Who is the “Great Whore of Babylon”? Revelation 17:1-18

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.

 

A coin minted in A.D. 71 featuring Vespasian and (Cohen, Description 1:398 [no. 404]) From Aune Revelation, 3:920

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.

 

 

The First Four Trumpets in Revelation 8:7-12

The first trumpet judgment is similar to Exodus 9:13-25, hail and fire fell upon the Egyptians. Joel 2:31 indicates that in the time of the end the moon and sun will be turned to blood. The Jews had a tradition that at the time of the crossing of the Red Sea the angels hurled “arrows, great hailstones, fire, and brimstone” one the Egyptians (Aune, 2:519 cites Mek. de-Rabbi Ishmael, Beshallah 7). Fire and blood from heaven was included in Roman lists of “evil signs” (Cicero De div. 1.43.98; 2.27.58; Pliny Hist. Nat. 2.57.147).

The image of a great red storm sweeping across the earth destroying plants and trees may allude to Zechariah 13:8-9. In that apocalyptic text, only one-third of the land survives a “refining fire.” Why a third? This may be loosely based on Ezekiel 5:2, 12. Jerusalem will be destroyed one-third by fire, one-third by sword.

When the Second Trumpet is sounded, a huge mountain is thrown into the sea (8:8-9). The first judgement burned one third of the land, this judgement damages one third of the seas.  Sea life and shipping are all one third destroyed. “Something like a huge mountain” in the sea is reminiscent of a volcanic island being formed.  Mount Vesuvius erupted within John’s lifetime and destroyed Pompeii, many of the Jews believed that this was a judgement of God in the Romans for having destroyed Jerusalem. Volcanic debris blocked the Bay of Naples making it impossible to land boats (Tacitus Annals 4.67; Ant. 20.144).  The only eyewitness account is from Pliny the Younger (Ep. 6.16, 20). Pliny reports the sea level dropped and sea creatures were stranded on dry land.

Pliny, Epistles, 6.20 For although the ground was perfectly level, the vehicles which we had ordered to be brought with us began to sway to and fro, and though they were wedged with stones, we could not keep them still in their places. Moreover, we saw the sea drawn back upon itself, and, as it were, repelled by the quaking of the earth. The shore certainly was greatly widened, and many marine creatures were stranded on the dry sands. On the other side, the black, fearsome cloud of fiery vapour burst into long, twisting, zigzag flames and gaped asunder, the flames resembling lightning flashes, only they were of greater size.

The imagery is common in apocalyptic, see for example:

Sib. Or. 4.130-34  But when a firebrand, turned away from a cleft in the earth, in the land of Italy, reaches to broad heaven, it will burn many cities and destroy men. Much smoking ashes will fill the great sky, and showers will fall from heaven like red earth.

But the Revelation likely alludes to the first plague on Egypt in Exodus 7:14-23. In the original plague, all the water turned to blood, even water stored in jars. In addition, all the fish in the water died, as in the plague in Revelation.

When the third trumpet is sounded Wormwood falls into the fresh water (8:10-11). The third trumpet resembles the plague of the freshwater in Exodus 7:20, except that there the waters turned to blood. A great star, like a torch falls from the sky effecting freshwater.  Unlike western folklore, shooting stars were considered bad luck, thus this star would have struck the readers as a bad sign (Aune 2:520, citing  Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.36; 5.23, a falling star means the death of a person) If a falling star is bad, a comet is the worst cosmic sign possible.  “…comets were considered prodigies that signaled the imminence of death and disaster (Manilius Astron. 1.892-926).

The star was named Wormwood (ὁ Ἄψινθος, ho Apsinthos). Wormwood is an herb which is not poisonous but has a very bitter taste that would render water undrinkable. Wormwood is mentioned in Jeremiah 8:14, 9:15, 23:15, as a symbol of God’s punishment of the people. How could a single disaster poison freshwater?  Although some writers try to make this a literal meteor or comet, it is a plague like the Egyptian plagues. God is destroying the water supply.

When the fourth trumpet sounds, fire mixed with blood falls from the sky (Rev 8:12). This trumpet effects the sun, moon, and stars, reducing their light by one third.  Darkness is a common symbol of terror and the end of the world, the reduction of light will increase terror, and make food production less effective. This darkness is unnatural, “not the way it is supposed to be”, and generally associated with “covenantal judgment” in the Old Testament (Beale, Revelation, 483). Two examples from the Old Testament:

Amos 5:18  Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!  Why do you long for the day of the LORD?  That day will be darkness, not light.

Isaiah 13:10  The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light.  The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. (Cf Mark 13:24)

What is it that reduces the light?  It is possible that this is the combined effect of all the fire that has been started in the first three trumpets, all of the smoke and pollution have created a cloud cover that reduces light by one third. But it is more consistent with Revelation to see this as another allusion to Exodus 10:21-29, the ninth plague on the Egyptians.

