Explaining Genesis

Question: In the Garden of Eden, God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed, he shall crush your head while you lie in wait for his heel.” There are many details here that puzzle me. Could you explain this?

Helen Schulte, St. Louis

Answer: The text you cite (Gn 3:15) is often called by theologians the “protoevangelion” (meaning “the first good news”) since, after all the harm caused by original sin, God announces the good news that he will send a savior to rescue us through the woman, that is, through a descendant of hers. And that is what the word “seed” means here.

The “enmity” spoken of here is an older English word meaning hostility, adversity or even hatred. In effect, God indicates that Satan and “the woman” would be particular enemies, or by extension that she would be his greatest enemy.

The Genesis text would seem to indicate that Eve was the woman. However, she died, and none of her direct children rescued us from Satan. Thus “the woman” came to be regarded as a symbol of a woman who would one day come. In John’s Gospel, Jesus indicates that his mother Mary is in fact that woman, for Jesus calls his mother “woman.” John also speaks of her in this way in Revelation 12 when he speaks of the “Woman clothed with the Sun.”

The image of striking at the heel and being crushed is drawn from the image of what snakes and humans will often do. A snake will strike at the heel of a person since that is the part closest to the ground. A human being will often seek to defend himself trying to crush the head of the snake. And all of this is used as an allegory of the spiritual battle that takes place between the “seed” (son) of “the woman” and Satan.

An interesting sidebar in this discussion was the practice of older Catholic translations that rendered the pronoun as “she.” Hence the text read, “She will crush your head while you strike at her heel.”

Many older statues of Mary show her standing on a snake for this reason. The Hebrew pronoun “hu” is ambiguous and can be rendered “he, she or it.” St. Jerome in the Latin Vulgate rendered it “she” (Ipsa), and this influenced later translations.

However, theologically it is more apt to render the text “He shall crush,” since it is Jesus, who is the “seed” — the Savior who crushes Satan. Thus most modern translations render the pronoun as “He.” Thus, while Satan has a special hostility for Mary, and she has a special power over him, her power is derived from the fact that it is her son who conquers Satan.

Marian apparitions

Question: Are Catholics bound to believe in the apparitions of Mary?

Name withheld, via email

Answer: No. When an apparition is “approved” by the Church, it is simply proposed to Catholics by the Church as worthy of belief and for edification. But there is no requirement to believe it.

Lourdes and Fatima are approved, but Medjugorje is not. Catholics are thereby cautioned to temper their devotion until such time as it is approved, but they are not forbidden from visiting Medjugorje.

Official Church-sponsored pilgrimages there, however, are discouraged until approval may come.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.