The woman, the man and the dragon

Revelation 12, a vision of the Serpent, the second Eve and the second Adam. This comes exactly half way through the book and embraces the whole of history, from the promise in Genesis that a child of the first woman would crush the Serpent’s head to the birth of the child and his eventual return from heaven to rule the nations with a rod of iron.

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being with child, she cries out in travail and the pain of giving birth.
The imagery evokes the originally created solar system: the sun, moon and twelve planets. In contrast to the goddess worshipped by the women of Judah, contemporaries of Jeremiah, the woman in heaven here is the true ‘queen of heaven’ (Jer 7:18, 44:15-19). The sun symbolises Jacob, the moon Rachel, and the planets his twelve sons (Gen 37:9). In relation to the people of the new covenant, the sun symbolises Christ, the moon the Church, reflecting his light, and the planets the twelve apostles. The woman is Eve, the ‘mother of all living’ (Gen 3:20), that is, the mother of those whose names have been written in the book of life, the sons of the resurrection (Matt 22:32, Luke 20:36). Since not all Eve’s descendants are living in this sense, she is also, more specifically, the ‘daughter of Zion’, mother of all who have chosen life (Gal 4:26).

Both physical and spiritual birth is at the cost of much suffering (Gen 3:16). At the time of Jerusalem’s siege and conquest by the Babylonians, the nation was compared to a woman in labour (Jer 4:31, Mic 4:9f):

I heard a voice as of one who was sick,
    distress as of one bringing forth her first child,
    the voice of the daughter of Zion.
Gasping for breath, she stretched out her hands,
    “Woe is me! I am fainting before murderers.”

But she gave birth only to wind; she accomplished no deliverance for the earth (Isa 26:17f). More national suffering now precedes this birth.

And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. And his tail sweeps down a third of the stars of heaven, and he cast them to the earth.

The dragon is the same beast as the legged serpent of Genesis 2-3, but since then he has acquired many heads, indicating that he became ruler of the kingdoms into which the post-Cataclysm world divided. The interpretation offered is that the seven heads symbolise the successive empires that interacted with Israel’s history: Egypt, Assyria, Chaldaea, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome, plus the various caliphates of Islam. The ten horns are a confederacy of ten kings or kingdoms yet to arise.

Early in Earth history, four of the twelve planets exploded into the fragments we call comets and asteroids (aster being the Greek word for ‘star’). Some of the fragments hit the Earth, including those that pummelled the Earth during the Cataclysm and the many that left craters still preserved on younger crust. As in Rev 8:5, where fire is cast on the planet, the events are cosmic, and the same verb is used. More such impacts are foretold (Rev 6:13, 8:8, 8:10, 16:21). However, the significance in recalling these physical events of the early solar system is spiritual: the stars represent angels worshipped as gods above with power over political events below. Antiochus IV, king of a Hellenic empire that stretched from Turkey to Iran, was a fervent promoter of Greek religion, particularly the worship of Zeus, the supreme god. The inscription reads King Antiochus, God manifest, bearer of victoryHe claimed to be his incarnation, calling himself ‘God manifest’. History is silent on the point, but in promoting the Greek pantheon he must have destroyed many indigenous cults and the angel-worship that they represented (Deut 32:8, 17, Ps 89:5-7, I Cor 10:20). In 167 BC, provoked by an uprising, he sacked Jerusalem, banned observance of the Law of Moses, and erected in the Temple a statue of himself as Zeus, the foretold ‘abomination that makes desolate’ (Dan 8:13, 11:31, 12:11). The unintended consequence was that many angels were swept out of heaven and Satan’s kingdom was divided against itself. As Daniel predicted, the king ‘grew great, even to the host of heaven. … And he cast down some of the stars and trampled on them.’

When Eve found herself deceived, God said to the Serpent:
I will put hostility between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring.
He shall crush your head,
    and you shall crush his heel.

