MARY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
The role of Mary, like other Catholic truths, was foreshadowed in the Old Testament. In Genesis—the very first book of the Old Testament, which has been called the “Protoevangelium,” meaning “first gospel”—the woman and the serpent are put in “enmity”: “I will put enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; she shall crush your head, and you shall bruise her heel” (Gen 3:15).
Enmity means a complete and entire mutual opposition. We see in this passage that God places the same enmity, as radical opposition, between the woman and the serpent (who represents Satan), as he does between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (which represents sin). Since the seed of the woman must be Jesus Christ, the seed of victory who will triumph over the seed of sin, therefore the woman must ultimately refer to Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. Keep in mind that this is a great prophetic verse which foretells a victory over sin in the future, a victory only possible through Jesus Christ, and hence the woman who is to be future mother of this victorious seed must refer to Mary. Her absolute enmity with Satan granted by God himself also reveals the scriptural grounds for her freedom from all stain of sin and the fullness of grace obtained in her Immaculate Conception.
Nonetheless, some recent translators have changed the traditional translation of “she” to “he.” Regardless of the gender of the pronoun, what is clear in the text is that the Woman is integrally involved with the seed of victory, Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of humanity, in the defeat of the serpent and his seed of sin. In the papal document which solemnly defined the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Ineffabilis Deus, Bl. Pope Pius IX offers the following papal explanation of the Genesis 3:15 passage:
The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 speaks of the “Virgin-Mother of Emmanuel”: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” Later in Isaiah, Emmanuel is referred to as the future Savior of his people (cf. Is 8:8-9). The prophet Isaiah foretells an extraordinary future sign: that a virgin, without the cooperation of a man, will give birth to a child who will be the “God-with-us,” the Messiah who will be the remedy for the great trials of division and infidelity to the Covenant facing the people of Israel. Isaiah’s prophecy directly predicts the Virgin of Nazareth and the birth of the Christ child.
The prophecy of Micah 5:2-3 foretells the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem from a woman who will “bring forth” the “ruler of Israel”:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth; then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel.
The mother, introduced so suddenly in Micah and so specifically designated without a husband, conveys the same virginal sense as we see in Isaiah 7:14. The fact that she is clearly designated as a woman without a husband, something most unusual in Jewish genealogy and identification, represents an implicit reference to that same virgin birth.
Numerous other models or types of the Blessed Virgin Mary are present in the Old Testament. The definition of a biblical type is a person, a thing, or an action, which has its own independent identity, but at the same time is intended by God to prefigure a future person, thing, or action. Bl. Pope Pius IX, in his dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, refers to several Old Testament types of Mary which were recognized by the early Church Fathers.
Arguably the greatest of the Old Testament types of Mary is the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant was the sacred chest which held the presence of God for the people of Israel. The Ark contained the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written (cf. Deut 10:5), a gold vessel holding manna which fed the Israelites during the Exodus (cf. Ex 16:34), and the rod of Aaron which blossomed (cf. Heb 9:4).
God himself gave the description of the ark to be built (cf. Ex 25:10-22), and the Ark was the visible sign of God’s presence and protection. The presence of God in the form of a cloud would also overshadow the Ark, which came to be known as the shekinah, meaning the Divine Presence or Divine Glory.
Beyond these types, there are a number of strong and faithful women of the Old Testament that serve as glimpses or “pre-figurings” of the Mother of Jesus:
Sarah, the wife of Abraham, overcame her sterility in her old age through a miracle of God (cf. Gen 17:16; 21:1-2). She is referred to as “mother of nations” (cf. Gen 17:16). Mary, as a virgin, bears Jesus through a miracle of God, and later is given by Jesus on the Cross to all humanity as “Mother” of all nations and peoples (cf. Lk 1:38; Jn 19:25-27).
Rebecca is the wife of Isaac who dresses Jacob in the clothes of his older brother Esau to secure the blessings of Isaac (cf. Gen 27:15-29). Mary clothes Jesus in human flesh and offers him to the Father in order to secure his blessing of Redemption upon us and the entire human race.
Rachel, the beautiful wife of Jacob, is the mother of Joseph, who is sold into slavery for twenty pieces of silver (cf. Gen 37:28), but who then saves his people. Mary is the entirely beautiful Mother of Jesus, who saves humanity after being sold for thirty pieces of silver (cf. Mt 26:15).
Miriam, whose name is the Hebrew word for “Mary,” is the sister of Moses, the great Patriarch and Liberator for the people of Israel, and sister to Aaron, the priest of the Old Covenant. Miriam is also present with Moses and Aaron at the “Tent of Meeting” in the presence of the Ark (cf. Num 12:4). Mary is Mother of Jesus, the Eternal Law Giver and High Priest, and is herself the New Ark of his Eternal Covenant, who bears the presence of God.
Deborah is the prophetess who helps the people defeat Sisera, who is eventually killed by a spike driven through his head by another woman, Jael (cf. Judges 4). Mary is the woman in total enmity with Satan, who participates in the crushing of his head (cf. Gen 3:15).
The heroic efforts of Judith in defending her people leads to the cutting off of the head of Holofernes (cf. Judith 8-15), in another pre-figuring of Mary’s role in the crushing of Satan’s head.
