Commentary on Genesis 3:15

by Martin Luther
translated by John Dermé

The following commentary is translated from Martin Luther’s Sämmtliche Schriften I (Collective Writings, vol. 1) (St. Louis: Concordia Lutheran Publishing House, 1880). It is material that Luther taught as a professor at Wittenberg.

You may know that this commentary has been translated into English more than once already. That said, it was not a waste of time for me to translate it again. By going back to the original language I was able to get the exact idea that Luther was teaching. There have been numerous books, even by confessional Lutherans, which have been mistranslated into English to make them say what the translator wanted them to say. This is one of the many reasons that it is always best, if possible, to study a work in its original language.

Praise to God Almighty who became a tiny infant, shunning heaven’s bliss to redeem us from our sins.

I will place enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.

These are the words that actually deal with Satan’s judgment and punishment; a robust comfort to the Christian is prepared in them. The preceding words belong to history. They concern the serpent, which carries the punishment of being excluded from the community and association of the other animals and also of no longer having a diet in common with them. Instead the serpent must nourish itself in a different way, since Satan misused it for sin.

And although someone could indeed manipulate this for a secret meaning, it still does not belong here. It also has not been convincing1 when it has come to debate. – As far as this secret meaning is concerned, the devil has been shoved out of heaven and condemned for the sake of the sin. He no longer goes straightforward like an ox or roe2, but creeps or slinks; that is, he is no longer allowed to pursue Christians with open force, but uses cunning and sets traps for them. Nevertheless Christians understand this when they look at the Word. They see how abominable he is and they abhor him. This behavior, that he creeps in such a way and does not walk upright, indeed indicates that his tyranny is broken and he cannot cause as much damage to the church as he would want. – It can be said that the secret meaning does not explain Moses’ thought. Therefore it also does not truly belong here.

When we want to speak about Satan, we should follow other testimonies of Scripture that are proper, certain, and firm, like John 8:44: “The devil is a murderer and father of lies” and “he is not standing in the truth;” likewise 1 Peter 5:8: “He goes about like a roaring lion and seeks someone whom he would devour;” likewise John 16:11: “The prince of this world is judged.”

Finally, who would not want to see that this testimony properly has to do with Satan? For the Son of God is placed against him, so that he can dare to do nothing with open force, as if he had no one who fights against him. The church is secure and in peace on account of this protection. And Satan is not only unable to touch the church with open force, but his tyranny and greedy will to do damage in other things are also broken. Otherwise he would not have let one tree come up. He would have impeded, strangled, and suffocated everything that grows on the earth. In an instant he would have prevented any man, cattle, or animal from being born and remaining healthy. Such a will and undertaking to damage shows sufficiently that he cannot rage and snatch with open power. But what he does, he does with guile and deceit.

Further, one should also note that this is not said by God for the sake of the devil. For God does not regard the devil worthy enough to condemn him here. It is enough that his own conscience condemns him. Rather, this is said for the sake of Adam and Eve, in order that they should hear the sentence of Satan and be comforted, seeing that God is hostile and opposed to Satan’s nature since he caused such damage and mourning for people. For here, from amidst the wrath, God’s grace and mercy, which sin and disobedience aroused, begins to shine forth. In the midst of the most serious of all threats, the Father’s heart breaks out. His heart is not so angry that he rejects the son for the sake of the sin. Instead he renders help, yes, he promises the victory against the enemy who has deceived and overcome the human nature.

The same sentence is not applied to both Satan and man, although man fell into sin through Satan. God also does not take them together in punishment, as he could well have done in justice. Instead he separates them from each other in the most distant way. For even though he is also angry that the man has obeyed the enemy of God against God’s will, the wrath against Satan is still much greater. God simply condemns and punishes him. Adam and Eve see and listen to it and are revived through the condemnation of their enemy, certainly knowing that their condition is better. For this reason the first piece of comfort to them is that the serpent and Satan are indicted and cursed for Adam and Eve’s sake.