The Serpent’s offspring (John 8:44) have always persecuted the offspring of the woman. But the prophecy in Genesis looks to the end of the ages when one of her sons would crush the Serpent decisively, albeit at a cost. Isaiah saw him as one who would make atonement for our sins. The bonds of the daughter of Zion would be loosed. Barren, afflicted, storm-tossed, she would give birth to many children through her husband, God himself (Isa 52-54).

And the dragon stands before the woman about to give birth, in order that when she bears her child he may devour it. And she gave birth to a son, a male, who is to shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron. And her child was caught up to God and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that she may be nourished there 1,260 days.

As an individual, the woman is Mary, who bore the child Jesus, the only-begotten son of God and the second Adam (I Cor 15:22, 45). Every birth is a moment of wonder. In the hidden womb of creation a new life is fashioned; the mother herself does nothing but awaits the appointed time. This birth was especially signi- ficant. He was the offspring promised from the beginning (Gen 3:15) and promised again to Abraham (Gal 3:19), David (2 Sam 7:12) and Isaiah (Isa 9:6, 49:1). He was not merely a son of Adam or ‘like a son of Adam’ but God himself was his father (I Chron 17:13).

When Herod heard that magi from the East were seeking one who had been born king of the Jews, he feared that the child might become a threat to his rule and summoned the theologians to ask them where the Messiah would be born. They told him, “Bethlehem,” for so Micah had prophesied. The prophet went on to say,
Therefore he will give them up until the time when she who is in travail has given birth; then the remnant of his brothers will return to the sons of Israel. And he will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will abide, for now he will be great to the ends of the earth. (Mic 5:3f)

The Messiah would give Israel up until he came a second time. Then the daughter of Zion would give birth to many children, brothers of the firstborn; the sons of Israel would be raised, and Judah and Israel would be reunited, one flock. ‘He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs with his arm’ (Isa 40:11). The king as shepherd of his people was a common trope in the Ancient Near East. Psalm 2, quoted in the letter to the church at Thyatira, says that the Son will shepherd all the nations, and do so with a rod of iron – we might say, with a firm hand. He will judge between many peoples and arbitrate over powerful nations far and near (Mic 4:3).

Perceiving that it would not be long before everyone linked the child with this prophecy, Herod had every boy under two years old in and around Bethlehem slaughtered. He was the first of many rulers in history who have tried to stifle testimony to a kingdom descending from above that would supplant their own. He was too late. Mary and Joseph had fled to Egypt.

Forty days after his resurrection, the Son ascended to heaven, as was prophesied. “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps 110). An indeterminate interval was to pass before he returned to defeat his enemies by force, dashing them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. In AD 70 the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, enslaved the surviving inhabitants of Judaea and exiled them to other parts of the Empire, including Rome. The inhospitable world beyond the promised land was not merely the desert to the south but the ‘wilderness of the nations’ generally (Ezek 20:35, Rev 17:3). Earth would continue to be a battleground. The battle would be cosmic, focused on questions of ownership: who owns the Earth, and who owns our souls.

And war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting with the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but did not win, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown out, that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown to the earth, and his angels thrown with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown out who accuses them day and night before our God. They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who sojourn in them! But woe to earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great anger, knowing that his time is short!”

With the spread of evil on the earth, heaven too was corrupted (Eph 6:12). The angels were God’s sons (Gen 6:2). Those that copulated with women before the Cataclysm were cast into the abyss under the earth (II Pet 2:4, Jude 6). However, Satan was not among them and continued to have access to the Father, free to accuse to his face those on earth who seemed righteous (Job 1:6). God had limited his own power to the extent that Satan and the other angels who accepted worship in the new world could only be expelled from heaven if they were defeated by fellow angels, and their power to do that depended, firstly, on the victory of God’s firstborn over Satan on the cross (Luke 10:18), and secondly, on the willingness of his followers to bear witness to him, even at the cost of their lives.

