In order to understand the role that the Virgin Mary plays in Scripture, one first needs to understand the symbolism of Bride and Groom that runs through the pages of the Bible.
If one understands the role that Bride and Groom plays, then one will understand why the Virgin Mary is central to the Bible. She is fundamental to the story of redemption, just as fundamental as Eve is to the story of the Fall.
One often hears it declared that Mary is a “minor biblical character.” After all, she is only mentioned in Luke, Acts, John, and perhaps Revelation. The fallacy in this statement is obvious from the fact that the entire Old Testament is about Jesus Christ, yet Christ is understood in the Old Testament not by direct, explicit reference to His name, but rather in the language of symbolism, typology, and prophecy. The role that Mary plays in Scripture is quite similar. If one wants to discern a truly Biblical Mariology, a Mariology that isn’t arbitrary in its use of Scripture, then one must tune one’s ear to the language of symbolism.
We begin, then, in Genesis 1. In Genesis 1:1, God creates the heavens and the earth. In later biblical reflections on this event (for example, in Colossians 1:15-16), it is evident that the heavens spoken of in verse one refers to God’s throne-room, a room surrounded by a heavenly council of angels. The earth is formless, void, and dark. In the six days that follow, God proceeds to form, fill, and enlighten the earth, beginning to bring it to the maturity of its heavenly prototype. God crowns the creation by making a man in His own Image. In context, one ought to understand the “image” of God as being appointed to do the things that God does- in other words, he is meant to form, fill, and enlighten the world, bringing it further to the maturity of its heavenly prototype.
In Genesis 2:7, we are given a more detailed picture of the way that this is to occur.
The text of Genesis 2 similarly begins with a formless, void, and dark world. No shrub of the field had been created, and the grains made on the third day had not yet sprouted ears. God responds to this formless and void world with the “let there be light” of the first human being, the light of the world. This entire narrative is introduced as the “generations of the heavens and the earth.” Every other reference to “generation” in Genesis refers to the offspring. The generations of Adam are Adam’s offspring. The generations of Isaac introduces the life of Jacob, and so on. There is no reason to make an exception for Genesis 2:4: Adam is the son of the heavens and the earth. He is made by a mixture of God’s Spirit and the dust of the ground. This is why “image and likeness” in Genesis 5:1-2 is understood to refer to sonship, and it is why Adam is referred to as the “son of God” in Luke 3. In this birth, God is the masculine partner while the ground, the adamah is the feminine partner.
This establishes the fundamentally feminine identity of creation: the world responds to the overture of God, her husband. With respect to God, all humanity is feminine. With respect to the creation, all humanity is masculine.
When we come to the creation of Eve, there are more interesting details that will become important in this study. God “opens” and “closes” the side of Adam, language that is more typical for a door than it is for a man. Even more significantly, Eve is described as having been “built” out of Adam’s side. This is language that is used for the construction of cities in Scripture, not people. This connection becomes more explicit in Genesis 4, where Cain exalts himself by presuming to take human life. After exalting himself, Cain builds a city for his son, Enoch. Enoch is the son, fulfilling the role of Adam. The city is the feminine partner, fulfilling the role of Eve. Cain presumes to take the role of God in this story.
When we approach the curses of Genesis 3, the foundation for a biblical understanding of Eve (and thus, Mary) is set. Eve is introduced to two great battles which will take place throughout the history of salvation. First, God places enmity between the Serpent and the Woman. Second, God places enmity between the Seed of the Serpent and the Seed of the Woman. Eve is told that the Seed will eventually crush the head of the Serpent. These details become important as one proceeds through Scripture. Consider the relationship of Genesis 12 and Genesis 20. In Genesis 12, the Serpentine Pharaoh attempts to seize the Woman. The attack here focuses on the first battle of Genesis 3. Abram wisely deceives the Serpent, rendering a lex talionis back on the Serpent’s deception of Eve. In Genesis 20, the focus is on the second battle, between the Serpent and the Seed. The Serpentine Abimelech seizes Sarah to produce Seed through her, and this is Satan’s attempt to prevent the birth of Isaac. Ultimately, however, Abimelech repents and God gives him children.
Because the Woman was made out of the side of the Man, the Woman replicates the battle of the Seed against the Serpent. Two examples from the book of Judges stand out. In Judges 5, Jael, the Woman, takes a tent peg and crushes the head of Sisera. The crushing of the head of the Serpent lays the foundation for the true Tent, which is the dwelling place of God. For this, Jael is praised as “most blessed among all women”, a word of praise later applied in the Gospel of Luke to the Virgin Mary. Second, in Judges 9, Abimelech, a wicked king, oppresses Israel. Here we are not even told the Woman’s name so as to emphasize the typological character of this event. The “Woman” hurls a millstone down from a tower, crushing the head of the oppressive king.
