“Then the LORD God said to the serpent:
‘Because you have done this, you shall be banned
from all the animals
and from all the wild creatures;
on your belly shall you crawl,
and dirt shall you eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he (they) (she) will strike at your head,
while you strike at his (their) (her) heel.’”
In the judgement God makes against the serpent, we get an explanatory reason for why snakes slither on the ground. This is called an etiological myth, a story that explains why things exist the way they do, usually in the physical world. Taken literally, these are scientifically untenable and theologically unimportant. If taken metaphorically, they can sometimes offer worthy theological insights, but not always. We may be able to see a parallel here with the fall of Lucifer from heaven and the slithering snake banned from other creatures. It is limited, however, in value.
Much more significant is the next sentence. It contains within it the drama of the human conflict with evil. Original innocence is lost for the whole human family and the struggle to overcome original sin and temptation to evil is waged from generation to generation. All of Adam and Eve’s descendants will be part of this struggle. Later in the scriptures, although not explicit in this story, the serpent is identified as the devil. Striking the head of the devil at least implies the eventual defeat of evil. The catastrophic fall of humanity, therefore, contains within it it the promise of hope. This verse is called the protoevangelium because it contains the “first gospel” or “first good news” of redemption even in the fall.
More specifically, Christian reflection on the story of the fall drew even greater parallels: Jesus is the new Adam and Mary is the new Eve. Sin entered the human family through Adam, grace and reconciliation through Jesus. The offspring of the new Eve (Mary) is Jesus, who came to destroy the works of the devil. Even more, Mary’s cooperation with God, her “yes” to his will, was a blow to the devil. Translations are tricky and the second half of this verse has legitimately been translated as “he” and “his”-making reference to Jesus; as “they” and “their”-making reference to all of Eve’s offspring; and as “she” and “her”-making reference to Mary. This is why we sometimes see in art the depiction of Mary with a snake under her feet!
Whatever the translation or interpretation, the fall of the human family into sin and death carries with it the promise of redemption in the unfolding of God’s plan for salvation in Jesus Christ, who entered the world through the “yes” of Mary, the Mother of God. We get this connection between the fall and redemption in the Exultet sung at the Easter Vigil:
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!