October 14: Revelation 12:18-13:4

Revelation 12:18-13:10

The vision in chapter 12 had a three-part structure (cf. the previous notes); in chapter 13, it is a dual-vision, of a “beast” (qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea, and the Earth, respectively. These visions in chaps. 12-13 are clearly connected, but the precise relationship depends upon how one reads the short narrative statement in 12:18. There is a small but important textual variant in this verse:

“And he stood [e)sta/qh] upon the sand of the Sea.”
“And I stood [e)sta/qhn] upon the sand of the Sea.”

The first is the reading of Ë47 and the key uncials a A C, along with significant portion of the ancient versions (Latin/Vulgate, Armenian, Ethiopic, and the Harclean Syriac). The second has the support of uncials P 046 051, is the majority reading (i.e. of most minuscules), and the Coptic and Philoxenian Syriac versions (cf. Metzger/UBS, Textual Commentary [2d edition], p. 673). Based on this second (majority) reading, the seer simply is transferred to a different visionary location to observe the next vision. The first reading, however, provides a clearer transition from the prior vision, with the verb e)sta/qh (“he stood”) certainly referring to the Dragon (dra/kwn, “Fabulous Creature”) of chap. 12. This reading is to be preferred, based on the wide geographic distribution (in the versions), and its attestation in some of the earliest/best manuscripts. What does this mean for an interpretation of the vision?

In verse 17, following the failed attack of the Dragon/Snake on the Woman in the desert (cf. the previous note on the vv. 13-17 episode), it is said that the Dragon “went (away) from there to make war with the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed”, that is, on her other children (after Jesus), i.e. believers. Reading verse 18 as a continuation of v. 17, we have an image of where the Dragon went: namely, to the seashore (lit. “the sand of the sea”). We may also infer from this that he goes to the edge of the sea as part of his intended purpose—to make war on believers. In the second episode of the chap. 12 vision (vv. 7-12, cf. the prior note), the Dragon also makes war, but in heaven. There he has heavenly allies, Angelic beings (a&ggeloi, “Messengers”) fighting on his side. Similarly, on earth, even though these rebel Angels were thrown down with him, the Dragon also has earthly allies fighting on his side.

In this regard, it is worth noting the traditional use of Dragon/Serpent or ‘sea-monster’ imagery to describe wicked or hostile earthly rulers (Ezek 29:3-6; 32:2ff; Jer 51:34, etc). Particularly significant in relation to the visions of Revelation is the allusion in the Psalms of Solomon 2:29 (mid-1st century B.C.), often thought to be part of a description of the Roman general Pompey. Nero also was compared to a serpent (Sibylline Oracles 5:28-29; Plutarch Moralia 367F). The application of this sort of imagery to the Roman Empire likely informs the symbolism of the visions here. Cf. Koester, p. 559, and the works he cites.

The Dragon positions himself at the boundary between the land and the sea; we may interpret here the “sand” (a&mmo$) as a strip of territory between the Earth and Sea, allowing him to observe (and oversee) events in both locales. The first vision in chapter 13 is focused on the Sea.

Revelation 13:1

“And I saw a wild animal [qhri/on] stepping up out of the Sea, holding ten horns and seven heads, and upon his horns (were) ten strips bound round [diadh/mata], and upon his heads (were) name[s] of insult [blasfhmi/a] (to God).” (v. 1)

The vision involves a creature that comes out of the Sea. The word qhri/on, typically translated “beast”, more properly refers to a wild animal. It is a general term, but, as many wild animals are untamed and can be dangerous, the negative aspect is certainly in view here. Let us consider each of the components of this image.

First, it comes up out of the Sea (qa/lassa). In ancient thought, the sea often symbolized chaos and disorder, including the threat to life and existence. The water of the sea/ocean frequently stood as a vast boundary at the edge of the inhabited world. It could threaten human dwelling with tidal waves and flooding, and was often dangerous for those traveling it (by boat). It was dark, with unknown depths, home to many mysterious creatures, including any number of dangerous animals and large “monsters”, all of which were only ever partially visible. Even more significant is the image of water in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology. In the beginning, there was only a dark mass of water (Gen 1:2), out of which the universe proper took shape—as a sphere (or hemisphere) surrounded by water. Cosmological myths frequently involved the deity establishing the ordered world by subduing or defeating the Sea (i.e. the primordial waters). The Sea could be personified as a human deity or by fabulous mythic creatures, often Serpent-like in appearance. I will be discussing this further in an upcoming article in the “Ancient Parallels” series.

Also relevant to the imagery here in the vision is the fact that the Roman Empire owed much of its power to its control of the sea, both from a military and commercial standpoint. The book of Revelation draws upon both of these aspects. The Mediterranean, in particular, was the Roman sea (“our sea”, mare nostrum, cf. Caesar Gallic War 5.1.2; Koester, p. 580).

