The Woman Seated on the Beast—Revelation 17

Studies in Revelation—Lesson 28

by Reta Halteman Finger 

Whore of Babylon by Hans Burgkmair the Elder
Hans Burgkmair the Elder “The Whore of Babylon; sitting on the seven-headed beast,
St John and the angel looking on from a cloud in top right corner.” From a series of
21 woodcuts of the Apocalypse for Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament
(Augsburg: S. Otmar, 1523). 1523 Woodcut. From Wikipedia, Colored by Wikipedia user Shakko

The powerful description of Babylon’s demise in Revelation 16:17-21 (see Lesson 26) is now elaborated in intense detail in Revelation 17. Although the chapter divisions suggest a new section begins here, Revelation 17 and 18 are still part of the seventh bowl, as can be seen in 17:1. Here an angel of the seven bowls invites John to observe the judgment upon Babylon from the vantage point of a “wilderness” (Rev 17:1-3).

New Testament scholar Eugene Boring notes that this angel’s invitation for John to “Come, I will show you the judgement of the great whore…”(v. 1) exactly parallels and parodies Revelation 21:9, where the angel invites John to “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Pp. 178-9). There is general agreement that “Babylon” is a metaphor for the city of Rome of John’s day, along with its various kings/emperors in Revelation 17:9-11.

Woman as glamorous prostitute

Since I am intentionally presenting these Bible studies from a feminist point of view, we shall examine in some detail John’s image of the woman as a “great whore who is seated on many waters” (v. 1; the Greek pornēs is translated “whore” in the NRSV and “prostitute” in the NIV). Feminists are rightly wary of women being called prostitutes. We know that sex slavery has existed from the beginning of human history. We know that prostitution is the last desperate occupation of destitute women forced to make a living on their own. We also assume that high-class courtesans may enjoy attracting wealthy men and getting as much flattery and money from them as possible.

But first, what do some current commentators think of John’s highly descriptive and negative image of this woman robed in purple and scarlet, astride a beast “full of blasphemous names”(v. 3)? If she is a metaphor for a city, why call her a whore—or even a woman?

Is John misogynist, feminist, or neutral?

The most radical perspective I have read is from Tina Pippin’s book, Death and Desire—about gender in John’s Apocalypse. Pippin does not like John very much, and she describes chapter 17 as a “grotesquely exaggerated vision of death and desire [that] accentuates the hatred of the imperial power—and of women. This story . . . is the most vividly misogynist passage in the New Testament” (p. 58). Pippin sees “the Whore of Babylon” as a mixed image. On one hand, she is evil because she is causing suffering through colonization of other peoples. On the other hand, having a woman represent a colonizing city is to link evil with the female sex (p. 59). Eventually, those kings who have desired to fornicate with her will hate her and will “eat her flesh and burn her up with fire” (v. 16).

However, another  feminist scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, sounds positively tame by comparison. In Revelation: Vision of a Just World, she comments that “such female imagery for cities utilizes conventional language because then, as today, cities and countries were grammatically construed as feminine. In addition,” she continues, “centuries before Revelation, the Hebrew prophets had employed the image of the bride, the wife, or the harlot” to characterize Jerusalem and Israel, as well as other nations and their capital cities (pp. 95-96).

Of the half dozen commentaries I have consulted on this topic, several echoed Schüssler Fiorenza’s conclusion and others ignored the issue entirely. But even though both Hebrew and Greek are gendered languages so that many nouns have no particular connotations, one might ask whether patriarchy might have shaped the very origins of these languages to identify cities as female, since they are created, ruled, and plundered by males.

Inverting the typical gender pattern

A fascinating article by James Benedict on “The Great Whore Cast Down” probes Greco-Roman culture with that issue in mind. The author first discusses archeological finds from Aphrodisias in Asia Minor, a city very close to where John’s churches were located. Here a temple was built to honor all the deified emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. A series of sculptured reliefs show achievements of the emperors, including their conquests of other nations, which are depicted as female. One of the relief panels honors the Emperor Claudius’s conquests of  Britain and presents him as a young, virile god, subduing a bare-breasted woman under his feet. Another depicts Nero with an abject, naked Armenia drooping before his muscular body.

Such representations, says Benedict, reinforce Greco-Roman notions of gender, with the female role secondary and inferior to that of males. Women existed to serve men. In fact, evidence from classical writers like Aristotle, Galen, and Philo suggests these men thought of humanity as a single gender, with the male as the ideal human and the female an inferior expression of it (p. 44). In their minds, the ideal Roman male had characteristics of courage, strength, action, and domination. Women were too emotional and lacking in self-control, so men needed to keep them in their place. In the same way, a “masculine” Rome had the right to dominate rebellious provinces, so sculptured reliefs like the ones described above reflected perfectly the sense of what was right and proper in the Roman empire.

What, then, is John saying when he inverts this pattern, and presents “masculine” Babylon/Rome as an emotional, drunken (17:6) female who will be eaten and burned by the kings of the very provinces Rome has been subduing (17:16)? Rather than agreeing with Roman sexism, John turns it on its head. The macho Empire becomes what it disdains.

In the next lesson, we will examine Revelation 17 in more detail and interact with the above feminist analyses.

Questions for discussion and reflection

1.  With which perspective do you most identify: Tina Pippin’s, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s, or James Benedict’s?

2.  If Benedict is right, is John being too clever by half and not really feminist at all?

3.  Can you think of ways in which the English language identifies cities or nations as feminine?


Sources used

Benedict, James. “The Great Whore Cast Down: Revelation 17-18 and the Imagery of Roman Conquest.” Brethren Life and Thought. Spring, 2016. Vol. 61, No. 1. Pp. 39-48.

Boring, Eugene. Revelation. Interpretation Commentary. John Knox Press, 1989.

Pippin, Tina. Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Apocalypse of John. John Knox Press, 1992.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Augsburg/Fortress, 1991.


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.