October 13: Revelation 12:13-17

Revelation 12:13-17

“And when the Fabulous (Creature) saw that he was thrown (down) onto the earth, he pursued the (same) Woman who (had) produced the male (child). And the two wings of a great eagle were given to the woman, (so) that she might take wing [i.e. fly] into the desolate land, into her place (in) which she will be nourished there—for a time, times, and half a time—(away) from the face of the Snake.” (vv. 13-14)

This episode continues the conflict between the “Fabulous Creature” (dra/kwn) and the Woman from vv. 1-6. As I discussed in the prior note on that passage, the Woman should be understood as representing the People of God, in both a heavenly and earthly aspect. Similarly, the Dragon embodies the forces/powers of evil and wickedness; it, too, has both heavenly and earthly aspects. This dual-aspect of the symbolism—heavenly and earthly—is the key to understanding this passage; it also reflects the overall eschatological worldview of the book as a whole. This is similar, in many respects, to the outlook of the Community of the Qumran texts, which viewed itself as the “holy ones” on earth, in conjunction with the “Holy Ones” in heaven (i.e. Michael and the Angels). The two dimensions existed and functioned in tandem, on parallel levels, but would come to be more properly united, working and acting together, at the end time. The War Scroll (1QM) is perhaps the best example of this eschatological expectation, whether realized figuratively or as a concrete historical event, as the Community and Angelic forces join together in a war between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness”. Revelation 12 evinces a similar sort of military imagery, with the forces of evil (the Dragon) “making war” against the People of God.

While the three episodes of chapter 12 make up a three-part narrative, it is also possible to view vv. 7-17 as a kind of unit, with a parallel/chiastic structure:

    • Dragon makes war on the People of God (Angels) in heaven (vv. 7)
      • He is unable to prevail in heaven (v. 8)
        • He is thrown down to earth (v. 9)
          • Voice sounding the victory of the Kingdom of God (vv. 10-12)
        • Conflict on earth with the Woman (vv. 13ff)
      • He is unable to prevail on earth (v. 16)
    • Dragon makes war on the People of God (Believers) on earth (v. 17)
Revelation 12:13 (translation above)

In the first episode, the Dragon stands close by, threatening the Woman and waiting to devour her (first-born) male child (v. 4). The child, clearly to be identified with Jesus Christ, was “seized” and taken up to God (i.e. the resurrection/ascension/exaltation of Jesus) away from the Dragon’s grasp. Now the monster is only able to go after the Woman, and he pursues her. This verb (diw/kw) is often used in the sense of pursuing someone with hostile intent, and so came to be a technical term for the persecution of believers. While the Woman clearly has a heavenly aspect (v. 1), as noted above, it is the earthly aspect that is primarily emphasized in this vision. As the People of God, the Woman represents Israel, but should not be limited to such an identification. In the first episode, representing the period of Jesus’ birth and earthly life, it would be proper to understand the Woman as the People of God according to the Old Covenant (cf. the Lukan Infancy narratives for examples of this emphasis). Here, however, the vision is describing the period after Jesus’ resurrection; and yet, believers in Christ are not specifically mentioned until the end of the episode (v. 17). It is, perhaps, best to see the Woman here as representing the People of God according to the New Covenant, understood at first (vv. 13-16) in a general sense.

Revelation 12:14 (translation above)

There are three key motifs in this verse:

    • the wings of an eagle—In Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the wings of an eagle (Gk. a)eto/$) are used to symbolize the salvation and protection God provides for his people (cf. Exod 19:4; Deut 32:10-12; also Isa 40:31; Psalm 103:5, etc). In particular, the Exodus/Wilderness setting of Exod 19:4 and Deut 32:10ff is probably in view here. The passive form of e)do/qhsan (“was given”) is an example of the “divine passive”, where God is the implied actor. The parallel in Rev 17:3 would suggest that the great bird-image here essentially refers to the Spirit.
    • flight into the desert—In Israelite/Jewish history and tradition, the desert (Gk. e&rhmo$, “desolate [land]”) is a place to which one flees for safety and protection. In the case of God’s people, alone in the desert, they must then rely entirely upon God (YHWH) himself for care and sustenance. The most prominent example, of course, is the wilderness wanderings of Israel (Exodus 16ff; Deut 32:10ff, etc); but there are other notable traditions involving Hagar/Ishmael (Gen 16:1-13; 21:8-19), Moses (Exod 2:15-3:1), David (1 Sam 23:25), and Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-7; 19:4-8). Jesus was similarly sustained in the desert, according to the early Gospel tradition in Mark 1:12-13 par; and there is also the famous tradition of the Flight to Egypt in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2:13-15). From such imagery developed the religious-spiritual tradition of the desert as the place where a person encounters the presence of God (Isa 40:3ff; Hos 2:14, etc).
    • “time, times, and half a time” —This expression comes from the book of Daniel (Dan 7:25; 12:7), and is another way of referring to the 3½ years that marks the end-time period of distress. The orientation of the book of Revelation suggests that believers were living at the very beginning or onset of this period, during which they would endure intense persecution (cf. below).

