Sabbath school commentary for discussion alongside the Adult Bible Study Guide for May 20, 2023.
Editor’s note: To accompany the Sabbath school’s focus this quarter on the three angels’ messages, Spectrum is publishing “Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages,” a serialized in-depth focus on Revelation by Sigve Tonstad.
Then another angel, a second, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” (Rev. 14:8)
“Babylon the great!” (Rev. 14:8a)
The second angel speaks as though Babylon is a familiar entity; indeed, as though it is easily known. And it could be, at least most critical scholars think so. “Babylon is a prophetic name for Rome.” Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is committed to this view, and yet she warns that Babylon “must not be reduced to a simple code or steno-symbol for Rome since John uses the name ‘Babylon’ to evoke a whole range of scriptural meanings.” With respect to a Roman imperial referent, she finds in Revelation a divine and liberating power exposing and defeating a demonic and death-dealing power. The empire aspires to divinity and demands homage in order to sustain itself. Toward this end, the imperial cult was Rome’s instrument to bring about devotion and loyalty to the state. S. R. F. Price contends that “like the cults of the traditional gods, it created a relationship between subject and ruler,” connecting the emperor with the gods. The relationship between “faith” and “state” had a structuring function: it “imposed a definition upon the world.” This system enabled the empire to project piety and religious liberty, with the emperor acting as the divinely appointed intermediary between heaven and earth. The mandatory sacrifices in the imperial cult signified loyalty to the state.
The Roman imperial reading of Revelation will not become irrelevant if we go beyond it—to take into consideration broader and deeper biblical threads or by making other meanings primary. A more ominous entity emerges in the angel’s charge that Babylon is guilty of prostitution [porneia] (Rev. 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3; 19:2). The ramifications of this word impact the meaning. Babylon is in the Old Testament associated with idolatry, self-aggrandizement, oppression, and cruelty (Isa. 21:1-9; 41:1-15; 50:1-51:64). Prostitution, on the other hand, is Israel’s sin: it describes unfaithfulness and waywardness in the community of faith (Isa. 1:21; Jer. 2:20; 3:2, 9; 13:27; Ezek. 16:15, 22, 33, 34, 36, 41; 23:7-35; Hos. 9:1).
Isaiah: How the faithful city has become a prostitute! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers! (Isa. 1:21)
Jeremiah: For long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds, and you said, “I will not serve!” On every high hill and under every green tree you sprawled and played the whore. (Jer. 2:20)
Ezekiel: But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by. (Ezek. 16:15)
Hosea: Do not rejoice, O Israel! Do not exult as other nations do; for you have played the whore, departing from your God. You have loved a prostitute’s pay on all threshing floors. (Hos. 9:1)
The foregoing texts describe Israel, once “the faithful city” but now a prostitute! (Isa. 1:21). When this term appears in relation to Babylon in Revelation (Rev. 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3; 19:2), readers must prepare for a similar loss of innocence. Imperial Rome has no history as “the faithful city.” For this concept, Revelation must have a different referent in mind; Rome is not a good match. This possibility strengthens by four features of Revelation’s Babylon-construct.
First, the leading antagonist in the story is the Dragon. Is he, ultimately, Babylon’s Founding Father? “War burst forth in heaven, Michael and his angels had to fight against the dragon,” Revelation says about the beginning of the problem (Rev. 12:7). “The dragon and his angels fought, but they were not strong enough, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven” (Rev. 12:8). The figure who initiated the war is identified by five aliases in rapid succession: he is “that Ancient Serpent, who is called the Slanderer (diabolos) and the Adversary (ho satanas), the Deceiver of the whole world.” John says that “he was thrown down [eblēthē] to the earth, and his angels were thrown down [eblēthēsan] with him” (12:9).
This, as noted, is Ground Zero in Revelation’s story. To the list of names describing the antagonist, we should add the term Babylon on the rationale that Isaiah’s poem of a fallen illustrious star echoes in Revelation’s account of the war in heaven (Isa. 14:12-20). Crucially, Isaiah’s poem has Babylon as its subject. “When the LORD has given you rest from your pain and turmoil and the hard service with which you were made to serve, you will take up this funeral song against the king of Babylon,” he says (Isa. 14:3-4). Whatever Babylon there might be in earthly affairs—and we know that there was a Babylon in history—“Babylon” will also encompass a non-human, cosmic reality (Isa. 14:12-14).
This is Babylon in the ultimate sense, beginning primordially as a non-human reality and persisting as the instigator and promoter of evil. The Brilliant Star became an angel fallen, “brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit” (Isa. 14:15) or, as Revelation puts it, “thrown down [eblēthē] to the earth, and his angels . . . thrown down [eblēthēsan] with him” (Rev. 12:9; 9-1-11).
