Revelation 12 & Symbolic Imagery

As part of a little study this week with my cohort, we were each assigned some passages and symbols in John’s Revelation to study historically and culturally. I reviewed the dragon, serpent in eagle’s wings. A short commentary below, on the conclusion of an incredible course at Fuller on the New Testament for which I will be forever grateful. The lamb that what slain, rules over all the kingdoms of this earth! Completely new perspective on what was an extremely, mysterious final book in the canon. So much more to learn!

Copyright: Phillip Medhurst – Mortier’s Bible. Phillip Medhurst Collection

The red dragon (12:3) who is made synonymous with the serpent (12:9) is revealed to be Satan. Set against the good in this cosmic battle, these evil archetypes “are found in virtually every ancient religion, such as Egyptian red dragon Set, Ugartitic serpent Leviathan, and Graeco-Roman dragon Python” (Osborne 2002, loc 3250). John’s use of the pagan symbols “is an astonishing example of communicating the Christian faith through an internationally known symbol” (The New Century Bible Commentary, 192). By revealing the dragon and serpent are in fact Satan from the Old Testament, John is synthesizing the Jewish creation story. “By using this vehicle of expression John has at a stroke claimed the fulfillment of pagan hope and Old Testament promise in the Christ of the Gospel” (Aune 1998, 196). 

Regarding the Eagle’s wings which were given to the woman (12:14), this seems to reference the active protection and delivering work of God over Israel, particularly alluding to the Exodus. Jewish readers would easily recognize the eagles’ wings as God’s protection in connection with the provision of a wilderness (Ex 19:4, Dt 1:31, 32:11-12). “The faithful are told they will soar on wings like eagles” (Osborne 2002, loc 3502). Like the serpent and dragon however, the pagan world would be familiar with the concept of a woman-bird creature, known as a Harpy in Greek literature. 

Using the language of serpent, dragon, and eagles’ wings, we see the author appealing to both pagan and Jewish history. In this way, “the symbols do not conceal; they reveal” (Achtemeire 2001, 561) and would be contextually understood meanings within the overall ancient cosmic battle myth.

This past week I learned that selected imagery in Revelation is rooted in either Old Testament or pagan world stories, and in some cases both simultaneously! Because of this, much more emphasis for a modern reader should be placed on becoming familiar with what the original reader would recognize by default. Revelation is intended to be a consoling book for believers under the persecution and oppression under Rome during AD 60-80AD. John roots the reader in the present struggles with what is reverberating through the unseen principalities and powers. The “power political, social and economic forces” (Achtemeire 2001, 586) aren’t taking place in a vacuum. The colorful allegories and metaphors, warnings and instructions work together “wake up its readers” (587) both in John’s day, but also believers throughout history, reminding us that though the ongoing battle may results in temporary suffering in this life, the Lamb is ultimately victorious, and we may trust fully in Him who sits on the throne!

References

Aune, David E. 1998. Revelation 6-16. Grand Rapids: Zondervan 
Osborne, Grant. Revelation. BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.

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