She Shall Crush Thy Head

inimicitias ponam inter te et mulierem et semen tuum et semen illius ipsa conteret caput tuum et tu insidiaberis calcaneo eius

God said to the serpent: “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.”
Genesis 3, 15 {DRB}

Originally, an epicene Hebrew personal pronoun was used in the Protoevangelium (First Gospel) in Genesis 3:15. This pronoun has only one form to denote either male (hu) or female (hi) in the singular or the two taken together in a gender-neutral way (hem): He/She/They shall crush thy head, and thou shall lie in wait for his/her/their heel.  In the Catholic tradition, both the woman and her offspring are taken in association with each other. It is not only the woman, but also  her  child  who  is  at  enmity  or opposition with the serpent and its offspring: sinful humanity.  Thus, from different theological perspectives, either the woman or her offspring can be seen striking at the head of the serpent in collaboration with each other in their respective roles.

Luke presents both Mary and Jesus to be equally “blessed” (euologomene /eulogemenos) by having absolutely nothing in common with Satan and what he has worked: sin and death (Lk 1:42). For this reason, Mary is elevated above all women, including Eve, by her association with Jesus in undoing the consequences of the fall of Adam and Eve. Both the Mother and the Son are equally blessed by having been set apart by God and consecrated to Him for undoing what the serpent started in the beginning (Gen 3:14).

Then Uzziah said to her, “Blessed are you daughter, by the Most High God, above all the women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who guided your blow at the head of the chief of our enemies.”
Judith 13, 18

Since, in the original Hebrew text, the Protoevangelium has a dual subject (He-She), either the male or female, or even the plural rendering, of the epicene pronoun is acceptable according to one’s proper theological perspective. The Latin translation of the Hebrew female pronoun (ipsa) espoused by St. Jerome in his composition of the Latin Vulgate points to the vital role God granted Mary in His plan of salvation, brought to complete fruition by the final victory of her Son over the serpent and its seed: sin and death. The female rendering of the neuter pronoun in no way serves to denote a final victory attributed to the woman. It was God who directed Judith’s blow against  Holofernes which saved her people from imminent slavery and destruction, just as it was God’s grace  that  preceded  and prompted Mary to pronounce her Fiat at the Annunciation and fulfill  her commitment in  the  Divine  work  of  salvation  by  enduring sorrow at the foot of the Cross to temporally appease God for mankind’s sins.

In like manner, Mary victoriously crushes the head of the serpent by collaborating with God in bringing the Messiah into the world through her act of faith in charity and grace, that He  may save humanity from the ravages of sin and impending death: eternal separation from God. The woman who God is referring to in His exchange with the serpent is not Eve, but a woman who He promises will vindicate our fallen primordial mother by her act of faith.

That the early Church interpreted Genesis 3:15 this way and perceived Mary to be a second Eve is evident to begin with in the apologetic writings of St. Irenaeus (189 A.D.). The Bishop of Lyons bears testimony to the Apostolic Catholic faith: “So, if Eve disobeyed God, yet Mary was persuaded to be obedient to God, in this way, the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve” (Against Heresies, 5:19:1). This interpretation of who the woman in the Proto-gospel is makes more sense in Christian thought, seeing that Jesus is the Son of Mary, who vindicates our fallen primordial mother by her obedient act of faith in charity and grace.

In classical Jewish theology, the woman is seen to be Daughter Zion and her offspring: the righteous remnant of Israel, including the Messiah, through whom people of all nations shall come to know and accept God and be redeemed of their sins upon his appearance at the end of this age. At any rate, a Latin reading ipse (he) would directly announce the final victory achieved by the woman’s offspring without necessarily excluding the essential part she had to play in humanity’s redemption in collaboration with him.

St. Paul tells us that all members of the Church crush the devil’s head by their perseverance in faith: ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet’ (Rom. 16:20). In the order of grace, Mary is the pre-eminent member and proto-type of the Church, for it was by her salutary act of faith in charity and grace that her Divine offspring came into the world to save humanity from its sins and restore it to the preternatural life of grace.  All who are baptized can strike Satan’s head each time they resist his temptations and observe the will of God with the help of His grace (Jas. 4:17). As the Blessed Virgin Mary is a moral channel of grace, she is united with all her Son’s disciples in their battles with the dragon through her prayerful intercession in Heaven (Rev. 12:17).

