Escape to the Wilderness – Revelation 12: 5-6

After the woman clothed in the sun gives birth to the male child, she escapes into the wilderness where she is protected for a period of 1260 days. The interpretation of the escape into the wilderness depends on the identity of the woman.

The child is obviously the messiah. Several messianic texts converge here. First, the child is the “seed of the woman” from Genesis 3:15. Second, Isaiah 66:7 has similar language, “Before she was in labor, she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son.” Third, that the child is destined to rule the nations with a rod of iron alludes to Psalm 2:9. John already quoted this messianic Psalm in 2:27 and will again in 19:15 with reference to the coming of the messiah ruling over the nations.

Following the Septuagint of Psalm 2:9, all three occurrences in Revelation use the verb shepherd, ποιμαίνω, rather than rule. A rod (ῥάβδος) refers to a staff or scepter, but here it is likely a shepherd’s staff. Micah 7:14, for example, refers to the Lord shepherding his people with his staff. This passage looks forward to the eschatological age when the Lord would rule over his people as a shepherd cares for is flock. Ezekiel 37:24 looks forward to a tome of peace and prosperity when a future David will shepherd God’s people.

Greg Beale draws attention to a “conceptual parallel” in 1QH 3.7-12. The author of 1QHodayot describes his distress as “like a woman giving birth the first time when her labor-pains come on her.” She “gives birth to a male,” a child who is free from the breakers of death. Then the author alludes to Isaiah 9:5-6, describing the child as “a wonderful counsellor with his strength.” This is in contrast to “she who is pregnant with a serpent.” It is possible this contrast alludes to Genesis 3:15, the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. Beale suggests the text referred to the origin of the Community or (less likely) the birth of the Teacher of Righteousness. By line 22 the psalm seems to refer to entrance into the Community, “the host of the holy ones, and can enter in communion with the congregation of the sons of heaven.” (Text from Martı́nez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (translations) (Leiden: Brill, 1997–1998).

The child is caught up to “God and his throne.” The sequence of sentences does not make it clear this catching up into heaven represents rescue from the dragon. If the child represents Jesus, it is very strange his death on the cross and resurrection is omitted from the imagery. In Revelation 5 John described Jesus as a lamb that had been slain. But here the vision jumps from the birth to the ascension.

After the child has been snatched away from the dragon, the woman flees into the wilderness. If the woman is Israel, then there is an allusion here to Israel’s experience in the wilderness. In the Old Testament, the wilderness is sometimes a positive experience and at other times the result of judgment. Mauser points out that it is in the wilderness that God reveals his name and his law, beginning the religions life of Israel (Christ in the Wilderness, 29). He finds the three major elements of Israel’s theology initiated in the wilderness: covenant and law, election, and rebellion. The Covenant is established at Sinai, confirming Israel’s election. Immediately, however, there is rebellion against God in the golden calf incident. But the focus here is on the wilderness as protection, just as Elijah was protected and nourished in the wilderness for three years, so too will God’s people be protected and nourished for a similar period of time.

Adele Yarbro Collins argues Revelation 12 was originally composed in a Jewish context rather than Christian. She points writer emphasizes the birth of the male child rather than the death (as expected in a Christian apocalypse). God rescues the child from the dragon after he is born (Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation, 105-6). Reading Revelation 12 in a Jewish context would take the woman as Israel (mother Zion of Isaiah 54) and avoids the problematic interpretation of the woman as the church (since the church did not “give birth” to Jesus).

If this is a Jewish apocalyptic fragment, where did it come from? Massyngberde-Ford suggested disciples of John the Baptist reworked and interpreted his apocalypse (Rev 4-11). She argues the flight into the wilderness occurred in the forties A.D. when the “mad Emperor” Gaius demanded his statue be placed in the Temple. This would have been interpreted as the “abomination that causes desolation” and prompted faithful Jewish-Christians to flee Jerusalem.

Although Massyngberde-Ford’s suggestion is intriguing, it has not convinced many. But could Revelation 12:5-6 be a highly creative re-working of Jesus’s warning in Mark 13:14-20? In his apocalyptic discourse, Jesus warned his followers to flee Jerusalem when they see an abomination which causes desolation. There are differences. Jesus tells “those who are in Judea” to flee to the mountains immediately. Revelation 12 indicates only the woman fled into the wilderness. If the woman represents Israel, then (perhaps) the flight to the wilderness is similar to the Judeans fleeing the Romans beginning in AD 66.

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