The woman, the man and the dragon

Revelation 12. A vision of the Serpent, the second Eve and the second Adam. At this central point in the book, the vision makes allusion to key events in the salvation history of mankind, notably the birth of the child who would crush the Serpent’s head, the Christianisation of Europe and the return of Jews to their ancestral land.


And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. And being pregnant, she cries out in travail and torment of giving birth.

The imagery evokes the originally created sun, moon and twelve planets of the solar system, of which one purpose was to act as signs. The sun rises in front of the constellation Virgo while the moon lies below it, portending a birth of cosmic significance. But the sign is a vision, affording an insight into the spiritual world, not a configuration of actual heavenly bodies. The woman is the true ‘queen of heaven’, unlike the goddess worshipped by Israel in Jeremiah’s day (Jer 44:15-19). She is the Jerusalem above, mother of all who are born from above (Ps 87, Gal 4:26). In Joseph’s dream the sun symbolised Jacob, the planets his twelve sons, and the moon Rachel, his beloved second wife (Gen 37:9).

Rachel died while she was in labour for Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son. About the time of Jerusalem’s siege and conquest by the Babylonians, the whole 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 firstborn,
    the voice of the daughter of Zion.
Gasping for breath, she stretched out her hands,
    “Alas for me! I am fainting before murderers.”

But her travail resulted only in wind; she accomplished no deliverance for the earth (Isa 26:17f). More national suffering will accompany the birth of this first child, begotten from above.

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

Ostensibly the dragon is the constellation Draco. In Greek, drakωn was another word for snake, like the English word serpent. In Hebrew, the corresponding word was tannin, though this had a broader range: roughly, ‘amphibian reptile.’ When Moses threw his staff on the ground (Ex 4:3) it became a nahash, or snake; when it was thrown in front of Pharaoh it became a tannin (Ex 7:10, LXX: drakωn), which in context must mean a crocodile. In Ezekiel (29:3, 32:2) the Pharaoh is himself called a tannin. Nahash and tannin are also interchangeable in Isaiah 27:1, where they refer to the final manifestation of the dragon.

Since manifesting as a legged snake or dragon in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3) Satan has acquired many heads, indicating his sovereignty over the kingdoms into which the post-Cataclysm world eventually divided. As interpreted here, the seven heads symbolise the successive empires that interacted with Israel and/or its land: Egypt, Assyria, Chaldaean Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome, plus the successive caliphates of Islam. The ten horns are a confederacy of ten kings or kingdoms yet to arise.

Originally there were twelve planets (asteres planetai, wandering stars). Early on, four of the planets exploded. The millions of fragments that astronomers call the ‘Main Asteroid Belt’, between Mars and Jupiter, was the result of the nearest explosion; other fragments dispersed further, and some struck the Earth, mostly during the Cataclysm but also with less frequency after it, leaving the 190 craters that pockmark today’s terrestrial crust. The physical events had their counterparts in the invisible realm. The stars cast to the Earth are angels that left their celestial habitation to copulate with women and were subsequently cast into the abyss (II Pet 2:4), alluded to in chapter 9. After the Cataclysm some of the angels still in heaven encouraged men to worship them, and in return men received power to rule as kings.

The first such potentate was Uruk’s En-merkar, Nimrod, who united Mesopotamia’s cities into a single state. Another such, three millennia later, was Antiochus IV, king of a Hellenic empire that stretched from Turkey to Iran and south as far as Palestine. He was bent on promoting Hellenism throughout the empire, and like some earlier potentates he claimed to be a deity – Zeus himself – in human form. In 168 BC, after a successful campaign to add Egypt to his empire,The inscription reads King Antiochus, God manifest, bearer of victory a Roman delegation confronted him outside Alexandria and forced him to back off. It was a bitter humiliation. He retreated to Palestine to quash a rebellion there, massacred tens of thousands and sold as many more into slavery. In 167 BC he plundered and burned Jerusalem, forbade observance of the Torah on pain of death and ordered the population to worship idols. On the 15th day of the month Chislev (I Macc 1:54) he erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple, the foretold ‘abomination that makes desolate’ (Dan 8:13, 11:31, 12:11). The Jews again revolted. After a three-year struggle they prevailed, and on the 25th of Chislev the Temple was rededicated (I Macc 4:52f), the interval between the abomination and the rededication being the foretold ‘2300 evenings and mornings’ during which the twice-daily sacrifice would be suspended (Dan 8:14, alluding to Ex 29:38f). Elsewhere Antiochus will have destroyed many indigenous cults and thereby overthrown the angel-worship that they represented (Deut 32:8, 17, Ps 89:5-7, I Cor 10:20). Daniel says of him: ‘He grew great, even to the host of heaven. … and cast down some of the stars and trampled on them’ (Dan 8:10).

