The Dragon Makes War – Revelation 12:13-17

The final section of Revelation 12 the woman escaping the dragon. The individual images are difficult, but they all refer Satan’s persecution of the children of the woman. In Revelation 13 the dragon empowers two agents to wage war against God’s holy people (13:7).

Unclean spirits, Getty Apocalypse. Ms. Ludwig

For many interpreters the woman represents the church and her children, the holy people attacked by the dragon and the beast (13:7) is a metaphor for the church. Greg Beale, for example, interprets the chapter Jesus’s victory of Satan at the cross. Revelation 12:11 especially important for this interpretation since the holy ones have triumphed over Satan by the blood of the Lamb. As a result, the devil’s fury is expressed against Christians” (Revelation, 667). Beale draws parallels between the saints under the altar in Revelation 6:9 and the ones who have lost their lives in 12:11. He therefore summarizes this war against the holy ones “as a result of Christ’s victory over the devil, God protects the messianic community against the devil’s wrathful harm” (668).

However, all of the allusions to the Old Testament and symbolism in Revelation 12 refer to Israel. The word dragon (δράκων) is rare in the New Testament, only appearing in Revelation as a metaphor for Satan. In the Septuagint it is used to translate the Hebrew תַּנִּין (tannin) a snake, but often a sea-monster or dragon. The word is used in Exodus 7:9 when Moses throws down his staff and it becomes a snake. The Septuagint uses the word dragon (δράκων).

This is not to say Moses’s staff became a Harry Potter style baby dragon, but the association of a sea-monster occupying the chaos of the sea is common in the Ancient Near East. For example, Jeremiah 51:34 describes Nebuchadnezzar as a sea-monster (using תַּנִּין, δράκων in LXX Jeremiah 28:34). Isaiah 27:1 and 51:9 describe God destroying the great chaos monsters Leviathan and Rahab. Rahab is not the woman from Jericho in Isaiah 51:9, but rather “a mythical monster, the name of which means ‘surger,’ and plays upon the restlessness and crashing of the sea,” (HALOT). In Psalm 89:9-10 speak of God’s power over the chaotic seas in the Exodus: “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass.”

The woman is given to eagle’s wings to flee the dragon into the desert. The woman is not rescued by eagles, but she is given eagle wings. the use of a passive verb implies God is the one who gave her wings.

Rescued by means of eagle’s wings is probably drawn from Exodus 19:4 and Deuteronomy 32:10-11 (cf. Ps 103:5-7). When God rescued Israel from Egypt it was as if he had carried them on eagle’s wings and brought Israel to Mount Sinai in the wilderness. That she flees to the place prepared for her in the wilderness evokes Israel’s gathering around Mount Sinai. Isaiah uses similar language to describe a second Exodus when the exile comes to an end. Those who return to Zion will “they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isa 40:31). Beale suggests a possible parallel to Psalms of Solomon 17:18-27: “Those who love the gatherings of the holy ones fled from them. They were scattered from their bed like sparrows” (LES2).  The Words of the Luminaries (4Q504 Frag. 6:6-8 probably alludes to Isaiah 40:31 to describe the Exodus: “You have lifted us wonderfully upon the wings of] eagles and you have brought us to you.”

The woman is rescued and taken on eagle’s wings into the wilderness where she is nourished for “for a time, and times, and half a time.” In the context of the wilderness, God’s provision of manna and quail come to mind. The verb is used with this sense in LXX Deut 32:18. When Israel rebels, they forget “God who nourished you” (the Hebrew text has “gave birth”).

Verses 15-16 are quite strange. Frustrated by God’s protection of the woman in the wilderness, the serpent (now using ὄφις) “spews water like a river” is an attempt to destroy the woman and her child, but the earth opens its mouth and swallows the river of water. This unusual spewing may simply reflect the common practice of describing enemies as a flood or watery chaos when they seek to destroy Israel. For example, In Psalm 18:5-18 the writer is tangled in the cords of death, but the Lord rebuked the waters and “the channels of the sea were seen” (18:15). Reflecting on God’s victory over his enemies, Habakkuk says “You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.”

Unable to destroy the woman, the dragon is enraged and makes war against the children of the woman. These children are the ones who “keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” Like Daniel and his friends, these offspring of the woman refuse to compromise on the commandments of God even if that means death at the hand of an evil empire. So too the willingness to sacrifice one’s life rather than compromise on core elements of faith and practice during the Maccabean Revolt. “They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. Very great wrath came upon Israel” (1 Mac 1:63-64). When facing torture for refusing to eat swine flesh, seven brothers responded “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors” (2 Macc 7:1-3).

This sets the stage for the increased of persecution in the second half of the book. The final line is a dramatic segue to the introduction of the beasts in Revelation 13: the dragon stood by the shore of the sea.

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