Beyond the Lectionary Text: Revelation 12:1-17
by Marc Nelesen
Older preaching audiences are going to be more challenged by Revelation’s images than younger ones. Younger audiences have been shaped by apocalyptic television and movie images which include tsunamis higher than skyscrapers, seismic yawns that swallow whole cities, and asteroids whose impact effectively uncreate creation. Younger hearers have had an early childhood curriculum that has made them spectators to airplanes flying into towers, school massacres, and precision drone strikes. They have had a front-row seat on apocalyptic events and need no explanation. Meaning is found over time by the slow absorption that comes through lingering. They are familiar with the script of taking time to interpret; that interpretation is much different than another generation’s need to have something explained. Wise preachers might even choose to make this observation prior to reading the text.
Multigenerational congregations will not hear this text in the same ways, so you must be aware and address those differences. One of those differences may very well be that the preacher enacts the text in ways where hearers can hear it, see it, and experience it. Others in the listening audience may not care about the text’s images other than wanting those pictures translated into meaning. Those congregants who have more mileage often want to know what each image and symbol means, and might presume that each image has a specific and particular reference point. Those who preach and teach this text would be wise to know the tendencies of their hearers.
While I am not necessarily a fan of sports analogies in the pulpit, professional teams’ names and emblems are helpful in a reading of John’s Apocalypse. When a TV host announces that the Bears and the Lions will do battle together on a Sunday afternoon or Monday evening, no spectator is expecting to see four-legged beasts, claws, or fur flying. Yet “everyone” knows what that announcer means. Even the disinterested likely have “skin in the game”. The attention and reach of such events have alerted a wide audience to the more nuanced meaning of the Sunday afternoon battle.
In a similar vein, when someone in the US speaks of “old man winter”, “mother nature”, “Jack Frost” or the White House, they are trying to find a way to speak to large forces and powers in simple ways. John does something similar. Whether he does this to mimic the apocalyptic literature of his day or whether the apocalyptic style offers interpretive freedom and portability for interpretation, we don’t know. Irrespective, he appropriates the form and style before us and its offer is a thematic and theological one. Like a parable, it is grounded in being literarily real more than being literal or merely historical. It carries much heavier freight than simply being factual; to put that kind of restraint on the text actually limits it.
Much could be said about the rich themes that lie underneath Revelation 12 that come from other places. One cannot read Revelation without seeing the images of the plagues on Egypt, and hearing and remembering the storyline of the Exodus. In each story, a cosmic contest is taking place which continues to have cataclysmic impact on the creation. In the Exodus story, the vantage point tends to be from the ground up; in Revelation, the camera view is just the opposite.
So for preachers who wish to “get at” the text, doing so is probably more about unpacking than understanding. This will take more effort and may require what Richard Hayes refers to as “reading backwards”. This orientation acknowledges that the New Testament author has something to say, but that s/he also reads that message by using ancient texts as a lens and a resource for interpretation.
Read backwards, the dragon – whose antecedent is likely in Dan 7 – is now named as the devil and Satan. For the first time in the bible, he is read into the shrewd serpent of Genesis 3 and is now also personified. The woman of Revelation 12 gives birth to a son in the presence of the nations (Isaiah 66) and this birth will be a sign of justice and judgment. He is given a crushing iron scepter – a scepter coming straight from Psalm 2. Unlike the sword of Gryffindor in the Harry Potter books that comes at a time of need, this scepter comes to the Son because he is worthy. In Revelation 12, the young mother flees to the wilderness like Israel, and is given eagles’ wings (Ex 19:4) to aid her escape.
So John’s vision orchestrates attention to a familiar storyline, though the storyline comes not from the Bible, but from the culture of the day. First readers of John’s Apocalypse would recognize the story of the birth of Apollo in chapter 12. In the Grecian version of the story, the goddess Leto is impregnated by Zeus. Upon learning that this unborn son would one day destroy him, Python sought to kill the unborn child and his mother. Poseidon intervenes and carries pregnant Leto to an island in the sea. After all this, Python gave up the search for the child and his mother. After Apollo’s safe birth, he pursued the threatening serpent and then killed him.
It is probable that the text is appropriating this familiar storyline. In his version however, Jesus is the unborn child and Satan is the great serpent. John’s version of the story likely connected with his first audience on several levels. On one level, John’s version may merely sound like a benign parody of the old and familiar story of Apollo – no big deal. On another level, John’s version is an epic recasting of a familiar story that indicts Rome and its emperor. John may either be extremely bold in sharing his vision, or flying under the radar by subversively challenging the empire that sets itself up against John’s Lord and ours. Wherever Rome’s emperors identified with Apollo and the narrative of his early life, the claims of John’s vision are anything but harmless.
So the two big claims of Revelation 12 are likely both theological and political. Theological because John illustrates the ancient enmity between the woman and serpent and affirms that hope in offspring of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head. Political because when John reads the day’s news and the claims of the empire, he sees an ancient and cosmic battle underway.
The conflict of that age-old contest is now in play and whether one imagines Eve or Israel or Mary or all of them together, the Christ is being birthed (from any and all of them) and this spells doom for the dragon. The threat of the offspring of the woman always seems to put the promise child in peril (Ex. 1, Matt. 2), and in John’s Apocalypse, that jeopardy also extends to the church. That peril is not just peskiness, temptation or harassment. The dragon desires to consume, and not just consume, but to devour the child. Such an image of being eaten awakens our most primal emotions about fear, dread and survival strategies. Richard Bauckham observes that in the book of Revelation, the serpent, sea monster, and the land monster form what he calls the “Satanic Trinity”. In concert, they wage a war of opposition against God and his children.
Yet the threat is met with provision. The pregnant woman is given eagles’ wings and a safe zone – not unlike Israel out of the Red Sea and at Sinai (Ex 19. Hosea 11:1), and Jesus in Egypt (Matt 2). The narrow escape is nothing short of the miraculous intervention of God. As in the Exodus narrative, creation intervenes (Rev 12:16) and aids in the deliverance. A mere creature, the dragon is limited by a creation that sides with God and aligns with the needs of human agents.
If Daniel had to close up what was to come (Dan 12), what was to come is disclosed in the Revelation. The suffering of his people will bring about the repentance of the nations. Day and night the Accuser unleashes his verbal assault and that proves costly for the Body of Christ in the world. Satan was the District Attorney who lost his position and no longer has a basis for his accusations. The faithful martyrs participate in the defeat of Satan by the blood of the Lamb and the testimony of their own willing sacrifice. Bearing witness here is more than just the testimony of mere words. It is the willingness of the faithful to relinquish their lives to God, and suffering violence at the hands of another. Like their faithful Lord, their blood speaks a loud word that undoes the accuser.
Children’s literature contains multiple situations in which dragons are slain or tamed. Our story has neither of these themes nor the quaint warmth of a Rumpelstiltskin where a mother and child narrowly escape due to cleverness. This story bears closer thematic proximity to one of the themes present in the Harry Potter series. As an infant, Harry narrowly escapes the murderous designs of the chief antagonist, Voldemort. From infancy on, Harry is protected and preserved through a variety of near misses. These continue until “the time is right” when he ultimately yields his own life as a way of bringing about the defeat of the powers of evil. His death is neither haphazard nor accidental. Nonetheless, his willing sacrifice that appears as defat ultimately undermines evil. In John’s Apocalypse, neither Jesus nor the faithful escape suffering and death. Their death however, serves a larger purpose. Such fidelity not only allows them to overcome death, but shows the adversary that his checkmate near.
Rev. Marc Nelesen is the Pastor of Congregational Life at Georgetown Christian Reformed Church, Hudsonville, MI.