Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Revelation before Advent 17+18: the fall of Babylon (and Rome)

This is the twelfth of a series of blog posts on the book of Revelation. There's an introduction to the series. Previous reading: ch 15+16, seven bowls, seven plagues. 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. 

Two more chapters tonight, closely linked. Chapters 17 and 18 tell of the fall of Babylon, the great city, centre of economic and military power. Throughout these chapters, the great city is named as Babylon, and this refers back to the warning of the destruction of Babylon by one of the angels in ch 14, and the brief account of Babylon's fall in ch 16 at the culmination of the bowls of plagues. However, it is very clear that Babylon sits in for Rome throughout - there are plenty of hints that John is talking about Rome, and of course in John's day it was Rome that was the great centre of economic and military power. The historical Babylon (the site of great empires for centuries) was a shadow of its former self in John's time.

This symbolic Babylon appears, in the way that many cities and countries are portrayed, as a woman. But not in a flattering image - she is called a "great whore ... with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication" and "mother of whores and of earth's abominations". Robed in purple and scarlet, she holds a "golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication", and she is drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs. A horrible image.

Image: Hans Burkgmair, 1523, woodcut for Luther's Bible translation (via Wikipedia)
I wrote at some length in my post on chapter 14 about the double misogyny of that piece (with its virgin saints). Although this text shows an extremely unflattering and sexualised image of a woman (albeit as a metaphorical city), it feels a little less misogynist to me - the focus is on the city rather than a woman as such. Nonetheless, it's certainly unflattering, and ties into sexist stereotypes of woman's dangerous sexuality. And the phrase "scarlet woman" has been used for centuries to describe promiscuous women and prostitutes, often in a harsh and judgemental way - so even if the passage wasn't original misogynist, its effect has been.

Interestingly, the Protestant Reformers took the passage as a criticism of the papacy, and the Westminster Confession of the 1660s referred to the Pope as an antichrist, a link that continued to be made in the 1970s and 80s by the Northern Irish extremist preacher Ian Paisley to refer to Pope John Paul II (whom he called a "scarlet woman"), to great offence. I remember well the debates in the Church of Scotland in the 1980s as to whether those verses should be excised from the Westminster Confession, which caused surprising controversy (they eventually were).

Babylon-the-woman is seated upon a scarlet beast, the same beast as we've seen earlier (its seven heads and ten horns are mentioned), which is described as "was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit". There's a clear link back here both to the description of God at the start of the book as he who "was, and is, and is to come", and to the ascension and second coming of Jesus.

John is mystified so gets a little bit of instruction, mostly relating to the beast - the seven heads are seven kings, and the beast is "an eighth but it belongs to the seven". My friend the Oxford Bible Commentary reckons this as a reference to the emperor Nero, persecutor of Christians, of whom there was a strange legend that he hadn't died but had fled east and would return to rule Rome again at the right time. There's also some interpretation on the waters on which the whore is seated - the historical Babylon was at the confluence of great rivers, but Rome wasn't, so John needs to metaphorise these waters into being all peoples and nations.

So having met the woman and the beast, we hear from three angels about the fall of the great city. An entire chapter is given to poetry and song about its fall. Although the city is called she, and there are occasional references to her fornication, this is somewhat more realistic - it's about the city as such, not the symbolic. The city/woman has committed fornication with the kings of the earth, we're told. Given that it's described as a seat of power and wealth, this turns rapidly into a political and economic critique rather than a moral one.

The first angel tells us that Babylon is fallen, "a dwelling-place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit" and that "the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury". This introduces the economic critique of the city.

The second angel (or voice from heaven) takes up the bulk of the chapter. First we hear a warning to God's people to come out of the city, due to her sins; we're told that just as she lived luxuriously, she will receive plagues of pestilence, mourning, famine and fire in a single day. This is more of a call to dissociation with the powers of the earth than to physically leaving a city - John's audience were in Asia not Rome, albeit under the authority of Rome.

After this warning, we're told of the mourning of various groups following the fall of Babylon. Each mourns its loss having happened in one hour. There are the kings of the earth, who had bent to the city's will, and cry for her loss (but ultimately for their own loss of power). Then there are the merchants of the earth, who weep for their economic loss - there are great lists of the cargo which nobody will buy any more, from gold and jewels to spices and oils and animals - and ultimately "slaves and human lives". Lastly we see shipmasters and sailors mourning, again for the loss of their wealth.

For once, I like this chapter! It seems to offer not just a moral or religious critique as other chapters of Revelation, but rather a political, military and economic critique. It's closer to the real heart of Old Testament prophecy than much of Revelation. The link is to the great city, whether Babylon or Rome, but through that to the systems of power which create oppression and inequality, enriching some but impoverishing many. The kings and merchants and shipowners mourn, but we need not. Nor is this is a critique of a single city - in our own day, we might choose to read New York or London or Tokyo or Dubai for Babylon, but it applies to all the places and people who consort and accommodate with the powerful in those places. Economic misery and inequality may begin in the great cities, but it is made possible because people in many other places allow it to happen and collude in it because they think they can have a part of it.

Pleasingly, the chapter ends with a genuine and heart-felt lament (after a reminder to the saints and prophets to rejoice). Another angel throws a big stone in the sea and tells us of all the things no longer to be found in Babylon - the sound of harpists and minstrels, the work of artisans, the light of a lamp, the voice of a bridegroom and bride. It's rather tender (and, music fans, it's one of the texts used by William Walton in describing the fall of Babylon, mostly otherwise from the book of Daniel, in his great work Belshazzar's Feast). But lest we feel too sorry for the city's loss, we're reminded at the end that the city's merchants were the magnates of the earth, and that the blood of all the prophets and saints can be attributed to the city.

That ended up as a long discussion of the fall of Babylon! If I had my way, chapter 18 with its political and economic critique would be better known than chapter 17 with its scarlet woman. But I suppose that hardly satisfies the elites of the past and present days...

Next reading: ch 19, Hallelujah, and a white horse

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