Excerpts from Luther’s lectures on Genesis, where he discusses the first promise of the Savior in Genesis 3:15. Luther makes several astute and insightful comments in these words, among them that by this promise the devil was being mocked by God and Satan was made afraid of all women, which has only increased his rage. Luther also pictures the gospel content of this promise so well that the heart who reads his words must sing. I won’t even try to describe it; instead, you can read it for yourself. It’s a longer post, but Luther said so many good things about this verse I had to include them all!
May your heart be encouraged by the coming of the Seed of the Woman, born in Bethlehem for us. (Luther’s words start after the snake’s head below.)
…Here grace and mercy begin to shine forth from the midst of the wrath which sin and disobedience aroused. Here in the midst of most serious threats the Father reveals His heart; this is not a father who is so angry that he would turn out his son because of his sin, but one who points to a deliverance, indeed one who promises victory against the enemy that deceived and conquered human nature.
…Thus the sun of comfort, previously enveloped by black clouds, rises above the clouds and with its most welcome light shines on their frightened hearts. For Adam and Eve not only do not hear themselves cursed like the serpent; but they even hear themselves drawn up, as it were, in battle line against their condemned enemy, and this with the hope of help from the Son of God, the Seed of the woman. Forgiveness of sins and full reception into grace are here pointed out to Adam and Eve. Their guilt has been forgiven; they have been won back from death and have already been set free from hell and from those fears by which they were all but slain when God appeared.
This first comfort, this source of all mercy and fountainhead of all promises, our first parents and their descendants learned with the utmost care. They saw that without this promise procreation would indeed continue to go on among people as well as among the other living beings, but that it would be nothing else than a procreation to death. And so that gift which was given by God to our nature is here made greater, nay, even made sacred; for there is hope of a procreation through which the head of Satan would be crushed, not only to break his tyranny but also to gain eternal life for our nature, which was surrendered to death because of sin. For here Moses is no longer dealing with a natural serpent; he is speaking of the devil, whose head is death and sin. And so Christ says in John 8:44 that the devil is a murderer and the father of lies. Therefore when his power has been crushed, that is, when sin and death have been destroyed by Christ, what is there to prevent us children of God from being saved?In this manner Adam and Eve understood this text. Their consolation against sin and despair was their hope for this crushing, which was to be brought about in the future through Christ. And through the hope based on this promise they will also rise up to eternal life on the Last Day.
…How amazing, how damnable, that through the agency of foolish exegetes Satan has managed to apply this passage, which in fullest measure abounds in the comfort of the Son of God, to the Virgin Mary! For in all the Latin Bibles the pronoun appears in the feminine gender: “And she will crush.”37 Even Lyra, who was not unfamiliar with the Hebrew language, is carried away by this error as by a swollen and raging torrent. So he is brought to the wicked position, despite the text, that he understands this passage of the Blessed Virgin, through whom, by the mediation of her Son, the power of Satan has been broken.38 He applies to her the statement in Canticles (Song of Sol. 6:4): “Thou art terrible as an army set in array.” Although he offers this opinion as one which he has received from others, his great sin consists in not refuting it. All the recent interpreters have followed along and misused this most sacred statement for the purpose of idolatry, without anyone objecting to it or preventing it.
… Therefore let us thank God that now we have also this passage unimpaired and restored. We do not want to take away from Mary any honor which is her due;39 but we want to remove the idolatry contained in the statement that by giving birth to Christ, Mary has destroyed all the power of Satan. If this is a true statement, does not the same honor belong to all the other women who preceded Mary in the same line? In fact, a portion of this glory will belong also to their husbands and to all the ancestors of Mary. For if she had not had these, she herself would not have existed either, since she was born in wedlock according to the usual order of nature. If, therefore, she has destroyed Satan by giving birth to Christ, her ancestors must be given a position of honor on the same level.
But Scripture teaches us otherwise and declares (Rom. 4:25): “Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification”; likewise (John 1:29): “Behold the Lamb of God, which bears the sins of the world.” Therefore let the Blessed Virgin keep her place of honor. Among all the women of the world she has this privilege from God, that as a virgin she gave birth to the Son of God. But this must not be permitted to deprive her Son of the glory of our redemption and deliverance.
…Then we must be careful to preserve the real meaning of the Holy Scriptures and their truly wonderful light. When we are given instruction in this passage concerning the enmity between the serpent and the woman—such an enmity that the Seed of the woman will crush the serpent with all his powers—this is a revelation of the depths of God’s goodness. Satan understood this threat well; therefore he has continued to rage against human nature with such great hatred. Adam and Eve were encouraged by this promise. Wholeheartedly they grasped the hope of their restoration; and, full of faith, they saw that God cared about their salvation, since He clearly declares that the male Seed of the woman would prostrate this enemy.
…He says “her Seed.” It is as if He were saying: “Through the woman you, Satan, set upon and seduced the man, so that through sin you might be their head and master. But I, in turn, shall lie in wait for you by means of the same instrument. I shall snatch away the woman, and from her I shall produce a Seed, and that Seed will crush your head. You have corrupted the flesh through sin and have made it subject to death, but from that very flesh I shall bring forth a Man who will crush and prostrate you and all your powers.”
Thus this promise and this threat are very clear, and yet they are also very indefinite. They leave the devil in such a state that he suspects all mothers of giving birth to this Seed, although only one woman was to be the mother of this blessed Seed. Thus because God is threatening in general when He says “her Seed,” He is mocking Satan and making him afraid of all women.
