When the seven bowls have been emptied, one of the bowl angels stays behind to talk (Revelation 17:1). This could be interpreted in more than one way. First, it could be the angel’s initiative. If so, it confirms that God is more interested in making things known than human beings are in knowing. By this logic, neither inquisitiveness nor curiosity in the human realm is the driving force. Things happen on God’s initiative; God prods the audience to stay for an extra lesson. Alternatively, the trumpet angels may have seen bewilderment on John’s face. His body language has been noted earlier. In chapter 5, John faced a predicament in heaven that caused intense sorrow and weeping (5:4). In that scene, others took note of his state of mind, and they responded as though his reaction matters (5:5). We have another scene of interaction between heaven and earth in the intermission between the sixth and the seventh seal (7:13-17). In that scene, one of the elders asks a question that John cannot answer. “You are the one who knows,” he says (7:14). This may represent a glimpse of the heavenly pedagogy: God wants us to know, and God uses questions to get us there.
The scene that begins in Revelation 17 could be a mixture of these elements. God wants John to know, and John wants to know. The disclosures so far have left him perplexed. The angel’s offer of private lessons seems to work if we judge by John’s body language. The range of John’s reactions in Revelation is now awe (1:17), grief (5:4), admission of ignorance (7:14), and here — most likely — perplexity. There will be at least one more: shock. “When I saw her, I was shocked with an extreme shock” (17:6) or, “I was appalled with utter disgust.” The type of interaction and response that we see in John are meant to instill similar states of mind in the audience. This is not easy to do. Why was John taken by surprise so late in the day?
Clearer When It Blurs
I have read Revelation 17 many times. The chapter is Revelation’s master class. If we manage to sort things out in this chapter, we have it made. My initial sense is that the tutoring angel seeks to make things clear by images that are hyper-specific, with numbers like “five,” and “seven,” and “eight” for the heads of the beast (17:8, 11). This hyper-particularity has sent interpreters scurrying in all directions to crack the code they imagine John to be using. Perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree. The hyper-particularity does not aspire to present an array of new historical details. Rather, it is tongue-in-cheek particularity driving home a message the contours of which are already in place. Simple does it.
Hyper-particularity goes hand in hand with a blurring of the imagery. The mix of characters, places, and things suddenly seems unstable. Who, what, and where are no longer exactly what we expect. It is as though things get clearer when they blur.
The angel’s private lesson begins with an invitation.
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the exposé of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of slanderous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality; and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus (17:1-6).
A wilderness (17:3)? The last time there was a wilderness, the woman that gave birth to the male child was in flight mode into the wilderness, trying to escape the dragon (12:6, 14). Is this the same wilderness?
A scarlet beast (17:3)? Strictly speaking, we have not seen a scarlet beast before. We have seen a red dragon; that was the color of the creature hell-bent on destroying the woman fleeing into the wilderness (12:3, 13). We have also seen a beast rising from the sea that had similar characteristics (13:1). Its color might be surmised, but there is no statement about its color.
A woman (17:3)? We have seen a woman before, the one who gave birth to the male child (12:1-2) and then fled into the wilderness (12:13-16). She barely escaped. Or did she? The summary passage about the woman’s flight from the dragon ends on an ominous note. “The dragon was enraged with the woman. And he went away (in a vanishing act) to wage war against the rest of her seed, those who keep the commandments of God as revealed in the testimony of Jesus” (12:17, translation mine).
How did the dragon’s new plan turn out? There are enough markers of continuity to be certain that Revelation elaborates the earlier story. It might have been easier if John had said the scarlet beast, or the wilderness, or the woman — not a scarlet beast, a wilderness, or a woman. He should not say that, of course. He should say it exactly the way he does and then let his reaction say the rest. “When I saw her, I was shocked with an extreme shock” (17:6). This detail is crucial. As to wilderness, it suggests trouble in the region of apparent safety. As to beast, it suggests a close relation to the pursuing dragon and not only to the beast from the sea. As to woman, now colluding with all her might with the scarlet beast, something terrible, unimaginable has happened. John’s shock must be surprise over the friendly relations between the woman and the beast, not surprise over the awful deeds only. The two are even color coordinated (17:3-4).
Two stable deed-elements stand out here just as it has earlier in the story. There is slander (17:3), and there is violence (17:6). The frightening, shocking constellation is guilty of misrepresentation and murder (13:5-7; 17:3, 6).
And there is more.
The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come (17:8).
