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.