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Who Will Crush the Serpent’s Head?

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. But confusion results from differing translations 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.”

The difference turns on who will crush the serpent’s head and whom the serpent tries to strike. The Douay-Rheims uses feminine pronouns—”she” and “her”—implying that the woman is the person being described. Modern translations use masculine pronouns—”he” and “his”—implying that the seed of the woman is the serpent-crusher.

This disparity results from a manuscript difference. Modern translations follow what the original Hebrew of the passage says. The Douay-Rheims follows a textual variant found in many early Fathers and some editions of the Vulgate, though not the original. Jerome followed the Hebrew of this text in his edition of the Vulgate. The variant probably originated as a copyist’s error, when a scribe failed to note that the subject of the verse had shifted from the woman to the seed of the woman.

Today, people notice this variant because the expression found in the Douay-Rheims has been the basis of popular Catholic art showing a serene Mary standing over a crushed serpent. Her representation as Our Lady of Grace usually depicts her in this way.

Christians have recognized since the first century that the woman and her seed of Genesis 3:15 do not simply stand for Eve and one of her righteous sons, such as Abel or Seth. They prophetically foreshadow Mary and Jesus. The first half of the verse (speaking of the enmity between the serpent and the woman) has been applied to Mary, and so the second half (speaking of the crushed head and heel striking) also has been applied to Mary.

Though the variant that uses “she” and “her” probably came from a copyist’s error, the idea it expresses is true. There is a 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. It was Jesus who directly crushed the serpent’s head from the cross and Jesus whom the serpent directly struck on the cross. Yet Mary cooperated in these events.

She, not anyone else, was the person who agreed to become the human channel through which Christ would enter the world in order to crush the serpent’s head (Luke 1:38). She herself was wounded when the serpent struck Jesus. Simeon had prophesied to her that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also,” a prophecy 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. 

Therefore, though the she/her and he/his readings of Genesis 3:15 are different, both are true, and Catholics have long recognized this. A footnote provided a couple of hundred years ago by Bishop Challoner, in his revision of the Douay-Rheims version, state, “The sense is the same: for it is by her seed, Jesus Christ, that the woman crushes the serpent’s head.” (For more information, see A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Bernard Orchard, O.S.B., ed. [New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1953], p. 186.)

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