The woman in Revelation 17 is riding a “scarlet beast.” We might have expected to see the beast himself, or the king who represents the beast. Rather than the king, we see a prostitute riding a scarlet beast. It is possible the image of a beast is of a throne, and the woman is the king. This beast is not unlike the beast from chapter 13 or the fourth beast of Daniel 7, other than the color scarlet. Nothing much can be made of this color, although it is similar in color to that of the red dragon who gave his authority to the beast in chapter 13.
The woman is described as a prostitute. Prostitutes are common images in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness, for example, Jerusalem Isaiah 1:21, Tyre in Isaiah 23:16-17 and Nineveh in Nahum 3:4. Israel herself is compared to a prostitute in Jer 3:6-10; Ezek 16:15-22; 23:49; Hos 4:12-13; 5:3.
Although there are some commentators who made the woman represent Israel, but the vast majority of writers associate the woman with Rome, especially given the evidence below. The “final” empire as Rome is consistent with Daniel 2 and 7, and with the rest of Revelation. It is Rome which is demanding worship in chapters 2-3, and it is Rome which persecutes the saints.
The various descriptions of the woman add to the vividness of the image:
- She was dressed in purple and scarlet. The word for the color purple here covers a range of colors from deep purple to black. While the color is normally associated with royalty and prestige, the writer Porphyry associated the color purple with carnality (which is interested because his name is derived from the word, Aune 3:935).
- She was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. The stereotypical prostitute is gaudy and over-dressed with jewelry and other accessories.
- She held a golden cup in her hand. This gold cup is likely an allusion to Jeremiah 51:7, although the verse there refers to Babylon. This is an example of the unusual blending of Roman and Babylonian elements in the chapter. The cup is filled with “abominations and impurities.” The word abomination is almost always associated with idols or meat sacrificed to idols (Jer 51:7).
- On the head of this woman is written several names. There is a problem of how to read the verse with respect to punctuation. Is this “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery:” or “on her head was written a name: MYSTERY”? In verse seven, the angel interprets the “mystery” of the woman, so it is likely here that the name of the woman begins with BABYLON rather than mystery. Why is the head of the beast’s empire portrayed as a female prostitute? She is not just a whore, she is the mother of all whores.
- The prostitute is drunk on the blood of the saints. That the woman is a prostitute is bad enough, but she is a drunk prostitute. Descriptions of prostitutes in the Greco-Roman literature usually indicate they drink very little “for professional reasons” (Aune 3:927.) There really is not more degrading way of describing a woman than as a drunk whore. To be “drunk on blood” is am image of extreme violence (see Ezek 39:18-19; Isa 49:26)
It is possible this description is based on coins minted by Vespasian in A.D. 71. These coins depict the goddess Tiber seated on seven hills, as described in this vision. The image of the goddess is common both before and after Vespasian, but not the image of a goddess seated on seven hills. On the reverse, the river goddess Tiber reclines on seven hills, holding a sword indicating the military might of Rome. S and C stand for senatus consultum – a resolution of the senate. In the background are a she-wolf and the twins Romulus and Remus.
The coins of Rome obviously do not depict Rome as a prostitute. But there may bit a subtle word play in this description: “The Latin term lupa, ‘she-wolf,’ had the connotation ‘prostitute’ and might have contributed to a subversive joke that was transferred to Roma as the female personification of Rome” (Aune 3:929).
The angel gives an invitation to the reader to “figure out” what the beast represents in verses 9-14 “this calls for wisdom.” The city of Rome was well known in antiquity as the city on seven hills, although it is difficult to identify which are the seven hills on which Rome was founded. In the various attempts to make the beast Jerusalem, the seven hills becomes a problem.
The angelic guide identifies the ten horns as seven kings who are coming. There are at least three was to “count” the Roman emperors of the first century. There are at least three approaches to handling this problem.
The historical approach. This approach attempts to make sense of the series of kings in Roman history. One must determine the start of the series, and decide which of the kings “count.” For example, there are three Caesars in A.D. 69, before Vespasian takes the throne. Do they count as three separate kings, or as a single king, or not at all?
The symbolic approach. This approach argues John has no specific kings in mind, but rather he means to use the number seven as a complete number of kings. This is consistent with Revelation’s use of the number 7, and Roman history as well, which held the first period of their history was ruled by seven kings, when in fact there were likely many more than this.
A combination of the historical and symbolic approaches. This attempts to use the historical sequence of kings, but declines to identify the first 5. It is the sixth king that is important, and is well known to the readers (either Nero or Domitian, depending on one’s view of the date of the book.) The hope, then, is that this evil sixth king will only reign for a short time.
Once again, Revelation leaves us with more questions than answers. If this image does refer to Rome, then Revelation 18-19 describes fall of Rome. Since Revelation 19:11-21 refers to the return of Jesus as the Messiah, when does Rome fall? Certainly not in John’s time, and it is unclear this could refer to any historical event in history. A solution may be to understand the prophecy of the fall of Rome as already beginning in the first century, but not yet consummated until the Second Coming.