Monthly Archives: January 2015
This is the chandelier falling at the end of Phantom. Or the Death Star exploding in Return of the Jedi. This is the last scene of a Transformers movie. The giant robot is about to fall from a great height and hit the ground and explode. We’ve seen the depths of Babylon’s evil and over sixteen chapters John has teased us with the huge explosive downfall that’s coming. We are primed and ready. We have gone through our three cycles of seven and at last on our final seven the trigger is pulled.
This image of the woman is wanton, lascivious, brazen (enjoy your vocab for the day). Its crudely sexual and overly lush. The goddess Roma was a prim deity of honor and victory and respect. But John pulls back the curtain. He pulls no punches. She is the great whore. A harlot dressed like a queen, blood drenched and drunk.
This image isn’t an accident. John calls Rome the Great Whore because she is ultimately a seducer. Her first power isn’t the violence or oppression, its her siren-call, her ability to draw the people of the world to her with promises of power and riches and pleasure. This is what Revelation is warning against. The great sin in the mind of the Revelation communities is to give up and give in. Many Christians were making compromises with Rome that they felt were minor but ultimately amounted to idolatry.
This horrible ruler is propped up on a throne of evil. She literally sits on the Dragon/beasts. Their ten horns are their great power. Their seven heads are the seven hills of Rome and seven Caesars. The counting of caesars here gets a little wonky depending on how you interpret the history of the emperors. Some emperors ruled only very briefly which makes the number difficult to figure out precisely. The only two that are truly important are the 6th head, which is likely a reference to Nero’s recovery from a near fatal wound, and the seventh which is likely Domitian. Both of them were responsible for the few periods of particularly harsh oppression of Christians and instituting official policies of violence against them. John was perfectly willing to fudge the numbers slightly to carry the numerology and image of the seven hills.
These kings are somehow interwoven with the beast and the Whore. They join together in violence against the world and for a tiny window they will be successful. But John reminds us that all such victories by evil are not held long. God is already coming to overturn their victories.
The many waters are all the peoples and nations of the world. It’s a mercantile image. It would have conjured the image of trading and traveling and getting very very rich moving things from one place to another. It’s the Kings and the Merchants who profit most from Rome but their relationship is not love or peace or justice but crude self-interest. But its also the image for destruction and chaos and death. When God’s indignation falls on Rome they will turn on her and take part in her destruction. The great sea of destruction she has ruled over will come crashing down on her and destroy her.
Chapter 18 could almost be called “Once more, with feeling.” Rome is fallen, the kings and merchants who profited from her mourn. The city is destroyed utterly, ruined and spoiled for all future use. The song reminds us that no matter how great she was, her violence and oppression and unrighteousness drew down God’s wrath on her. There is no Empire on earth great enough to outrun God and the consequences of their own actions.
This chapter is an exclamation point on John’s plea to the unfaithful churches. “Come out of her” is another crudely sexual image. John is saying, turn away from her blood-stained rewards before its too late. Don’t be an accomplice to this great evil. Return your heart to God before the sky comes crashing down and its all over.
Ah, finally our last set of seven! God is bringing our story towards its finale. Chapter 15 goes back to Exodus once again. The people are gathered at the edge of the sea where they will sing the song of Moses. A glassy sea is a body of water perfectly still, perfectly control under God’s will. In ancient symbolism the ocean or sea was often a symbol of death or change or destruction. John tells us that in God’s presence death and destruction itself are stilled by His power (the sea or its absence will pop up again shortly).
Once again our plagues use the Exodus imagery. Boils, fire, waters into blood, hail and a parting sea. Our spiral of plagues has come down to its point of highest intensity and greatest focus. The worst plagues on the smallest point, falling directly on the evil Empire itself.
This is the shortest of four or five different angles from which we will see the fall of Babylon. This final plague, the seventh bowl, has all the signs of theophany. In this version there is no battle. God’s oncoming presence (signified by the lightning and thunder and quaking) shakes apart the empire. In the next two chapters we will watch its slow motion fall to earth.
As we said in chapter 7, the 144,000 represent the whole body of believers. The name of the Father and the Lamb is the counterpoint to the Beast’s mark. God and Evil are claiming their own before things come to an end.
The announcements of the three angels are strange because once again John has blurred our time frame. The Gospel proclamation is self-explanatory as are the hints of coming judgment. But Babylon seems to have pre-fallen. Once again John shies away from anything like a climactic battle scene. Babylon’s fall is somehow already complete, a result of the very crucifixion and resurrection which occurred before his narrative even began. The battle is already over, they just don’t realize it yet.
The language of eternal torment should be considered carefully. We return to earlier reminders that Revelation has specific characteristics that soften this as a universal principle. First, Revelation is indeed an internal document. It was intended to bolster the flagging spirits of the Christian community, not provide a coherent final doctrinal statement. Second, the communities who first received this story were under a combination of government authorized violence and harsh social pressure, oppression licensed by the seemingly invincible empire which had no accountability or reproach. Modern Western Christianity has trouble imagining a bright side to language of judgment. But honestly its because most of us are rarely in a position of powerlessness, where we earnestly need the rescue of external judgment to restore life. It doesn’t answer all the questions about this passage but it helps us visualize it in the context it was intended.