Previously the comfort was obscured, as if by dark clouds. Just now it becomes a bright sun that rises and shines into their terrified hearts with a lovely magnificence. Adam and Eve do not hear the kind of curse on them that the serpent hears. In addition, they are instantly placed in the front of the battle,3 in a struggle against the condemned enemy. They have the hope of help, which God would perform in the seed of the woman. For this reason the forgiveness of sins is announced to Adam and Eve and they hear that they are perfectly accepted to grace. They are now declared free from guilt and redeemed from death, hell, terror, and fear, although beforehand they had nearly strangled God’s countenance to death. Because God did not curse Adam and Eve like the serpent, comfort comes. But they were still left in a struggle against the serpent, so that they would not be idle. Therefore even that happens for the benefit of people.

This is the main point in this comfort: even though the enemy fights with guile and deception, one seed would be born, who would trample the serpent’s head underfoot. The final destruction of Satan’s tyranny is announced here, although it cannot come undone without violent struggle, which the man must combat and fight. But look how unequal this struggle is: The person’s heel is in danger, but the head remains unhurt and not overcome. Again, by the seed of the woman, neither the tail nor the belly, but the head of the serpent shall be trampled underfoot and crunched4. Such victory is also given to us, as Christ clearly says in Luke 11:22, that after the strong man is overcome, the loot will be divided. For a Christian overcomes sin, the law, and death through faith in such a way that not even the gates of hell can overwhelm him.

The fathers and their descendants have studied this first comfort with all diligence as if it were the spring and origin of all mercy and all promises. For they have seen that if they would be without this promise, the human race would multiply and procreate like animals5, but it would be a multiplication and birth ending in death. For this reason the very gift of fruitfulness and procreation that is given to nature by God was augmented, yes consecrated, with the hope6 of one procreation; through this procreation Satan’s head would be trampled underfoot. His tyranny would be destroyed and broken up, and our nature, which on account of sin was ordered to death, would receive eternal life.

For here, Moses no more deals with the natural serpent, but speaks about the devil, whose head is death and sin, as Christ says that he is a murderer and father of lies in John 8:44. Now his power is trampled underfoot, that is, sin and death is broken up by Christ. What is remaining, except that we are blessed as the children of God? Adam and Eve understood this text in this way, and were comforted against sin and despair with the hope of this crunching, which would happen through Christ. In hope of this promise they will rise to eternal life on the Last Day.

He shall trample your head underfoot and you will prick him in the heel.

Who would not be astonished, indeed, who would not curse the poisonous and evil counsel of Satan, because through interpreters who are not ordained, Satan has made this text, which contains such rich comfort concerning the Son of God, apply to the virgin Mary! For in all Latin Bibles the pronoun is in the feminine gender: “and she will trample underfoot.” And Lyra7, although he was not inexperienced to the Hebrew language, is overcome by this error to a godless understanding, like by water that moves violently and with all force. Irrespective that the text is to the contrary, he understands this passage as concerning Mary, through whom the power of the devil is shattered and destroyed, although the Son was the means. He also makes Song of Songs 6:48 apply to her: “You are tremendous, like troops at the head of an army.” Although he cites this passage as if he got it from another man, he still commits a great sin with it, since he does not refute the man. The modern teachers have all followed after this and have misused this very comforting, sacred passage for idolatry. Nevertheless, nobody has set himself against it and resisted it.

And this thing has happened either out of ignorance or indolence of the church rulers. Because they have not set themselves against the idolatry, the pure, proper doctrine has been lost with time and became completely extinct. But through God’s help and grace, it is now brought forth again. Then let those shameful gluttons openly observe that they do not care much about the religion, but they care about their sinecures9 and tributes10. And in addition, because the idolatry profits and serves them, they can hardly tolerate that one instructs the people correctly. Those blind people do not see that the gospel is such a doctrine, that whoever receives it loses nothing, except his sin and eternal death. He who receives it, however, is redeemed from all idolatry and the kingdom of the devil through it.

For this reason let us thank God that we have this passage completely anew and restored. We do not thank God that Mary is deprived of her due honor, but that we are free of idolatry. For they say that Mary has trampled all power of the devil underfoot by having borne Christ. If that is true, can't the same honor also be due to all other women who were in the same lineage and line? Yes, such praise and honor also belong in part to the men and to all ancestors of the virgin Mary. If these people had not existed, she would also not have existed. She was born in marriage according to the ordinary course of nature. If she now therefore has trampled Satan underfoot, since she has borne Christ, then one must apportion this honor not only to her, but to all her ancestors.