Thus, the reading “she” (ipsa) is not meant to equate Mary with Jesus by co-ordinating her merits with his. Surely, the final victory over Satan and what he has managed to work for humanity exclusively belongs to her Son in strict justice (meritum perfecta condigno) because of his divine nature and equality with the Father. Yet, theologically, the female  reading  is  acceptable  from  a  correct  point  of view. Depending on what one wishes to emphasise, both the woman and her seed can be said to crush the serpent’s head. This isn’t an either-or, but a both-and proposition. Mary crushes the serpent’s head by her supernatural merits (meritum de congruo) or by right of friendship with God in co-operation with divine grace in and through the merits of her divine Son who is the principal source of all saving grace.

God chose to become incarnate to reconcile the world to Himself, but it was by Mary’s meritorious free consent to be the mother of our Lord and Saviour in alignment with God’s will that the Incarnation happened according to His righteous design. In their respective roles, both Jesus (hu/ispse) and Mary (hi/ipsa) crushed the serpent’s head together in accord with the Divine initiative. Christ redeemed the world in his humanity, by serving as a ransom for sin paid by his blood, which he should receive with divine necessity  only  by Mary’s act of faith working through love in collaboration with the Holy Spirit.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Although our Blessed Lady was only a finite created being, unlike God who is infinite and uncreated, she could merit for both herself and humanity the Incarnation. This was because she acted in the state of sanctifying grace. In this state of grace, she partook of the divine life of God, sealed with the Holy Spirit (2 Pet.1:4; 2 Cor.5:17; Eph.1:13; Phil. 2:13; 1 Jn.3:7,10, etc.). Raised  above her human nature, by which she could merit nothing from God apart from His grace, and sharing in the supernatural life of God in His grace, God honoured  her Fiat. Mary acted understanding and seeing with God’s own supernatural vision, and  she  loved  with His own infinite  and  burning supernatural love in the depths of her soul which was infused with  His  sanctifying grace (Lk 1:46). In Elizabeth’s declaration of praise, “Blessed (eulogmene) are you among women,” the perfect passive participle is a Hebraism meaning “most blessed among women” or “blessed above all women” (Lk 1:42).

We have an example in the following passage from the Hebrew Old Testament.

תְּבֹרַךְ֙ מִנָּשִׁ֔ים יָעֵ֕ל אֵ֖שֶׁת חֶ֣בֶר הַקֵּינִ֑י מִנָּשִׁ֥ים בָּאֹ֖הֶל תְּבֹרָֽךְ׃

“Blessed of women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed above women shall she be in the tent.”
– Judges 5, 24

The second clause qualifies the first clause. The expression “blessed of women” implies Jael is blessed above all other women because of her singular deed in collaboration with YHWH. And how is it that Jael is supremely blessed?

She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workman’s hammer, and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.
– Judges 5, 25-26

Catholic scholars and apologists in favour of Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Old Testament inform us that the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo (c. A.D. 40) preferred the hi (ipsa) reading, having argued from the Hebrew poetic technique known as parallel poetry (chiasmus). This form of poetry comprises three-quarters of the OT, mostly in the Book of Proverbs and the Psalms. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is chiastic in its structure as well. Although the Book of Genesis is a historical narrative written in prose, parallel poetry (the expression of one idea in two or more different ways, or the idea of one line following the idea of another line) is a literary technique that is also used when recording a spoken prophecy. Genesis 3:15 is the first Messianic prophecy found in the Bible, and it was pronounced by God Himself. Let us examine some examples of this literary device in the OT to see how concepts and ideas are structured to parallel each other in single passages. The verses below are taken from Hebrew Parallelism, by Jeff A. Benner.

Here Psalm 15:1-3 and Isaiah 6:10 are broken down into their poetic sequences. Each thought is represented by the letters A-D. Each expression of a thought is represented by the numbers 1 and 2.

A1. Lord, who may [dwell] in your [sanctuary]?
A2. Who may [live] on your [holy hill]?
B1. He whose [walk] is [blameless]
B2. and who [does] what is [righteous]
C1. who [speaks the truth] from his [heart]
C2. and has [no slander] on his [tongue]
D1. who does his [neighbour] no wrong
D2. and casts no slur on his [fellow man]
[does no wrong – casts no slur]

A. Make the [heart] of this people [fat]
B. and make their [ears] [heavy]
C. and [shut] their [eyes]
C1. lest they [see] with their [eyes]
B1. and [hear] with their [ears]
A1. and [understand] with their [heart], and return, and be healed.

