A Lament for Fallen Babylon – Revelation 18:1-3

 After an angel explains the image of the great prostitute, John sees another angel coming down from heaven to announce that Babylon has fallen.

Fall of Babylon, Angers Tapestry

This angel has great authority and “the earth was made bright with his glory.” Normally only God is described as glorious, this is the only time in Revelation the word is applied to an angelic being. Aune (3:985) suggests an allusion to Ezekiel 43:2, “the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory.” The wording in the LXX is considerably different even if there is a similar theme.

The angel announces Babylon has fallen (18:2-3). The angel’s announcement repeats the phrase “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” from Revelation 14:8. Most scholars consider this a clear allusion to Isaiah 21:9, John considers the fall of ancient Babylon as a model for the impending fall of Rome.

But is the Babylon of Revelation 18 the same as the great prostitute in Revelation 17? Although the consensus view both Revelation 17 and 18 refer to, some commentators think Revelation 18 refers to Jerusalem. Iain Provan, for example, rejects common view that the chapter condemns Roman economic exploitation and argues the chapter condemns religious idolatry of Jerusalem, consistent with the many allusions to the Old Testament in the chapter. Following Massyngberde Ford, he cites the 1Q Pesher to Habakkuk from Qumran. In this text, Babylon’s economic oppression of the nations in Habakkuk 2:8a is applied to the “last priests in Jerusalem”:

1QpHab Col. ix:3 Since you pillaged many peoples all the 4 rest of the nations will pillage you». Blank Its interpretation concerns the last priests of Jerusalem, 5 who will accumulate riches and loot from plundering the nations. 6 However, in the last days their riches and their loot will be given into the hands 7 of the army of the Kittim. (trans. Martı́nez and Tigchelaar).

1QpHab Col. xii:6  And as for what he says: Hab 2:17 «Owing to the blood 7 of the city and the violence (done to) the country». Its interpretation: the city is Jerusalem 8 in which the /Wicked/ Priest performed repulsive acts and defiled 9 the Sanctuary of God.

These two examples do in fact apply the destruction of Babylon to impending judgment on the corrupt priesthood currently in charge of the Temple when the commentary was written. But everything in Habakkuk is interpreted as a condemnation of the Wicked Priest.

Babylon will become a “dwelling place for demons” (18:2). In Isaiah 13:21-22 the prophet describes the fall of Babylon and the utter desolation of the city. “Howling animals” will live in the city. The noun (אֹחַ) refers to “howling desert animals” (HALOT). The Septuagint translated this as “divine beings (demons?) will dance there” (καὶ δαιμόνια ἐκεῖ ὀρχήσονται, LES2), or “there goat-demons will dance” (NRSV). Jeremiah 51:37 describes Babylon as a heap of ruins and a haunt of jackals. The ESV’s “haunt” translates φυλακή, most often a literal prison in the New Testament. But in Revelation, the word is used to refer to “the nether world or its place of punishment” (BDAG), as in 20:7.

Desolate cities are frequently described as a place where wild animals live. Jeremiah 9:10-12 for example, Jerusalem will be a heap of ruins and a lair of jackals. Many texts associate the presence of jackals and owls with demons: “all the spirits of the ravaging angels and the bastard spirits, demons, Lilith, owls and [jackals …]” (4Q510 Frag. 1:5). In Zephaniah 2:13 Nineveh is desolated and “the owl and the hedgehog shall lodge in her capitals” and “a lair for wild beasts” (2:15).

The kings of the earth committed adultery with Babylon through economic exploitation (18:3). Revelation 18:11-13 will pick up the economic oppressive of the merchants. In this verse, the merchants have “grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” As Richard Bauckham says, it is a mistake to think John condemns Rome “only because of the imperial cult and the persecution of Christians. Rather, this issue serves to bring to the surface evils which were deeply rooted in the whole system of Roman power” (“The Economic Critique of Rome,” 58).

I do not think there is a sharp separation between economic exploitation and the imperial cult in Revelation. Even in Revelation 13, those who do not have the mark of the beast cannot participate in economic activity. Those who “buy or sell” includes local merchants in every city in Asia Minor as much as merchants who imports goods from across the seas to sell at a high profit in Rome.

 

Bibliography: Richard Bauckham, “The Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation 18,” in Images of Empire, (ed. Loveday Alexander, JSOTSup 122; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991); Alan J. Beagley, The Sitz im Leben of the Apocalypse with Particular Reference to the Role of the Church’s Enemies (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1987); Iain Provan, “Foul Spirits, Fornication and Finance: Revelation 18 from an Old Testament Perspective.” JSNT 64 (1996) 81-100.

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