When John received the vision, the Church was less than 70 years old and going through persecution; the prophecy that Satan and his angels would no longer be worshipped as gods in heaven was far from fulfilment. Yet both in and beyond the Roman Empire, over the course of the first millennium the vision came to pass. The gospel fell on fertile ground. Many believed, and passed on the message, despite threats to desist or die. In holding fast to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, Christians themselves overthrew the Devil. Even the Roman Emperor became a disciple. Whoever knows nothing of this should read The Blood of the Martyrs by Leigh Churchill or The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark or (for a drier, more sociological focus) The Conversion of Europe by Richard Fletcher.

The declaration that the kingship of God and of his Christ had come does not mean that the Earth was now in harmony with heaven. It means simply that public worship of pagan gods had ceased. Once, all the kingdoms of the world were Satan’s to offer to the Son if he would but fall down and worship him (Matt 4:8f). Now they were no longer entirely his. Nations began to worship the true God. But Satan’s awareness that he, already thrown out of heaven, would be cast into the abyss like the other rebel angels only intensified his hatred of humanity. Invisibly, and by suggestion as well as by outright lies (“Did God really say… ?”), he continues to deceive the world and the Church. Europe’s turning away from the God of her forefathers is a consequence of that deception.

Angels were, and are, involved in the struggle between good and evil that plays out in the visible (Dan 10:13). In the ancient world every nation had its own god (the Babylonians Marduk, the Moabites Chemosh, the Philistines Dagon and so on). These were angels, sons of God exercising spiritual power without his authority (Deut 32:8, 41, I Ki 18:20). They ruled as king through their representative, the nation’s human king. Power came from the worship of their subjects, who looked to their god to make the land fertile and protect them against their enemies. When Yahweh chose Israel and said to her, “I will be your god,” he put himself at the same level – an entirely characteristic decision not to force himself on the world (Phil 2:6). Maker of heaven and earth, he was the national god of only one nation, worshipped only by her. She had to know by faith that he was in fact king of all the nations (Isa 37:16, Jer 10:7, Dan 4:17).

Michael is the angel of the Jews (Dan 12:1), but under God, not seeking worship for himself. Churches too have their own angel (Rev 1:20), presumably with a similar relationship and function (Heb 1:14). Jesus Christ is the only angel (as so depicted in Rev 1:13, 10:1, 14:14 and 18:1) who has authority to rule over the nations.

The twenty-three previous occurrences of ‘heaven’ up to 12:12 have all been singular. Now, this once only, the twenty-fourth word is plural: “Rejoice, O heavens!” The word will occur twenty-three more times after 12:12. The ejection of Satan from heaven marks a turning-point in history.

When the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the man. And the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she might fly from the presence of the serpent to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. And the serpent threw water like a river out of his mouth after the woman to carry her away. But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon threw out of his mouth. And the dragon was furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

Because the Jews would not convert, anti-Jewish feeling in Europe and Russia grew as a consequence of the spread of Christianity. That they survived at all after nineteen hundred years of homelessness and persecution is due to God. The hostility is Satan’s. He pursues them just as the pharaoh once pursued the Israelites escaping Egypt.

The hostility came to a head with Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jews in the Second World War, not only in Germany but wherever he conquered. Millions were slaughtered. But in 1948 Palestine became a national homeland for them, a place of refuge. The two wings of the great eagle’ again recalls the first Exodus (Ex 19:4, Deut 32:10-12), and indicates a great distance. Many settlers arrived by aeroplane.

Jews deported to the Nazi concentration camps

The Old Testament often speaks of a second Exodus when Israel will be restored to the land. However, the land will not rightfully belong to her until the Messiah comes to give it. He himself will bring them back (Isa 60:21, Jer 16:15, Ezek 28:25). The Jews were driven from their land two thousand years ago because they did not recognise him. Even today few recognise him, and those who dwell there now, according to a poll, are among the least religious in the world. Vision and prophet are still sealed up. The conditions for their rightful occupation remain unfulfilled, and therefore the land itself is characterised as a wilderness (cf. Isa 64:10). Indeed, the population was predominantly Gentile in 1948. Apparently a repetition of v. 6, the flight in v. 14 is from one part of the Gentile world to another. Nonetheless it is foreseen, and represented as providential. The Jews regained control of Jerusalem in 1967.