Now in Genesis 3:15, a couplet (distich) parallel a following couplet:

A1. I shall put enmities between [thee] and the [woman]
B1. and between [thy seed] and [her seed]
A2. [She] shall crush [thy head
B2. and [thou] shalt lie in wait for [her heel]

We see that line A1 corresponds with line A2, and line B1 with B2. The “woman” in line A1 refers to “she” in A2. Thus, to make the subject of line A2 “he” (ipse) or “it” (ipsum) and to say it relates to the seed in line B1, is obviously bad Hebrew poetry. Clearly, the “he” or “it” readings ruin the synonymous parallelism of this verse and so are more likely to be at variance with the author’s intention. Jerome consulted  with eminent Jewish scholars while he translated the Hebrew into Latin in Bethlehem. So, he could have taken this literary device into account in his choice of pronouns. 

Following the rhythm of the text in threefold idiomatic fashion it reads as follows:

Your seed/her seed
She shall crush your head/ you lie in wait for her heel

The following pattern disrupts the rhythm of the verse by making an abrupt switch of focus between subjects:

Your seed/her seed
He (It) shall crush your head/you lie in wait for his (its)heel

In the sacred text, it is the woman who is at enmity with the serpent, while the woman’s seed is at enmity with the serpent’s seed: sinful humanity. If we accurately observe the parallelism here, we should reasonably conclude from the first enmity announced between the woman and the serpent that the subsequent pronouns refer to the first protagonist, the woman, and the first antagonist, the serpent. The pronoun ipsa thereby refers to the female protagonist who, because of the serpent’s antagonism and her opposition against it, victoriously crushes its head by her obedience to the will of God and in collaboration with Him as His “fellow worker” (1 Cor 3:15).

A radical shift to the woman’s seed certainly does violence to the rhythm of the passage from a literary perspective, though theologically there is no conflict. As  previously pointed out, the woman could be said to have crushed the serpent’s head by her act of faith, for it resulted in her giving birth to the offspring who would achieve the final victory over it by destroying its dominion on earth. Mary crushed the serpent’s head in collaboration with her divine Son in concurrence with the graces he merited for her by his passion and death. And the merit of the temporal satisfaction our Blessed Lady made to God for the sins of the world  received its worth from the eternal satisfaction our Lord had made to his heavenly Father. Yet our Lord’s eternal expiation should be completed by the obedience of a promised woman and virgin who, not unlike Eve in the fulness of grace and the state of innocence, vindicates the primordial mother of all the living by untying the knot of her disobedience while never having fallen from His grace (Lk 1:28). 

And the dragon was angry against the woman: and went to make war with the rest of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Revelation 12, 17

Hence, in Genesis 3:15, God  is  speaking  to  the serpent about Eve’s  transgression, which draws our attention to her moral contribution in the fall of mankind (Adam). It’s only reasonable, therefore, that our focus should be kept on the female protagonists in this drama and how it unfolds in the restoration of mankind through the moral contribution of  the woman who  God  promises will undo what the serpent started by tempting Eve. The Serpent aimed to ruin all that was good in God’s creation by targeting Adam, but it was through his helpmate the Woman that it brought about Adam’s fall from grace. The Serpent did not speak to Adam and tempt him directly, but allied with his wife to entice him and join with her in their rebellion against God.

The Woman must vindicate herself by opposing the serpent, but now this could only be accomplished by the woman who God promised shall conceive and bear the Messiah, so that he could restore what Adam brought about by his sin. The Fall of mankind from God’s grace was accomplished by Adam alone. If he hadn’t succumbed to his wife’s suggestion, only she would have been banished from Eden and barred from the Tree of Life in her spiritual death. Meanwhile, God would have provided another female helpmate for Adam who would bear righteous offspring for her husband in the life of grace, if she proved to be faithful to him in their nuptial covenant by believing him instead of the Serpent in what he told her about God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit on the Tree of Knowledge.  