But Scripture teaches us otherwise, and says in Romans 4:25, “Christ was given away for the sake of our sins and raised from the dead for the sake of our righteousness”; likewise John 1:29: “Behold, that one is the Lamb of God, who carries the sin of the world.” For this reason let the virgin Mary keep this honor, that God has favored and adorned her among all women with the privilege of being and remaining a virgin11 and giving birth to the Son of God. This however should not be esteemed, that one would therefore want to deprive the Son of the honor of our redemption and salvation.

Therefore we should maintain and preserve the correct and true understanding of Holy Scripture and its wonderful light with complete diligence and care. It reveals and announces the boundless kindness of God to us when we are instructed about the enmity between the serpent and the woman. This enmity has one aspect, that the seed of the woman shall crunch the serpent with all of its might. And the devil has well understood such a condemnation. For that reason he still rages and rampages with such hate and enmity against the human nature. But this promise aroused and awakened Adam and Eve so much that they received with whole hearts the hope that everything they had lost through sin would be restored. They saw with full, strong faith that God would apply himself to their salvation, because he clearly and with plain language promises that the seed of the woman, which would be a figure of a man, would rout and expel this enemy. For these words are ordered in an excellent, important, and very mighty way.

***

“I will place enmity,” declares God, “between your seed and her seed.” It is as if he would say: You, Satan, have made yourself near to the woman and misled the man, wanting to be their chief and lord for the sake of sin. In return I will lie in wait in the same way as you, through this means and tool that you have used. I will take the woman and rouse a seed out of her, who shall trample your head underfoot. You have corrupted the human nature and subjected it to death on account of sin. Out of the very same flesh I will produce such a man, who shall trample you underfoot and lay you down with all your power and strength in return.

In this way this promise and threat is very bright and luminous. But it is also very dark, for it makes the devil remain in suspicion. He is suspicious of all women who give birth because they might give birth to this seed. Yet only one woman would be the mother of this blessed seed. But because God threatens in this general way when he says, “her seed” or “the seed of the woman,” he mocks Satan, so that he must stand in fear of all women.

In this way the faith of all people is also assured. From the hour in which the promise took place, they waited for this seed and were comforted against the devil. For this reason Eve hoped, when she had given birth to her first son, that she now had the serpent trampler. And even though this hope was wrong, she still knew that out of her race this seed would have to be born sometime, whenever it would happen. Thus the promise concerning the people was at the same time very clear and also dark.

Isaiah, in 7:14, explained this passage and shed some light on it when he declared, “A virgin shall become pregnant.” At that time it was certain that this seed would not be born from the combination of a man and woman. But he adds something more; he almost entangles this prophecy into it. Thus this clear promise remained dark and perplexing until Mary gave birth and the angels were present as witnesses to this birth, and after them the shepherds and wise men, until this birth was preached and published into the whole world by the apostles.

Therefore this darkness made much worry for Satan, with the result that he was hostile to all women who gave birth from that time on until Christ was revealed. He was suspicious of them, because it was said, “I will place enmity between you and the woman.” On the other hand this darkness increased and strengthened the faith of people. Even though each woman easily saw that she would not be the one who should give birth to this seed, she still hoped and concluded certainly that he would have to be born from another person.

Therefore that God speaks individually12, truly, and distinctly about a woman, pertains particularly to him mocking Satan; but the pious are comforted and aroused to faith. Women gave birth to children up to the flood and afterwards up to Mary, but their seed could not have truly been called the seed of woman. Rather it was the seed of man. That which is born out of Mary, however, was conceived by the Holy Ghost and is truly Mary’s seed. Thus other promises that God gave to Abraham and David testify, according to which Christ is called Abraham’s and David’s son.

Isaiah 7:14, which said that a virgin would be pregnant, first announced this understanding. Accordingly, this is clearly interpreted in the New Testament by the angel. For this reason I do not doubt that this mystery was also not understood by many saints, who indeed waited for Christ to be born from a woman in this world and redeem the human race. They did not know by what means and ways this birth would happen, but were satisfied in this common recognition and were saved even though they did not know how he would be conceived and born. For that had to remain in reserve for the New Testament as a brighter light, and it had to be announced to the first world somewhat darkly for Satan’s sake, because God wanted to mock him and exercise the fact that Satan would have no peace and would have to fear everything.

