Summary of the Two Visions in Rev 13:1-18
As a way of summarizing the results of the study (in these notes) on the visions of Revelation 13, we will attempt to give greater clarity to the symbolic figures of the Dragon, Sea-creature, and Earth-creature, and the relationship between the three—how the author/visionary likely understood them and what they would have meant to the first readers of the book.
Like nearly all of the symbols in the book of Revelation, these are complex and function at different levels of meaning, being drawn from multiple strands of tradition. I would isolate four aspects, or sources, in particular.
Mythological. There can be no real doubt that the figures of the Dragon and the creature from the Sea are drawn from ancient Near Eastern myth—specifically, tales of a great conflict between God and the Sea. This is a cosmological myth, meaning that it relates to the creation of the universe and the establishment of the current created order. The personified Sea represents the primordial waters, a dark and chaotic mass, which, according to the basic ancient Near Eastern cosmology, was the original state of the universe prior to the establishment of the created order by the Deity (cp. Genesis 1:2, etc). The subduing and defeat of the Sea was, in many ways, the central event of establishing order, and, with it, the Deity’s control over the life-giving waters. There are vestiges of this common cosmological myth throughout the Old Testament, but only two more or less direct allusions, in Psalm 74:13-14 and Isa 27:1 (cf. also Job 26:13) The form-pattern of the Dragon and Sea-creature in Revelation 12-13, the Serpent-figure with seven heads, is similarly found in a variety of ancient myths, most notably in the Canaanite Baal Epic—the Sea’s ally L£t¹n¥ (OT /t*y`w=l!, Leviathan). I discuss this myth-type in a separate article (in the “Ancient Parallels” series).
Typological. The Earth-Sea image paradigm in Revelation 12-13 is envisioned as two distinct realms, located side by side with a boundary in between. The Dragon is situated on a strip of territory on the boundary between the two (12:18). This dual-construct is both spatial/visual and conceptual. And, it would seem that, conceptually, the “Earth” represents the realm populated by human beings, i.e. the inhabited world as we know it. On the other hand, the “Sea” in this regard is a more complex symbol, one which relates to the mythological aspect discussed above. As a type, the “Sea” represents the realm of chaos, danger, disorder, and violence at the border of the known world. As such it has a typological connection with the forces of evil and death. In Old Testament tradition, this is expressed by the tumult of raging, destructive waters which threaten people living nearby. This violent tumult served as a fitting symbol for the military attack of enemy nations, along with the chaos/disorder that ensues from it. Thus the Sea (and its waters) was frequently used in the Prophets as an image of the danger posed to Israel, etc, from the surrounding nations (and their rulers)—cf. Isa 8:7; 17:12-13; Jer 46:7-8; 51:55). Ultimately, however, it is YHWH with his control over the waters who has control over these “raging waters” of the nations (Isa 28:2; Jer 10:13; 51:16; Ezek 26:19).
Scriptural Tradition. The visions in chapter 13 also draw on specific Scripture passages, contributing both to the essential shape of the visions, as well to a number of particular details. These have already been discussed, but we may summarize here again the most noteworthy examples:
- The framework of the visions themselves comes from the Daniel 7 vision (vv. 2-8, 15-25)
- The blasphemous speaking and arrogance of the Sea-creature (13:5-6ff), with its persecution of the righteous/believers, is a reflection of the specific ruler-figure prophesied in Daniel 7:25; 9:26-27; 11:36ff—generally regarded as referring to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it was interpreted by early Christians as a future/eschatological reference to their own time (Mark 13:14; 2 Thess 2:3-12)
- The image of the Sea-creature (13:13-15) reflects Nebuchadnezzar’s statue in the Daniel 3 episode
- The mark of the Sea-creature (vv. 16-18), as a contrast to the mark on the faithful believers (7:3; 14:1), likely alludes to Ezekiel 9:4ff
- The Earth-creature functions as a miracle-working false prophet (v. 13), an antitype of the prophet Elijah (allusions to the Elijah traditions, 1 Kings 18:24, 37-38; 2 Kings 1:10-12)
Historical Context. The author and his readers lived in Asia Minor, in a province of the Roman Empire. As such, the historical context of Roman imperial rule certainly influenced the symbolism of the visions. This is true of many details in the vision; but let us consider more broadly the figures of the two creatures coming from the Sea and Earth, respectively. With an understanding of the Earth as the realm of the inhabited world (cf. above), Roman rule at the end of the first century A.D. practically extended to the furthest reaches of the earth, as known by people at the time. However, the association of Rome with the sea is more significant for an understanding of the vision. The Roman empire’s power was largely the result of its control of the sea, both militarily and commercially. So complete was their dominion over the Mediterranean, in particular, that the Romans called it “our sea” (mare nostrum). In territories such as Asia Minor (especially in cities and regions nearer the coast), people would certainly have associated the establishment of Roman control as coming by way of the adjoining Sea (as in the visions of Rev 13). In Jewish tradition, Rome was identified with the ancient maritime power of the Kittim (originally referring to Phoenician influence in the Mediterranean, including the island of Cyprus); similarly, in 2/4 Esdras, generally contemporary with the book of Revelation, Rome is depicted symbolically as a great creature (an eagle) from the Sea (11:1). Cf. Koester, pp. 569, 580.
