We will get to think about a pair of striking Revelation-style images this week, “the whore of Babylon” and “the bride of the Lamb.” We find both in Revelation 19:1-8, the text for Sunday, November 21. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said, of one of the important doctrines of that religion, that “grasping it wrongly is like grasping a snake by the wrong end.” We could apply that word of caution to these images of our own textual tradition. I know I probably think that because of my many readerly biases. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong. [Some questions on the text are here.] Anyway, here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are almost to the climax of the book of Revelation. Almost to the vision of the consummation of the victory of the Almighty over all that discomfits and would destroy the peace of created experience, in the vision of the City of God that is the model of that peace. That vision comes in chapters 21-22.
But we’re not quite there. First, we need the victory itself, which involves the defeat of the opposition forces and their demonic effects. That unfolds in chapters 12-19. “The woman clothed with the sun” comes on the scene – traditionally, she is either Mary the Mother of God, or the Church, or both – and does battle with “that ancient dragon,” the devil aka satan. She is rescued and hidden in the wilderness. The beast comes. The assistant beast, and the mark of the beast. Angels warn the earthlings of the plagues to come, ending with these words:
There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.Revelation 14:11
I confess, I cannot help thinking of working for Goldman Sachs.
There is a weird late harvest in which sickles are used to gather grapes which are made into wrath, reminiscent of Isaiah 63. We have to think of small hand sickles, not long-handled sickles.
There are seven angels with seven bowls of plagues. And the fall of Babylon, personified as a woman, and a harlot at that. The name of the wicked city is surely symbolic, copying the name of the ancient enemy of God’s people, the location of their early exile, and using it to stand for the enemy of the author’s day, Rome. Her sumptuous dress identifies her as belonging to the Roman upper class. Her drunken behavior identifies her as a self-centered hedonist; and since she is drunk on the blood of the saints, we know she is an enemy of everything that is really good.
But the forces of heaven defeat the unholy alliance of beast and whore. Chapter 18 is a dirge for the fall of Babylon, which echoes the lament for the city of Tyre in Ezekiel 27-28. But it’s also an analysis of who mourns the fall of Babylon – because people do! – and who rejoices.
Our text this week is, once again, a scene of heavenly worship. It follows this long narrative of depredation and carnage, and comes right before the final battle between the Word of God and the heavenly hosts on one side and the beast and the kings of the earth on the other, followed by the last judgment and the final final battle that ends up with the Devil being thrown into the lake of fire and the last last judgment that ends with Death and Hades being thrown into the lake of fire, too. Along with “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life.” (Revelation 20:15)
Obviously. Because whoever is not on the side of life, must be on the side of death – and consequently, doomed. This Life-and-Death conflict poses The Ultimate Binary.
And our text introduces us to the striking contrast of the “whore of Babylon” with the “bride” – who, in chapter 21, will turn out to be the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.
So we are presented at the end of Revelation with the stark contrast of the harlot city with the holy city, the city of death with the city of life, the idolatrous city with the faithful city. It stands in a long line of Biblical feminine personifications of cities, in particular, that use sexual and marital images as religious emblems, and that makes sexual promiscuity or marital infidelity an emblem of evil. We could think of Isaiah’s “faithful city” that has “become a whore,” (Isaiah 1:21), Jeremiah’s bride become faithless wife (Jeremiah 2-3); Ezekiel’s Oholah & Oholibamah (Ezekiel 23); Hosea’s object lesson of Gomer (Hosea 1-3). For instance. We could add the emphatic contrast of Woman Wisdom with Woman Folly in Proverbs (1-8). Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly are not cities, but once again they personify faithfulness to or forsaking of God’s way of righteousness, encoded in the wisdom of Torah, and embodied in the picture of the “virtuous wife,” the Woman of Worth of Proverbs 31.
Short hermeneutical digression, in slight rant mode: Symbols work, when they work, because they speak to something that rings true for us in our human experience. There is something about what it means to have a loving and faithful wife that makes vivid for the readers of scripture, old and new, the depth of relationship between God and God’s people. Especially for the male readers of this text, whose perspective is clearly being recruited by this imagery. These are not images of following God drawn from the world of law courts and rule-following, of contracts and fulfillment, of masters and slaves. They are socially significant and unavoidably intimate images of desire and delight, expectation and fulfillment – or, where the relationship goes wrong, of abrogation and hurt, betrayal, anguish, and disgust. Images to take personally. Images to feel in one’s core.