Second, the tentacles of Babylon fan out, penetrating deeply into earthly reality. “So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child,” John writes (Rev. 12:13). “The woman” is the believing community. It is now the target of the fallen star’s resentment and wiles. The first skirmish ends badly for the Dragon: “the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time” (12:14).
The Dragon is frustrated (12:15-16). His mood worsens; his determination gets fiercer. John says that “the Dragon was furious with the woman, and went away to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God as revealed by the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). The disclosure that the Dragon “went away” has the connotation of absence—a vanishing act—a strategy of concealment instead of confrontation. Now, in the vanished state, the fallen star will commission surrogates to help him. The first to appear is a beast from the sea (13:1-10) and then, in a separate scene, a beast from the earth (13:11-18). By means of deceit and violence, these two beasts have a huge impact. It is not wrong to say that where direct confrontation failed, concealment succeeds (Rev. 13:3-4, 7-8; 13:12-14). Crucially, and not to be missed, the two beasts are strikingly represented not only as contrasts to “the witness of Jesus” (Rev. 12:17) but as copies. The beast from the sea has a wound inflicted by violence just as the Lamb (Rev. 13:3; cf. 5:6), and the beast from the earth looks like a lamb (13:11), the preferred description of Jesus (Rev. 5:6, 8, 12, 13; 6:1; 7:9, 17; 14:2, 10; 15:3; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22, 23, 27; 22:1, 3). What does this mean? It means that while the two beasts represent the Dragon and its interests, they pose as representatives of God. That is, they represent the Dragon in the guise of representing God! The cry of the second angel, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great!” points to this composite structure (Rev. 14:8). It is fallen as the Brilliant Star is fallen, and it is fallen as a failed and deceitful endeavor.
Third, the sea beast is a composite of the four beasts in Daniel’s vision of the world empires (Rev. 13:2; Dan. 7:1-7). While characteristics of the fourth beast in Daniel are most prominent (Rev. 13:4-8; Dan. 7:7-8, 19-25), its composite nature gives it a representative, trans-historical character. Revelation’s use of Daniel in its representation of the sea beast courts contact with human history and imperial realities, including Roman imperial reality. Nevertheless, it should be seen as the description of a phenomenon and not as a call to engage in labeling. Daniel’s fourth empire is said to be “different from all the beasts that had preceded it” (Dan. 7:7; cf. also 7:19, 23, 24), delineating differences in the form of slander, persecution of believers, and an illicit religious aspiration: “he shall speak words against the Most High, shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law” (Dan. 7:25). This is actualized in the sea beast: “it opened its mouth to utter slander against God, slandering his Name and his dwelling” (Rev. 13:5-6); “it was commissioned to make war on the saints and to win over them . . . and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it” (Rev. 13:7-8). Again, therefore, when the second angel’s message is heard as God’s reaction to the Dragon’s action, the proclamation that Babylon is fallen has this composite construct in its sight (14:8).
Fourth, the most unsettling representation of Babylon and the longest and most detailed exposé covers a full two chapters in Revelation (17:1-18:24). It begins by an angel guide taking John into a desert to see the judgment on the prostitute (Rev. 17:1). A prostitute, as noted, refers to a woman found to be unfaithful, recalling the prophetic indictment of Israel at many junctures in its history (Isa. 1:21; Jer. 2:20; 3:2, 9; 13:27; Ezek. 16:15, 22, 33, 34, 36, 41; 23:7-35; Hos. 9:1). What will the angel show him? “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” (Rev. 17:3). The location and sight are captured in three words: a wilderness, a woman, and a scarlet beast. The three nouns lack the definite article, but they are not thereby de novo creations of the author. Wilderness recalls the wilderness into which the woman sought refuge when she was fleeing from the dragon (12:13-16). And a scarlet beast? The scarlet beast is color coded to match the color of the dragon that pursued the woman in the wilderness (17:3; 12:3). Readers do not need to despair, especially when the angel tells John, “I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast carrying her, the one having seven heads and ten horns” (17:7).
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)
Notice, first, that this text posits a contrast at the level of ontology. The beast in the wilderness scene “was and is not and is to come” (Rev. 17:8). It is impossible to read this without relating it to God, who is described as the One “who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4, 8; 4:8). The characterization of the beast suggests similarity and difference, a similarity that is aspirational (what he would like to be) and a difference that fits the notion of unmasking (what he is not). As aspiration, the characterization echoes the non-human figure in Isaiah’s poem about the Brilliant Star: “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14).
Notice, next, how the phrase lays out a story in time: “it was and is not and is to come” (Rev. 17:8, 11). The expression covers past, present, and future. “Is not,” the term in the present tense, specifies time that temporally encompasses John’s time.