Let us now bring these different strands together and see how these symbolic figures relate in the setting of the visions.
The Dragon. The “Fabulous Creature” (dra/kwn), a snake-like hybrid creature with seven heads, represents the forces of evil, and is explicitly identified with the Evil One (Devil/Satan) in the text (12:9), so there is little question about its meaning.
The Sea-Creature. The creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up from the Sea clearly resembles the Dragon, having a similar appearance. Moreover, the Dragon’s presence at the edge of the Sea, along with the Sea-creature following the Dragon in its “making war” against believers, shows that it acts under the influence of the Dragon—that is, under the control of Satan and the forces of evil. The mythological, typological, and Scriptural aspects of the symbolism (cf. above) would have identified this creature from the Sea as an opponent/adversary of God, and the details of the visions bear this out, especially in the creature’s persecution of the people of God (believers). However, the realm of this creature is the Sea, not the Earth—that is to say, its normal realm is not that of the inhabited world (of human beings). In terms of the historical context, this aspect is realized in the sense that this creature represents a foreign power (i.e. the Roman empire) coming to the land (i.e. Asia Minor) from the sea. In the Daniel 7 vision, the beasts coming up out of the sea are specifically interpreted as kingdoms, and this may be inferred here as well, though not made explicit as such until later in the book. Many commentators believe that the detail of the head which was healed/restored from an apparent fatal blow is an allusion to the legend of Nero’s return.
The Earth-Creature. The creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up from the Earth has a different appearance, more closely resembling a normal earthly creature (a lamb). Only the detail of its two horns, and the way that it speaks (like the Dragon) indicate its evil character. If the Daniel 8 vision is in view, then the Earth-creature also represents an earthly king/kingdom, but one more precisely localized regionally and in historical terms. Based on the symbolism of the Earth here as the inhabited world of human beings, we must envision an actual earthy kingdom or government. In the historical context of the book (and the Roman empire), the creature would represent the functioning local governments of Asia Minor. However, since the Earth-creature acts to establish the rule of the Sea-creature (on earth), this would mean the local administration insofar as it acts under the authority of the Roman government, to establish the imperial rule in the provinces. On a broader level of symbolism, the Earth-creature represents the earthly manifestation of mythic-evil power. The Earth-creature is a miracle-working false prophet who deceives people with supernatural power.
The Image of the Sea-Creature. Ultimately it is through the presence of the living image of the Sea-creature that the rule of the Sea-creature is established on earth. The people inhabiting the earth construct the image, and it is then empowered by the evil ‘magic’ of the Earth-creature. It is the image of the Sea-creature, and not the Earth-creature, that commands the people on earth. This is an important aspect of the dynamic which is not always understood by readers (and is obscured in many translations). The allusion to idolatry is clear enough—i.e. an earthly image of mythic-evil power—but it is the Scriptural and historical aspects which are more prominent, especially (1) the Nebuchadnezzar statue (and other Danielic traditions), and (2) as a representation of Roman imperial administration. Both lines of tradition essentially relate to earthly ruling powers which seek to establish obedience and veneration from the populace as a means of rule. Most commentators correctly identify a strong allusion to the contemporary Imperial cult, well-established and widespread in the provinces by the end of the first century A.D. That, indeed, should be seen as the primary reference. The cult was manifest both in the civic/political realm (images, temples, public celebrations) and the commercial (the mark/stamp on coinage, etc). Believers would be confronted with these cultic symbols and associations on a regular basis, part of a recognized atmosphere of pervasive evil and conflict (i.e. opposition to God and Christ), even if it did not necessarily result in believers being arrested or put to death. The connection of the Sea-creature (and its image) with Rome and the Imperial cult is made more precise in subsequent visions, which will be examined in due course.
An interpretation of these symbols with the contemporary situation of Roman Imperial rule in Asia Minor seems clear enough. This is surely not the full extent of the symbolism; however, even commentators who adopt a modern-futurist approach to the visions (and those in Daniel), recognize the allusions to the Roman Empire (thus the various theories regarding a new or “revived” Roman Empire in modern times). An examination of these various interpretative approaches and systems must wait until the conclusion of this series of notes, but it is well to begin widening the scope of our study, especially as we will face increasingly complex and difficult issues involving the remaining visions of the book. This I hope to do, starting with the upcoming notes on chapter 14.