In the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible, we read:
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.”
And the Lord God said to the serpent: “Because thou hast done this thing, thou art cursed among all cattle, and beasts of the earth: upon thy breast shalt thou go, and earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.
“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” [Gen. 3:13-15].
This translation, found also in many older editions of the Latin Vulgate, is the basis for common depictions in Catholic art of Mary with a serpent beneath her feet.
The idea is that Genesis 3:15 foreshadows the gospel, in which the power of the devil is broken through Jesus, Mary’s Son.
The fact that Genesis 3:15 is, on one level, an early announcement of the gospel is agreed by Christians of many persuasions. But what about this specific translation, where it says “she” shall crush the serpent’s head and the serpent shall strike at “her” heel?
You won’t find that in in a lot of Bibles. Instead, they will say things like what we read in the Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel [Gen. 3:15].
Here we have masculine pronouns: “He” shall crush, and “his” heel is in danger.
Why the difference?
According to A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Bernard Orchard, et al., ed.s):
It can hardly be doubted that the feminine pronoun had its origin in the error of an early copyist of Vg. In his Lib. Quaest. Heb. in Gen. St Jerome quotes the Old Latin version of this text with the masc. (ipse) and translates the Hebrew with the same, PL 23, 943, and ipse is the reading of various Vg MSS. It is therefore highly improbable that he translated ipsa here [comment on Gen. 3:15b].
This is a little dense and uses some abbreviations that may not be familiar, so let me unpack it:
- St. Jerome himself quotes the Old Latin (pre-Vulgate) version of the text, in which the masculine pronoun ipse is used.
- Elsewhere, he also translates it from the Hebrew with the masculine pronoun ipse.
- Various manuscripts of the Vulgate also include ipse.
- Therefore, it is improbable that Jerome used the feminine form of the pronoun (ipsa) in his original edition of the Vulgate.
- Therefore, the use of the feminine form in some editions of the Vulgate is due to an early copyist’s error.
What does the Hebrew say?
Whether the commentary is correct on how the feminine pronouns got into the Vulgate (and it likely is correct), they are not there in the Hebrew.
In the Hebrew text of Genesis 3:15, the phrase translated “he will strike” is hu’ y’shuph-ka. Similarly, the phrase translated “will strike his heel” is t’shuphe-nu `aqeb, which more literally is “he will strike him on the heel.”
Both of these phrases are unmistakably using the masculine gender:
- In the first phrase, hu’ is a third person singular masculine pronoun, meaning “he.” The equivalent feminine pronoun (“she”) would be hiy’, not hu’.
- Also in the first phrase, the verb form y’shuph-ka is masculine: “he will strike.” If it were feminine, it would be t’shuph-ka (“she will strike”).
- In the second phrase, the pronoun suffix -nu (“him”) is unmistakably masculine. If it were feminine, it would be –ah (“her”).
I’ve heard it suggested that the difference in translation is that, in biblical times, Hebrew did not have written vowels and that these were added later, in medieval times.
It’s true that the text was written using an alphabet of consonants and that points were later added to indicate vowels, but this is not the explanation here.
The relevant gender forms are all indicated in the Hebrew text even if it is written without vowels. The consonants alone tell you that we are using masculine pronouns and verb forms.
An example that is fairly easy to see in English is y’shuph (“he will strike”). In Hebrew, the first letter of that is the consonant yod, and that tells us that it is masculine. If it were feminine (“she will strike”) then it would be t’shuph, and the first letter would be the consonant tav.
And the Greek?
The Septuagint—the Greek version of the Old Testament that was used by the authors of the New Testament and that has always been the standard version of the Old Testament among Greek-speaking Christians—similarly has masculine pronouns.
The “he” in “he shall strike” is autos (masculine), not autē (feminine).
Similarly, the “his” in “his heel” is autou (masculine), not autēs (feminine).
And the Early Church Fathers?
Similarly, we find the Early Church Fathers using the masculine. For example, the second century Father St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote:
God said to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall be on the watch for your head, and you on the watch for His heel” [Against Heresies 5:21:1].
So the Hebrew original, the Greek version used by the New Testament authors and in Greek-speaking Christianity, the pre-Jerome Old Latin edition, various early Fathers, and even Jerome himself all used the masculine rather than the feminine in this passage.
If we look at contemporary ecclesiastical sources, we see that they don’t use the feminine in this text.
For example, in the version of the Vulgate that is on the Vatican’s web site, we read:
Inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius; ipsum conteret caput tuum, et tu conteres calcaneum eius [Gen. 3:15].
This uses ipsum, which is neuter (“it”) rather than feminine. The reason for this gender (which Hebrew lacks) is that the word for “seed” (Latin, semen) is neuter. The idea is that it—the seed of the woman—will strike the serpent’s head.
Similarly, in his encyclical on the Virgin Mary, St. John Paul II wrote:
And so, there comes into the world a Son, “the seed of the woman” who will crush the evil of sin in its very origins: “he will crush the head of the serpent.” As we see from the words of the Protogospel, the victory of the woman’s Son will not take place without a hard struggle, a struggle that is to extend through the whole of human history [Redemptoris Mater 11].
And Benedict XVI stated:
After the original sin, God addresses the serpent, which represents Satan, curses it and adds a promise: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gn 3: 15) [Angelus, Dec. 8, 2009].
Interpreting the Passage
None of this takes away the Marian understanding of the passage, but it does help us take the text on its original terms.
As St. Thomas Aquinas—and the Catechism of the Catholic Church—indicate, “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116).
In the original context, the woman that is being discussed is Eve. It was she who was deceived by the serpent (Gen. 3:13). Her seed, understood in the original context, is all mankind, for “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 2:20).
On the literal level, Genesis 3:15 refers—at least in part—to the conflict that men and snakes have historically had between them.
But on a higher, spiritual level, it has other meanings. Since the serpent is also to be understood as the devil (Rev. 12:9), and the “seed” as Christ (cf. Gal. 3:16; the word in Greek is sperma = “seed”), the passage is also to be understood as an annunciation of the gospel, in which Christ defeats the devil.
This does not happen without Mary, and so there is also a Marian dimension to the text.
Thus St. John Paul II stated:
The Father’s plan begins to be revealed in the “Protoevangelium”, when, after the fall of Adam and Eve, God announces that he will put enmity between the serpent and the woman: it will be the woman’s son who will crush the serpent’s head (cf. Gn 3: 15).
The promise begins to be fulfilled at the Annunciation, when Mary is given the proposal to become the Mother of the Savior [General Audience, Jan. 5, 2000].
In the same way, Benedict XVI continued his discussion of the passage by stating:
It [Gen. 3:15] is the announcement of revenge: at the dawn of the Creation, Satan seems to have the upper hand, but the son of a woman is to crush his head. Thus, through the descendence of a woman, God himself will triumph. Goodness will triumph. That woman is the Virgin Mary of whom was born Jesus Christ who, with his sacrifice, defeated the ancient tempter once and for all. This is why in so many paintings and statues of the Virgin Immaculate she is portrayed in the act of crushing a serpent with her foot [ibid.].
So both pontiffs acknowledge a Marian dimension to the text: It is through her Son that Mary crushes the serpent’s head.
There is thus no need to pit the Marian interpretation against the Christological one. They are in harmony.
Indeed, there is even an even broader interpretation, for every Christian has a part to play in defeating the works of the devil. It is likely that St. Paul is thinking of Genesis 3:15 when, in his letter to the Romans, he writes:
For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, 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. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you [Rom 16:19-20].