Notice, again, how this phrase and a phrase complementing it tell a story in space: “it was and is not and is to come,” and it “was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit” (17:8). The spatial parameters are twofold. On the one hand, the simplest phrase tells a story running from presence to absence to presence: “it was (present) and is not (present) and is to be present (again).” Indeed, the third member of the phrase uses the verb parestai, from pareimi, with the primary meaning, “to be present.” This verb is the opposite of the verb used to depict the dragon in his most angry and determined state and the strategy he adopted: “the dragon was furious with the woman and went away (apēlthen, from aperchomai)” (12:17). On this logic, the dragon who left or went away is to return and be present again. We are also told that the beast “was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit” (Rev. 17:8). This is telling because “the bottomless pit” (abyssos) is already set apart as the home base of the luminous star that fell from heaven to earth in the trumpet sequence. Once fallen, it was given “the key to the bottomless pit” (9:1-2; cf. 11:7; 20:1-3).
Notice, finally, the ending of the story told. The beast will “go to destruction” (17:8, 11). The word is apōleian, a noun that can denote “the destruction that one causes” and “the destruction that one experiences” (BDAG 1057). The semantic range of the term captures the character of the beast and its impact on the world: the one going to destruction is destruction. Here, too, we have connections to the fallen star of the fifth trumpet and Isaiah’s poem. In the former, the fallen star wreaks havoc in the world as he takes up residence in “the bottomless pit,” and he is named: “his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon” (Rev. 9:11). Apollyon is the perfect participle of the verb apollymi, “to destroy,” and the name (what he is) a precise depiction of what he does. In Isaiah’s poem ends in the lament that “you have destroyed (apōlesas, from apollyō) your land, you have killed (apekteinas) your people” (Isa. 14:20). This figure will “go to destruction,” and he will “go to destruction,” as noted, because he is destruction.
The character of this beast is captured succinctly by Ernst Lohmeyer in a comment unique for its perception and clarity.
It has not been demonstrated that the beast “that was and is not and is to come” is historically determined and should be understood in a historical sense. It “ascends from the bottomless pit” and “goes to destruction.” These are mythical expressions regarding a God-hating demonic power, and the words “it was and is not and is to come” read like a demonic mimicking of the divine title: “who was and who is and who is to come
It follows that the “surprise” of those who “are not written in the Book of Life” makes it necessary to conclude in favor of a satanic and not a political power. For this reason, it lies close at hand to attempt to compass all the visionary sketches within a framework of the demonic myth and explain them on that basis.
The terms are telling: a God-hating demonic power, a demonic mimicking, a satanic and not a political power. And the woman sitting on the beast? She must have some relation, at least, to the woman that was earlier fleeing from the Dragon. At some point, she must have been caught, cornered, and seduced. John says that “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of the prostitutes and of the earth’s abominations.’” He adds that “the woman was drunk with the blood of the believers and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (Rev. 17:4-6a). This leads to the mind-numbing scenario that the wilderness, once a place of protection, is the place of seduction; the woman fleeing the dragon is cooperating with him, herself a seducer; the community that used to speak well of God is now dishing out slander; the persecuted woman has become a woman persecuting (17:4-6); and the once faithful woman is now a prostitute! John’s sense of shock conveys the implausibility of the spectacle. “I was extremely horrified (ethaumasa) with a great horror (thauma mega) when I saw her” (17:6b).
Notes & References:
 Elisabeth Schüssler, Revelation: Vision of A Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 89
 Schüssler Fiorenza, Vision of A Just World, 89.
 Schüssler Fiorenza, Vision of A Just World, 120.
 S.R.F. Price, Ritual and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), xxv.
 Rome was not concerned about people’s “beliefs” or their gods, or about strict standards of morality and ethics. It was primarily concerned about the stability of the empire.
 See Tonstad, Revelation, 187-199.
 Tonstad, Revelation, 187-188.
 Ernst Lohmeyer, Die Offenbarung des Johannes (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1926), 142.
Previously in this series:
The First Angel’s Message: Part 3 (May 10, 2023).
The First Angel’s Message: Part 2 (April 26, 2023).
The First Angel’s Message: Part 1 (April 20, 2023).
The Second Rule of Revelation: Pay Attention to Old Testament Usage (April 12, 2023).
The First Rule of Revelation: Be a Re-Reader (April 5, 2023).
Adventist Identity and the Three Angels’ Messages: Part 1 (March 29, 2023).
Sigve Tonstad is an assistant professor in the School of Medicine and research professor in the School of Religion at Loma Lind University. Born and raised in Norway, he completed a BA in theology at Middle East College in Lebanon and Andrews University (1974), his MD from Loma Linda University (1979), an MA in biblical studies at LLU (1990), and a PhD in New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews (2005).
Title image: Beatus of Liébana, Las Huelgas Apocalypse, 1220 (public domain).
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