After God describes the salvation which will ultimately be wrought through the Seed, Adam accepts the promise of salvation by renaming his wife Eve: the “mother of all living.” The Seed will destroy the one who deceived the Woman and brought death into the world. Eve, as mother of the Seed, is mother of the living. This fact brings into focus a reality which is very often underemphasized in biblical theology. Eve is not merely to be understood as bride of Adam. Equally ultimate with this reality is the truth that Eve is the mother of the Seed.
I noted above that the creation of Eve is spoken of in terms of the building of a city. This is why “Daughter Zion” is very often spoken of as a woman. Consider the way that God describes Jerusalem in Isaiah. In Isaiah 54, Daughter Zion is invited to sing and rejoice, because, having been barren in the death of exile, God will bring life out of her womb and multiply the nation. The context is the famous prophecy of the Suffering Servant. The Servant plays the role of the Kinsman-Redeemer. Daughter Zion is without a husband, and the Servant is appointed to raise up Seed through her. In response, however, Israel treats the Servant as a Kinsman-Redeemer who fails to do his duty (Deuteronomy 25:9), spitting in His face (Isaiah 50:6). Ultimately, however, through the Servant’s vicarious suffering, He will “see His Seed” (Isaiah 53:10), raising up a whole nation of “Servants” recreated after His Image (Isaiah 54:17).
In Isaiah, then, God freely mixes the language for Eve as Mother with the language for Eve as Bride. The original city of God was the bride of Adam, but Daughter Zion is the bride of the Lord. These two threads come together beautifully in the incarnation of the Lord as the true and Last Adam. In Isaiah 65-66, the restored Jerusalem is identified as the entire creation, renewed through the work of the Servant. Isaiah 65:17 has God declaring that He will “create a new heavens and a new earth”, and Isaiah 65:18 uses the same language for the New Jerusalem. Revelation 21 therefore sees the New Creation, the City of God, as a great pyramid, the whole world having been transformed into God’s holy mountain, as was prophesied in Daniel 2:44-45.
All of these threads come together in the New Testament. In Luke 1:35, the Virgin Mary is told that the Spirit of God will “overshadow” her, bringing forth Christ, the Last Adam. This is a reference to Genesis 2, when the Spirit of God similarly overshadowed the feminine Adamah and brought forth the first Adam. Isaiah 28:27-29 describes Israel as the ground, and God’s judgments as preparing the ground for the seed that will be planted. When language of the ground and the Spirit is used with reference to the Virgin Mary, we are being told that she is the climax of the history of Israel. The entire cultivation of Israel as the people of the Seed strained towards the Woman in whom the Seed could finally be planted.
In the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary applies to herself language that was used for Jael: the most blessed of all women. As we have seen, the story of Jael calls us back to the promise of the war between Eve and the Serpent. In applying this language to herself, Mary is identifying herself as the one in whom the promises to Eve are fulfilled. As Eve is promised motherhood of the Seed, so Mary fulfills this prophecy and becomes the New Eve. This is why when the Virgin brings Christ to the prophet Simeon, she is told that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). The Woman replicates the experience of the Seed. As the Seed is pierced, so also is the heart of the Virgin.
The Woman’s double-identity of Mother and Bride explains why Mary is a personal symbol of the entire Church. The Virgin Mary is the one in whom the promises to Eve are fulfilled. The Bible presents Mary as fulfilling the role of Eve as Mother. It presents the Church as the fulfillment of Eve’s role as Bride. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11 therefore sees himself as playing the role of Adamic guardian of the Church-Bride, whom the Serpent is attempting to deceive. Paul wishes to present the Church-Bride as pure to her true husband, who is Christ.
The fact that both Mary and the Church are presented as fulfillments of Eve implies that there is a sense in which the Church and Mary are to be identified. This is most excellently presented in Revelation 12, a much-discussed and much debated passage of Scripture. If one is familiar with the Old Testament, it becomes significantly easier to understand. The vision begins with a Woman crying out in birth pains, with the Dragon waiting to attack the Seed whom she bears. This is a reference to Genesis 3, where the pain of Eve in childbearing is multiplied. Here, Eve encapsulates the entire history of Israel. Israel’s long, tortured story is the story of Eve crying out in birth pains, waiting for the Son to be born and crush the Dragon. Israel’s history focuses down to the person of the Virgin Mary, and that is who this Woman is in Revelation 12:5.
