Saturday, 19 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 12+13: the woman, the dragon and the beasts

This is the ninth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 10+11, eating his words. Where I quote from the Bible, it's generally the New Revised Standard Version unless I say otherwise. The numbering covers the chapters of the book, not the days of the reading. 

Tonight, reading chapters 12+13, we have an interesting (which is to say, profoundly odd and disturbing) cast of characters. First there's a pair both described as portents, but hostile to each other. On the one hand, there's a woman who is 'clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet' and is in the process of giving birth. On the other, a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns (as ever these grotesqueries are symbolic) who just by way of introduction destroys a third of the stars with his tail. Meanwhile the woman gives birth to a son who we're told is to rule all the nations, the dragon tries to eat the baby but it is snatched away by God; the woman in turn flees to be kept safe.

And then we have the 'war in heaven' - an evocative name that is given great detail in works such as Paradise Lost and more recently Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass; but here only gets three verses. The dragon & his angels fight against an army of the archangel Michael & his angels. Michael's side wins, the dragon & his angels are cast down to earth. The dragon is now referred to as the Devil or Satan. We get another song proclaiming God's victory, through the blood of the Lamb and the testimony of the faithful in the face of their accuser (Satan = accuser or adversary in Hebrew). The song ends with on a chilling note, that the devil has come down to earth with great wrath, and 'woe to the earth and the sea'. Oops.

Image: The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel the Elder,
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, via Google Art Project / Wikipedia

Back on earth, we see the dragon/Satan pursuing the woman who'd given birth. There's a dramatic scene where she flees from him on wings and gets sanctuary in the wilderness; the dragon tries to overcome her with water but the earth swallows up the water; and she's kept safe for the same three and a half years (described twice in this chapter in different ways) that we've seen earlier. The dragon is furious and goes off to wage war on humanity, described as the rest of the woman's children.

A word on the woman and the baby before moving on. It's hard to be sure of anything in this book, but there's something very Christ-like about this account: the baby is born to rule the nations, but is under threat from the devil and both he and his mother are rescued by God in different ways. It's like a symbolic poem of Jesus' life. How it fits with the earlier talk of the Son of Man and the victory of the sacrificed Lamb is hard to say, but then time works differently in this book - call it a flashback or interlude or something.

Back to the dragon. We see him next by the sea, from which a great beast is rising, complete with the same ten horns and seven heads as the dragon, a chimeric mixture of leopard, bear and lion. The dragon gives over its power and authority to the beast. The people of the earth like the beast, they follow it and worship the dragon (this is going to end badly for them). The beast spends its time 'uttering haughty and blasphemous words', and has authority for 42 months (still another description of our friend the three-and-a-half years). It has authority over everyone in the world, and the only people who don't worship are the faithful ones. This beast appears quite strongly to be some kind of symbol for a tyrant, an ugly and vicious ruler. We all know the sort from history, and plenty of countries have candidates for the next holder of the post. Presumably in John's day the reader would think of Roman emperors, now we might think of others who utter haughty and blasphemous words.

After the account of this beast John turns to camera and offers a direct moral message to the reader: endure in the face of hardship, accept being taken captive or even killed. Constantly we see hints at this message. The seven churches to whom John is writing are under huge pressures and persecutions. If there's a single message from the whole it's this: stand firm, have faith, you're on God's side, and eventually you will prevail.

Back to the beast, and from the earth we get another beast arising, speaking like a dragon and with two horns like a lamb. This is another very famous character in popular imagination around Revelation. This beast derives its authority from the first beast, and through all sorts of images and wiles forces the people of the earth to worship the first beast. It also requires all people to receive a mark on their bodies to be allowed to buy or sell anything. Lastly we're told that the beast has a number, and "let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person" - that number is 666.
Image: The number of the beast is 666 by William Blake,
Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia
(via William Blake Archive / Wikipedia)

To say that this beast, with its mark and famous number, has captured people's imaginations, is to put it mildly. Even outside of the extreme religious esoterica, the mark of the beast and the number 666 have fascinated people. What is its mark? What does the number mean? Various numerologies have been applied to the number; there's good evidence that it may originally have referred to the emperor Nero, but it has subsequently been applied to any number of religious or political leaders who the authors disliked, such as the pope at the time of the Reformation. John's heavy-handed hint to the reader does rather suggest a contemporary reading such as Nero or one of his successors, but the mystery has led to much speculation. Less said about the mark of the beast (linked to all sorts of identity systems by the paranoid), the better.

From this rather dizzying cast of characters I'm left with a strong feeling of the resonances John was seeking among his own people (persecuted Christians) in his own time (100 AD or so). To interpret it as a future prophecy seems rather ridiculous, but it sits well as a vivid and symbolic statement of his own time - and one with messages for our own times of danger.

Next reading: ch 14, many more angels, warnings & harvests 

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