all mothers and sons, but to specific individuals that are key to redemptive history—Mary and Christ.

Though this much is clear in the passage, there is confusion about the details of the prophecy. This results from two different versions of the passage. In most editions of the Douay-Rheims Bible—the Catholic counterpart to the King James Version—Genesis 3:15 says, “I will put enmities between thee [the serpent] and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: She shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”

In the New American Bible, and all other modern Bibles, it says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.”

People often notice the “he/him” variant used in contemporary translations of Scripture because they remember seeing examples of popular Catholic art that depict a serene Mary standing over a crushed serpent. If they are familiar with the Douay-Rheims version, they may also remember the “she/her” variant from there.

What’s the origin of the difference? Well, the original Hebrew of the passage allows for either reading; the gender is simply ambiguous, and allows for a heshe, or it reading. However, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was commonly used in the early Church, specified the gender of the one crushing the serpent’s head as being male and thus the Woman’s Seed.

When Jerome did his translation of Scripture into Latin—the translation known today as the Vulgate—he followed the Septuagint’s “he/his” reading. However, other Church Fathers followed the “she/her” reading. Eventually, the “she/her” reading found its way into the Vulgate. This probably happened either due to a copyist error or to a scribe trying to harmonize Jerome’s text with the other tradition. Once in the Vulgate, the reading could influence other Catholic translations, such as the Douay-Rheims, was originally based on the Vulgate, though it was later edited in accord with the Greek and Hebrew originals.

Regardless of whether the human author of Genesis understood the passage in the “she/her” sense or the “he/him” sense, the ideas expressed by both readings are true. In the ultimate sense, Christ did crush the serpent’s head and was struck himself by the serpent, both.aspects of his death on the Cross. However, there is another sense in which Mary crushed the serpent’s head and in which she was struck at by the serpent. She didn’t do these things directly, but indirectly, through her Son and through her cooperation with her Son’s mission.

It was she, not someone else, who was the person that agreed to become the human channel through which Christ would enter the world in order to crush the serpent’s head (cf. Luke 1:38). And she was wounded when the serpent struck Jesus. Simeon had prophesied to her that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also,” a prophecy that was fulfilled when Mary saw her Son hanging from the cross (John 19:25–27). Thus Jesus directly crushed the serpent and was directly struck by the serpent, while Mary indirectly crushed it and was indirectly struck by it due to her cooperation in becoming the mother of Christ. 

The fact both readings express theological truths is something Catholics have long noted. For example, the footnotes provided a couple of hundred years ago by Bishop Challoner in his revision of the Douay state, “The sense is the same: For it is by her seed, Jesus Christ, that the woman crushes the serpent’s head.” See also A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Bernard Orchard [New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953, 186]. 

There are other meanings to the passage should not be neglected. As we said, on the literal level the prophecy may refer to the general conflict between humans and snakes that we have seen throughout history. This interpretation would take “the seed” of the woman to refer to humanity in general—the children of Eve. This is a valid interpretation since “seed” can be taken either as a plural term (referring to all mankind) or as a singular term (referring to the Son of Man).

While it is odd to describe a woman as having seed (something many have rightly seen as a hint of the Virgin Birth), it is not outside the bounds of Hebrew expression. Just as there is a conflict on the natural level between all mankind and snakes, there is also a conflict on the spiritual level between mankind—or the righteous members of mankind—and the Devil.

This understanding of the passage may well be behind Paul’s statement, “I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless as to what is evil; then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:19b–20a).

In Genesis 3:15 it seems that there are several non-exclusive interpretations, at least three of which may be intended by the text itself: (a) a natural conflict between snakes and the human race, (b) a spiritual conflict between (righteous) humans and the devil, (c) the conflict between Messiah and the devil, and (d) the conflict between Mary and the devil. This is an example of a prophecy that has multiple fulfillments based on the different levels on which the text may be read—literal, moral, Christological, and Mariological.

Prophecies with multiple fulfillments are common in Scripture. Another such prophecy is a direct echo of Genesis 3:15 which appears in Revelation 12:

“And a great portent appeared in heaven, a Woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. . . . . [S]he brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne… Then the dragon was angry with the Woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 12:1–2, 5, 17).

Notice that we have the same elements here as in Genesis—the Woman, her Seed, and the Dragon, who is explicitly identified in Revelation as the serpent of old (Rev. 12:9, 14–15, 20:2). In this, the symbol of the woman, like much of the rest of the symbolism in Revelation, is “polyvalent”—that is, it refers to more than one thing. For example, the seven heads of the beast are said to be both seven mountains (Rev. 17:9) and seven kings (Rev. 17:10).

The Woman in Revelation 12 has several referents. First, she is Israel because she is associated with the sun, the moon, and twelve stars. These symbols are drawn from Genesis 37:9–11, where the patriarch Joseph has a dream of the sun and moon (symbolizing his father and mother) and stars (representing his brothers) are bowing down to him. Taken together, the sun, moon, and twelve stars symbolize the people of Israel. Second, she is the Church because, as 12:17 tells us, her “the rest of her offspring” are those who bear witness to Jesus, making them Christians. Third, she is Mary because she is the mother of Jesus—the child who will rule the nations with a rod of iron (cf. 19:11–16).

Finally, she even echoes Eve because she is involved in the three-way conflict described in Genesis, where the woman was, in the literal sense, Eve (and in the prophetic sense, Mary).

Because the Woman is such a multi-dimensional symbol, different.aspects of the narrative in the chapter apply to different ones of the referents. Like Mary, she is pictured as being in heaven and she flies (mirroring Mary’s assumption). Like the Church, she is persecuted by the devil after the Ascension of Christ. Like Israel, she experiences great trauma as the Messiah is brought forth (figuratively) from the nation. And like Eve, it is her (distant) seed with whom the serpent has his primary conflict.

In the same way, portions of the narrative do not apply to each referent. Mary did not literally experience pain with the bringing forth of the Messiah, only figuratively (the sword that pierced her heart at the Crucifixion). Eve did not ascend to heaven. And the Church did not bring forth the Messiah (rather, the Messiah brought forth his Church).

All of this has to be kept in mind when interpreting particular.aspects of the text of Revelation. Like biblical prophecy in general, its text is very rich and very subtle, and we must expect it to be all the more so when it concerns a subject as profound and enduring as the conflict between the Woman, her Seed, and the Serpent.

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