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 smite your head,
    and you shall smite his heel.

Adam understood that Eve would be the ‘mother of all living’, notwithstanding their common death sentence. Through the bearing of children life would continue, and the prophecy apparently suggested grounds for hope. The Serpent would have spiritual offspring of his own (Matt 13:38, John 8:44), but the woman’s offspring would not be such easy prey, and one of her sons would deal him a fatal blow, albeit at a cost.

And the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, so that when she should bear her child he might 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, so that she may be nourished there 1260 days.

As an individual, the child-bearing woman is Mary. Every birth is a moment of wonder, for a new life is fashioned in the hidden womb of creation while the mother does nothing but await her time. But this child is especially significant, being the one promised from the beginning and promised again to Abraham (Gal 3:19), David (2 Sam 7:12) and Isaiah (Isa 9:6, 49:1). Therefore the child addressed her not as “Mother” but as “Woman” (John 2:4, 19:26), the archetypal mother. He was not only a son of Adam or “like a son of Adam,” his father was God himself (Ps 2), his sex being highlighted because spiritual authority lies with the male, not the female (1 Tim 2:13f, Eph 5:23). Of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:33).

When emissaries from the neighbouring Parthian empire arrived in Jerusalem inquiring after ‘the one born king of the Jews’, people knew they were seeking the long-awaited Messiah, the descendant of David who would restore Israel’s independence. Herod, the incumbent king, was half-Jew, half-Edomite, and not from David’s line; the Romans had granted him the kingship as a reward for helping to oust Antigonus, the king installed by the Parthians when they briefly controlled Judaea. Thus the magi were hinting at Parthian support in the event that the Jews should rise up against the Romans. The situation was delicate. Jerusalem’s population had no desire to disturb the present political accommodation, and Herod was fretting over who should succeed him within his own family, having recently murdered three of his sons on suspicion of plotting against him. Although no believer in Scripture himself, he summoned the theologians and asked them if they could help the magi with their quest: where would the Messiah be born according to the Prophets? “Bethlehem,” they replied, referring to Micah, “David’s birthplace.” They saw no reason to keep the information secret, and they knew what he had in mind. Micah continued (5:3f),
Therefore he will give them up until the time when she who is in travail has given birth and the remnant of his brothers turn back toward the children of Israel. And he will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God. And they will abide, for now he will be great to the ends of the earth.

The Messiah would give Israel up until he came a second time. Then the daughter of Zion would bring forth many children, brothers of the firstborn. The sons of Israel would be raised, and be reunited with the surviving remnant of Judah, one flock.

‘Rod’ in Psalm 2, quoted here, is a shepherd’s staff, but made of iron, not wood. The king as shepherd of his people was a common trope in the Ancient Near East, as witness the crook and flail that the Pharaoh gripped against his chest in statues. ‘Rod’ is therefore also sometimes translated ‘sceptre’ (e.g. Gen 49:10, Ps 110:2). He would judge between many peoples and arbitrate over powerful nations far and near (Mic 4:3). Yahweh himself would be Israel’s shepherd (Gen 48:15, Ezek 34).

Herod told the magi to look for the child in Bethlehem and report back. But they went home another way, avoiding the capital. Furious at being humiliated, Herod had every male infant in and around Bethlehem slaughtered: no price was too heavy for ensuring his dynasty remained unchallenged. But he was too late: Mary and Joseph had fled to Egypt. Not long afterwards Herod died and the family returned to Nazareth, Mary’s home town. People forgot about the magi.

Forty days after his resurrection, the Son of David ascended to heaven; as it was written: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps 110). The ‘until’ remains in the future. In the meantime there was to be terrible suffering. Losing patience with the harsh rule of the Romans, the Jews rebelled. In AD 70 Titus laid siege to the capital, and five months later he levelled it. In a subsequent revolt the Romans slaughtered more than half a million of the inhabitants. They ‘devoured and crushed; they trampled the remnant with their feet’ (Dan 7:19). According to Ezekiel’s foretelling of the calamity, a third of the population perished in Jerusalem, a third were struck down in the rest of the country, and a third were scattered abroad (Ezek 5:1-12, cf. Zech 13:8). For Israel, the world of exile beyond the promised land was a wilderness.

