Studies in Revelation—Lesson 24
by Reta Halteman Finger
“Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion!” The monsters of chapter 13 now give way to another interlude in Revelation 14. In Revelation 14:1-5, we are reintroduced to a vision of the 144,000 followers of the Lamb whom we first met in Revelation 7. This glimpse of an alternate reality in Revelation 14 is meant to encourage believers living in the “beastly” reign of the Roman Empire which was alluded to in the last lesson (chapter 13). Reading these contrasting visualizations just after October 31 and the first Sunday in November makes me wonder if the medieval church patterned All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day in the church calendar after the sequence of Revelation 13 and 14!
Chapter 14 is rife with metaphor. A harvest theme of judgment continues throughout, from the redeemed 144,000, who are identified as the “first-fruits for God and the Lamb” in verse 4b, to the reaping of the grain in 14-16 and the gathering of the grapes in 17-20.
But in this lesson, we will focus only on the first five verses of Revelation 14 because some images need additional unpacking—especially those related to gender!
Where is Mount Zion?
The vision in Revelation 14 begins with the Lamb standing on Mount Zion with the 144,000. David M. Barr uses Revelation 7—the counting of the 144,000—as an illustration of intercalation (a literary device in which a symbol is inserted at different places. See Lesson 12). He points out that the earlier chapter 7 event actually belongs with chapter 14. Along with the previous vision in 5:1-14, various phrases tie these texts together into a more complete picture of eternal rejoicing. The words to the “new song” the 144,000 are singing in 14:3 are recorded in 5:9-10, although each of these three visions includes unnumbered choirs singing praises to God and to the Lamb. The 144,000 are identified by the names of God and the Lamb written on their foreheads (14:1; 7:3), in contrast to the required display of the “mark of the beast” by those living under the reign of the beast in 13:16.
Although Mount Zion surely evokes memories of the Jerusalem temple for Jewish believers in his churches, John is referring to the same heavenly realm as in 5:6; the saints audition their new song “before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders” (14:3). Zion is a spiritual sanctuary like the measured temple in Revelation 11:1 and the wilderness in 12:14. It contrasts ideologically with Babylon, which is also built on mountains (Rev. 17:9; Resseguie, 193-194). The language is symbolic.
Unfortunately, in modern times Mount Zion has taken on literal, geographical, and political meanings for Christian Zionists. This dangerously misguided method of interpretation will be discussed in later lessons.
Who are the virginal 144,000?
The most jarring aspect of this paragraph lies in the identity of the 144,000. They are all “virgins who have not defiled themselves with women” (verse 4). A surface reading feels like a body blow. Only celibate men are worthy to stand with the Lamb. Even worse, all women are unclean, causing men to be defiled, and unfit to be among the redeemed.
Every source I have used comments on this startling text. A biblical feminist scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in Revelation: Vision of a Just World, does not believe John is speaking about actual women. Instead, his vision constantly uses metaphors and symbols, not one-to-one meanings. Furthermore, there are no other misogynist references in Revelation. She compares this statement to a similar one by Philo, a Jewish first-century philosopher, who “uses the grammatically masculine term virgins similarly in a metaphorical sense for God’s people, male and female” (p. 88; Philo, De Cherub, 49-50). Nor is literal celibacy stressed anywhere else in Revelation.
Most scholars agree with Schüssler Fiorenza that “virgins” is metaphorical and includes both women and men. Many texts from the Hebrew prophets use “fornication” when they speak of spiritual and religious idolatry. Hosea, for example, pictures Israel’s idolatry in terms of sexual infidelity. Israel, as the wife, rejects her husband, Yahweh, and commits fornication with other gods. In Revelation, John understands the virgins (male and female) as followers of the Lamb keeping themselves pure from the idolatry of the Roman culture around them in order to prepare for the marriage of the Lamb (19:7-9; 21:9). (See Metzger, p. 78; Talbert, p. 61; Boring, p. 169).
Another possibility is holy war. In ancient Israel, men preparing for war followed special rules of ceremonial purity, one of which was abstaining from sexual relations (see Deuteronomy 23:9-11; 1 Samuel 21:5). The virgins of Revelation 14:4, then, abstain from spiritual adultery (Talbert, 60-61; Grimsrud, 105; Resseguie, 195). Although abstaining from sex during holy war was temporary, these virgins of both genders remain constantly faithful by worshiping only the Lamb.
The bodies of women in Revelation
Both above explanations may be true, but John’s language raises a larger question: why is faithfulness to God expressed in sexual imagery—especially when it implies that the female is the one committing fornication or contaminating the male? In her book, Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Apocalypse of John, Tina Pippin comments on the general absence of positive portrayals of women in this writing. Concerning Revelation 14:4, she says, “Women’s bodies are seen as negative and capable of defiling the men.” We can logically infer, then, “that the New Jerusalem, God’s future world, will exclude females!” (pp. 70-71).
Pippin may sound extreme to some, but her strong language points to a larger reality: the book of Revelation—and indeed the entire Bible—reflects a cultural perspective that is relentlessly patriarchal and male-oriented. From that male perspective, women are often portrayed as either voiceless, passive vessels expected to bear sons for their husbands, or as seductive prostitutes. There are various exceptions, of course, and Jewish and Christian feminists have unearthed and highlighted many of them. But unless they are exceptional, most women are, essentially, absent.
Revelation provides few positive examples apart from the astral woman of chapter 12—although as we saw in lesson 22, there were several less obvious allusions to other positive female images in that same chapter. But at the same time, there is no denying that the woman prophet “Jezebel” in 2:20 and the “whore of Babylon” in chapter 17 are both depicted as seductive idolaters enticing men to do the same.
In these lessons, we are coming to see how John’s other-worldly vision is shaped by his personal experience and deep knowledge of his scriptures. Like all the biblical authors, the author of Revelation is not immune to the patriarchal cast of his culture. Just as the language used by members of any privileged group reflects assumptions of rights and advantages they may have over other groups, so John writes out of his male-oriented worldview. As Christian feminists, we believe God encompasses all genders and accepts all genders equally. Can we use forbearance and see truth and beauty in John’s vision while at the same time acknowledging his male-oriented limitations?
Questions for discussion and reflection
- How would you answer that last question? What is your gut-level reaction to the implied sexism in Revelation 14:4?
- What positive aspects do you see in Revelation 14:1-5? Why does John stress in verse 5 that the 144,000 do not lie? How might this speak to your current cultural and political context?
- What do you know or believe about Christian Zionism? What relevance does it have to Revelation, if any?
Barr, David L. New Testament Story: An Introduction. Wadsworth, 4th edition, 2009. P. 447.
Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation Commentaries. John Knox, 1989. Pp. 168-169.
Grimsrud, Ted. Triumph of the Lamb. Herald, 1987. P. 105.
Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Abingdon, 1993. Pp. 77-78.
Pippin, Tina. Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Apocalypse of John. Westminster John Knox, 1992. Pp. 70-71.
Resseguie, James L. The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009. Pp. 194-196.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Proclamation Commentaries. Augsburg Fortress, 1991. P. 88.
Talbert, Charles H. The Apocalypse: A Reading of the Revelation of John. Westminster John Knox, 1994. Pp. 60-61.