It is likely that the “place” (to/po$) the Woman finds (with God) in the desert is meant to echo the “place” (to/po$) that the Dragon (Satan and the other Angels) loses in heaven (v. 8).

Revelation 12:15-16

“And the Snake cast out of his mouth, in back of [i.e. after] the Woman, water as a (great) river, (so) that he might make her (to be) carried (away) by the river. And the Earth ran to the cry (of) the Woman and opened up her mouth, and drank down the river which the Fabulous (Creature) cast out of his mouth.”

This vision-narrative here is replete with a closely connected set of mythological images. In addition to the figures of the Woman and Dragon, the Earth (gh=) is personified as well. Like the Woman and Dragon, it too has a kind of dual aspect. Note—

1. There is a close affinity between Earth and the Woman. As noted above, here the Woman represents the People of God on earth—that is, human believers (cf. below). Also the word gh= is grammatically feminine, and so Earth is personified as a woman. Traditionally, such mythic-cosmological personifications of Earth have a strong fertility component—i.e. the Earth as a Mother, giving birth to life on earth. In the vision, the Woman is also principally a mother, so it is quite natural that the personified Earth would seek to help her.

2. At the same time, there is also a kind of parallel between the Earth and the Dragon, which foreshadows the following visions in chapter 13 (cf. the prior warning in v. 12). Just as the Dragon opens its mouth (sto/ma) to blast out water, so also the Earth opens her mouth (sto/ma) to contain it. The Dragon lost its place in Heaven, and so it now forced to reside on the Earth; many Snake/Serpent traditions in ancient myth have a strong chthonic aspect—i.e., tying it to pattern of earthly/material existence, the boundaries of the created order, etc.

The matrix of images Earth-Water-River here also serves as an important symbol with several levels of meaning:

    • The natural motif related to rivers in the desert (including many of the rivers in Palestine)—dry river beds (wadis) which are filled suddenly with water by powerful rain-torrents. This is generally a positive image of life and sustenance (Psalm 105:41; Isa 43:19), but it could also signify a time of great danger (i.e. for someone standing in/near the river-bed).
    • In the Exodus traditions, during the wanderings in the desert, God provided for Israel with water-streams that came out of the rock (Exod 17:6; Psalm 78:16). Here we have the reverse image of the earth (i.e. the desert ‘rocks’) helping the people of God by taking back in the waters.
    • Also in the wilderness period traditions, we have the episode of the Korah rebellion, in which the earth “opened up” to swallow the wicked rebels (Num 16:32-34). Here the earth responds similarly to swallow up the evil waters of the Dragon; implicit is the idea that the earth (like all of creation) responds to the will and command of God (cf. Wisdom 16:17ff; 19:6; Koester, p. 554).

As in vv. 13-14, here the Fabulous Creature or Dragon (dra/kwn, v. 16) is identified as a great Snake (o&fi$, v. 15), reflecting both: (1) a snake-like appearance, and (2) the Serpent of Genesis 3 as a personification/manifestation of the Evil One (Satan/Devil), as the earlier aside in v. 9 makes clear. The name Dia/bolo$ (i.e. Devil) is derived from the verb ba/llw (“throw, cast”), literally referring to one who “throws over” accusations/insults, or who “casts (evil) throughout”. Here the Dragon/Snake is said to “cast” (e&balen, from ba/llw) out the destructive waters against the Woman from its mouth.