This promise, which had been made in this general way, has been pulled in and restricted a little. First through Abraham it was tied to a certain nation. After that through the patriarch Jacob it was tied to the stem of Judah. Then the devil was secure and content toward other nations and races. He set himself against this single lineage and stem with great cunning and ferocity, until about the time when Christ would come. It was completely reduced to poverty and lay there like a dried-up stump, out of which no one could hope for leaves or fruit. On account of this Scripture (Isaiah 11:1) also calls it the root of Jesse, as a decayed and dead stem.

God looks at such fury and animosity of the devil here when he speaks about the enmity between the serpent and the woman. For the devil first sought the seed of the woman with poisonous and swift hatred among all nations on the whole world. After the promise came to Abraham’s race, we see how he sought and dared in various ways to hinder it. We also see how cruelly he was disposed to the tribe of Judah, to which God had finally turned the promise. He overwhelmed it with all kinds of mourning and misery until it finally was regarded as if it were completely overturned and exterminated. For around the time when Christ would be born, poor Mary lived far from Jerusalem in an insignificant and despised little city – Nazareth. At Jerusalem, however, the godless ruled and were powerful. For this reason this tribe is rightly compared to a dried-up stump. But since God cannot lie, the same dead root grew moist again and flourished.

The devil still does not rest and desist from such ferocity, hate, and enmity against this seed of the woman. For as Christ lies in the cradle, he is sought by Herod so much that he must live in Egypt among the Gentiles. Following him, the devil tried and dared everything against him until he finally delivered Jesus over to the Jews in the garden, had him seized, and had him brought to the cross. Indeed, when he now doubtless is dead, still the devil’s over-abundant hate and animosity cannot be satiated. He still fears because of him, when he lies in the tomb, and has him guarded. Such a vehement enmity he conducts against the Son of God! Because he now sees that he sits at the right hand of God and has far eluded all his blows, he sets himself with all rage and tyranny against his members and the poor church. Such danger and all kinds of distress on the devil’s account is prepared and prophesied for us, against which we should be courageous and strong in the faith and trust of God’s Son, who tramples Satan underfoot.

Now I come to the text again. This promise is, as you heard, at the same time very clear and dark. God said generally “seed of the woman” with which he would make all women suspicious to the devil and torment him with eternal worry and anxiety. For this reason it is a strange synecdoche. “Seed of the woman,” he says. This sounds as if it were said in common of every woman, and yet God speaks only about one, namely about the seed of Mary, who is a mother apart from union with a man. The first part, “I will place enmity between you and the woman,” sounds as if it were said in common of all women; for God wanted to make Satan suspicious of all women. On the other hand, he wanted to leave and show the pious a certain hope that they would be expecting their salvation and redemption from all child-bearing women until this one, who would be the one to give birth. Thus this passage says “between her seed” very individually about the seed, which is only born from Mary, who was from the stem of Judah and engaged to Joseph.

In this way this is the text which made Adam and Eve living and roused that which they had lost through sin from death to life. Yet they have it more in hope than in possession. As Paul also often says, “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31). If we do not already want to call this life that we have here temporally a death, then it is still truly nothing other than a constant avenue to death. For just like one, whom pestilence has poisoned, immediately begins to die when he is poisoned, so this life, after the time that it is poisoned by sin, actually can no more be called a life because of the sin and the punishment for the sin – death. For immediately, from our mother’s womb forward, we begin to die.

Through baptism however we are restored to the life of hope, or rather to the hope of life. For a proper life is first of all a life through which we live before God. And before we come to it, we are in the midst of death, we die, and we rot in the earth like other bodies, as if there were no more life anywhere. Yet we who believe in Christ have this hope, that we shall be roused again to an eternal life on the Last Day. In this way Adam was also roused again through this message of the Lord, although certainly not perfectly, for he still did not regain the life which he lost. But he received the hope of that when he heard that Satan’s tyranny would be trampled underfoot and destroyed.

Therefore this passage at the same time contains the redemption from the law, sin, and death, and shows a clear and certain hope of the resurrection and renewal in another life after this. For if the serpent’s head shall be trampled underfoot, then indeed death must also be ended and extinguished. If death shall now be extinguished, then sin, through which death is merited, must also be ended. If sin shall now also be taken away, then the law must also cease. And not only does that happen, but at the same time the obedience that was lost will also be restored.

