The Dragon and the Stars – Revelation 12:3-4

In Revelation 12:3-4 a “great red dragon” sweeps a third of the stars of heaven down to earth with his tail. Since Revelation 12:9 identifies the red dragon as Satan and the male child is Jesus, is there a real, historical event John has in mind when he says the dragon swept a third of the stars from heaven?

Seven Headed Dragon Joachim of Fiore

For some writers, Revelation 12:3-4 is a reference to the fall of Satan. At some point before the fall of humans in the Garden of Eden, Satan himself rebelled against God and deceived one third of the angels to join him in this rebellion. In order to support this origin of Satan, Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:11-19 are read as allusions to the fall of Satan. Michael Heiser argues there are clear parallels between Genesis 3 and these two passages (Demons, 68-70. Heiser does not think Revelation 12:3-4 refers to the primordial fall of Satan, p. 245).

For some (usually conservative) commentators, Revelation 12 looks back at this satanic rebellion. For example, Robert Thomas said this “must refer to angels who fell with Satan in past history” (Revelation 8-22, 124). Lenski observed the clear allusion to Daniel 8:10 and drew an analogy to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who threw down some of the stars from heaven and trampled them on the ground, and Satan, who threw down a third of God’s stars” (Lenski, Revelation, 366; cf., Patterson Revelation NAC, 263). Most who see Revelation 12:3-4 as a reference to the fall of Satan cite Jude 6 as a parallel text, “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling.”

If the sweeping away of a third of the stars is the fall of Satan and the stars are the angels deceived by Satan, then perhaps there is a parallel to the Book of the Watchers, 1 Enoch 6-11. In this detailed expansion of the biblical story of the flood, two hundred angels take an oath to descend to Mt Hermon, find women to marry and have children with them. Michael and the other archangels hear the cries of the humans and respond in a prayer to God himself. The archangels point out to God the activities of Azazel and they blame him for teaching humans the “eternal secrets.” However, there is nothing in 1 Enoch which describes the leader of the rebellion as a dragon and there is nothing to indicate the wicked angels are “one third” of the angels.

There are problems with the interpretation of Revelation 12:3-4 as referring to the fall of Satan. The woman was pregnant and about to give birth to the male child (presumably Jesus, v. 2, 5) prior to the second sign, the great rea dragon who seeps away a third of the stars from heaven and flings them to the earth (v. 3-4). War does not break out in heaven until after the child is born and is snatched up to heaven (presumably the ascension). The chronology is confused, although that may not be convincing since Revelation 12 is a highly symbolic description of history.

More troubling for those who want this text to refer to a pre-Edenic fall of Satan is the lack of evidence for the kind of rebellion against God assumed in most descriptions of the fall of Satan. Even if Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 are admitted as evidence for an angelic rebellion against God, there is nothing in either passage to support one-third of the angels falling along with the rebel, nor do either of those passages make a clear connection to Satan as the leader of an demonic horde. In fact, the idea that demons are the angels who fell with Satan is built on a number of assumptions built up over centuries of myth-building rather than solid textual / biblical evidence.

If the sweeping of one third of the stars from heaven to earth does not refer to the original fall of Satan, then it may allude to the activity of the little horn in Daniel 8:10. This little horn grew great, “even to the host of heaven” and “even as great as the Prince of the host” (v. 11). When it became great, it threw down some of the stars to the ground and trampled on them.

In the context of Daniel 8, the starry host refers to Antiochus’s attacks on the Jewish people,  beginning with the assassination of Onias III in 170, the sacking of the temple in 169, and the general persecution of Jews in the period which follows (see also 1 Maccabees 1:41-64; 2 Maccabees 6:1-5). “Antiochus’ hurling them down to earth and trampling them is symbolic of what he did to the Jewish people” (J. Paul Tanner, Daniel, EEC, 491). Tanner also points out Alexander brutally trampled the Persians in 8:7, using the same word as verse 10. Alexander certainly did not trample angels, so in the context of Daniel 8 this host refers to those slaughtered by Antiochus.

There are other Second temple texts which use stars to represent righteous people. 1 Enoch 43.4 identifies stars in heaven as “the holy ones who dwell upon the earth and believe in the name of the Lord of the Spirits forever and ever.” 2 Maccabees 9:10 describes Antiochus as thinking “thought that he could touch the stars of heaven,” which could be hyperbole but likely refers to the righteous in the context of 2 Maccabees.

If John alludes to Daniel 8 here, then sweeping of the stars from heaven to earth is another reference to the war of the beast against God’s people (11:7; 13:7). This war against God’s people is a main theme of the second half of Revelation, culminating in the ultimate battle at Armageddon (16:16, 19:11-21). As Beale concludes, “Though Dan. 8:10 first had application to Antiochus, John now applies it in an escalated way to the devilish power behind Antiochus” (Revelation, 636). Just as Satan was the power behind the Seleucids in the past and the power behind Rome in the present, he will be the power behind the ultimate enemy of God in the future.

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