Studies in Revelation—Lesson 21
by Reta Halteman Finger
The stars must be aligned! Last weekend my congregation, Community Mennonite Church, enjoyed its annual fall retreat. Our speaker was Isaac Villegas, a feminist pastor from North Carolina, who centered his talks around the theme, “Love, Joy, and Resistance: Practicing the politics of Mary in the face of empire.”
Sunday morning’s worship at the lakeside brought the Lukan story of Mary together with the astral woman of Revelation 12. Before Pastor Isaac’s poetic homily, our lead pastor, Jennifer Davis-Sensenig, dramatically performed Revelation 12, a beloved text she had memorized. In closing, a young woman from the audience read Mary’s song of praise from Luke 1:46-55—having changed all the masculine pronouns for God into “she” and “her.” “The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is her name!” (Try it yourself sometime!) It was a worship service to be remembered.
The kingdom has come—then what?
After our interlude pondering America’s hurricanes in the last lesson, let’s return to John’s vision. But Revelation 12:1-17 signals a major shift in the narrative. Until now, seven letters have been read, seven seals opened, and seven trumpets blown—and the kingdom has arrived in 11:15-18! So how do the woman and the dragon relate to what came before?
Note first that the several series of sevens have disappeared for the next four chapters. Instead, this central section of Revelation will make more sense if we focus on recapitulation and intercalation—the two techniques used in organizing material that were introduced in Lesson 12 of this series. David Barr cites Revelation 12 as a prime example of recapitulation—recapping or repeating a particular concept by using new symbols. Now that the kingdom has come in 11:15-18, what happens next?
But Revelation is not always concerned about the “next”; it is not chronological. Rather, as Barr puts it, the kingdom “seems to come and go, for chapter 12 opens with a new vision of conflict carrying us back in time to the birth of Jesus, and further to the Exodus and the Garden of Eden. This flashback may be interpreted as John’s attempt to provide a new image for the coming of the kingdom. It is as if he were saying, ‘Now that you have seen the coming of the kingdom, let me show you how it happened.’ He is recapitulating the meaning of earlier images by showing what brought about the kingdom: the birth of the Messiah” (New Testament Story: An Introduction, p. 447).
Earthly time and heavenly timelessness
But the story within chapter 12 includes further chronological slippage. The first six verses take place on earth, as do verses 13-17. But inserted in between these two earthly scenes is an astonishing scene that takes place in heaven. This is an example of intercalation. It’s as though we’re watching a newscast that suddenly switches to something viewers need to know that comes from another location (“We now take you to. . .), then returns to the original location. The outline of this material is A-B-A’ (where A is verses 1-6, B is 7-12, and A’ is 13-17). The intercalated B scene depicts an epic war in heaven between Michael and his angels against the dragon and his angels. The dragon, called the “Devil and Satan” (12:9) is defeated and thrown to the earth. In 12:10 he is also “the accuser,” reminding the audience of Job 1:6-12 and 2:1-6, where Satan functions as prosecuting attorney against Job. In this timeless intercalation, the faithful already have conquered the dragon by the “blood of the Lamb” (12:11). But when the action leaves the B scene in heaven and returns to earth in A’, time shifts backward to the dragon’s pursuit of the woman (12:13), and then of her other children (the church?) in verse 17.
In Revelation 13:1 and 13:11, this dragon will metamorphose into two beasts—recalling a previous intercalation from 11:7, where “the beast from the bottomless pit” makes war on the two witnesses of 11:3-7. Do not read this apocalypse chronologically!
Who is the queen of heaven?
Who is this majestic, pregnant queen who shines like the sun? The most obvious response is Mary giving birth to Jesus, the Messiah. If so, John collapses earthly time, because “her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne” (v. 5), a reference to Jesus’s ascension and exaltation. But the woman may also symbolize Israel escaping from slavery in Egypt. Or as Barr hints above, she is Eve, “the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20).
The feminist biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is even more expansive: “the myth of the queen of heaven with the divine child was internationally known at the time of John” (Revelation: Vision of a Just World, p. 80). Variations of the myth appear in Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor, especially in texts about astral religion. The myth involves the goddess and the divine child, the “great red dragon” who pursues them, and the motif of their protection. In the cities of Asia Minor of John’s day, the goddess Roma was worshiped as the queen of heaven and mother of the gods. Her child was Apollo, the sun-god, who was incarnated in each subsequent Roman emperor. Roma’s oldest temple stood in Smyrna, and a coin from Pergamum shows Roma with the divine emperor (Fiorenza, p. 80).
John re-interprets these pagan myths and adapts them to his Jewish hopes and expectations. The labor pains of the woman allude to Israel-Zion mentioned in the prophets Isaiah (26:16-19; 54:1; 66:7-9) and Micah (4:9-10). The child, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5) derives from Psalm 2:7-9. The dragon, “that ancient serpent” (Rev. 12:9) symbolizes an oppressor nation like Egypt (Psalm 74:12-14) or its Pharaoh (Ezekiel 32:2ff) or Babylon (Isaiah 27:1) (See Fiorenza, pp. 80-81).
This chapter is so rich in multivalent imagery that we need the next lesson to fill in the sketch outlined thus far. What do the numbers and the colors symbolize? Why the astrological description of the woman? What further allusions does John include? And much more.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- What parallels can you find between this version of the salvation story and the intercalation of Revelation 11:1-13?
- Whom do you think the woman in this chapter best represents? In this apocalypse dominated by males, what can she offer to Christian feminists?
Barr, David L. “The Dawn of a New Day.” New Testament Story: An Introduction. Wadsworth, 2009, p. 447.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Proclamation Commentaries. Augsburg Fortress, 1991, pp. 80-81.