Studies in Revelation—Lesson 2
by Reta Halteman Finger
“War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back.”
This Scripture verse, Revelation 12:7, challenges our conventional Western Christian theology. There should not be war in heaven! God is in control of the universe, and even though God sometimes allows bad things to happen, everything will work out all right in the end.
No wonder many of us are bewildered by the book of Revelation!
The title, “Revelation,” is translated from the Greek word, apocalypse. It refers to something previously hidden that is now being revealed. “Apocalypse” is a distinct literary genre which uses symbolic language and imagery and is usually written under an assumed name. But dragons and beasts and other symbols reveal little to modern readers, so later lessons will provide a social context for interpretation.
“Apocalypticism” refers to an entire worldview which includes the literary aspects above, as well as an underlying dualistic theology. Below we will consider apocalypticism as a worldview and how it developed in reaction to an earlier Old Testament theology.
The importance of Deuteronomy
The historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings do not assume an apocalyptic worldview. Instead, they are written from a perspective called “deuteronomistic theology,” derived from Moses’s final speech to the Israelites as they are about to enter the land of Canaan. This is stated succinctly in Deuteronomy 30:15-20. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God…you shall live and become numerous” in the promised land. You will have “life and prosperity” (vv. 15-16). But if the people turn away to other gods, “you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land” you are entering to possess it. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (vv 17-19).
The book of Joshua illustrates the blessings. Moses’s successor obeys God, and the people move into Canaan. The book of Judges, however, proves the opposite point. Quality of life deteriorates as the Israelites fall away from Yahweh, and “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Although Samuel and King David are faithful, 1 and 2 Kings recount how the people and their leaders continually slide into idolatry until at last they are conquered by larger empires. Assyria swallows up the Northern Kingdom, and the Judeans in the South are exiled to Babylon.
Commentators in the NRSV Harper-Collins Study Bible note that these books (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings) are part of one long historical work that follows Moses’s farewell address in Deuteronomy 29 and 30. They were probably brought together as a unit during the time of King Hezekiah (late 8th century BCE) or King Josiah (640-609 BCE) in the Southern Kingdom, with final editing early in the Babylonian exile (589-538 BCE). Up to this point, deuteronomistic theology made sense to the biblical writers. Exile was the curse and punishment for their idolatry.
An apocalyptic worldview develops
The Judeans were eventually allowed to return to their homeland, but life was never easy. Prophecy ceased around 450 BCE, after Malachi. Alexander the Great’s military campaign brought Greek culture and language to the known world beginning around 330 BCE. Before long, Jews in Palestine were again dominated by larger kingdoms—first by the Ptolemaic Greeks who ruled Egypt, then by the more oppressive Seleucid Greeks who ruled Syria. By 170 BCE, conservative Jews joined the Maccabean family to revolt against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV. They did regain the Temple, but many died in the process.
As law-observant Israelites endured foreign occupations, they began to question deuteronomistic theology. “If we are obeying God’s commandments, why are we still suffering?” Thus, a dualistic worldview developed. There are both good and evil powers in the world, and the righteous can expect to suffer under evil oppression. But if God’s people are faithful, God will “soon” come to the rescue and establish a new age of peace and plenty.
This changing theology provided fertile ground for apocalyptic writing. It explains why the righteous suffer, and why God is at war with the powers of evil. Apocalypses reveal a spiritual reality beyond present earthly existence and create hope that God and God’s people will ultimately triumph.
Apocalypse versus prophecy
Many Jewish apocalypses, besides the book of Revelation, were written between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Among them are the book of Daniel; 1, 2, 3 Enoch; 2 and 3 Baruch; and Apocalypses of Abraham, Adam, and Elijah; but only Daniel is canonical. And all except Revelation are pseudepigraphical—meaning that they are attributed to some great hero from the past. The reason for this attribution is that it is easier to predict the past than the future. For example, the story of Daniel is set in the 6th century BCE, but the events described fit with events taking place in the the 2nd century BCE. Daniel 11:1-45 accurately describes the rise of Antiochus IV—up until verse 40, after which the predictions are wrong. That is why this writing can be dated to about 165 BCE, in which case, according to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Daniel may be “the latest book in the Hebrew Bible.”
Apocalypses draw ideas and imagery from some of the Old Testament prophets, such as Isaiah 24–27, Ezekiel 38–39, and Zechariah 5–6 and 9–14. But apocalyptic and prophetic writing are not the same. Apocalypses are always written— not originally spoken, as is the case with the oracles of most Old Testament prophets. These prophets reacted to current events and warned Israel or Judah of punishment for idolatry or mistreating the poor. Their scattered oracles were later reduced to writing and do not present a narrative the way apocalyptic literature does.
The next lesson will highlight the apocalyptic worldview of the New Testament.
Questions for discussion and reflection
1. How might today’s “prosperity gospel” compare with the Old Testament deuteronomistic theology?
2. Conservative Christians assume Daniel was written in the 6th century BCE. How would this affect the above understanding of an apocalyptic worldview?
3. What further questions arise for you from this discussion?