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 the Jews to their ancestral land.

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 torment of giving birth.

The imagery evokes the originally created sun, moon and twelve planets of the solar system, one purpose of which was to act as signs on earth (Gen 1:14). The sun rises in front of the constellation Virgo while the moon lies below its feet, 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’, in contrast to the goddess worshipped by Israel in Jeremiah’s day (Jer 7:18, 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 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 precede the birth of this first child, begotten from above.

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 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, ‘monster of the deep.’ Moses’ staff when he threw it on the ground (Ex 4:3) became a nahash, or snake, but when Aaron threw it in front of Pharaoh it became a tannin (Ex 7:10, LXX: drakωn) which in context must denote a crocodile. In Ezekiel (29:3, 32:2) the Pharaoh is himself called a tannin or crocodile. Nahash and tannin are also interchangeable in Isaiah 27:1, where they refer to the final manifestation of the dragon.

Since his appearance as a legged snake in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3), Satan has acquired many heads, indicating his sovereignty over the kingdoms into which, eventually, the post-Cataclysm world divided. As interpreted here, the seven heads symbolise the successive empires that interacted with Israel and/or its land, namely 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. Early on, four of the planets exploded into the fragments we call comets and asteroids (aster being Greek for ‘star’). Some of the fragments from the innermost explosion, between Mars and Jupiter, hit the Earth, including those that pummelled the Earth during the Cataclysm and the close to 200 that left craters on today’s younger crust. The physical realm mirrors events in the invisible realm. The stars represent angels that left their celestial habitation to copulate with women and were subsequently cast into the abyss deep under the earth (Gen 6:4, II Pet 2:4, Jude 6). After the Cataclysm some of the angels still in heaven encouraged men to worship them, and in return men received power that enabled them to rule as kings.

The first such potentate was Nimrod, identifiable as Uruk’s Enmerkar, who united Mesopotamia’s cities into a single state. Another such, much later in history, was Antiochus IV, king of a Hellenic empire that stretched from Turkey to Iran and south as far as Palestine. Like some earlier potentates, he claimed to be a deity – possibly Zeus himself – in human form. In 168 BC, after a successful campaign to add Egypt to his empire, a Roman delegation confronted him outside Alexandria and forced him to back off.The inscription reads King Antiochus, God manifest, bearer of victory It was a bitter humiliation. Retreating to Palestine, he put down a rebellion, massacred tens of thousands and sold as many more into slavery – by no means the last occasion when Rachel was to weep for her children. In 167 BC he sacked the capital Jerusalem and gave the Temple over to the worship of Zeus. He desecrated its altar by offering a pig on it, an animal the Law classified as unclean. This outrage was the foretold ‘abomination that makes desolate’ (Dan 8:13, 11:31, 12:11). In the course of promoting Greek culture throughout the empire, he must 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 a basis for hope. The Serpent would have spiritual offspring of his own (Matt 13:38, John 8:44), but her offspring would be in conflict with them, and one of her sons would deal him a fatal blow, albeit at a cost.

And the dragon stands before the woman about to give birth, so that when she should bear her child he may devour it. And she gave birth to a son, a male, one 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 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 was especially significant, being the offspring promised from the beginning and promised again to Abraham (Gal 3:19), David (2 Sam 7:12) and Isaiah (Isa 9:6, 49:1). He was not only a son of Adam or ‘like a son of Adam’, his father was God himself (Ps 2). Of his kingdom there would be no end (Luke 1:33). Therefore the child addressed her in life not simply as ‘Mother’ but as ‘Woman’ (John 2:4, 19:26), the archetypal woman.

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. No believer in Scripture himself, he summoned the theologians and asked them if they could help the magi with their quest: where did the Prophets say the Messiah would be born? “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,
Therefore he will give them up until the time when she who is in travail has given birth and the remnant of his brothers will return to 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. (Mic 5:3f)

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 Judah and Israel be reunited, 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: think of 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 that 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 indeterminate ‘until’ remains in the future. In the meantime there was to be terrible suffering. Unable to accept the harsh rule of the Romans, the Jews rebelled, so that in AD 70 Titus laid siege to the capital, and five months later levelled the city. In a subsequent revolt, the Romans slaughtered more than half a million Jewish 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, another third were struck down in the country beyond the city, 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 (also Rev 17:3).

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 place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown out, the ancient serpent, 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 say in heaven, “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 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, you heavens and those who sojourn in them! But woe to earth and 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, Dan 10:13) 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, even 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. All the kingdoms of the world, their authority and their glory, 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. 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 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 such as the Vikings and Magyars that had long plagued Christian Europe around the periphery. 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 of them around the turn of the millennium.

Angels are involved in the struggle between good and evil that plays out in the visible (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 exercising spiritual power without his authority (Deut 32:8, 43, Ps 82), ruling through the nation’s king. The 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, 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 depicted in Rev 1:13, 10:1, 14:14 and 18:1) with authority to rule the nations.

“Rejoice, O heavens and those who sojourn in them!” – a call to the angels above and the saints on earth, spiritually seated in the heavens (Eph 2:6, Heb 12:22). All previous occurrences of ‘heaven’ have been singular. Now, this once, 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. But 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. 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, providentially, Palestine was designated as 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 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). The Jews were driven from their land two thousand years ago because they did not recognise him. Even today few recognise him, and those in Israel, 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 is part of the wilderness (cf. Isa 64:10) and Jerusalem part of the great city (Rev 11:8).

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 24:32-34) The fig tree symbolised Judah, planted within the vineyard of Israel so that it might bear fruit (Hos 9:10, Joel 1:7, Luke 13:6-9). Jesus had cursed the physical tree because it was barren (Matt 21:19), just as Judah had not borne the fruit he was looking for. It was to bear little fruit even after the apostles had, spiritually speaking, dug manure into the soil (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 (the Church, I Pet 2:9), as happened forty years later. But there would come a time when it would sprout a branch and again put out 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). 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? First, however, Jerusalem will once more come under Gentile occupation (Dan 7:25, Rev 11:2). 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 king just before the end (Dan 7:25, 12:7). Analogous to the ‘seven times’ – seven months or years – during which Nebuchadrezzar lost his mind (Dan 4:16), it must denote three and a half years, equal to the 1260 days mentioned previously. Then two men speaking in the power of Moses and Elijah will appear in the city and feed the people with the word. They will make ready a people prepared, so that they welcome his return (Luke 13:35).

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. At that point 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, the women raped and half the city sent into exile along with the rest of the population. Then God will intervene. He will break the yoke of their burden as on the day of Midian. 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 his people 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, cf. Ps 124, Isa 8:7f, Jer 47:2, Dan 9:26, 11:10), just as Egypt hoped to destroy Israel at the Red Sea. 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.