In a previous post I suggested the 144,000 were in many ways similar to the send of the twelve in Matthew 10. Jesus sent his witnesses to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and in order to proclaim the presence of the messiah and to gather them into his messianic community. The plagues had a similar function in Exodus. For the children of Abraham, the plagues proved their God was defeating the gods of Egypt in order to rescue his people. As he has done before, God is calling his people out of the nations in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.

Why are Dan and Ephraim Missing in Revelation 7?

The tribes of Dan and Ephraim had some significant problems in the history of Israel. While Dan himself does not commit any great sin in Genesis (as do the sons of Leah). The blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49 was not a condemnation, although Jacob describes Dan as a “serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that its rider tumbles backward” (Gen 49:18). In the book of Judges, however, we find that the tribe of Dan was involved in idolatry. Samson was from the tribe of Dan, during his career as judge idolatry does not appear to have ceased. The tribe of Dan migrated north to a better territory. The worshiped a “calf” after the kingdom split (1 Kings 12:25).

But would Dan be omitted because of idolatry? All the tribes were, and any of the northern tribes would have been just as involved as Dan. It is in Judah that idols were established on the temple mount and the priesthood worshiped both Yahweh and Assyrian gods. It is possible that they were the first tribe to become idolatrous, but all tribes were involved at Sinai, the real beginning of idolatry in Israel. It was, however, a Jewish tradition that Dan was the most apostate tribe (Aune 2:462, citing Str-B 3:804-805).

A common explanation for this omission is that the Antichrist would come from the tribe of Dan. As Richard Bauckham points out, for John the Antichrist is imperial Rome is not a Jew from any particular tribe (101). This is a point which must be proven yet, but the observation is enough to make us wonder if the whole tribe is removed from the list because the Antichrist would come from it!

Dan is also missing from the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1-9. This is a more significant observation for our problem in Revelation. Perhaps the tribe of Dan failed to return from captivity and therefore lost its place in the tribes. In many prophetic passages, Ephraim becomes synonymous with the entire northern kingdom, especially in its idolatrous forms. The book of Hosea in particular uses the tribe of Ephraim to describe the apostasy of the whole of the northern kingdom.

So once again Revelation generates questions which may be impossible to answer with certainty. Perhaps the solution is as simple as the need to delete two tribes because Levi and Joseph were included.

Who Are The 144,000 in Revelation 7?

The 144,000 are specially appointed witnesses during the great persecution at the end of the age. The witnesses are “sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (7:3; 14:1). In Revelation 15:4-5, these 144,000 witnesses have “not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins” and they “follow Lamb wherever he goes.” The 144,000 “have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits.” There are two passages which may help to

144000This text may allude to marking those who grieve over idolatry in Jerusalem in Ezekiel 9. In this apocalyptic vision, six men with swords enter Jerusalem to judge those who practice idolatry, and a seventh is appointed to mark those who have not practiced idolatry. The ones who have been marked by God will survive the slaughter of idolaters when Jerusalem falls. The ones who have been marked by God are the remnant of Israel which survives. In Revelation 14, the 144,000 are sealed by God in contrast to those who are sealed with the “mark of the Beast” a few verses before Rev 13:13-18).

It is also likely the description of the 144,000 is modeled on Matthew 10. Jesus sends out his specially trained twelve disciples two-by-two for the purpose of announcing the messiah to the nation of Israel. They are given authority to heal and cast our demons (10:1) and are specifically instructed to avoid Gentiles since they are sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-8). Anyone who welcomes these witnesses welcomes Jesus, and anyone who gives even a cup of water to one of the witnesses has welcomed Jesus (10:40-42). In Luke there are two sets of missionaries. First in Luke 9:1-9 Jesus sends out twelve, a passage parallel to Matthew 10. Second, in Luke 10 he sends seventy or seventy-two missionaries (72×2 = 144, although the number 72 is only found in textual variants, so if may or may not be significant). Much of Luke 10:1-24 is also parallel to Matthew 10.

If these are Jewish witnesses to the coming of the Messiah, then the difficult interpretive problem is how to understand “the tribes of Israel.”  If these are literally Jews (as opposed to Christians who are not ethnically Jewish), then there are a few problems: Many will argue that the twelve tribes did not exist in the first century, and they certainly do not today. Josephus, however, does refer to the 12 tribes in the first century (Ant 11.33), and the Jews did have a hope that in the kingdom the full tribal structure would be restored. A restoration of Israel to Palestine in our future may include some kind of tribal structure, or this passage may signal the beginnings of the revival of the twelve tribes. The millennial kingdom will include the twelve tribe ruling and judging the gentile nations.