And war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought, and did not prevail, and their place was no longer found in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown, the 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 say, “Now has come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down 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, you heavens and those who sojourn in them! Woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you in great fury, knowing that his time is short!”

In the new world Satan continued to have access to God as one of his sons and was free to malign the righteous to his face (Job 1:6). God had limited his own power to the extent that Satan and the other world-rulers in heaven (Eph 6:12) could only be expelled if defeated by fellow angels, and the power to do that depended, firstly on the victory of his firstborn over Satan (Luke 10:18, John 12:31) and secondly on the willingness of Christ’s followers to bear witness to him, at the cost of their own lives.

When John received the vision, the Church was less than 70 years old and being persecuted; the prophecy that Satan and his angels would no longer be worshipped as gods was far from fulfilment. The authority and the glory of all the kingdoms of the world belonged to him (Luke 4:5f, II Cor 4:4). Yet over the course of the millennium the vision came to pass. In Europe especially, the gospel fell on fertile ground. Many believed, and passed on the message, despite threats to desist or die. By holding fast to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, Christians themselves overthrew the Devil. Even the Roman Emperor became a convert. 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 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, but 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 abase himself before him. Now they were no longer entirely his. Across Europe, national and tribal leaders acknowledged the superiority of the new religion and urged, sometimes compelled, their people to do likewise – a top-down process that was the reverse of the early Church’s growth. Even if few individuals understood the heart of Christianity, nations began to worship the true God, including nations around the periphery such as the Vikings and Magyars that had long plagued Christian Europe. Denmark began to convert in the reign of Harald Bluetooth (c. 958-c. 986), Norway in the reign of Olaf Tryggvason (995-1000), Sweden in the reign of Olof Skötkonung (c. 980-1022), Hungary in the reign of Stephen I (c. 975-1038), Kievan Rus in the reign of Vladimir the Great (c. 948-1015), all around the turn of the millennium.

Angels are involved in the struggle between good and evil (Ezek 28:12-17, Dan 10:13). In the Ancient Near East, as elsewhere, every nation had its own god: the Babylonians Marduk (‘Bel’), the Moabites Chemosh, the Tyrians Melqart and so on, gods commonly lumped together by the biblical authors under the name Baal, or ‘Lord’. These were angels, sons of God (Deut 32:8, Ps 82) exercising spiritual power through the nation’s king. People worshipped the gods on the understanding that in return they would make the land fecund and protect them from 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. 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 God of gods and king of all the nations (Isa 37:16).

Michael is the angel of the Jews (Dan 12:1), but under God, not seeking worship for himself. Churches too have their own angel, presumably with a similar relationship and function (Heb 1:14). Jesus Christ is the only angel (as depicted in Rev 1:13, 10:1, 14:14, 18:1 and 20:1, probably also 7:2) who has authority to rule the earth.

“Rejoice, you heavens and those who sojourn in them!” – the angels above and the saints below, spiritually seated in the heavens (Heb 12:22). All previous occurrences of ‘heaven’ have been singular. Now, this once, following the central statement that the salvation, power and kingdom of God and the authority of his Christ has (singular) arrived, the word is plural. Satan’s defeat and his ejection from heaven mark a turning-point in history, but he does not give up. The knowledge that, already thrown out of heaven, he will one day be cast into the abyss only intensifies his hatred. Invisibly, and by suggestion as well as outright lies (“Did God really say… ?”), he continues to deceive both world and Church. Europe’s latter-day turning away from the God of her forefathers is a consequence of that deception.

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 out of his mouth the serpent cast water like a river after the woman to carry her away. And the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon cast out of his mouth. And the dragon was angry with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.

Anti-Jewish feeling in Europe and Russia grew as a consequence of the spread of Christianity, because the Jews would not convert. That they survived at all after nineteen hundred years of homelessness and persecution is due to God. The hostility is Satan’s.

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 was designated their national homeland, a place of refuge. They flew from the wilderness of the world at large (v. 6) to the place reserved for them (v.14). ‘The two wings of the great eagle’ 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 repeatedly 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). The Jews were driven from their land two thousand years ago because they did not recognise him. Even today few recognise him, and most Jews in Israel, according to a poll, describe themselves as either not religious or convinced atheists. Vision and prophet are still sealed up. The conditions for their rightful occupation remain unfulfilled, and therefore the land is part of the wilderness, Jerusalem part of the great city.