Esther is the Queen who, by risking her life in entering the chamber of King Ahasuerus, succeeds in saving her people from death (cf. Esther 4:16; 7:1-10). Mary, Queen and Mother of Jesus Christ the King, cooperates in the redemptive mission of her Son which saves humanity from eternal death and loss.
The heroic mother of Maccabees watches and supports her seven sons during their martyrdom in order to be true to the Covenant (cf. 2 Mac 7:1-41). Mary, Mother of Jesus, watches and shares in the death of her Son, to redeem the world, and thus to bear seven sorrows in her Immaculate Heart (cf. Lk 2:35; Jn 19:26-27).
Other Old Testament typologies foretelling the Mother of the Redeemer in her multiplicity of roles and prerogatives include the themes of the Daughter Zion and the Queen Mother. The Daughter Zion (sometimes also referred to as “Mother Zion,” cf. Is 66) represents the faithful servant to the Old Testament Covenant of Yahweh, the daughter who remains faithful to the Covenant even amidst trials and persecutions. Mary is indeed the fulfillment of the Daughter Zion, as the Jewish maiden who gives her “fiat” to Yahweh and his invitation to participate in the new and eternal Covenant, which fulfills and brings to perfection the Old Testament alliance between God and his people.
The Queen Mother tradition refers to the tradition among the Davidic kings of appointing their mothers as their queens of the Kingdom, which meant they became the principal advocates for the people of Israel to their kingly sons (cf. 1 Kings 2:19). The Queen-Mother was referred to as the Gebirah or “Great Lady” of the Kingdom, who gave the people of the kingdom their greatest intercession to the King. In the New Testament, we have a new and eternal King in Jesus Christ, who takes over the “throne of his father, David” (Lk. 1:32). We therefore have a new Queen-Mother in Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who becomes the “Great Lady” of all nations and peoples within the universal kingdom of her divine Son.
These Old Testament references reveal the repeated foreshadowings of the Mother of the Redeemer. The Old Testament is rich in foretelling, through references, types, and models, the future role of the Mother of Jesus.
As the Second Vatican Council confirms:
She is already prophetically foreshadowed in the promise of victory over the serpent which was given to our first parents after their fall into sin (cf. Gen 3:15). Likewise, she is the virgin who shall conceive and bear a son, whose name shall be called Emmanuel (cf. Is 7:14; Mic 5:2-3; Mt 1:22-23). She stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from him. After a long period of waiting the times are fulfilled in her, the exalted Daughter of Sion and the new plan of salvation is established, when the Son of God has taken human nature from her, that he might in the mysteries of his flesh free man from sin (Lumen Gentium, No. 55).
There has been some modern biblical discussion over whether the pronoun referring to the person who crushes the head of the serpent should be “he” or “she.” St. Jerome, the linguistic genius and saint who translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin based upon ancient Old Testament manuscripts no longer available in our day, translated the pronoun, ipsa, or “she.” The documents of the Church and the Papal Magisterium, based on the Latin Vulgate by St. Jerome, have perennially used “she” as the pronoun referring back to the Woman, who is also the original antecedent subject who is placed in enmity with the serpent in the passage. Since some male Hebrew pronouns from the Old Testament can be also understood in the feminine sense, the feminine translation of “she” remains a legitimate translation.
The Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, enlightened by instruction from on high, taught that the divine prophecy—”I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed”—clearly and plainly foretold how there was to be a merciful Redeemer for mankind, namely, the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ. They also taught how the prophecy pointed to His Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, and how it clearly expressed at the same time their common enmity toward the devil. Just as Christ, the Mediator between God and men, by taking our nature, cancelled the decree of condemnation against us, triumphantly nailing it to the cross, so too the most holy Virgin, intimately and indissolubly united to Christ, became with Him the everlasting enemy of the venomous serpent, and thus shared with her Son His victory over the serpent, crushing as she did the serpent’s head with her virginal foot.
Mary was seen as the Ark of Noah, built by divine command who escaped the effects of sin (cf. Gen 6:9). Jacob’s Ladder, which reached from earth to heaven and witnessed the ascent and descent of angels, was seen as a type of the future intercession of the Blessed Virgin (cf. Gen 28:12). The Fathers saw the Burning Bush of Moses as a type of Mary, because it held the presence of God within itself, but did not experience material corruption (cf. Ex 3:1). In the Canticle of Canticles, Mary is depicted as the impenetrable Tower of David and as the enclosed and inviolable garden (cf. Cant 4:4,12), which reflects her purity and perpetual virginity. The Temple of God in 1 Kings 8 represented a sanctified house of God which foreshadowed Mary as the future tabernacle of Jesus. And references to created wisdom in the feminine gender from the book of Wisdom are also seen to foreshadow Our Lady, who is the “Seat of Wisdom.”
The humble Virgin of Nazareth becomes the “New Ark” of the Covenant, an eternal covenant between God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. As the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary (symbolized by the shekinah overshadowing the Ark), Mary becomes the sacred container directly and immaculately fashioned by God himself to bear Jesus Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law of the Ten Commandments, the Eternal High Priest, and the Eucharistic manna which feeds unto life eternal. Mary as the New Ark of the Eternal Covenant, should also be seen as a true sign of God’s presence and protection for the Church in every age.