‘I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’
Almost immediately after the sin of Adam and Eve has been committed, in the moments after the serpent had fooled our first parents and lured them into their own damnation, God promised a turning of the tables, and some measure of vengeance, though enmity may continue. He will bruise the heel, but the seed of the woman will bruise his head. From there, the story of the Old Testament unfolds, and one question that a reader of the whole thing might ask is this: who is the serpent crusher?
This question can become a neat premise for a Bible overview: we read the Old Testament waiting to see who the promised serpent crusher is. And yet, we encounter a slight problem: serpent-crushing is not a huge Old Testament motif. It is there, to be sure, but it can easily be over-egged to the point of becoming a distraction, especially when compared with other Old Testament themes, such as, for example, living in exile. There are serpentine figures and references to be sure (N.B. the mention of Goliath’s armour, literally ‘scales’, and the fact David cuts off his head; the plague and the bronze serpent), but many other issues face the people of Israel and the children of Eve. The Old Testament gives us a few moments of the seed of the woman getting their own back on the serpents, but there is no clear ‘serpent-crusher’.
We do get an answer in the New Testament, but it might not be the one we expect. We might reasonably guess that the serpent crusher would be Jesus Christ, since that’s the Sunday school answer. Yet we find when we reach the Gospels and Epistles that the New Testament doesn’t apply the serpent-crusher idea to Jesus as much as we might expect, or even like. Rather, we find to our surprise that Christ has delegated this role, delegated it to the faithful. We see this commission from Jesus’ own lips in Luke 10:19, where he says to the disciples he is about to send out ‘Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.’ Jesus empowers and commissions his followers to wage war on the devil.
This pattern continues into the epistles, and clearest reference to Genesis 3 in the New Testament, Romans 16:20, which reads ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.’ That is to say, the seed of Eve — the mother of all the living — is not only Christ, but also the Church, and that Church crushes Satan. Revelation adds another character: the Archangel Michael throws the serpent to earth, and again, it is the faithful believers who conquer him: ‘And they [i.e. the brothers] have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’ (Revelation 12:11). Who crushes the serpent? Remain faithful, even unto death, and the answer is clear: you.
This is a delicious means of God executing his vengeance on Satan. After all, it would be one thing for God to crush Satan’s head, as he is omnipotent, but Yahweh is determined that it is humanity will settle the score. And so it is as the incarnate Son that God begins his triumph over the Satan, and he means to make his scaly head the doormat upon which Adam’s children may wipe their feet before they enter glory.
It may sound wrong to us to say that the we are the serpent crushers, not Jesus. It seems like a gateway to pride, to works-righteousness, to robbing God of glory and taking it for ourselves. Yet my observation is that often, due to our understandable desire to give Christ all the glory, we miss the fact that Christ chooses to share it. In fact, Christ’s glory is not divided through his having shared it, it is multiplied. He doesn’t mind us being the serpent crushers: he wants to crush Satan through us. Just as the Father and Son are glorified as they glorify each other (John 17), Christ glorifies the Church that the Church may glorify him.
Eusebius picks up on the way that our perseverance is done in Christ, and is our triumph over the devil in a wonderful passage about the martyrdom of Blandina, a Gallic Christian who died in Lyons during the time of Marcus Aurelius. After having been tied to a post in the arena for a day, but untouched by the beasts, ‘she was taken down from the post and returned to the gaol, to be kept for a second ordeal, that by victory in further contests she might make irrevocable the sentence passed on the crooked serpent, and spur on her brother Christians – a small, weak, despised woman who had put on Christ, the great invincible champion, and in bout after bout had defeated her adversary and through conflict had won the crown of immortality.’
So what? Here are three of my thoughts on why this matters. Firstly, it means that God really, really loves humans and humanity. It is easy to think that God is slightly embarrassed by humanity. They very quickly fell from grace, and have needed an awful lot of divine help since. We are often embarrassed about our humanity, having the idea that we have become a toddler who is a nuisance to his exasperated mother, ‘Get out the way, I’ll clean up this mess myself’, we imagine the almighty saying, projecting our ideas of humanity’s value back onto him. Yet we find that God is committed to humanity conquering the devil, and settling the score. That’s part of the reason for the incarnation: John says the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil, and God was determined that humanity should defeat him as much as divinity. God is committed to the human project, and wants us to succeed.
Secondly, it means that the Christian life is a battle, and one in which Christ intends us to fight. We may draw parallels from the story of David versus Goliath. That battle was supposed to be a representative battle: whoever won did so on behalf of their whole nation, and no further fighting would be required. The Israelites did not play strictly by these rules. After David’s victory, all the Israelites pursue the Philistines and rout them, leaving a trail of the wounded from Shaaraim to Gath and Ekron. In the same way, Christ’s death was not a death on our behalf so that we needn’t do any fighting ourselves, but so that we actually could fight, just as David fought so that the Israelites could fight, not cower. For us, Jesus died so that we might live, yes — but first Jesus died so that we die too. So Jesus says we must take up our cross. If the cross is the means of Jesus’ victory, it will be the means of our victory as well: it is not just a means of execution, it is our weapon of war.
Thirdly, when we read the Bible, we must remember that typology is two ended: just as many characters are a type of Christ, Christ is also a type of Christian. Typological readings of Scripture don’t end with Christ, for the life, death, and experiences of Jesus foreshadow the lives and deaths and experiences of his followers. After all, if you follow someone, you tend to go through the same thing they do. There was a time when it was fashionable to take lessons from David and Goliath about how we fight the giants in our lives, and then there was a time when it was fashionable to make fun of people who did that, saying that David is just a type of Christ. But if Christ means to be the head of a new humanity, if Christ is a type of Christian, then it is perfectly sensible to use David as our model, just as much as we should actually try to be like Christ, and to follow him, modelling our lives on his lives. Becoming a Christian is not so much inviting Jesus into our lives as much as Jesus asking us into his, to go where he goes, live as he lives, to fight as he fights, and tread down serpents as he treads down serpents.
As the Moravians have it: Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur. Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow Him.