The Blessed Virgin Mary stands in opposition to the Serpent in her covenant with God, while her offspring, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, is at enmity with the Serpent’s works: fallen mankind and creation, which he has come into the world to restore by regeneration and re-creation.  And this Christ (the second Adam) did accomplish more than sufficiently because of his faithful and obedient helpmate who remained true to God in her covenant with Him. The Woman and her Offspring allied themselves against the Serpent.

St. Luke does draw a parallel between the Virgin Mary and Daughter Zion in her Canticle of Praise (Lk 1:46-49) by referring to the prophets Isaiah, Zechariah, and Zephaniah and the Psalms (Isa.61:10; Zech.9:9; Zeph.3:1415, 20; Ps.102:13; 126:1-3; 147:12-13). It does appear, then, that the Ecclesia in apostolic time acknowledged Mary to be not only the new Eve, but also the anti-type of Daughter Zion because of her Divine  Maternity which she acquired by her salutary obedient act of faith. Her divine motherhood would be redefined at the Cross to include redeemed humanity, but especially all her Son’s disciples, her spiritual offspring (Jn 19:26-27).

So, then, who are the offspring of the serpent? We find the answer summed up in 1 John 3:10-12: ‘By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain who was of the evil one and slew his brother Abel. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s righteous.’ The seed of the serpent, therefore, are people who possess the disposition of the devil. They are consumed by pride, jealousy, and malice towards their neighbour and loathe what is righteous. And not unlike their progenitor, they hate God and all his righteous children even to the point of persecuting and putting them to death because they bear witness to the truth against them.

In the apostolic age, Pope St. Clement l (A.D. 98) exhorts the faithful not to conduct themselves in the manner of the serpent’s offspring: “Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride. ‘For God,’ saith [the Scripture], ‘resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.’ Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words” (Epistle to the Corinthians, 30).

Of all human creatures, the Blessed Virgin Mary was the most perfect “portion of the Holy One” clothed with “concord and humility”, graced with temperance and charity, and pure in heart. Rather than being proud, boastful, and judgemental, she was meek and poor in spirit. She “stood far off” from the prince and spirit of this world. The angel Gabriel came to  Mary since she had “found grace with God” (Lk 1:30). The Annunciation wouldn’t have happened if she had possessed the disposition of the serpent and heeded its  words as  Adam’s wife and helpmate had instead. Mary had to have no affinity whatsoever with the Dragon and be completely unlike its offspring  if she were to crush its head in collaboration with God for the world’s salvation.

The virgin spouse of the Holy Spirit was “a garden enclosed” and “a fountain sealed” (Songs 4:12). Not unlike the virgin bride of Christ, which is the Church, pure and unblemished in her faith, the Virgin Mary stood on a rock beyond the Devil’s reach. The serpent could never slither into the garden of her soul, which proclaimed God’s glory and through which the Messiah shone forth as the light of the world in its re-creation. Nor could the gates of Hell prevail against the blessed mother of our Lord.  Meanwhile, it wasn’t the devil whom Jesus and the prophets before  him  were  at  enmity  with,  at least not directly, but rather the serpent’s offspring – that “brood of vipers” who acted as its advocates (Mt 23:29-33).

“For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.’ And by her has He been born, to whom we have proved so many Scriptures refer, and by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him; but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe upon Him.”
St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 100
(155 A.D.)

And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.
Micah 4, 8


“These ecclesiastical writers in quoting the words by which at the beginning of the world God announced his merciful remedies prepared for the regeneration of mankind — words by which he crushed the audacity of the deceitful serpent and wondrously raised up the hope of our race, saying, “I will put enmities between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed”[13] — taught that by this divine prophecy the merciful Redeemer of mankind, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, was clearly foretold: That his most Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, was prophetically indicated; and, at the same time, the very enmity of both against the evil one was significantly expressed. Hence, just as Christ, the Mediator between God and man, assumed human nature, blotted the handwriting of the decree that stood against us, and fastened it triumphantly to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, united with him by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with him and through him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.”

Pope Piux lX (Apostolic Constitution)
Ineffabilis Deus

[8 December 1854]










Published by: Catholic Pilgrim

I'm an EFL high school teacher in China, but from Canada, who likes to dab in theology and Biblical exegesis, and a practicing Roman Catholic strongly devoted to our Blessed Mother Mary. I hold a BA in Religious Studies & Philosophy from St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. By the way, my profile photo was candidly taken by a fellow Catholic pilgrim at the Chapel of the Apparitions by the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal.

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