Sunday, 20 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 14: many more angels, warnings & harvests

This is the tenth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 12+13, the woman, the dragon and the beasts. 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. 

Warnings and reapings this time, making chapter 14 one that's mostly ominous rather than violent (except at the end). First, we meet the Lamb again, standing on Mount Zion (Jerusalem). Accompanying him, though simultaneously standing before the throne, are a huge entourage - 144,000 in all, marked with the name of God and the Lamb. This is the same number as the faithful from all tribes of Israel, who were sealed and marked in chapter 7, though it's a little unclear whether these are the same group. These 144,000 have been "redeemed from humankind" and "are blameless". We see them later supported the Lamb in warfare.

There's a peculiarity about this group though, which has made lots of readers of this passage very uncomfortable: they are described (v4) as those "who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins". Read literally, this implies that the 144,000 are all male, and all virgins. It also shows a pretty unpleasant attitude to women. What do we do with this double misogyny? On this occasion, unlike with most of this series, I've been reading around websites and commentaries. Some commentators try to explain it away - even the more literal readers of Revelation often metaphorise this verse. Others suggest that it can be read in terms of an army of God, under the model of Jewish (male) soldiers who were required to keep celibate prior to battle, as sex caused ritual impurity; others still suggest that it is a literary allusion to the Book of Enoch and the sexual relations between fallen (male) angels and human females. Daniel Olson wrote an excellent academic paper on these different interpretations (probably needs a university library login for access, sorry). Olson also contrasts various explicitly feminist views of the passage - some reject it completely as sexism, others have a more positive line. In particular, the brilliant Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in her book on Revelation interprets the passage in terms of "cultic purity" and looks positively for its "visionary rhetoric" in the cause of social justice, which she says requires a reading above the detail of this particular verse.

Anyway, enough scholarship on this questionable verse. Let's leave the 144,000 and look to the angels who now coming flying into view. There are six this time. The first three are giving advice. Angel 1 is proclaiming a gospel to all nations, that they should fear God, give him glory, and worship him. Angel 2 declares that Babylon the great has fallen (presumably an allusion to all cities, though we get another bit of misogyny and sexual reference in saying that "she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication").

Angel 3 has a longer speech against those who worship the beast and who receive its mark - they will "drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger". Another wine reference, and more to come at the end of the chapter. John comments that this is a "call for the endurance of the saints" - an encouragement to the faithful of his day. Fair enough in terms of the context of the book - as I've said on previous days, encouraging endurance in the face of persecution is one of the main features of Revelation - but in terms of the story, pretty hard going. In the previous chapter, we were told that anyone refusing to worship the beast would be killed, and that anyone refusing his mark couldn't buy or sell goods. So damned if you do and damned if you don't - pretty literally. Tough stuff.

We get another interlude from John who hears a pair of voices from heaven, one identified as the Spirit, telling him that those who die 'in the Lord' are henceforth blessed, and will rest from their labours. Clearly part of the encouragement theme as well. Returning to the musical settings of this book, this verse is the basis of the final movement of Brahms' German Requiem, Selig sing die toten (blessed are the dead).

Image: The Brick Testament
After the encouragement, back to the action. Now we see the Son of Man seated on a cloud, except that instead of just looking majestic, he's holding a huge sickle in his hand. Angel 4 tells him to use the sickle to reap, "because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe". So his swings his sickle and the earth is reaped. Judgement & harvest have all sorts of links in the New Testament, but this particular version seems a bit brutal, and we're not told of its effects. (In passing: is this the only time we see the Son of Man being given a command by an angel? An interesting glimpse into heavenly governance structures.)

Angel 5 has his own sickle, comes out of heaven with it, and receives instructions from a different angel, "who has authority over fire" (not sure this is Angel 4 who commanded the Son of Man), to use the sickle to "gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe". So the various wine imagery of this chapter come to full flavour - and presumably the vintage of the earth refers to the selection between the good and the bad, in a form of judgement.

Except we're not quite finished with wine. Because the grapes gone into the wine press of the wrath of God, which is trodden out of the city. And does fine wine flow from it? No. Blood flows from it, and a great deal of it. Now, wine and blood are thoroughly mixed in Christian symbolism of the Last Supper, but I don't think that's the point here - rather a gory form of judgement. Turn the face away to something more cheerful in the next chapter (fat chance) except for another musical link: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored". Yes, this passage is the source of the beginning of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, that rather wonderful song of the American Civil War. Sing it loud!

Next reading: ch 15+16, seven bowls, seven plagues 

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