The image of the reaper and the winepress is perhaps the most perplexing in all of Revelation. On one level it reads very negatively. There is blood everywhere. Blood for days. It runs in huge rivers and streams. This seems like a bad thing. But the reaper is either Jesus himself or an angel reflecting the presence and glory of Jesus. Also, in the entirety of Scripture, wine imagery is always good. If the process proceeds correctly, ripe grapes harvested and pressed, it is always a metaphor for good. It is only a negative image when the vineyard is somehow damaged or flawed. So what does that mean here? I think the former combined with the locale “outside the city” point to martyrdom rather than judgment. The vintage being gathered is not God’s wrath poured out but the blood and sacrifice of the Saints who followed Jesus and found their deaths “outside the city.”
There are two different stories we need under our belts to read Revelation chapter 12. The first is the story of Apollo and Python. This story was incredibly commonplace in the first/second century world into which Revelation is speaking. While pregnant with Apollo, his mother was pursued by Python. She barely escaped and managed to give birth. When Apollo grew up he hunted down the serpent and killed it, establishing the Temple at Delphi and the Oracle over the beast’s former lair. This story was quite common and would have been familiar to most audiences.
John the Revelator is taking this story and reassigning the roles. The characters act the same way but by associating the roles with new people and new concepts he tells us a different story. The mother is God’s communities, Israel and the Church, presented in the vision of a heavenly Mary. The Child is Jesus. The siblings are the believers who suffer under the Dragon. The point of this is to use the preexisting model of hero, mother and monster, to analyze the situation of the first century Christians. It isn’t about who the characters are but using the roles to tell us more about the actors he has cast in them.
The second story is more in John’s wheelhouse. It isn’t enough to have this story be about God and a specific evil. There is no adversary who can possibly challenge God. So to get his point across on this fact John wants to portray a super-evil, a Voltron of evil made up of all the most evil things he could think of.
As we pointed out last chapter. We should be careful not to read this back into the other stories. John isn’t making a statement about the nature of Satan. Instead, John is reaching into the hyperbolic to lay out a specific point. John is gluing together Satan/the Devil, the Genesis serpent and images of horrific monsters from Greek and Hebrew mythology. This is the Mega Bad Guy of all Mega Bad Guys. When God kicks its tail he doesn’t want you wondering if maybe some other evil could have had a shot. This is DRAGON! The ultimate possible evil.
We should also be careful in trying to read the story of Michael’s conflict with the Dragon as a prehistorical Satanic fall story a la John Milton. The strange muddled time signature of Revelation catches us again. Based on the strictest reading, the event seems to take place AFTER the child is born, likely meaning after Jesus’ birth and possibly also his crucifixion and resurrection. It would be an odd timeline to say the least.
The Dragon’s servants have to be just as horrific as the Dragon. The first beast, the beast from the sea, sometimes called Leviathan, is meant to be Rome and its emperors. They take authority over the world through force and violence. They do the Dragon’s will. They resist God and oppress the people of God. The blasphemous names are the divine titles of the Caesars who claim to be gods themselves. Seven is the divine number, here used in inversion or parody. Ten is the number of strength and power. The first beast is a dark reflection of God’s power, a fun house distortion from holiness to evil.
The second beast, Behemoth, the beast from the earth, is the imperial cult and Roman governors, controlling the people, forcing them to worship the first beast and the dragon. It is a parody of the Spirit, rather than enabling believers in the worship of God it coerces victims into slavery to the first beast and the dragon. It is a dragon in sheep’s clothing, an evil parody of the Lamb.
The classic 666 numerology is actually fairly transparent in context. On the first level it is a number of imperfection and unholiness. If 7 is the divine 6 is failure, coming up short. The triplicate is a refrain of intensification, bad, worse, worst. Also, as we mentioned earlier, in Hebrew (as with Latin) letters have numerical values. While there are many combinations that could produce the 666 total the most likely candidate is Neron Caesar, transliterated from
Greek to Hebrew. This reading is confirmed by variant texts which cite the number as 616, the result if one were to use the same name but transliterate from Latin to Hebrew instead. The number isn’t a great mystery at all but another marker pointing us back to Rome and its capricious emperors as our villains.
But these two beasts aren’t just Rome. Using the bestial images from Daniel, John paints us the portrait of a Super-Empire. Bear and leopard and lion blurring together. The nightmare Rome, bigger and badder and more universal than Rome itself. This is capital E Empire. It is Egypt and Babylon and Rome. It is the true character of human power and oppression gone absolutely mad in all times and places.
Together the Dragon and the two beasts form an unholy Trinity. They are the anti-God. The Anti-Father, Anti-Son and Anti-Spirit. John shelves them temporarily but we will return to them in coming chapters.