Revelation 12:1-17—Part Two: Female Imagery in Revelation

Studies in Revelation: Lesson 22

by Reta Halteman Finger

Woman of the Apocalypse
An illustration of the woman of the Apocalypse in Hortus deliciarum (redrawing of an illustration dated c. 1180), depicting various events from the narrative in Revelations 12 in a single image. Public Domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

The heavenly woman of Revelation 12:1-17 calls for more attention, just as great literature often demands more than one reading before we can fully absorb it. While researching and writing the first draft of this lesson, I realized that our extraordinary woman was not the lone female in the story. Several more emerged. My wonderful editor, Letha Scanzoni, suggested I center my thoughts around them.  Thus this lesson will further probe the meaning of this “great portent” that appeared in heaven and how that meaning is conveyed through female imagery.

Female contrasts with female

A “portent” signals a future event of great significance. Wearing the sun, moon, and stars (Rev. 12: 1), this woman is a majestic queen whose garments characterize her inner traits. Absent from this vignette— but very present in chapters 17 and 18 of Revelation— is her opposite:  the “great whore” who is clothed in purple and scarlet (17:4; 18:16). Both women are queens, but the second is a parody of the first. Later we shall learn much more about her.

The astral woman also wears a crown of twelve stars. Twelve is the number of completeness associated with the twelve tribes of Israel. That number will be repeated again in the description of another female, “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” in Revelation 21:9-14. This bride is a city, the heavenly Jerusalem, which has twelve gates and twelve angels at the gates, and the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the gates. It has twelve foundations, “and on them are the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (21:9; 21:12-14).

The spiritual root of evil

The red dragon, the color of blood and violence (see Rev. 6:4), symbolizes evil. Charles Talbert’s commentary characterizes evil in the various ways it was understood by the Jews and early Christians. Beyond the sins of individuals living in the present, evil included “an accumulated bundle from the past sins of individuals whose presence is still felt” (Talbert refers to texts in four apocalypses from that time period of 200 BCE to 100 CE). “Evil was further entrenched in the institutional structures of human life (Daniel).” But it was more than that. “Evil has a spiritual root that is the ground for all the manifestations of human evil. This spiritual root or ground of evil was conceptualized in the myth of a fallen angel, Satan” (Talbert, The Apocalypse, p. 49), which is described in the inter-testamental Testament of Moses and in 1 Qumran Scroll 3:20-22. Satan, then, is the parody of God, who is the spiritual ground of all goodness and justice.

God as Mother Eagle

As noted in the last lesson, time slips around in the second section of Revelation 12 (verses 7-12). The dragon, as Satan, was thrown out of heaven but he still ravages the earth. In the third section (12:13-17), John uses varied imagery from the Exodus to portray the woman as ancient Israel fleeing slavery in Egypt. She is given “two wings of the great eagle,” as Israel’s flight was characterized in Exodus 19:4 and Deuteronomy 32:11. Although the noun “eagle” is linguistically masculine in both Hebrew and Greek, it is the female eagle carrying her fledgling chicks on her wings that is described in these tender texts. And as the Israelites in the wilderness were fed with manna, water, and quail, here the woman herself is “nourished” in the wilderness for a limited amount of time—represented by half the perfect number of seven (See Rev. 12:6,14).

The earth as Gaia

As “the serpent” vindictively pours a rushing river from his mouth “to sweep [the woman] away with the flood” (Rev. 12:15), we meet another female. Here Earth is personified as a woman (Ge [pronounced “gay”] is a feminine noun in Greek). Coming to the rescue, she swallows the water (Rev. 12:16), much as the earth made a dry path for the Israelites through the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-22). James L. Resseguie notes that the serpent’s destructive river contrasts with “the river of the water of life…flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb” in Revelation 22:1 (Resseguie, The Revelation of John, pp. 176-177).

The enigmatic woman and her children

A question remains: if the woman represents the church in Revelation 12:17, what does John mean by “the rest of her children” in that same verse? This puzzle has pushed some authors to consider other identities for the woman. But we must remember our apocalyptic double perspective. From “above,” the church—represented by the woman as heavenly queen—is ultimately protected by God from the dragon and his destructive flood. Yet individual believers of the church on earth (the “rest of her children”) still suffer and die physically from the “below” point of view. Thus the imagery of protection in Revelation 12 is similar to the sealing of believers in Revelation 7 (Lesson 14), as well as the mingled “above” and “below “points of view in 11:1-2 (Lesson 18).

In an earlier commentary, Martin Kiddle shows how the wilderness, as the spiritual home of the church on earth (Rev. 12:13-17), contrasts with the great city of “Babylon,” where God is absent and the “Beast” reigns (12:18–13:18). This paradox characterizes the present situation of the church. Though she lives in Babylon, her spiritual home is the desert or wilderness on the margins of society (Kiddle, p.236).

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. Can you identify all the females mentioned or inferred in Revelation 12?
  2. If the astral queen represents the church, can she also stand for Mary as the first believer and mother of the church?
  3. In this picture of good versus evil, the dragon—though thrown out of heaven—remains far more powerful on earth than the church. Is this still true today? Can you name specific examples?
  4. In order to better understand Revelation and the New Testament, should we be learning more about the inter-testamental writings even if they are not viewed as inspired in the same sense as our scriptures?

Sources used:

Kiddle, Martin. The Revelation of St. John. Moffatt New Testament Commentary. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940. P. 236.

Resseguie, James L. The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009. Pp. 170-178.

Talbert, Charles H. The Apocalypse: A Reading on the Revelation of John. Westminster John Knox, 1994. P. 49.

 

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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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