This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the twelfth of twenty-six short reflections.
In chapter 17 we are introduced to a woman who is riding the first beast, the one from the sea, who is worshiped by the second beast and who I have in previous posts identified as the Roman Empire. John writes:
[The angel] carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; 5 and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” 6 And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
Verse 17 of chapter 17 makes it very clear who the woman is:
18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
The word translated as “whore” is πόρνης, which etymologically is associated with the ancient Greek work for “to sell”; it remains the common word in Standard Modern Greek for a prostitute or sex worker. However, the focus here is not on sex, as such, but the multiplicity of gods and demigods, foreign and local, that were worshiped in the city; this is compared to the gaudy promiscuity of the woman. In the same way that the prophet Hosea eight centuries earlier in Israel probably did not marry a sex worker, but simply someone who worshipped a God other than YHWH, so the woman on the scarlet beast is a metaphor for the tremendous idolatry and religious depravity of Rome.
As discussed earlier, John then explains who the beast is:
9 “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14 they will make war on the Lamb
There are several was of trying to understand this. First, John had the vision and wrote it down immediately. Thus, John had his vision in the time of Nero, had witnessed the rise and fall of Galba, and was awaiting some form of Nero to return. Or, perhaps he wrote it down sometime later, and while awaiting the rise of the new Nero, stayed true to the vision, even though several emperors had come and gone.
The key point is that they are making war on the Lamb – and by the Lamb, we also mean the church. John the Divine was writing at a time of persecution, and looked to the return of Jesus to make things right. And this is what happens in chapter 18:
18 After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. 2 He called out with a mighty voice,
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.
3 For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury.”
9 And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10 they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,
“Alas, alas, the great city,
Babylon, the mighty city!
For in one hour your judgment has come.”
This is the central message, then, of the Book of Revelation: the Roman Empire is evil, and it will be judged and destroyed by God.
But was it that evil? As this passage from Monty Python’s Life of Brian suggests, maybe they actually did a lot of good.
Was Rome really deserving of destruction? Was John the Divine just a grumpy, blood thirsty fanatic, or did he have good reason to hate Rome? We will get to that in the next post.