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 doors. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (Matt 24:32-34) The fig tree symbolised Judah, planted within the vineyard of Israel so that it might bear fruit (Joel 1:7, Luke 13:6-9). He had cursed the physical tree because it was barren (Matt 21:19). As Jeremiah said, “there are no grapes on the vine, or figs on the fig tree, and the leaves have withered” (Jer 8:13). It was to bear little fruit even after the apostles had dug manure into the ground (Luke 13:8). Though still green at the time he spoke, it would dry up (Luke 23:31), be cut down (Luke 13:9) and the kingdom be given to a nation bearing its fruits, namely those abiding in the true vine (John 15:1-5), his Church. But there would come a time when the stump would sprout and again put forth leaves.

Luke (21:29-33) tells the parable slightly differently from Matthew. Here Jesus’s disciples were to look for when “all the trees” put forth new growth, as well as the fig tree (cf. Ezek 31:5). Since trees symbolised nations (e.g. Ezek 17:24, 31:4), he was saying that the nations around Israel would become sovereign states all about the same time. Iraq gained independence in 1932, Lebanon in 1943, Syria in 1946, Jordan in 1946, Libya in 1951, Egypt in 1953. Saudi Arabia became a unified state in 1932.

Jesus would return before the generation beginning with the rebirth of the Jewish state had died out. Can that be far away? But first, Jerusalem will once more come under Gentile occupation. The strange phrase ‘time, times, and half a time’ comes from Daniel, with reference to how long the Jews would be oppressed by a foreign ruler just before the end. Analogous to the ‘seven times’ during which Nebuchadrezzar lost his mind (Dan 4:16), it is approximately equal to the 1260 days mentioned at 11:3. Two men speaking in the power of Moses and Elijah will appear in the city and shine the light of the new oil. They will make ready a people prepared, so that they welcome his return (Luke 13:35). The 1260 days end with their death, and the 42 months of Gentile occupation, presumably, when the earthquake induces the occupiers to vacate the city.

A second Antiochus figure (II Thes 2:3) will erect ‘an abomination of desolation’ on the site of the former Temple, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock now stand. The inhabitants 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, the houses of Jerusalem plundered, and half the city sent into exile along with the rest of the country. 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 (Job 42:10, Jer 29:12-14). Having rescued, God will enter into judgement with Israel in the ‘wilderness of the peoples’, face to face, as he did with their forefathers in the wilderness of Sinai (Ezek 20:34-38, 34:11-22). They will inherit the land after passing under his rod and walking 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 (a common metaphor, Ps 124, Isa 8:7f, Jer 47:2, Dan 9:26, 11:10). Furious that Israel survived these wars, the Devil turns to make war on the rest of the woman’s offspring, the followers of Jesus. Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran has indeed been infecting the whole region with hatred of Israel and Christianity. So has its rival, Saudi Arabia. The United States’ retaliation for the jihadist attack on the World Trade Center, directed against Iraq, which was not involved, only added fuel to the flames. Christian communities that had lived harmoniously with their neighbours for centuries became identified with the West and embroiled in civil wars between Muslim and Muslim. In Syria and Iraq, killing and migration have all but eradicated the Church.

In Europe the Accuser does not need to be coercive, for the Church pretends that there is no war and has no notion that the time is short. She makes love with the great prostitute that is under judgement, appearing in many respects more like her than like the Bride clothed with linen, bright and pure. As in the Middle East, she too is a shrinking remnant.

Although numbered the twelfth of 22 chapters, chapter 12 comes exactly half way through the Greek text and, as the table shows, encapsulates the whole of history, from Creation to Christ’s millennial reign.

 Rev 12   History   Date
 5   Promise concerning Eve’s offspring  
 4   Sons of God mix with human beings  
 4   Cataclysm  
 1   Jacob and his family  c. 1700 BC
 2   Persecution of Jews under Antiochus  168-164 BC
 5   Christ’s nativity and ascension  4 BC-AD 30
 6   Jews’ expulsion from Judaea  70, 135
 7-11   Europe’s Christianisation  to c. 1000
 13   Persecution of Jews  c.1000-1945
 14   Jewish migration to Palestine  1948-
 15-16   Arab-Israeli wars  1967, 1973
 17   Persecution of Christians  
 14   Jews fed the word of God 3½ years  
 5   Christ’s rule over all the nations  

Chapter 13, describing the two beasts, returns to the period covered by chapter 11, describing the two witnesses.