The Vision of the Apocalypse

In order to place the vision of a woman clothed with the sun and having the moon beneath her feet, the text has been situated within its larger context. It depicts the seventh angel blowing his trumpet, hence, the completion of another great moment in the seer's (John, the Elder) vision. The text is clear in its Messianic message:

15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying,
"The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever."

16 Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshipped God,
17 singing, "We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty,
who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign.

18 The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, and the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth."

19 Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple, and there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.

[Arcabas, Christ Pantocrator and the Four
Evangelists]

In this scene both judgment and salvation are announced. In the light of what follows in the vision of the woman, we are led to see that the ultimate eschatological victory of the Messiah lies ahead in the future, but, at the same time, the death of Jesus upon the Cross is the real victory over all forces of evil. Somewhat like the combination of the realized and yet future eschatology of the Gospel of John, the Book of Revelation looks back to the death of Jesus and from that event shows the ultimate victory over all sin and death.

It is the final verse of the scene that leads to the section on the woman clothed with the sun. Verse 19 above is the revelation of God through the ark of the covenant. This symbol is carried over from the Hebrew Scriptures into the new revelation after the one who has been pierced is celebrated on the Lord's day, Sunday (cf. Rev. 1:7.10). This revelation of God above in the ark of the covenant is now complemented by the vision of the woman representing those who faithfully follow the true witness of God, Jesus the Messiah. In chapter 21 the woman will be the symbol of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly bride. Here she is united with God and those who are children of God through the covenant promise "I will be their God and they will be my children" (Rev. 21:7). It is helpful to remember that the visions blend and complement each other. The seven seals and the seven trumpets and perhaps any mention of seven helps to unite the seer's visionary experiences. It is now that the vision of the woman and the dragon happens:

1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth.
3 Then another portent appeared in the heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.
4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.
5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne;
6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back,

8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.

9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent-- who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world-- he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

10 Then I hear a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
`Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.
11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.

12 Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows his time is short!'

13 So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.
14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.
15 Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood.
16 But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth.
17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.
18 Then the dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore.

Exegetical Remarks

Within Catholic tradition there are two interpretations given to the twelfth chapter of Revelation. One sees in the woman the image of the Church; the other the image of Mary, the mother of the Messiah. Some exegetes see only one aspect of this scene, namely, the ecclesial; others, only the Marian interpretation, still others understanding both of these aspects as a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem.
1. She is Israel (the Daughter of Zion), the nation from whom the Messiah comes (cf. Isaiah 66:7). Israel awaits the birth of the Messiah in that text. The writer, a Jewish Christian, "christens" the passages and pictures that depict Israel.

2. The Woman is the Church or the developed and fulfilled Israel, who like the original Israel, is the mother of all those faithful to God.

3. Medieval expositors and pastors and some contemporary exegetes and mariologists see Mary as the Woman and model of the Church in this scene. Mary is the daughter of Zion--the quintessential expression of the old Israel as the community of faith and obedience, awaiting the coming of the Messiah, the community in which the Messiah is born. She is also the quintessential expression of the new Israel, of those who `believe' and are justified on the grounds of their faith, of those who obey his word and who suffer for the testimony of Jesus (cf. de la Potterie, "Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant", pp. 239-264; Revelation: A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Nelson, New York, p. 1277).

The following are specific remarks on some of the verses at hand:

v.1-- The woman is a felicitous sign for the believing community for she appears in the highest heaven while sin occurs in the abyss or the lowest regions.  She is the antithesis of the harlot, and as a symbol is as figurative and important in Revelation as the lamb.  In Codex A she is not looking at the sun but is clothed with it. The sun, perhaps, representing God, is a rampart or protection around the woman who represents the community or church.

v.2-- en gastri echousa (being with child) is a phrase that is used of Mary in Matthew 1:18,23. Being in birth pangs (basanizome) is also found in John 16:19-22 and Isaiah 66:7. The birth symbolized is something more than a physical birth.

v.3-- The dragon being fiery red is a symbol of murder and persecution. The Mishnah sees the dragon as the work of idolatry. The author of Revelation identifies it with the Devil and the serpent of old.

v.4-- "Sweep" signifies the colossal size of this sea monster.

v.5--There is no reference to the virginity of the woman or to her son as the firstborn.

v.14--"A time and times and half a time" refers to 42 months in 12:6 (42 = 3 and one half x 12). We are led to think of Matthew's similar use in his genealogy, 3 x 14 generations. There were forty-two symbolic generations before the coming of the Messiah; there would be 42 more till his return again.

v.17-- Only this text and Genesis 3:15 put such great emphasis on the seed or offspring of the woman.

All of the symbolism used in this scene - the sun, the moon, the stars - suggests that our woman is the community of Israel as seen in Exodus 19:5-6: "Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation." The scene is also suggested by the twelve tribes portrayed in Revelation 7.

Other sources are Isaiah 26:17--27:1 especially for Revelation 20:1-4. This biblical background suggests that the woman portrays faithful Jerusalem; that she suffers, but will receive help from God; that her opponent is the dragon. Dupont-Sommer applies the oracles of II Isaiah to the mother of the Messiah (Isaiah 52:13--53:12= the Suffering Servant Oracles).

There are also some parallels with the Qumran document of 1 QH 3: "In the light of the OT texts and I QH 3 it seems reasonable for the woman to be the faithful priestly and prophetic community, the child a prominent leader, and the dragon, Satan. Rev. 17-18 mentions the harlot, which may be another version of the mother of the asp, the faithless community allied with the fallen angel" (Massingbyrd Ford, Anchor Bible, p. 205).


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