However, ultimately this scene of the animal coming up out of the sea is patterned after the vision in Daniel 7:2-8. There are two features of this sea-creature’s appearance described here in verse 1:

    • “ten horns” (ke/rata de/ka)—the horn of an animal was seen as a symbol of power, being frequently used of royalty, etc, in the Old Testament (and elsewhere, cf. the Messianic significance in Lk 1:69), but here the image comes specifically from the vision of the fourth beast in Daniel 7:7ff.
    • “seven heads” (kefalai/ e(pta/)—multi-headed (including seven-headed) creatures are familiar from Near Eastern and Greco-Roman tradition, such as the Typhon/Typhoeus monster (Hesiod Theogony 821ff; Plutarch Moralia 359E, 362F, etc).

These attributes match those of the Dragon (12:3), and clearly demonstrate the sea-creature’s close relationship to the evil Serpent-figure. Subsequently, in chapter 17, these heads and horns are interpreted as seven kings (also seven hills/mountains), and ten vassal rulers, respectively. Most commentators readily accept the imagery, with the explanation in 17:9-14, as a reference to the Roman Empire, even as the fourth beast of Daniel 7 was identified with Rome already in the 1st century A.D. (cf. 2/4 Esdras 12:11). This association is generally admitted, even by those who would insist on a future (modern-day) interpretation of the visions, leading to the theory of a new or “revived” Roman Empire in our own time, occasionally identified with the current European Union, etc; however, on the whole, these represent a highly questionable attempt to reinvent the ancient setting of the book. There are sounder ways of applying the imagery of the visions to the situation of believers in modern times, as will be discussed further on in this series of notes.

There are two other features associated with the horns and heads of this creature:

    • Upon the horns: “ten strips bound around (them)” (de/ka diadh/mata)—the translation “crowns” is somewhat misleading (and inaccurate), the diadh/ma more properly referring to a strip of cloth (such as silk) wrapped completely around the head. It was a sign of kingship, but was typically not worn by the Roman emperors. This detail also matches the description of the Dragon in 12:3.
    • Upon the heads: “name[s] of insult (to God)” (o)no/ma[ta] blasfhmi/a$)—there is textual uncertainty as to whether this is a single name or multiple names; in light of the parallel in 17:3 the plural is more likely. The word blasfhmi/a generally means “insult(s)”, but in the LXX and New Testament is typically used in the religious sense of an insult to God. The parallel here with the ‘diadems’ implies that these “names” are honorific (divine) titles which properly belong to God. Cf. further on verse 4.
Revelation 13:2

“And the wild animal which I saw was like a leopard [pa/rdali$], and his feet (were) as a bear’s, and his mouth (was) as a lion’s. And the Fabulous Creature gave to it his (own) power, and also his ruling-seat and (his) great e)cousi/a.”

The hybrid animal imagery, typical of such mythic creatures, is basically a combination of the attributes of the four beasts in Daniel 7. They all represent some of the fiercest and most powerful characteristics of earthly animals. Almost certainly there is also an intentional contrast with the animal-imagery in the throne visions of chapters 4 and 5. Especially important is the detail that the Fabulous Creature (‘Dragon’), whom the sea-creature so clearly resembles, gives to it his own evil power. That is to say, it has Satanic power, according to the mythic personification of the Dragon as the Evil One and embodiment of the forces of evil. This granting of power (du/nami$) gives to the wild animal a personal life and and ability beyond even that normally possessed by such a mythic creature. This power includes both (1) the Dragon’s own qro/no$ (“ruling seat”), and (2) e)cousi/a, a word difficult to translate, but generally signifying a person’s authority and ability to act. This description is of the greatest significance, for it means that, in addition to the creature as a symbol of earthly rule (i.e. kings and emperors), it also possesses the evil power that controls and dominates the current Age.

Revelation 13:3

“And one out of his heads (was) as having been slain unto death, and (yet) his strike of death was attended to [i.e. healed]. And the whole earth wondered, (following) behind th(is) wild animal…”

From the identification of the heads as kings (i.e. emperors, cf. 17:9ff), the statement in verse 3 implies that a king/emperor has died (or seemed to die, was close to death) after being struck by a sword, but then was restored to life. This may be interpreted several ways:

    • It is an historical allusion, most likely to Nero, who suffered a violent death (Suetonius Nero 49:3-4), and after which rumors persisted that had not died or had returned from the dead. Already in the first century, a number of people had claimed to be Nero (Tacitus Histories 2.8-9; Dio Cassius 66.19.3; Suetonius Nero 57; Koester, p. 571).
    • It symbolizes the rule of the Roman Empire, in which, with the (sometimes violent) death of each emperor, a new one rises to take his place, each considered to be a new Caesar and Augustus.
    • The detail here simply exemplifies the (apparent) miracle-working power possessed by the creature, by which he is able to enthrall the world and lead it astray (cp. 2 Thess 2:9-10).

