Notes on Genesis (xxiv) Bruising the Serpent’s Head

‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall be on guard against his heel.’ (Gen 3:16)

Overwhelmingly, the tradition sees these words as referring to the work of Christ. Irenaeus: ‘He who would be born of a Virgin, after the likeness of Adam, would be on watch for the serpent’s head.’  Ephrem the Syrian: ‘Because the serpent had struck Eve with his claw, the foot of Mary bruised him.’ Epiphanius: ‘This will be realized truly in the holy, elect and unique seed which comes from Mary alone and not from relations with men. This seed came to destroy the power of the dragon, that is, the tortuous and fleeting serpent,  who boasted of holding possession of the whole world.’

This interpretation is reflected in a tiny aspect of the Latin of the Vulgate translation. Although the Septuagint uses a masculine pronoun at the beginning of the second of the sentences for the person doing the bruising (autos), the Vulgate uses a feminine pronoun (ipsa), which must refer to the woman. Doubtless the Vulgate is in error, yet the mistake is further evidence for a tradition of interpretation that sees the Theotokos as being bound up in the bruising of the serpent’s head.

Some people may regard interpretations along these lines as flights of speculative fancy. But it is worth remembering that ‘Woman’ is a term Christ uses to address his Mother (John 2:4; 19:26), and we read of hostilities between a woman who had given birth and ‘the great dragon…that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan’. (Rev 12:9) As so often, ecclesial interpretation seems foresahadowed in the way in which Scripture interprets itself.

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