The Bible here speaks into what people know and think they know about men and women and the relations between them. It uses what makes sense to its readers to make sense of things that are beyond us, that would not make sense to us otherwise. It’s a stark example of what Calvin means by “accommodated” Biblical language – God speaking to humans the way a nanny speaks to the toddlers in her care.
What this is not is “the Bible” giving us “God’s word about The Essential Nature of Woman.” Any more than the image of the Lamb in the midst of the throne is the Bible’s word about the Essential Nature of Lambs. Or the verdict that “the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1) is the Bible’s word about the Essential Nature of The Ocean.
If we can keep that in mind, we will probably be OK as we work with these striking images. At least, maybe we can read the Bible without thinking that it prohibits us learning anything new about men and women and the relations between them, as if all we can know about men and women and the relations between them is what people already knew in the first century of the Greco-Roman world. We might be able to read the Bible without thinking that it prescribes that first century Greco-Roman knowledge, and the social relations built on it, as God’s intention for all men and all women for all time. We might even be able to see that we can understand the scriptures, and be faithful to God, without all of us HAVING to inhabit the social arrangements that give those symbols their meaning. [God give me patience.]
All of Revelation 19 is something you’d never know was in the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned.
CLOSER READING: Verse 1 begins with “after these [things],” which is a recurrent motif in the book of Revelation. There is a lot of “and then … and then … and then,” a device that adds to the sense that John is retelling something like a dream.
In v2, the word translated “whore” in NRSV is the Greek word pornēn, related to other porn- words that have to do with sexual license or “fornication.” And yes, this is where we get our own word “pornography,” literally something like “[illicit] sex writing.” The lexicon identifies the word as meaning sex for money. The text links Babylon to commerce and wealth, so the “for money” aspect seems to be an integral, rather than incidental, part of the figure of Babylon. Babylon personifies, among other things, transactional relationship – intimacy without intimacy. This specific language is not unique to Revelation, but it is not common. The only other book of the New Testament where it shows up is 1 Corinthians.
The text emphasizes the rejoicing in heaven over the downfall of Babylon – which is identical to the release or rescue of the saints Babylon has victimized. Hallelujah – literally, “praise YAH,” an untranslated fragment of Hebrew psalmody in this Greek text – repeats four times in these eight verses, shouted by the multitude, and by the elders and the four living creatures.
In verse 7, “let us rejoice and exult” translates two verbs in subjunctive mood. That is: not the imperative we might expect, but an expression that voices something more complex: rejoicing and exulting is a possibility, and something to be desired. In real life, we might get closer to the mood if we were to say something like “we could party!!”
And there is about to be a massive party, the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (v9).
The narrator has to tell us that “fine linen, bright and clean” is “the righteous deeds of the saints,” suggesting that the symbolism may not have been conventional or immediately obvious to the first readers. Whether the “brightness” of the linen could have been colorful, or would have to be the brightness of white, isn’t obvious. [I lean towards white, based on the way the symbolism of white has been used so far in the book, but I wish for color, because … it would be pretty, and fun.]
The word translated “clothed” literally means something like “thrown around.” It seems always to be used in the context of clothing. But “robed” might be a nice word here, and seems like it would fit.
Does anyone ever think of the Bride as representing anything other than the Church? Or the Lamb as anyone other than Christ? I doubt it.
In these few verses, the defeat of Babylon seems to be the condition for the impending marriage feast of Lamb and Bride. Babylon has to be gotten out of the way, before the Bride can make her entrance. We might notice the fairy tale element to this narrative: the Bride has to be rescued from the dragon and the evil witch-y step-mother-y Babylon, so she can marry the Lamb / Knight in shining armor on a white horse (literally), and live happily ever after. In other words: it’s archetypal.
Image: “Vision of the Seven Candlesticks,” Natalia Goncharova, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons