November 12: Revelation 17:1-5

Revelation 17-18

In chapter 17-18 there is presented a pair of visions which build upon the “Fall of Babylon” theme in the seventh bowl-vision (cf. the note on 16:17-21), and announced previously in 14:8. Each of these chapters consists of an initial vision (17:1-6; 18:1-3), followed by a detailed exposition. In the first instance an interpretation of the vision is provided by the Messenger, in the second, the poetry of the vision is followed by a longer poem patterned after the oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51.

Revelation 17:1-6

“And one out of the seven Messengers holding the seven offering-dishes came and spoke with me, saying: ‘Come here, (and) I will show you the judgment of the great prostitute th(at is) sitting upon many waters, with whom the kings of the earth engaged in prostitution, and the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] on the earth were intoxicated out of the wine of her prostitution!’ And he led me away from (there) into a desolate (place), in the Spirit, and I saw a woman sitting upon a crimson-colored wild animal full of names of insult (to God) (and) holding seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was (as one) having cast about (her) purple and crimson (garments), and having been made golden with gold and honorable [i.e. valuable] stone and pearls, holding a drinking-cup in her hand being full of stinking things and the unclean (thing)s of her prostitution; 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!” (vv. 1-5)

The narrative introduction to this vision (v. 1) demonstrates its close connection to the bowl-cycle of chapters 15-16; in many ways, chapters 17-19 are part of this same cycle, representing a continuation of the sixth and seventh visions. The judgment of “Babylon” has already been depicted in the seventh bowl-vision (cf. the previous note) and the earlier visions in chapter 14 (vv. 8ff), and here we have the same basic visionary event described in different terms (and in considerably more detail). Like all the bowl-visions, the symbolism represents the traditional eschatological idea of the Judgment of the Nations, with “Babylon”, the “great city”, representing the nations (and their rulers/governments) collectively. Nations and cities are typically referred to in feminine terms—a vestige of which survives even today in English—and may thus be personified and symbolized as a woman, with female imagery. The wickedness of the “great city” (Babylon) has already been emphasized, along with the use of wine imagery (i.e. the drinking-cup of wine) to represent it (14:8ff; 16:19). Though not occurring here in chapter 17, the word qumo/$ (“impulse”) is used to describe this intoxicating ‘wine’ (i.e. an impulse toward wickedness), even as it is for God’s own desire to punish it by pouring out the ‘wine’ of His anger (14:8, 10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19).

This set of images naturally comes together here in the figure of a prostitute (po/rnh). The Greek pornei/a (vb porneu/w) properly refers to acts of prostitution (sexual intercourse for hire). However, like the similar root hnz in Hebrew, it can also be used more generally of sexual immorality (including adultery, etc), as well as figuratively, in the religious sense, for unfaithfulness to God (idolatry, false religious practices, etc). The wicked and idolatrous “nations” are occasionally referred to as prostitutes in the oracles of the Old Testament Prophets (Isa 23:16-17; Nah 3:4), as is God’s own people Israel when they fall away from him (Hos 4:12-13; 5:3; Jer 3:1-14; Ezek 16:15-22ff; 23:1-49; cf. also Hos 2:5; Jer 2:20; Koester, p. 671).

In the Greco-Roman world, the common prostitute was simply called po/rnh, while the wealthier courtesan, supported by a higher-class clientele, was known as a e(tai/ra (lit. female companion). The imagery here in chapter 17 draws from traditional descriptions of both upper- and lower-class prostitutes. Generally her wealth and prominence are emphasized (clothing and jewelry, etc), but the motif of drunkenness suggests a lower-class milieu. For relevant citations from Greco-Roman literature, see those given by Koester, pp. 671-2.

This prostitute is associated with the Sea, a symbol of the dark and turbulent domain of evil that goes back to the visions in chapter 12-13. This association is expressed two ways:

    • she is sitting (kaqhme/nh$) upon (e)pi/) “many waters” (v. 1), and
    • she is sitting (kaqhme/nh$) upon (e)pi/) a creature nearly identical to the one which came out of the Sea (v. 3, cp. 13:1ff)

In the third bowl-vision (16:4-7), the “waters” (rivers and fountains) effectively represent the presence of the Sea upon the earth—symbolizing, specifically, the presence and influence of the dark forces of evil over the kingdoms of the earth. At the same time, the expression “many waters” is also associated with the presence of God in heaven (1:15; 14:2; 19:6), and so here likely alludes to an attempt by the evil-forces on earth to deceive people by appearing and acting ‘like God’. This is rather clearly expressed in the chapter 13 visions; cf. also Paul’s description of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3-4ff.