To the great Wilhelm Bousset and many others, the meaning is clear. The beast that returns from the abyss is the expected Nero redivivus, concerning whom people in later times were convinced would come back from the netherworld.” I don’t agree. The symbols and the alleged historical reality would be woefully mismatched if Nero were the great surprise. Indeed, and again, the Nero myth fails to meet the ontological measure in the text. “The beast…was and is not and is to come” (17:8) contrasts with God “who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4, 8). Is not — the point of distinction — is not only a chronological or historical difference. The terms used in the contrast aim for ultimacy. At the level of ultimacy, Nero has no standing, and the same must be said about other candidates that fail the ultimacy test. The ontological contrast is also a contrast of character. Is not — still the point of distinction — can never be said about God. Revelation does not deal in abstractions, not even if the abstraction is the worthy cause of systematic theology. Those who believe that the phrase “who is and who was and who is to come” is a description of God’s eternal self-existence, should think again. Rather, the phrase describes God as one who is ever present; he is never absent; he is God with us. The opponent in the conflict is neither God nor is he with us. He is against us, as proven specifically by the vanishing act described earlier (12:17).
The interest of the tutoring angel centers on this “beast.” By the criteria of ontology (being) and character, he contrasts with God. And now the angel pinpoints his location and his eventual fate. First, “he is about to ascend from the bottomless pit [ek tēs abyssou] — from the abyss” (17:8). This information is a great help. It establishes the cosmic, non-human dimension of the beast. We shall be forgiven for thinking that the angel merely had a few more things to say about the beast from the sea (13:1), but we must now see images blur, blur in the interest of clarity. We have seen the abyss before, in relation to the star that fell from heaven to earth (9:1). We were even given a name for “the Angel of the Abyss,” in Hebrew “Abbadon,” in Greek “Apollyon” (and in English, “Destroyer”) (9:11). The abyss is his home base. In connection with the two witnesses, we read that “the beast from the abyss shall make war against them and win over them and kill them” (11:7). Neither Nero nor the Roman Empire nor some other “Roman” entity suffices for this feat. And indeed, the verbal element describing the ascent of the beast from the abyss is the same in both passages (11:7; 17:8).
Second, the outsize, ultimate character of this power is twice repeated. He “is about to ascend,” but he is also about “to go to destruction” (17:8). This is repeated twice: “to destruction he goes” (17:11). This, too, fits the story of the ultimate destroyer in the trumpet sequence. He is what he does, the Destroyer (9:1, 11). This is his persona in this book, as it is in the antecedent Old Testament poem: “you have destroyed your land, you have killed your people” (Isaiah 14:20). To capture the essence of Revelation’s depiction, we need to enhance the depiction with the right tenor in both places: he “is about to go to self-destruction” (17:8, 11).
We are now ready for the most particular and peculiar text in the angel’s show-and-tell.
the seven heads are seven mountains upon which the woman is seated. And they are seven kings. The five have fallen, the one is, the other has not yet come. And when he comes, he must remain a short while. And the beast that was and is not — is itself an eighth and it is also of the seven, and to destruction it goes (17:9-11, translation mine).
Notice how I have preserved the article for “the one who is” and “the other” who “has not yet come.” Who are they, this conspicuous twosome? I won’t say, but I’ll give a clue: Read Revelation 13 one more time. This twosome is important, but they are not as important as the beast, “itself an eighth…but also of the seven” (17:11). Quite a feat, isn’t it, to have an eighth (head) even though the beast only has seven; quite a feat to be “an eighth” but also in the warp and woof of the seven.
John has blurred things in order to make them clearer. What is clearer, is the Destroyer from the abyss and his ascent (9:1; 11:7; 17:8, 11), the one who was and is not and is to be present again, in his own subversive, perverse, and revelatory parousia.
The economic predation of Babylon is a subject we must leave for another day. When we scrutinize the background texts in the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel 28:12-19, we will discover that the wicked commerce of “Babylon” is not only predatory trade. It is “trading in slander.” As I have argued earlier, a broad conception is necessary if we wish to be fair-minded to the most harrowing deed on Babylon’s C.V. “And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been killed with violence on earth” (Revelation 18:24, translation). “Her” cannot by this criterion simply be the Roman Empire or some entity that is Roman.
The Rider on the White Horse
I will close with the rider on the white horse, another battle scene from the open heaven (19:11-16). How does he fight in this war (19:11)? What does it mean that he has a name that no one knows but him (19:12)? And the robe “dipped in blood” — whose blood is it (19:13)?
Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019
Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019
Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019
Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019
Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019
Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019
Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019
Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019
Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019
Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019
Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019
Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019
Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019
Timeout: “1,260 Days” and the Smoke Signals in Flyover Country, February 22, 2019
Revelation 13: “The Dragon’s Story,” February 26, 2019
Timeout: “And Its Number is 666,” February 28, 2019
God Reacts: The Three Angels’ Message, March 5, 2019
Timeout: “The Smoke of Their Torment,” March 8, 2019
Armageddon Retrospect, March 12, 2019
Timeout: Armageddon Prospect, March 15, 2019
Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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