As the book of Revelation opens the book that was closed at the end of Daniel (compare Daniel 12:4-7 and Revelation 10:1-7), Revelation 12 reveals the meaning of the visions of Daniel. In Daniel 11, the prophet is given a history of the “times of the Gentiles” down to the war of the Archangel Michael (Daniel 12:1, fulfilled in Revelation 12:7). While the interpretation of this passage is controversial, with some identifying the king who “does what he wills” as a future Antichrist, I believe that the best reading of this passage identifies continuity between this history and the history told in the rest of Daniel 11, without a massive chronological gap. The king who “does what he wills” is Herod the Great, who fulfills the history of fallen Adam. Daniel 11:40-43 should then be understood as the war between Octavian (as king of the north) and Mark Antony (as king of the South). After this war, Herod made peace with Octavian and served as Rome’s vassal in Judea. We are told in 11:44-45 that the king will hear news from the east that “alarms him” and devote “many to destruction” after which he himself will die. The text itself is ambiguous about whether the king is the one who “does what he wills”, the king of the north, or the king of the south. From hindsight, it is quite obvious that this is the “king who does what he wills”, or Herod the Great. This prophecy is fulfilled in Matthew 2. We are told that wise men “from the east” (an allusion to Daniel 11) come to King Herod and inform him about the coming birth of the messianic seed. Herod then orders the destruction of all the male infants in Bethlehem. Joseph, Mary, and Christ flee into the wilderness.
Given that Revelation opens up the visions of Daniel, we see this fulfilled in Revelation 12. The Dragon attempts to consume the Seed at His birth, but God gives the Woman refuge in the wilderness of Egypt. The entire history of the life of Christ is collapsed into a few verses. The child is caught up to the throne of God. The ascension is depicted in more detail in Revelation 4-5, where Jesus ascends to God’s throne. After this, an angelic war arises in heaven. This is why we consistently see angels strengthening Jesus throughout the gospels. Satan attempts to deceive Jesus and make Him fall, while the righteous angels strengthen Him through His victories. At last, the Dragon-Serpent is “fallen from Heaven” and cast out from God’s heavenly court, where he had previously had right of access as “ruler of the whole world, which can be seen in Job 1. The Serpent is placed under the feet of the Seed, the Last Adam.
Following this, the life of Christ and Mary is replicated in the life of the Church. When Satan is driven to the Earth, he first attempts to attack the Church-Bride. This is the “great persecution” that broke out from Jerusalem early in the Apostolic Age. After this fails, Satan attempts to corrupt the Bride so that he might produce his own children through her. These “poisonous waters” which he pours out is the Judaizing heresy which broke out after the great persecution. After Paul wages holy war against this heresy and defeats it, Satan prepares for one last strike- a strike on the Seed, the “rest of her offspring”, whom he attempts to kill in the Neronic persecutions.
We can see, then, that the Woman of Revelation 12 is the New Eve, personally embodied in the Virgin Mary, mother of the Seed, and corporately embodied in the Church, Bride of the Last Adam. Two Old Testament texts reinforce this connection. The Woman of Revelation 12 is described as clothed with the sun, with a moon under her feet, and with a crown of twelve stars. One of the sources of this imagery is Genesis 37. In Genesis 37, Joseph (one star) sees his brothers (eleven stars) and his father (the sun) and mother (the moon) bowing down to him. The heavenly lights are thus identified as symbolic representations of the heavenly people of God. The other allusion is to Song of Solomon 6. Solomon describes his bride as one “like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun.” He refers to the young women who saw her and “called her blessed”, symbolically identifying the Woman with the New Eve through an allusion to Judges 5, discused above.
Importantly, the “Woman” discussed throughout the Solomonic literature is “Lady Wisdom.” Solomon is the prototypical wise king, a figure of the Last Adam, to whom birds and beasts are brought (1 Kings 4:33). As the bride was taken out of Adam’s side, so the bride of Adam replicates the character of Adam. Lady Wisdom replicates the character of her husband. One wants to be precise in assocating the Mother of God with wisdom, since the incarnation of eternal wisdom is Jesus Christ alone. Even so, as Eve is taken from Adam’s side, so also Mary and the Church are taken from the side of Christ- they therefore replicate His character as “Wisdom.” A wise husband gives rise to a wise woman.
Given the identification of the Virgin Mary with the woman of Revelation 12:5, several connections with the Song of Solomon emerge. First, the Virgin Mary is a queen: the queen of the kingdom of God. The woman spoken of in the Song is Solomon’s queen, and Mary is similarly a queen. Second, the Virgin Mary is the symbolic equivalent of the people of Israel. This is why she wears all of Israel’s symbols in herself- she is bright “like the sun”, she has the “moon under her feet” and she is crowned with the twelve tribes of Israel- just like the City of God in Revelation 21 is crowned with twelve jewels matching the twelve tribes of Israel. As the Church reigns as kings and priests on earth, it becomes obvious that Mary embodies everything that the Church is called to embody. Christ is a divine person who has assumed human nature. Mary the first human person in whom the entire goal of God’s economy has been accomplished.
Understanding the Scripture can be difficult. It requires intense reading, prayer, and reflection on the contents of this divine book. Yet, as Solomon proclaimed, “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, the glory of kings to search it out” (Proverbs 26:1). If we, as the royal children of God, are diligent in searching out what God has concealed, then we might just find ourselves face to face with His blessed mother, the Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.