That the “kings of the earth” both engage in prostitution with this “woman” and become intoxicated by her “wine” —the two images refer to the same thing—means that they are influenced by her and, in a real sense, are united with her (cf. Paul’s line of argument in 1 Cor 6:12-20). The motif of “drunkenness” suggests that the nations (and its leaders) no longer understand what they are doing, becoming completely under the influence and control of the prostitute’s wickedness. And, indeed, her influence is that of the waters and the sea-creature (i.e. forces of evil) upon which she sits, and whose ultimate power stems from the evil Dragon (the Satan/Devil). For the specific association of drunkenness with prostitution, cf. Ezekiel 23:40-42; Testament of Judah 13:5-6, and the references in Koester, p. 672.

The actual vision of the prostitute comes in verse 3, where the seer (“John”) is again taken “in the Spirit” (1:10; 4:2; 21:10; cf. Ezek 3:12; 8:3) to a new visionary location—into a desolate (i.e. desert) place. The desert was a traditional setting for the People of God encountering YHWH (or His Messenger); given the context here of the prostitute, etc, a specific allusion to Hosea 2:14-15 may be in mind. The description of the prostitute may be outlined as follows:

  1. Verse 3. She is sitting on a creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) nearly identical in appearance to the creature that came out of the Sea (13:1ff), who also happens to resemble the Dragon (12:3). The only difference here is the mention of its color as dark red (crimson/scarlet, ko/kkino$). The mention of the color is likely two-fold: (a) to show the close connection and affinity between the woman and the creature, and (b) as an allusion to the wine which she gives people to drink. There is no reason to think that this is anything other than the same Sea-creature of chapter 13, and, as such, its symbolism is also the same. By “sitting upon” the Sea-creature, even as she sits upon the dark/evil waters (v. 1), it is demonstrated that the prostitute receives her support (and power) from the evil Sea-creature.
  2. Verse 4a. Her attire—clothed in luxurious purple and crimson (ko/kkino$) garments, with gold ornaments and jewelry inset with precious stones and pearls. As noted above, this marks her as a high-class courtesan. Purple was especially associated with royalty, indicating her influence over the “kings of the earth”; while the crimson could also allude specifically to the shedding of blood (14:19-20; 16:6; 19:2), even as it does to the wine of her wickedness.
  3. Verse 4b. The drinking-cup of wine she holds—on this cup and the motif of wine, cf. above and the earlier note on 14:8ff. While previously, the wine-cup was identified generally with her impulse (qumo/$) to wickedness, here it is said to be filled specifically with the “stinking things” (bdelugma/ta) and “unclean (thing)s” (a)ka/qarta) of her actual prostitution. The motifs of drunkenness and dirtiness reveal the lower-class side of the prostitute. The most notable occurrence of the noun bde/lugma outside of the book of Revelation (also v. 5; 21:27) is in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13:14 par), where it alludes to Daniel 9:27 (and 11:31; 12:11). Almost certainly it has the same sort of eschatological significance here—i.e. of a wicked ruling power that opposes God, profaning His holiness and persecuting His people (cf. again the visions in chapter 13).
  4. Verse 5. The name written on her forehead (lit. the space between the eyes). This corresponds with the “mark” (xa/ragma) of the Sea-creature (its name) that the people on earth receive, marking them as belonging to the creature, and thus as wicked unbelievers (13:16; 14:9; 20:4). By contrast, true believers do not receive this mark; rather, they are marked/sealed by the name God and the Lamb (Jesus) in the same middle of the forehead (7:3; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4)—in 14:1, it is specifically said to be written (perfect participle gegramme/non, as here) on the forehead.

The name on the prostitute’s forehead is said to be “Babylon” (Babulw/n), and is described in verse 5b. This aspect of the woman—her identification with Babylon, in the overall context of the vision—will be discussed in detail in the next daily note.

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

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