An intriguing aspect of the book of Revelation, following a common Apocalyptic literary model, is the way that visions develop one out of the other, often overlapping in detail and outlook, restating the same message in different and creative ways. In the first half of the book, the visions, for the most part, were relatively straightforward, expressed either in terms of: (a) scenes of worship and ritual in Heaven, or (b) vivid pictures of the Judgment which is coming upon the earth. While these aspects continue in the remainder of the book, they are presented within a more complex visionary narrative. The main theme of this narrative may be summarized as: conflict between the people of God and the wicked nations. Expressed in more traditional dualistic terms, we might better say—conflict between the people of God and the peoples/nations of Satan. This is the primary matrix in which nearly all of chapters 12-19 are set. The central theme of conflict was present throughout the opening chapters, but only begins to take a definite literary/narrative shape in chapter 11. Now in chapters 12 and 13, it is woven out in a visionary tableau, which establishes: (1) the history of the conflict (chap 12), and (2) the current manifestation in the time of distress (chap 13).
Chapter 12 has a fairly straightforward (and symmetric/chiastic) structure, which I would outline as follows:
The outer portions (vv. 1-6, 13-17) refer to conflict on earth, in which a mythical dragon-being attacks a woman and her children. The inner section (vv. 7-12) narrates a parallel conflict in heaven, in which the dragon is understood as a heavenly being. The main difference is that the conflict in heaven ends in victory, while the conflict on earth remains to be fought (chap. 13).
The opening words establish a new kind of vision:
“And a great sign [shmei=on] was seen in the heaven…”
The word shmei=on occurs only in the second half of the book (chapters 12-19, seven times). This marks the distinctive character of these visions, different from those in the preceding chapters. Even though the sign appears in heaven, what it describes and narrates takes place on earth. Actually, two signs appear, indicating the conflict which will take place between the two (symbolic) figures:
- A Woman
- cast about [i.e. clothed/draped] with the sun
- down under her feet (is) the moon
- a crown of twelve stars upon her head
- she holds a child in her stomach [i.e. is pregnant]
- A Great Fabulous (Serpent)
- the color of red
- having seven heads and seven horns
- (royal cloth) bound around each of the seven heads
- his tail drags down a third of the stars to the earth
- A Woman
The point of conflict between the two clearly involves the child she is bearing:
I have kept the translation above excessively literal, to make clear the verbal relationship between the child (“product/offspring”, te/knon) and the act of giving birth (“produce”, ti/ktw). The point is that the woman is in the process of bringing forth a child, and the ‘dragon’ stands by waiting during it all. The conflict between woman and dragon begins (in earnest) once the child is born. The reason is made clear in verse 5, where the special nature of the child is described:
“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”
The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:
The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.
“And the woman fled into the desolate (land), where she holds a place there having been made ready from God, (so) that there they might nourish her for a thousand two-hundred (and) sixty days.”
This does not correspond with anything in the Gospel narratives per se; rather, like many of the visions in the book of Revelation, it represents a blending of elements:
- The woman fleeing from attack—believers fleeing from persecution (cf. below)
- The desert location—traditionally the place where people encounter God, experiencing suffering and deprivation along the way
- The place “made ready”—Messianic language from Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1
- A place of refuge coming from God—The righteous/believers find security and salvation from God alone
- The strengthening of the woman—a time of growth and testing for the people of God
- The time frame of 1,260 days (= 3½ years)—symbolic designation of the end-time period of distress
The reference to the 1,260 days is perhaps a bit misleading, as though there are two periods of 3½ years being referenced. The book of Revelation, it would seem, conceives of a single 3½-year period which represents the time of suffering and distress which is to come upon the world at the end-time Judgment. The motif of 3½ years, expressed variously in the book, ultimately comes from Daniel (7:25; 9:27; 12:7). The woman is in the desert, ready for the time of distress, but the 1,260 days themselves do not take place until verse 14, after the vision of heavenly warfare in vv. 7-12. If we are to attempt an historical approximation, it would be as follows:
Symbols of the Woman, Child, and Dragon
Like nearly all of the visionary figures in the book of Revelation, the Woman (gunh/), Child (te/knon), and Fabulous Serpent (dra/kwn), all function as symbols with a wider meaning than a simple identification with specific/historical personages. I would suggest the following line of interpretation:
- Woman—the people of God, in both a heavenly and earthly aspect; that is to say, as a figure, it has a broader meaning than “Israel” or even “believers in Christ”
- Child—this child, the product/offspring of the people of God, has a two-fold meaning:
(1) the (first) male son—Jesus Christ, in his human/earthly life
(2) the other children (v. 17)—Believers in Christ
- Dragon/Serpent—the forces/powers of evil and wickedness; like the Woman (people of God), it has both heavenly and earthly aspects.
A bit more perhaps should be said regarding the dra/kwn, a word typically rendered by the transliteration in English as “dragon”, but which more properly refers to a creature with a fabulous/fascinating appearance; it is usually understood as a (hybrid) creature resembling a serpent. Various forms of this sort of creature are attested in myths and legends worldwide. The multi-headed serpent also appears in many traditions, but is especially familiar to Greek readers from writings such as Apollonius’ Argonautika 4.153ff. The most famous such monster is the Typhon/Typhoeus (Hesiod Theogony 821ff; Plutarch Moralia 359E, 362F, etc); though more relevant to the context here in the book of Revelation is the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545).
Legendary serpent-creatures are also mentioned in the Old Testament, based on ancient Near Eastern concepts and terminology—cf. Psalm 73:13-14; Job 7:12; 26:13; 41:1; Isa 27:1; Ezek 32:2; Jer 51:34. They did not represent evil as such; rather, they tended to symbolize chaos and disorder, including the destruction connected with warfare (e.g., Jer 51:34; Psalms of Solomon 2:25; Sibylline Oracles 5:29). The Jewish and early Christian association of the serpent/dragon with evil, was largely due to the role of the snake/serpent in the Creation narrative (Genesis 3), acting as one who tempts people to sin and disobedience against God. In the vision of the warfare in Heaven (vv. 7-12), the book of Revelation specifically identifies the dra/kwn with the figure of Satan (i.e., the Devil); a similar identification is made in 20:2. The Genesis narrative also refers to a conflict between the serpent and the woman (and her children), 3:15, which may well be in view here in chap. 12.