November 13: Revelation 17:5-6

Revelation 17:1-6, continued

Verse 5

“and upon the (space) between her eyes a name having been written, a secret—Babilim the great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking things of the earth.”

The vision of the woman on the seven-headed creature (cf. the previous note on vv. 1-5), concludes with this description of the name on her forehead (lit. the space between the eyes, me/twpon). The parallels with the engraved mark (xa/ragma) of name of the Sea-creature on the forehead of the wicked, and the name of God (and the Lamb) stamped/written on the forehead of believers, are clear enough and have been noted. More precisely, the “secret” of this name matches the hidden meaning (something requiring wisdom and understanding) of the name/number of the Sea-creature in 13:18 (cf. the earlier note). It is hardly coincidental that a veiled interpretation follows here in vv. 7ff, which, in both purpose and emphasis (for the original readers), is similar to the cryptic declaration in 13:18. Let us consider each component of the name presented in verse 5, in turn.

musth/rion (“secret”)—The name, as presented, is said to be a secret—yet, as the interpretation of vv. 7ff indicates, it is a secret that is being revealed, or made known (in part, at least), to readers of the book. The author/seer does much the same thing regarding the name of the Sea-creature at the close of the chapter 13 visions (v. 18). Since the woman here sits upon the Sea-creature, and is so closely identified with it, we may fairly assume that the names are closely connected as well.

In an earlier series of notes, I discussed the use of the word musth/rion in key passages of the New Testament. It often has an eschatological connotation, especially in the letters of Paul, tied to the essential early Christian belief that the revelation of Jesus Christ—through the proclamation of the Gospel and his presence through the Spirit—had ushered in a New Age for believers, even before the end of the current Age was fully realized (1 Cor 2:1ff; Rom 16:25, etc). This is made more explicit in the book of Revelation (10:7), where the coming of the great Judgment marks the moment when the “secret of God” (musth/rion tou= qeou=) is finally completed. More in keeping with the use of musth/rion here is its occurrence in the vision of 1:9-20, where a heavenly Messenger similarly interprets the details of the vision (v. 20).

A close parallel may also be found in the expression “secret of lawlessness” (musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. There, too, the “secret” relates to the manifestation of evil at the end-time, involving a wicked world power (and ruler/emperor). Paul makes known to his readers something of this “secret” and how it is unfolding, just as the Angelic interpreter does for the seer and readers of the book of Revelation. For more on this, cf. the article on the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians (Part 3), as well as my earlier note on the passage.

Babulw/n (“Babilim”)Babulw/n is a transliteration in Greek of the ancient city name meaning “Gate of God” (Akkadian B¹b-Ilim), similarly transliterated in Hebrew as lb#B* (B¹»el); English Babylon derives from the Greek. The ancient Near Eastern city, located along the Euphrates river (cf. 16:12), has a long history extending back until at least the late-3rd millennium B.C. (Ur III period). It also features prominently in Israelite and Jewish tradition, including the famous “Tower of Babel” narrative (Gen 11:1-9), in which the city served as figure and symbol for worldly power which sought to challenge God’s authority and take His position, much as it does in the book of Revelation. More clearly rooted in documented history is the city-state that became a conquering empire in the reign of Hammurabi (18th century) and again in the Neo-Babylonian period of the 7th-6th centuries. This makes it a fitting parallel to Rome as the great empire ruling the Near East in the 1st century A.D. Just as Babylon conquered and destroyed Jerusalem (587 B.C.), so Rome did again in 70 A.D. In the aftermath, Jewish authors clearly made the association (e.g., 2/4 Esdras 3:1-2, 29-31; 16:1; 2 Baruch 10:2; 11:1; 67:7; Sibylline Oracles 5:143, 159; Koester, p. 675).

