Making Sense of Apocalyptic Writing

I avoided studying, and even reading ‘end time’ Scripture for most of my faith journey. Growing up, I would hear some of the most fantastic ideas and theories about the end times. I’d hear others enjoy lively debates about end times, pre-trib this, post-trib that, it just seemed like everyone was guessing and throwing darts so I steered clear.

This past year, it’s been fascinating to dig into the various genres of scripture. Scripture, history and culture truly make lovely bedfellows. What the biblical authors intended to communicate, what the original readers understood, are often, I’m learning, so significantly missed by our 21st century western experience.

One example is the rich symbolism and metaphoric language embedded in the Old Testament, and in pagan mythology of the day. For a short interpretative exercise this week, we had to study Revelation 13. I’m pasting below some of my initial findings related to inter-textuality, or how John’s use of Daniel, Hosea and the like are weaved into a synthesized, monolithic ‘beast’, the worldly opposing forces throughout the ages which Israel, and now the Church are up against, and continue to ‘battle’ until Christ’s return ushers in the victory already secured through our victorious Lamb!

The most striking inter-textual connections in Revelation 13 for me are the descriptions of the beast rising out of the sea. Specifically I focused on verse 2 with the symbolism of the leopard, bear and lion.

Proverbs 28:15 says, “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
    is a wicked ruler over a helpless people.”

There are actually many surprising combination references in the OT which combine lions and bears as Israel’s foreign overlords at different periods of their history. As far back as 1 Samuel 17:34-36 when David is before the Philistine giant, he essentially calls Goliath and his nation a lion and bear.

Lamentations 3:10 is another interesting passage in which the writer laments that God is like a bear lying in wait, and a lion in hiding, ready to pounce in judgement due to their apostasy. God has a history of using foreign actors to bring his judgement to Israel.

Hosea 13:7-8, I think, might be a key in understanding what the first century would have thought about Revelation 13 and the emerging beast. Hosea’s ministry took place well before the Babylonian exile and destruction of Solomon’s Temple. The prophet warns, “so I will become like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk along the way.”

Daniel, in his famous chapter 7 description of four different beasts, I think, is borrowing from Hosea’s vision of emerging political forces and captors. John then seems to synthesize them. While we can guess at which animal represents which world power (e.g. Persian/Mede bear, Alex the Great Hellenistic leopard), it seems as though John is borrowing a range of OT texts and ideas to symbolize something a historic but now ongoing reality for the Jewish / Gentile church as well?

Both Daniel’s and John’s beast arrive by surfacing from the sea (Dan 7:3, Rev 13:1). Both Daniel’s and John’s beast speaks arrogantly, and breath threats against God’s people (Dan 7:8, 11, Rev 13:5). Daniel clearly interprets the four beasts as political powers/kings (7:17).  I think it would be quite difficult for John’s original audience, particularly those familiar with the Book of Hosea/Daniel to conjure up meanings for John’s beast beyond it’s past and present political, oppressive powers – especially with Rome at the height of its glory! 

I’m learning that “symbols do not conceal; they reveal” (Achtemeire 2001, 561). In the inter-textuality of the beasts symbolism, I’m seeing “words, deeds, symbols, pointing forward and backward constantly throughout the Bible” (Clifford PDF, p.16).

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