INSIDE THE TEXTI've run across an accusation against the Catholic Church that goes something like this one from Christian apologist Keith Thompson:
One example of distortion of scripture to support Catholic exaltation of Mary has to do with the translation of Genesis 3:15....Genesis 3:15 [says...] "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”...“He” (הוּא) in the original Hebrew is masculine. It is pronounced “hoo” and can also mean “it.” Many think it means “it” in reference to collective offspring of the woman crushing the head of the serpent. In the LXX, however, it is rendered autos “he,” indicating that the passage should be understood as a Messianic prophecy about Jesus Christ alone crushing the head. “He [Jesus] will crush the serpents head.”However, Jerome (342-430) in his Latin Vulgate translation made a major error changing “it” or “he” into “she” using the feminine pronoun ipsa in the Latin. Roman Catholic scholars who accepted the Latin Vulgate then translated Genesis 3:15 in their Douay-Rheims Bible as: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.
First we begin with the term for "he/it/she" in question. Thompson notes that the Hebrew word is masculine and translated as "he" or "it." Several Protestant translations do use the word "it" including the fairly literal King James Version. Catholic apologists such as Jimmy Akin or Robert Sungenis acknowledge the masculinity of the Hebrew word as well, which admits to "he" or "it." There is an artistic sense in which the Hebrew word could be copied as feminine, and that is in the case of poetry, which the Jewish Encyclopedia states sometimes uses masculine and feminine interchangeably. But for the sake of this apologetic, according to my research, I am going to agree that "he" and "it" are the most accurate translations.
Before I move on, I just want to point out that the term "she" was not a corruption that came about because of Jerome. Jerome's translation is circa 400 A.D. Yet we can find at least one early Christian interpreting the same verse with "she," such as Tertullian writing around 205 A.D. in his work On the Apparel of Women.
THE CHURCH'S ROLE
Now, no one disputes that the principle defeater of Satan is God, as even Romans 16:20 echoes: "the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet." However, both Protestants and Catholics alike recognize that the "he" and "his" in the phrase "he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" refers back to the word "offspring." Thompson also admits "many" interpreters recognize this meaning in the structure of the text. And I think the text demands that the "offspring" of the "woman" includes the Church.
Let's look again at Romans 16:20: "the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet." Satan is crushed "under the feet" of the Roman church, albeit by God through them. Thompson's objection to this understanding due to the Septuagint's use of the word "he" does not preclude the Church as a participant in Christ's work because the "he" could be understood as "the 'he' who crushes through the Church" just as Romans 16:20 suggests.
John MacArthur, whose contra-Catholic ideas I previously discussed, wrote:
Believers should recognize that they participate in the crushing of Satan because, along with their Savior and because of His finished work on the cross, they also are of the woman's seed.1
Protestant "Reformer" John Calvin, in his commmentary on Genesis, wrote similarly of this verse:
[I]t comes to pass that, in the same manner, the whole Church of God, under its Head, will gloriously exult over him. To this the declaration of Paul refers, “The Lord shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly,” (Romans 16:20.) By which words he signifies that the power of bruising Satan is imparted to faithful men, and thus the blessing is the common property of the whole Church.
There are Catholic sources that agree with these sentiments, such as the New American Bible's footnote:Or the Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition footnote:
He will strike...at his heel: since the antecedent for he and his is the collective noun offspring, i.e., all the descendants of the woman, a more exact rendering of the sacred writer's words would be, "They will strike...at their heels."
he shall bruise your head: i.e., the seed of the woman, that is, mankind descended from Eve, will eventually gain the victory over the powers of evil. This victory will, of course, be gained through the work of the Messiah who is par excellence the seed of the woman.2
Even in Revelation 12:7-8, Michael the archangel and his angels are said to have vanquished the devil from heaven, but this does not trump Christ's ultimate victory over the serpent. The angels are, after all, fellow members of the Church as well. So anyway, a variety of Catholics and Protestants alike agree that Jesus is the primary force striking the head of the serpent, but this does not preclude the Church as a secondary agent as well.