…Isaiah (7:14) threw some light on this when he said that a virgin would give birth, for at that time it was already sure that this Seed would not be born as the result of the union of a man and a woman. But he adds certain other statements which, so to speak, he wraps around his prophecy. So it was that this very clear promise remained dark until Mary had given birth; the angels were witnesses of this birth, and after the angels the shepherds and the Magi, until this birth was revealed to the entire world through the apostles.
This obscurity increased Satan’s care and worry. Since it is stated: “I shall put enmity between you and the woman,” he was hostile and suspicious toward all those who gave birth from that time on until Christ was revealed. In man, on the other hand, this obscurity increased and intensified faith. Although individual women realized that they were not the ones who would give birth to this Seed, they were hopeful and certain that It would be born by another. And so it is particularly to mock and irritate Satan, to comfort the godly, and stir them up to faith that God speaks so individually, if I may express myself in this way. Women gave birth up to the Flood and later until the time of Mary; but their seed could not in truth be called the Seed of the woman, but rather the seed of a man. But what is born from Mary was conceived by the Holy Spirit and is the true Seed of Mary, just as the other promises given to Abraham and David testify, according to which Christ is called the Son of Abraham and the Son of David.This meaning Isaiah is the first to point out when he says that a virgin will give birth (7:14). Then, in the New Testament, it is more clearly explained by the angel (Luke 1:35). Therefore I have no doubt that this mystery was not understood even by many saints; although they expected that Christ would have to be born into this world by a woman and that He would deliver the human race, they did not know the manner of His birth. With this general knowledge they were satisfied, and they were saved even though they did not know how He would have to be conceived and born. This had to be reserved for the New Testament as a clearer light and had to be announced to the first world rather obscurely because of Satan, whom God wanted to mock and irritate in this fashion so that he would be ill at ease and would fear everything.
…This, therefore, is the text that made Adam and Eve alive and brought them back from death into the life which they had lost through sin. Nevertheless, the life is one hoped for rather than one already possessed. Similarly, Paul also often says (1 Cor. 15:31): “Daily we die.” Although we do not wish to call the life we live here a death, nevertheless it surely is nothing else than a continuous journey toward death. Just as a person infected with a plague has already started to die when the infection has begun, so—because of sin, and death, the punishment for sin—this life can no longer properly be called life after it has been infected by sin. Right from our mother’s womb we begin to die.
…Through Baptism we are restored to a life of hope, or rather to a hope of life. This is the true life, which is lived before God. Before we come to it, we are in the midst of death.43 We die and decay in the earth, just as other dead bodies do, as though there were no other life anywhere. Yet we who believe in Christ have the hope that on the Last Day we shall be revived for eternal life. Thus Adam was also revived by this address of the Lord—not perfectly indeed, for the life which he lost he did not yet recover; but he got the hope of that life when he heard that Satan’s tyranny was to be crushed.
…Therefore this statement includes the redemption from the Law, from sin, and from death; and it points out the clear hope of a certain resurrection and of renewal in the other life after this life. If the serpents head is to be crushed, death certainly must be done away with. If death is done away with, that, too, which deserved death is done away with, that is, sin. If sin is abolished, then also the Law. And not only this, but at the same time the obedience which was lost is renewed. Because all these benefits are promised through this Seed, it is very clear that after the Fall our human nature could not, by its own strength, remove sin, escape the punishments of sin and death, or recover the lost obedience. These actions call for greater power and greater strength than human beings possess.
And so the Son of God had to become a sacrifice to achieve these things for us, to take away sin, to swallow up death, and to restore the lost obedience. These treasures we possess in Christ, but in hope. In this way Adam, Eve, and all who believe until the Last Day live and conquer by that hope. Death is indeed an awful and undefeated tyrant; but God’s power makes nothing out of that which is everything, just as it makes all things out of that which is nothing. Look at Adam and Eve. They are full of sin and death. And yet, because they hear the promise concerning the Seed who will crush the serpent’s head, they have the same hope we have, namely, that death will be taken away, that sin will be abolished, and that righteousness, life, peace, etc., will be restored. In this hope our first parents live and die, and because of this hope they are truly holy and righteous.
Thus we also live in the same hope. And, because of Christ, when we die, we keep this hope, which the Word sets before us by directing us to put our trust in the merits of Christ. It is vain to long for such perfection in this life that we become wholly righteous, that we love God perfectly, and that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We make some progress; but sin, which wars in our members (Rom. 7:23) and is present everywhere, either corrupts or altogether obstructs this obedience.
Therefore just as our very life can be called a death because of the death which lies ahead of us, so also our righteousness is completely buried by sins. By hope we hold fast to both life and righteousness, things which are hidden from our eyes and our understanding, but will be made manifest in due time. Meanwhile our life is a life in the midst of death. And yet, even in the midst of death, the hope of life is kept, since the Word so teaches, directs, and promises. Thus Ps. 68:20 offers the exceedingly beautiful comfort: “Our God is the God of salvation, the Lord of the issue of death.” Let us give this title to God, not only because He grants aid in this temporal life—the devil also does this for those who worship him, as the examples of the heathen show—but because He is the Lord of the issue of death; that is, He frees those who are overwhelmed by death, and transports them into eternal life. This He does, as Moses teaches here, by crushing the head of the serpent.