Revelation 17 gives us another chance to test the method of reading Revelation in the context of the first century, like a political cartoon. The kingdom of the beast is described with a rather vivid metaphor in this chapter – the empire is like a drunken whore riding a scarlet beast. God’s wrath has fallen on the kingdom of the beast in the form of the seals, trumpets and bowls, the stage is set for the final judgment of the beast and the kingdom of the beast. This kingdom is vividly described in chapter 17 and 18, with the final victory over the kingdom at the time of the return of Jesus in chapter 19.

This metaphor might be the best to test the method described in the preceding posts since the description of the woman is more of a picture than an action. There is no movement, nothing happens, it is as if the vision is of a painting or fresco rather than the regular visions in Revelation. David Aune therefore suggests this is a specialized form of apocalyptic vision known as an ekphrasis, a literary description of a work of art (Revelation, 3:919).

What is more, there is an angel in this chapter who interprets the vision for John. While Angelic guides are common in apocalyptic, they are used differently in Revelation. In other apocalyptic, the vision is presented, the seer asks questions, and the guide gives interpretations. Revelation does not do this, the angels are simply present, or a part of the vision itself. In this chapter, the angel provides something of a running allegorical commentary on the vision of the woman and the beast.

It is possible this description is based on coins minted by Vespasian in A.D. 71. These coins depict the goddess Tiber seated on seven hills, as described in this vision. The image of the goddess is common both before and after Vespasian, but not the image of a goddess seated on seven hills.

The coins of Rome obviously do not depict Rome as a prostitute. But there may bit a subtle word play in this description: “The Latin term lupa, ‘she-wolf,’ had the connotation ‘prostitute’ and might have contributed to a subversive joke that was transferred to Roma as the female personification of Rome” (Aune, Revelation, 3:929).

The name on the head of the prostitute also refer to Rome. Some thought that Rome had a secret name, thought by some to me AMOR, Latin for “love,” and the reverse of the Latin ROMA. The word-square below is a bit of graffiti from Pompey (pre A.D. 79). In Servius’ Commentary on the Aenid (2.351), he says, “The Romans wished to keep secret the identity of the god who cared for Rome, and therefore their priestly regulations decreed that the gods of Rome should not be invoked by their proper names that they might not be enticed away.”

There is a blending of imagery in this section, with some elements obviously drawn from Roman sources, but others more appropriate to Babylon (the woman is the great whore of Babylon, yet she is described as a Roman goddess). Just as Babylon was the original great anti-god empire, Rome is the ultimate anti-god empire.

If this is a correct interpretation, then the “past” aspect of the Great Whore passage is clearly a condemnation of the Empire of Rome.  But is there a future aspect as well?  Rather than declare a particular country “the whore,” it seems to me that the future aspect of this prophecy points to a time in history where a human empire of some sort claims to bring peace and prosperity to the world and makes some sort of a”war” on the people of God.  Any more detail than this goes beyond the text.