Monday, 21 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 15+16: seven bowls, seven plagues

This is the eleventh of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 14, many more angels, warnings & harvests. 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 (chapters 15 and 16) we have another set of seven angels, with another set of woes for the earth. First comes the good news: that these are the last set of plagues, "for with them the wrath of God is ended". Phew!

Before we get to the angels, we have a happy vision of those who conquered the beast and its number - which I guess means those who resisted it, probably to their considerable suffering. They're happily standing in a big gathering (this time we don't get a number) beside a sea of glass mixed with fire, singing a song about how great & just are God's ways, with the little note that "who will not fear and glorify your name ... all nations will come and worship before you". (For once I can't put a tune to this song in great music, though parts of it have influenced a hymn or three.)

Well, all nations may do so in the times to come. But from the actions of the angels, it seems that they're still stuck in the worship of the beast. The contrast of those in heaven and on earth couldn't be greater. Because here's what follows the song: seven angels come out of the temple and are given "seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God" by one of the four living creatures, and nobody could enter the temple until the seven plagues were ended.

Image: Brick Testament
So off go the angels, to pour out their bowls, to cause great suffering on earth. Let's just list them briefly, because it's the same kind of story as with the seven trumpets & seven seals. First bowl: painful sores on those who had the mark of the beast; second bowl: the sea turned to blood and everything in it died; third bowl: all the rivers turned to blood. (Two brief notes on the rivers: this isn't, thankfully, the source for Enoch Powell's disgusting 'rivers of blood' speech, which is a reference to Virgil's Aeneid; and the text here says it's due to the people of earth shedding the blood of the saints and prophets.)

Carrying on. Fourth bowl: the sun becomes super-hot and scorches people; fifth bowl: poured on to the throne of the beast, causing darkness and pain to those in his kingdom; sixth bowl: the river Euphrates is dried up, preparing the way for 'the kings from the east'. This is followed by foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouths of the two beasts and the dragon, to prepare the kings of the world for battle. They assemble at a place with a well known name: Harmagedon in the NRSV (that is, the mountain of Meggido), a crossing point in Israel where various battles had taken place, and known in later texts as Armageddon. The battle of the end of the world comes near.

Just to confuse matters about timing, John inserts in brackets the saying of Jesus about the one who comes like a thief, and warns people to stay awake and clothed (though curiously he has it in the first person, whereas Jesus' parable in both Matthew and Luke is in the third person). We must be ready at all times for that day of battle, it seems - presumably John is speaking to the people of his own time not to the time of the story.

And then one more angel, who simply pours his bowl into the air, with a voice from heaven saying "it is done". Plagues over? Well, not quite - first we have a massive earthquake ("such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth"), which splits Babylon into three parts, and is accompanied with hailstones weighing 100 pounds each. As the Oxford Bible Commentary observes, this isn't the first time we've seen the end of Babylon in this book - it's been warned upon, destroyed once already, and we get a big destruction scene in the next chapter.

What is there to be said about all this destruction? It feels like a revenge fantasy - God will destroy the bad folks of the earth in increasingly violent ways, because they've failed to follow him - and it's pretty unappealing. The Brick Testament page whose image I use above describes this scene as "God Tortures Remaining Humans at Length", which is about accurate. But surely no loving God would do such a thing to his people, to those made in his image, however they'd behaved?

These scenes seem to belong to the tribal God of Israel, who supported them in their wars, but which they moved on from - it's binary 'us and them' thinking. Given the importance of Revelation to Christian imaginations throughout history, this is quite a worrying set of images and scenes. Except, except: it's back to the reminder that this is apocalyptic literature, written by (and to) people in great distress and suffering. Their power to inflict that suffering on others was minimal, but they could dream about it. It's the power that the bullied child has, of imagining their bully coming to a terrible end. The trouble is when the people in distress get the power to inflict that suffering upon others.

If Revelation is read as a symbolic foreshadowing of God's future actions, that's one thing (and bad enough). It's catastrophic if it's read by those in powerful places as a justification for their actions. That's why the obsession of certain American evangelicals with the book is so worrying - because of the strength of American military might, and the very clear reality that the US is no sort of persecuted victim. God grant that this book never give strength to that view.

Next reading: ch 17+18, the fall of Babylon (and Rome)

No comments:

Post a Comment