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Revelation 17New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
The Great Whore and the Beast
17 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the judgement of the great whore who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.’ 3 So he carried me away in the spirit[a] into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; 5 and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.’ 6 And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
When I saw her, I was greatly amazed. 7 But the angel said to me, ‘Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
9 ‘This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain for only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14 they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.’
15 And he said to me, ‘The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.’
Feminist bible scholars – amongst whom I am pleased to count myself – have objected to the the biblical prophets’ habit of comparing idolatry to sexual promiscuity and casting women as in the role of sirens or prostitutes. There are doubtless cultural influences which made this an easy and well-understood literary device, but we should regard it as seriously biased nonetheless.
That said, the characterisation of Rome / Babylon as the Great Whore is powerful because it depicts the vast empire as nothing more than a jumped- up tart. There were plenty examples in Roman society of unscrupulous and desirable men and women who made their way to the top by attaching themselves to members of the ruling elite. Here the might, wisdom, wealth and administrative genius of the Empire is reduced to its allegiance to idols of its own making, and especially to the Beast which is the image of arrogant power. This language is intended to show up the inherent tawdriness of empire and the almost demented greed on which it depends. Phrases like ” the wine of her fornication” are intended to portray the sleeziness of empire and its acolytes, while “drunk with blood of the saints” portrays its obscene violence.
The depiction of the beast owes much to a legend about Nero who was believed by some to have been reanimated after death so that he could return with the help of 10 Parthian kings to destroy Rome. The author uses this legend to describe the Beast which is a parody of God “who was, and is, and is to come”; the Beast was, and is not, and is to come. In literal terms that refers to Nero who was emperor, but is not alive now, and will return to Rome. In less literal terms it points to what we might call the Zombie power of the empire which spreads death because it is dead to all goodness. This is the demonic power of evil which will wage war on the Lamb in the great final battle which is still to be described but is in fact the battle fought by all people, throughout all history, for God’s goodness against the deathly powers of human evil, in which the execution of Jesus on a Roman stake is the turning point.
The author prophesies that the violence unleashed by Rome will ultimately turn upon it and destroy it, as indeed proved to be the case some 300 years later. The real accuracy of the prophecy however is its insight into the truth that violence is its own destruction, as Jesus said, “Those who take up the sword will die by the sword.”
As with all these prophecies one could spend time noting the connection with the Hebrew Bible and with obscure first century customs and beliefs. It’s more important to see the prophet’s description of Babylon as applicable to all great and violent empires, from the Roman, to the Byzantine, the Arab, and the Spanish, to the British, Soviet and American of modern times. All of them display the self- idolatry, the intoxicated addiction to wealth and power, the bloodthirsty violence and the zombie-like capacity to spread death, that characterises Babylon is this portrait.
Of course, many of these empires also achieved great advances in learning, technology, art, literature, philosophy and science and communications, but as the influence of medieval monasteries on agricultural methods shows, there can be advances in civilisation without empire.