The order of the tribes is also troublesome. They are re-arranged to place Judah at the top, likely because the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah (Smith 215). The main problem is that Joseph is included and Dan is omitted. Richard Bauckham, “The List of the Tribes in Revelation 7 Again” JSNT 42 (1991) 99-115; 112, for example, solves the problem by noting that the “list as an attempt to list the tribes in an intelligible order which failed owing to faulty memory.” Joseph was not a tribe, recall from Genesis 49 that his two sons were adopted by Jacob and became tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh).

The list in Revelation 7 does not correspond to any of the lists in the Old Testament, see Genesis 35:22-26; Numbers 1:5-15 and 13:4-14, for example. (In Numbers 13 Joseph is mentioned parenthetically as being represented by Manasseh; Levi is rarely mentioned since it was not allotted land). Nor does the list conform to the birth order of the sons, either literally, or by wives (Leah, Bilah, Zilpah, Rachel). One suggestion is that 7:5c-6 is misplaced, if it is moved after verse 8, then the order is more correct, the sons of the wives in order followed by the wives of the concubines in order.

By way of some sort of conclusion on the list of the tribes in Revelation 7, we might have to let some of the mystery remain and confess we cannot know for sure why the tribes are ordered as they are, nor why Dan is missing. Sometimes it is best to remember Grant Osborne’s advice to apply the “hermeneutics of ignorance” when reading Revelation.

Bibliography: Richard Bauckham, “The List of the Tribes in Revelation 7 Again” JSNT 42 (1991) 99-115; Christopher Smith, “The Tribes of Revelation 7 and the Literary Competence of John the Seer” JETS 38 (1995) 213-18.

What Does Revelation Say About God?

Despite the fact the book has a great deal to say about coming events, Revelation is not a roadmap of the future. It is, rather, an exhortation for today. It is possible that people living in the tribulation will pick up the book of Revelation and see the things spoken of being fulfilled in their lives, but the people living at that time will be under a delusion, (2 Thess. 2:11) and may not have the spiritual insight to believe what the book teaches. Revelation was intended to be read by the church living in the shadow of the Second Coming bearing up under persecution for their belief in Jesus, in order to encourage them to be strong and endure until the end.

The main theological point Revelation makes is that God is worthy of our worship. There are several scenes of heavenly worship around the throne of God (Rev 5:13, 7:11-12). As Grant Osborne notes, “The primary theme is proper worship of God” (Revelation, 12). When I read that I thought that worship could not possibly be a major theme of the book, but when I reflected on the contents of each chapter, it turns out that nearly every chapter of the book has some sort of a worship scene, song of praise, or doxology. The witnesses to the judgments described by the book respond in praise to God as the only thing in all of creation which is in fact worthy of worship.  It might be helpful to think about how many classic hymns and popular worship songs are drawn from Revelation, especially chapters 4-5.

This theme of worship has to be taken in the context of the Imperial Cult which declared that Rome was worthy of worship and that the Emperor ought to be honored as a God. But the Empire is not worthy of worship, the second beast in Revelation 13 must coerce people to worship the image of the first. The metaphor of Rome as a drunken whore evokes negative images of the honors given to the empire. John boldly declares that it is not the Empire nor the Emperor who is the almighty savior of the world, but the ‘one who sits on the throne of heaven.”

In Revelation, God is worthy to be worshiped because of the nature of his character. He is the one who is thrice-holy (4:8), he is the only being in all of creation that has all power and strength (4:10). In fact, the reason for God’s worthiness is that he is the creator (4:11, 10:6) It is evident that since God is the creator of all things, he is sovereign over them and can use them in what ever way he chooses. In Rev 10:6 even the elements of nature declare to be creator.

God is also described as a just judge who will avenge the wrongs done to his people. This is a dominant theme in the book (6:10, 16:5, 18:20, 19:11, 20:4, 20:12), but is also part of God’s worthiness to be worshiped. When the seventh trumpet sounds in Rev 11:15, the 24 elders fall on their faces and worship God because he is the Almighty God who has begun to reign (11:17). The worship is based on the judgment of the nations: God is the destroyer of the destroyers of the earth! Chapter 11 ends with a theophany reminiscent of Mount Sinai.

I think that this perspective on Revelation as a book of worship will curb some of the more enthusiastic interpretations of the book.  It also brings the book back to the church as a worship texts.  Rather than fearing the strangeness of the book, we ought to worship the awesomeness of our God!

Bibliography:  Eugene Boring, “The Theology of Revelation, “‘The Lord Our God the Almighty Reigns,’” Int 40 (1986): 257-69.