Most commentators assume that in the New Testament (both in Revelation and also 1 Peter 5:13) “Babylon” is a cypher for Rome and the Roman Empire, and this does seem to be correct. The earliest surviving Christian interpretation (outside of the book of Revelation itself) clearly makes such an identification (e.g., Tertullian, Hippolytus, Victorinus, etc), a point that will be discussed further in the upcoming notes (on verses 7ff).

h( mega/lh (“the great”)—In the book of Revelation, “Babylon” is always called “the great” (14:8; 16:19; 18:2, 21) and is also identified specifically with “the great city” (16:19; 18:21). The latter expression is used in 11:8, where it is more properly identified with Jerusalem, but is there also called “Sodom” and “Egypt”. This shows that we must be cautious about limiting “Babylon” and “the great city” to Rome. In my view, as I have already discussed in recent notes, the imagery is more widely encompassing, as a symbol of worldly power—i.e. the nations and their governments and rulers, etc—as a manifestation of the forces of evil (the Sea-creature and Dragon) at work upon the earth. For readers of the book of Revelation, the Roman Empire and its Imperial administration (over Asia Minor, etc) would be the immediate point of reference. For a clear sense of the wider view of this symbolism, see especially the seventh bowl-vision (16:17-21 and my note on the passage).

h( mh/thr (“the mother”)—This plays on the typical use of feminine language and imagery to describe cities and nations (here the woman, v. 1, 3), with the motif of “mother” signifying both parental authority and the dependence of children (i.e. the populace) on her for nurturing care. Rome at times was called ‘mother of (all) cities’ and Italy the ‘mother of all countries’ (cf. Pliny the Elder Natural History 3.39; Koester, p. 675). However, perhaps even more prominent in the vision is the idea that the woman on the creature gives birth to all kinds of evils in the world. This would play into the parallel with the Woman in the chapter 12 vision, who gives birth both to Jesus (her first son) and believers (her other children).

tw=n pornw=n (“of the prostitutes”)—This woman, identified as a prostitute (po/rnh), would naturally give birth to other prostitutes, who are just like her and follow her example. The kings of the earth are said to engage in prostitution with her and “drink” from her cup of wickedness—thus, these other cities and nations likewise become prostitutes.

kai\ tw=n bdelugma/twn (“and of the stinking things”)—This expression echoes the wording in verse 4; the immediate reference is to Daniel 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11), as interpreted by early Christians, in the eschatological sense of a wicked kingdom (and ruler) who will oppose God, profaning His holiness and persecuting His people (Mark 13:14; cp. 2 Thess 2:3-4ff; Revelation 13).

th=$ gh=$ (“of the earth”)—In these visions, the “Earth” (gh=) symbolizes the inhabited world (of humankind), specifically in relation to the dark forces of evil (the Sea) that exercise influence and control over it. The earthly nations and governments (“kings of the earth”) are primarily in view.

Verse 6

“And I saw the woman being intoxicated out of the blood of the holy (one)s and out of the blood of the witnesses of Yeshua, and seeing her I wondered (with) great wonder.”

Even as the woman in the vision intoxicates the nations and kings of earth with the wine of her wickedness, so she becomes intoxicated herself on the blood of believers. The pouring out of wine as a figure for the shedding of blood is a natural enough image, one which the Judgment-visions in Revelation play on at several points—14:17-20; 16:3-6. The drinking of blood (and becoming drunken with it) could also be used in a military setting—i.e. for the chaos and carnage of a battle (Isa 34:5; Jer 46:10; Ezek 39:18-19; Zech 9:15; Judith 6:4). For an application of the motif to a Roman Emperor, cf. Suetonius Tiberius 59.1. Here, it refers to the persecution and putting to death of believers in Christ (“holy ones”), especially insofar as they are “witnesses” of Jesus and the Gospel. For the special sense of ma/rtu$ / marturi/a (“witness”, vb marture/w) in the book of Revelation, in the context of the end-time persecution, cf. 1:2, 5, 9; 2:13; 3:14; 6:9; 11:3, 7; 12:11, 17; 19:10; 20:4; 22:16-20. Cf. Koester, pp. 675-6.

At this point, we read that the seer (John) “wondered with great wonder” at the sight of this woman. This sets the stage for the interpretation that follows in verses 7ff (to be discussed in the next note). It also emphasizes the extraordinary (and climactic) nature of the vision. It most effectively serves as the conclusion to the entire sequence of visions beginning with chapter 12. The parallels with the initial vision of 12:1ff should be obvious, as each involves an extraordinary image of a woman. The first woman, symbolizing the People of God, is seen clothed in celestial splendor (indicating especially her heavenly aspect). The second woman, by contrast, represents wickedness and the wicked on earth, being clothed with luxurious earthly garments. The first woman is in conflict with the Dragon and Sea-creature, being pursued by them; the second woman, is the companion of the Sea-creature, united and identified with it—indeed, she gains support and power, etc, by being seated upon it. The motif of conflict/persecution in the earlier vision is picked up again in the present vision with the description here in verse 6.

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