After John sees the doors to the heavenly temple opened, a great sign appeared in heaven. The vision in Revelation 12 describes a war in heaven followed by a war on earth. The dragon attacks a woman and her child, forcing her to flee into the wilderness for a period of time where she will be protected by God.
Revelation 12 has been described as being “consciously or nor, considered as the center and key to the entire book” (Prigent, Apocalypse 12, 1, cited by Beale 621). The description of the woman is highly symbolic as if John describing with words. This is certainly the case in Revelation 17 although it is less clear in chapter 12.
The first great sign is a pregnant woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” The second sign is a “great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” who makes war in heaven and is cast down to the earth. The description of the great red dragon with multiple heads and crowns is familiar to readers of Daniel. (I plan on discussing the war in heaven in a separate section.)
The woman is clothed in the sun, feet on the moon and has a crown of twelve stars. The number twelve calls to mind the regular use of twelve in the Old Testament for the sons of Jacob and the twelve tribes comprising the nation of Israel. In Genesis 37 the sun and moon represent Jacob and Rachel in Joseph’s dream. Song of Songs 6:10 describes the bride’s beauty as like the moon and sun. Greg Beale surveys a range of rabbinic literature which interprets Song of Songs 6:10 faithful Israel (Beale, Revelation, 625 citing Midrash Rab Exod. 15.6; Num 2.4, Num 9:14).
Who is the woman and her child? As with most things in Revelation, there have been a wide range of views from the Egyptian goddess Isis (the “queen of the cosmos,” (Yarbro Collins, Combat Myth, 71–76) to the American Revolutionary War and Civil War (Alan Johnson, “The Bible and War in America: An Historical Survey,” JETS 28 (1985): 169-181).
The two most common views take the woman as a symbol for either Israel or the church. That the woman represents the church has been a common view in the history of the church. of the woman is that she represents the church, since her offspring are attacked by the power of the beast. Medieval commentators often interpreted the woman as Mary and the child as Christ.
For many writers these are not mutually exclusive. Mounce, for example, observes there is one continuous people of God through redemptive history, so it should not be a surprise the imagery refers to both Israel and the church (Mounce, Revelation, 236). However, since this is a Jewish Christian apocalypse, an emphasis on the Jewish-ness of this image is important.
The woman represents the Jewish people as the persecuted people of God and her child is the Messiah. The metaphor of Israel or Zion as husband to the Lord is common (Hosea 1-3; Isa 54:1-55; Jer 3:20; Ezek 16:8-14). In Isaiah 49 Zion believes she has been abandoned by her husband; her children scattered throughout the word (in the exile). The Lord restores her children (the end of the exile) and tells her to “expand her tents” because so many children will return to her (54:2-8) and her marriage is restored (Isa 62:1-5). Isaiah 62:1-5 may be important for understanding the imagery of Revelation 12. When Zion is restored, she will be given a new name and she will be like a crown of splendor and a royal diadem in the hand of the Lord (Isa 62:3).
The woman gives birth to a son. John describes this child with allusions to several messianic texts from the Old testament. In Isaiah 66:7 Zion goes into labor and gives birth to a son. The time before the messianic ages is often described as birth pangs. For example, Jesus said the non-signs leading up to the final conflagration were birth (Matthew 24:8; cf., Paul. 1 Thessalonians 5:3). The child will “rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” This is clear allusion to Psalm 2:9, a text regularly interpreted as messianic in the Second Temple period.
The child was “snatched up to God and to his throne.” This seems like a clear allusion to the ascension. But there are problems with that interpretation. The child is born, threatened by the dragon, and then immediately snatched to heaven. It seems strange a Christian apocalypse would not make some reference to the cross and resurrection. In addition, this “snatching” rescues from the power of the dragon. After the resurrection, Jesus did not need to be rescued, he had already overcome the powers of evil. It is possible, however, the birth and ascension refer to the totality of Jesus’s mission.
The word translated “caught up” (ESV) or “snatched” (NIV is the aorist passive of ἁρπάζω. The word refers to rescue from danger with the connotation of a sudden, violent pulling away, “in such a way that no resistance is offered” (BDAG). Although Paul the word in 1 Thessalonians 4 17, the catching away of the child in Revelation 12 does not refer to the rapture of the church.