Revelation 12:17

“And (so) the Fabulous (Creature) was in anger about the Woman, and went from (there) to make war with the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed, the (one)s keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God and holding the witness of Yeshua.”

Unable to destroy the Woman, the Dragon goes away to focus on attacking her children. This is the first we hear in the vision of any other children by the Woman. It is to be inferred that, after the birth of her (first) male child (Jesus), she gave birth to other children, here expressed as “the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed”. How are we to understand this distinction between the Dragon’s attack on the Woman, and that against her remaining children? Are the Woman and her Children two different figures or aspects of the same basic image. On the one hand, they are different:

    • 1st Episode: Woman = People of God under the Old Covenant
      • Jesus (the Messiah) is the male child born of her
    • 2nd Episode: Woman = People of God under the New Covenant
      • Believers in Christ are the children born of her

On the other hand, we may see it as the same image—i.e., the Woman represents the People of God on earth, under the New Covenant, which is equal to all believers in Christ. The specific expression “the remainder of her seed” probably means simply all other children after Jesus, distinguishing believers from Jesus himself. Conceivably, the idea of “remaining” could also imply believers who are still alive after the attack on the Woman (i.e. an initial period of persecution). These children of the Woman are here defined as believers, by two phrases, describing them as those:

    • “keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God” and
    • “holding the witness of Yeshua”

With regard to the first phrase, I have left the plural noun e)ntolai/ untranslated above. Typically it is translated as “commandments”, but literally the word e)ntolh/ refers to something (a duty, charge, etc) which is placed on someone to complete. The only other occurrence of the word in the book of Revelation is at 14:12, where the same phrase is used. The expression “the e)ntolai/ of God” here may be understood one of three ways:

    • It refers to the commands, precepts, etc, of the Old Testament Law (Torah), either in its full sense or as it might be applied to Christians.
    • It is equivalent to Paul’s expression “law of God” (no/mo$ qeou=, Rom 7:22, 25; 1 Cor 9:21), which I take to mean the will of God in the broader sense. Paul’s also uses the phrase “keeping watch over the e)ntolai/ of God” in 1 Cor 7:19, where “e)ntolai/ of God” probably has the same meaning as “law of God”.
    • It is being used in the Johannine sense, referring to the two-fold command—(1) true faith in Christ and (2) Christ-like love for fellow believers—expressed by the use of e)ntolh/ throughout the Gospel and Letters (see esp. 1 Jn 3:23-24).

In my view, the second option above best fits the context here in the book of Revelation. By “commands of God” (or the Pauline equivalent “law of God”), early Christians would surely have understood the idea of believers fulfilling the will of God by following the example and teaching of Jesus. The Pauline and Johannine emphasis on the Spirit as the source of guidance and teaching for believers in this regard is generally absent from the book of Revelation (but note the wording in 2:7 etc). Some commentators would see the reference to the “commands of God” here as an indication that Jewish Christians were specifically in view, but I find this to be unlikely. Throughout the book of Revelation, images and motifs from Israelite/Jewish tradition are consistently applied to believers—that is, all believers—in a general sense.

The second descriptive phrase in v. 17 is “the ones holding the witness of Yeshua”. The genitive could be understood as subjective (Jesus is giving the witness) or objective (it is witness about Jesus). In Rev 1:2, it is subjective, meaning that the witness/message comes from Jesus; however, elsewhere in the book, the idea of believers functioning as witnesses tends to dominate. Clearly, both concepts are related, and I would argue that we should give weight to them both here as well. The close connection between Jesus and believers as children of the Woman makes this all the more valid. In giving witness of the Gospel (about Jesus), believers follow the example of Jesus himself in giving witness. The verb e&xw should be translated literally (and concretely) as “hold”, conveying the idea of the need to hold firmly to the Gospel during the time of distress, parallel to the verb thre/w (“keep watch [over]”).

Some commentators would include the short sentence in 12:18 (“And he stood upon the sand of the Sea”) as part of the vision in chapter 12; however, it is best considered as part of the vision that follows in chapter 13. In many way, it is serves as a transition between the two visions, joining together the images of Earth and Sea (as in v. 12). I will discuss verse 18, together with the first portion of chapter 13 (vv. 1-10) in the next daily note.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2019EschatologyNT_header1a.png