And it is at this point we turn to Mary. Can she be said to play a special role as well in striking the head of the serpent?
Along with the Church, which participates in the victorious sufferings of Christ (e.g. 1 Pt 4:13), Mary's suffering is specifically tied to the sufferings of Christ in the prophecy of the Holy Spirit through Simeon:
Luke 2:25,34-35 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. ... and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against and a sword will pierce through your own soul also, that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."
A second reason Mary can be seen to have a special role in striking the serpent's head is because, typologically, Mary is understood as figure of the Church, which we have established as a very fair understanding of the "he/it" that strikes the serpent's head. Among many reasons, Mary is understood as a figure of the Church due to the Spirit coming together with her to bring forth a child. Nuptually, children are brought forth via the union of husband and wife, and thus, Mary in this sense is the "spouse" of the Spirit. And Scripture often refers to the Church as the spotless, virgin bride of God as well (e.g. Mt 25:1, Eph 5:27-32, Rv 21:9-10) thus the Virgin Mary is the Church's figure. Pope John Paul II recognized this, as well as the bishops at Vatican II, and even in antiquity from the likes of St. Ambrose in the 4th century (see Pope John Paul II, Mary is Outstanding Figure of the Church).
There are also other strong places in Scripture overlapping Mary and the Church such as Revelation 12 which uses imagery much like Genesis 3:15.
Revelation 12:5-6a,17 [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, and the woman fled into the wilderness...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.
Verse 9 in between also calls the dragon "that ancient serpent," tying it even further with Genesis 3:15. The woman in this passage is Mary because she brings forth the one to rule all nations. And like ancient Israel fleeing through the "wilderness" to Egypt, Mary also fled to Egypt with Joseph (Mt 2:13-14). In turn, Israel is the prefigurement of the Church of the new covenant (e.g. Jer 31:31-33). And coming full circle, Mary can be seen to strike the serpent's head in her role as figure of the Church.
Finally, I'd like to look at two other women in the Old Covenant who struck the head of the enemy on behalf of the people. In what other way can the "he" or "it" term in Genesis 3:15 be understood to include Mary specifically? I think the following is perhaps the most compelling evidence.
The first woman described to "strike the enemy's head" is Jael. In Judges 4:21 and Judges 5:26, she is described killing the oppressive king's general Sisera by driving a tent peg into his head.
The second woman is Judith. In Judith 13:8-9, she is described cutting off the head of Holofernes, who is called later in the chapter the "leader of...enemies," and whose name means "stinking in hell."3
Before I proceed, it should be noted that the Old Testament also includes stories like the one of David, who strikes the head of the enemy Goliath. David, as a figure of Christ, reflects Christ's role in smiting the enemy's head.
Now back to the women. So in what way is Mary connected to these women who struck the enemy's head? One very strong connection is that all three women, Jael, Judith, and Mary are called "blessed among women."
Jael is called "blessed of women" in Judges 5:24. Judith is called "blessed...among all women on earth" in Judith 13:18. And Mary, of course, is called "blessed...among women" in Luke 1:42.
Mary's weapon is not a peg, like Jael, or a sword, like Judith. Rather can Mary's weapon be considered her very immediate offspring––Jesus Christ? I think the typology here supports that understanding.
Therefore, we can better see that Mary in a very real sense strikes the enemy's head when we study the text of Genesis 3:15 in light of the totality of Scripture. We needn't worry if the word "she" is incompatible with the Hebrew text of Genesis 3:15 because Mary's role is deducible without forcing the translation. She is a figure of the Church as well as the women in the Old Testament, all whom are said in Scripture to strike the enemy's head. And none of this participation detracts from the ultimate victor over the serpent––Jesus Christ.
1MacArthur, John, The MacArthur Study Bible, Thomas Nelson (publisher), 1997, p. 20-21.
2Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1965-1966, p. 985.
3Many Protestant traditions do not recognize the book of Judith as Scripture. However, I think the strength of the argument can be drawn from the Jael story alone, or by acknowledging the historical tale of Judith as part of Jewish tradition even if one denies its Scriptural quality.