The statement may well be an allusion to an early form of the Nero-legend, but, if so, it is used here for a very distinct purpose—namely, to establish a general parallel with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The verb sfa/gw (“slay”), often used in the context of ritual (i.e. sacrificial) slaughter, occurs almost exclusively in the book of Revelation (8 of 10 occurrences in the NT). In the throne-vision of chapter 5 (vv. 6, 9, 12) it is used of the Lamb (Jesus), even as it is here in chapter 13 (v. 8). Indeed, 5:6 has the identical expression “as having been slain” (w($ e)sfagme/non). Thus the apparent death and recovery of the head/king serves as an evil parody of Jesus’ death and resurrection, even as the coming (parousia) of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2 is an evil parody of the parousia of Jesus.

When it says that “the whole earth wondered”, it is presumably due to the (miraculous) recovery of the head/king, but also in that it reflects the amazing power of the creature taken as a whole. All throughout history the occurrence of miracles (whether real or false) has caught the attention of people, causing them to follow after the gifted leaders and wonder-workers who take advantage of such miracles. However, even without any supernatural aid, the public is apt to follow after powerful political and religious leaders. To follow “behind” or “in back of” (o)pi/sw) often signifies becoming a loyal and devoted disciple or ally. Here it is said that “the whole earth” became a loyal follower, a summary description that certainly would reflect the near-universal extent of Roman rule, i.e. of the whole inhabited earth (as known to people at the time).

Revelation 13:4

“…and they kissed toward [i.e. worshiped] the Fabulous Creature, (in) that he gave the e)cousi/a to the wild animal, and they (also) kissed toward the wild animal, saying, ‘Who is like th(is) wild animal, and who is able to make war with him?'”

In addition to following after the sea-creature, the world also worships the Fabulous Creature (Dragon), the verb proskune/w (lit. “kiss toward”) being the regular NT Greek idiom for the act of worship/veneration. It might be better to say that, in becoming loyal followers of the sea-creature, the people on earth actually are worshiping the Dragon, whether they are aware of it or not. Most commentators recognize here a thinly veiled reference to the Imperial cult, well established in Asia Minor by the end of the 1st century A.D., with temples and ritual honoring the emperor, alongside other deities. Beginning with Augustus, and thereafter, the emperor was considered to be divine, referred to as both “god” and “son of god”, along with other divine (and semi-divine) titles—”lord, master, savior”, etc. A primary purpose of the Imperial religion was to establish and affirm loyalty to the Empire (and its administration), especially in the provinces. In Asia Minor, at some of the very cities addressed in the book of Revelation, the Imperial cult had a prominent position. Already in 29 B.C., a major provincial temple to Augustus and the goddess Roma (personification of Rome) was built at Pergamum, with similar kinds of temples at Ephesus and Smyrna, etc, in the years and decades following (cf. Koester, p. 582). That this Imperial worship was considered to be evil and “Satanic” by the visionary/author of Revelation is clear enough, both here and throughout the book. Indeed, Pergamum, a major site of the cult, is described as the place “where the ruling-seat of the Satan (is)” and “where the Satan puts down house [i.e. dwells]” (2:13).

Interestingly, there is no act of overt religious worship described in v. 4; rather, what is expressed is more a general attitude by the people, revealing an underlying adoration that exalts the creature in a manner that should be reserved for God. The question “Who is like th(is) wild animal?” resembles traditional expressions praising God, such as in Exodus 15:11; 1 Kings 8:23; Psalm 35:10; 71:19; 113:5, etc. Here there may also be an allusion to Ezek 27:32, foreshadowing the parodic lament in chapter 18. The idea that no one was like the emperor is a common part of the tradition panegyric honoring him; note, for example, the declaration regarding Nero calling him “Our Apollo, our Augustus… no one is victorious (over) you!” (Dio Cassius Roman History 62.20.5). This leads to a main reason for the creature being unsurpassed by all others—that he is invincible in battle: “Who is able to make war with you?”. The military success of the Roman Empire in the 1st century scarcely requires comment. Apart from some difficulties (and defeats) at the furthest borders, Roman control over the provinces was largely unchallenged. The rebellion in Judea (66-70 A.D.) was brutally crushed, along with a number of similar uprisings. Such success and ability to conquer, in the popular mind, would seem to be a sure sign of divine power and blessing at work.

The remainder of this vision (vv. 5-10) will be studied in the next daily note.

References marked as “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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