Preparing some lectures on Revelation, I came across Ian Paul’s very helpful introduction to the book in . With Revelation, probably more than with any other New Testament text, it is difficult to deal with its meaning apart from its form. How we understand its literary character—as some sort of apocalyptic text—inevitably determines how we make sense of what it has to say about the future of God’s people. The point can be illustrated nicely from the visionary allegory of the woman and the dragon in Revelation 12. Ian highlights the significance of both the mythological and the Old Testament backgrounds for interpreting the passage. I want to explore this a bit further here, not least because I think it lends support to my general contention that the New Testament is fundamentally about how the God of Israel comes to judge and rule the nations, not in some abstract theological sense but in history.
“The Great Gig in the Sky”
A woman appears in heaven. She is pregnant, crying out in the agony of giving birth. A red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns and seven diadems on its heads, stands before her, waiting to devour the child. A boy is born—“one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron”—but is caught up to the throne of God. The woman flees into the wilderness. The dragon is cast down from heaven by Michael and his angels. The achievement of those who “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” is celebrated—the “kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ”. But it means trouble for people on earth, “for the devil has come down to you in great wrath”.
On earth the dragon pursues the woman, but she is given the wings of a great eagle so that she can escape into the wilderness to be “nourished for a time, and times, and half a time”. The dragon attempts to sweep her away in a flood, but the earth swallows up the flood. This enrages the dragon, which goes off “to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus”. It stands on the sand of the sea, from which a beast “with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on it heads” is about to emerge.
The story prefigured in the Old Testament
Much of the substance of the story comes from the Old Testament, and we arrive at a good approximation of its meaning simply by stringing these texts together.
1. Jerusalem is pictured by the prophets as a woman in labour:
Before she was in labour she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labour she brought forth her children. (Is. 66:7–8)
Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labour (Jerusalem in exile) has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. (Mic. 5:3)
2. The pagan empire that makes war against Israel is drawn as a devouring dragon or a destructive, blasphemous multi-headed beast:
King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has devoured me (Jerusalem); he has apportioned me; he has seized me, a slim vessel; he has swallowed me like a dragon…. (Jer. 28:34 LXX = 51:34)
Then I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast…, and about the ten horns that were on its head, and the other horn that came up and before which three of them fell, the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke great things, and that seemed greater than its companions. As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom. (Dan. 7:19–22)
3. The king is YHWH’s son, who is given the nations as his heritage to rule with a rod of iron:
I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Ps. 2:7–9)
4. The angel Michael will fight on behalf of Israel at a time of extreme political-religious crisis:
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. (Dan. 12:1)
5. God saves his people from the pagan oppressor by bearing them into the wilderness on eagles’ wings:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Ex. 19:4)
This already gives us an outline interpretation of Revelation 12. At a time of severe political-religious crisis a righteous Jewish community in Jerusalem painfully gives birth to a Son, who is immediately caught up to the throne of God. This “birth” is not the incarnation of Jesus but his resurrection. The king is “begotten” on the day that he is given the nations as his heritage, eventually to judge and rule over them (cf. Ps. 2:7-9). The community then comes under attack from the aggressive pagan empire but gains victory over it “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11). The realistic victory of the persecuted Jewish-Christian community over Rome is prefigured in heaven by the defeat of the dragon by Michael—the “great prince who has charge of your people”. Such a political-religious event—not the final renewal of all things—is the coming of the kingdom of God (Rev. 12:10).
The Python myth
The shape of the story, however, appears to reflect a type of “combat myth” that is evidenced widely in the ancient world. David Aune writes:
The legendary narrative pattern of a combat between a hero and his adversary or the mythic narrative pattern of a primordial cosmic struggle between two divine beings and their allies for sovereignty was widespread throughout the ancient world. In mythical combats the antagonist is often depicted as a monster, serpent, or dragon. The protagonist typically represents order and fertility, while the antagonist represents chaos and sterility. 1
Perhaps the closest parallel to Revelation 12 is the version of the Python myth found in the Fabulae of the 1st century AD Latin writer Hyginus. A dragon known for issuing oracles is threatened by the birth of a divine child. He pursues the woman in a remote region, but she is carried off by a god to an island, which disappears beneath the waves. The woman gives birth to Apollo, who quickly kills Python. It is commonly understood as a mythical account of how Apollo took control of the oracle at Delphi. This translation comes from Ian Paul’s very helpful chapter on Revelation in :
Python, son of Terra, was a huge dragon. He was accustomed to giving oracles on Mount Parnassus before the time of Apollo. He was informed by an oracle that he would be destroyed by the offspring of Leto. At that time Zeus was living with Leto. When [Zeus’ wife] Hera learned of this, she decreed that Leto should give birth at a place where the sun does not reach. When Python perceived that Leto was pregnant by Zeus, he began to pursue (her) in order to kill her. But, by order of Zeus, the North Wind (Aquilo) lifted Leto up and carried her to Poseidon; Poseidon protected her, but in order not to rescind Hera’s decree, he carried her to the island Ortygia and covered the island with waves.
When Python did not find Leto, he returned to Parnassus. But Poseidon returned the island Ortygia to the upper region, and it was later called the island of Delos. There, holding on to an olive tree, Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, to whom Hephaestus gave arrows as a gift. Four days after they were born, Apollo avenged his mother. He went to Parnassus and killed Python with arrows.2
What we appear to have, then, in literary terms, is a reconstructed Old Testament narrative about Israel, empire, and the future rule of YHWH’s king, refracted through the prism of the Python myth. This is how John transposes the biblical argument into a form that more directly challenges, if not specifically the ideology of emperor worship, then certainly the power of Rome as a political-religious force violently opposed to the people of God. His brightly coloured dragon myth expresses the conviction of the persecuted churches that the God of Israel would sooner or later take control of the empire.