Jesus told his disciples, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things [the signs of his coming], you know that he is near, at the gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Matt 24:32-35) The fig tree symbolised the Jewish people and their capacity to bear spiritual fruit (Hos 9:10, Joel 1:7). If it failed to bear fruit, it would be cursed (Matt 21:19), dry up (Luke 23:31) and be cut down (Luke 13:6-9), as happened forty years later. With the rebirth of the Jewish nation state, the fig tree again began to put out leaves. How long is a generation, counting from 1948?

Luke (21:29-33) tells the parable slightly differently from Matthew. Here Jesus’ disciples are to look for when “all the trees” came into leaf, as well as the fig tree. By interpretation, the nations around Israel would all become sovereign states about the same time. Iraq gained independence in 1932, Lebanon in 1943, Syria in 1945, Jordan in 1946, Egypt in 1952, Libya in 1951.

Before he returns, Jerusalem must once more come under Gentile occupation (Dan 7:25, Rev 11:2). Then two men speaking in the power of Moses and Elijah will appear in the city and nourish its people by instructing them in the Law and the Prophets. They will make ready for the Messiah a people prepared (Luke 1:17).

A second Antiochus figure (II Thes 2:4) will erect ‘an abomination of desolation’ on the supposed site of the former Temple, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock now stand, presumably the statue referred to in the next chapter. At that point the inhabitants of the land again must flee. “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now.” The power of the holy people will be shattered (Dan 12:7), the houses of Jerusalem plundered, the women raped and half the city sent into exile along with the rest of the population (Zech 14:2, Joel 3:2). “If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes.” Then God will intervene. He will break the yoke of their burden as on the day of Midian. Just as there came an end to Job’s sufferings, so there will come an end to Jerusalem’s (compare Job 7:1 with Isa 40:2). The city will have ‘received double for her sins’ – double because this final trauma comes on top of what she suffered at the hand of the Romans. And having rescued, God will enter into judgement with his people in the ‘wilderness of the nations’, as he did with their forefathers in the wilderness of Egypt (Jer 31:2, Ezek 20:34-38, 34:11-22). ‘The Lord will thresh out the grain, and you will be gleaned one by one, O people of Israel” (Isa 27:12). They will inherit the promised land after they have passed under the rod and walked along a highway of holiness (Isa 35:8-10, 40:3, 43:19); the unclean will not be admitted.

The torrent of water is a reference to the wars of 1967 and 1973 (cf. Ps 124, Isa 8:8, Dan 9:26, 11:10) – just as Egypt hoped to destroy Israel at the Red Sea. The Devil is furious that Israel survived these wars, so turns to make war on the rest of the woman’s offspring, namely the followers of Christ rather than Christ himself. As in Hebrew, ‘offspring’ is literally ‘seed’, referring to those who have been begotten from above by the living and abiding word of God. This is where we are at the present time. The Church in Turkey, Syria and Iraq has been almost eradicated. Elsewhere, where there are still sizable communities – in Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, the DRC, to name a few – Christians are killed, kidnapped, enslaved, forced to marry Muslims, raped, imprisoned, tortured, because the Accuser knows that his time is short. The souls of the martyrs cry, “How long before you judge and bring retribution?”

In Europe he does not need to be so coercive, for the Church pretends that there is no war. She makes love with the great prostitute that is under judgement, appearing in many respects more like her than the Bride clothed with linen, bright and pure. But she will not be allowed to remain in that in-between state (I Ki 18:21). She will be made pure by persecution.