Because this all is now promised in and through this seed, it is clear and evident that human nature after the fall, through its own power and ability, was able to take away neither sin nor punishment on account of sin, nor to elude death, nor to come again to the lost obedience. That belongs to a greater power and greater strength than humans have. For this reason God’s Son had to be an offering. He would take away sin, swallow up death, and restore the lost obedience for us.

We are masters of such treasures and possess them in Christ, but we do so in hope. And in this way Adam, Eve, and all those who believe live and overcome through hope until the Last Day. Death is indeed terrifying and an insurmountable tyranny. But out of that which is everything, God’s power and authority makes nothing, just like, on the other hand, it makes everything out of that which is nothing. Consider Adam and Eve; they are full of sin and death. Nevertheless, because they hear the promise of the seed of the woman, who would trample the serpent’s head underfoot, they hope precisely that which we hope, namely that death will be ended, sin will be extinguished, and righteousness, life, peace, etc. will be restored. In this hope the first parents live and die, and also, for the sake of this hope are truly holy and righteous.

Thus we also live in this hope. When we die, for the sake of Christ we maintain this hope of life, to which the Word points us, because it directs us to believe and rely on the merit and favor of the Lord Christ. For in this life we wait in vain for such a perfection, that we would be completely righteous, love God perfectly, and love our neighbors even as ourselves. Perhaps we improve a little, but the sin that stirs violently in all our members and is attached to us everywhere either corrupts or hinders this obedience. As our life may indeed be called death since it has death in front of it, the righteousness is completely covered and burdened with sins.

For this reason in hope we keep both the life and the righteousness, which are hidden things before our eyes and reason, but at the proper time shall be revealed. Meanwhile our life is a life in the midst of death, and still in the midst of death the hope of life nevertheless remains, because the Word thus teaches, directs, and promises such a thing to us. There is a glorious comfort in Psalm 68:2013: “We have a God who helps, and the LORD God who rescues from death.” Let us give God the claim that he not only helps in this temporal life, as the devil also at times helps and stands by those who serve him, as the examples of the heathens show. But God is also a Lord who helps from death, who redeems them who are overpowered by death and brings them into eternal life. He does this as Moses here indicates, by trampling the serpent’s head underfoot.

Thus we have been restored, as Adam and Eve were restored, certainly not to the life that they had lost, but to the hope of the same life. Through this hope they have not eluded the first fruits of death, but they have eluded its tithe.14 This means that although the flesh must perish temporally, they still hope for a resurrection and eternal life after the temporal perishing of the flesh, as we also hope. They can hope for this because of the Son of God, who is promised to them. He shall trample the serpent’s head underfoot.

  • 1. Lit.: “it also does not contain the bite.”
  • 2. Small, delicately formed Eurasian deer
  • 3. Spitze – the point of a sword, an idiom meaning the same
  • 4. The word “crunch” is an attempt to capture the onomatopoeia of the German word zerknirscht, which is the exact sound you would hear if you heard someone trample the little head of a serpent.
  • 5. Luther actually wrote “other animals,” but when he wrote this, his world had not been stained by Darwinism. Since ours has been, the translator chose to omit the “other,” lest somebody get the wrong idea that Luther thought humans were just another animal.
  • 6. Vertröstung
  • 7. Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1340) was an exegete whom Luther referenced frequently. Lyra wrote the first printed Biblical commentary.
  • 8. Luther’s citation was actually 6:3, because in the German Bible the verses in Song of Songs are numbered slightly differently for a few chapters.
  • 9. Offices or positions that require little or no work and that usually provide an income
  • 10. Exorbitant charges levied by a person or group having the power of coercion
  • 11. Mary did not remain a virgin forever, as the Catholics teach, but she did remain a virgin through the conception and birth of Christ, and for some time afterward.
  • 12. Luther used the Latin word individualiter whenever the word “individually” appears.
  • 13. Endnote #8 on Song of Songs applies to the Psalms as well. In the German it is 68:21.
  • 14. Speaking about the first fruits and the tithe of death certainly makes for a strange expression, but Luther clearly explains what he means in the next sentence.