Question: I noticed a statue of Mary stepping on a snake. I asked the owner of the store to explain what this meant. She said that in Genesis 3:15 the Lord said that Mary would someday crush the serpent’s head, the serpent being the devil. I checked this in my Bible (a Catholic version that I bought at the same shop). But Genesis 3:15 doesn’t say that. It says that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. I understand this to be Jesus Christ, not Mary. So, how can that statue of Mary with the serpent be justified?
Answer: In the Book of Genesis 3:15 God speaks to the serpent after the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; He shall crush your head and you shall lie in wait for his heel.” This is a correct translation of the original Hebrew text and the traditional text of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. But two ancient translations, the Latin Vulgate (revised by St. Jerome) and the ancient Coptic version (Coptic is the Egyptian language used prior to the Arab Muslim invasions), read, “She shall crush your head.” But current editions of the Bible in modern languages, translations from the original languages, all follow the translation “He shall crush.”
Now, in order to understand why Our Lady is depicted crushing the serpent, you need to know that the whole of Christian tradition in any language of East or West interprets that passage as a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah or Savior, Jesus Christ, the “seed of the woman.” He is the Second or New Adam, and His Mother Mary, because she was completely free from sin, both original and actual, is the new Eve, the only woman who has a perfect enmity with the devil. This passage, sometimes referred to as the Protoevangelium (Greek = “first Gospel”) is the first announcement of the Good News of Salvation after the Bad News of Sin and Death. Many popes, including the Pope John Paul II, have repeatedly interpreted this passage in a prophetic sense, referring to Christ and Mary. Take a look, for example, at Pope John Paul II’s Marian encyclical Redemptoris Mater. The Catechism’s teaching on this passage is found in paragraphs 70, 410, and 411.
Some Scripture scholars deny that this passage refers to Jesus or Mary. They see the literal sense of this verse only as a popular folk tale, written as a way to explain why humans are afraid of snakes! (That’s a slippery interpretation if there ever was one.)
Naturally in the Latin tradition, because of the translation “she shall crush,” the passage has had a more vivid Marian meaning. That’s where the tradition of depicting Mary crushing the head of the serpent arose. But it’s a very apt and theologically precise image, nonetheless, since it’s a perfect image of her Immaculate Conception, her lifelong immunity from sin, won for her by Christ’s saving passion and death on the cross (cf. Luke 1:47). This is one reason why the new liturgy of the Roman Rite, promulgated at Vatican II, retains the reading “she will crush your head.” It is part of the antiphon (a short thematic verse) used for Mass on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It’s part of the Church’s tradition, a witness to the Blessed Virgin Mary’s special role in her Divine Son’s plan of salvation.
Question Answered by FR. HUGH BARBOUR, O.PRAEM