I want to offer some thoughts on the "Harlot of Babylon" from Revelation ch17.
This is not going to be simple, because she's a very complex figure.
On the one hand, that name of "Babylon", in the Old Testament, has political overtones.
But some of the other details in the picture seem to have religious overtones.
For the moment, I propose to focus on one aspect of the religious dimension.
This woman. and the "woman in heaven" seen at the beginning of ch12, are one of the "contrasting pairs" of Revelation.
I've already looked at the first woman; see The Woman in Heaven
Now I'm going to be asking the question; what is the difference between these two women?
We're told that this woman is a great harlot.
We're told that she's the mother of harlots.
We're told that she carries a golden cup full of the impurities of her fornication, that the kings of the earth have comitted fornication with her,
and that the dwellers on earth have become drunk with the wine of her fornication.
In the words of the old-fashioned euphemism, this woman is obviously "no better than she should be".
Theres a contrast implied in Proverbs between the provident wife and the adulterous wife; and also between the adulterous wife and the feminine figure
of Wisdom, both offering themselves on the streets, for different purposes.
This suggests, amongst other things, that the adulterous woman represents what happens when people are deficient in the Wisdom which comes from
But this kind of language in the prophets is frequently a metaphor for spiritual
fidelity and infidelity.
In the Old Testament, God can be called "husband" to his people Israel, and he's expecting the same kind of loyalty and commitment in return.
So when his people are disobedient, and particularly when they're devoting themselves to other gods, their disobedience can be described in terms of
"adultery" and "fornication".
The classic example is at the beginning of Hosea, where the prophet is instructed to marry a known harlot, so that God can make a point about Israel.
The complaint is made that Israel has become like an adulterous wife;
"For she said, i will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water".- Hosea ch2 v5
Similaryly Jeremiah's complaint about Judah is that she "polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree"- Jeremiah ch3 v9
Ezekiel elaborates the metaphor with such graphic imagery that the offending passages (e.g. ch16) can't safely be read out in church; see for example,
the Anglican lectionary, which carefully skips over them.
But the most important model for the image in this chapter comes from another passage in Jeremiah, when he's addressing the city of Jerusalem;
"And you, O desolate one,
What do you mean, that you dress in scarlet,
That you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
That you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself,
Your lovers despise you, They seek your life"- Jeremiah ch4 v30
Those last two lines are alluding to the fact that Judah's "flirtations" with foreign gods and foreign powers had not prevented the foreign powers
from invading and despoiling the land.
The Harlot in Revelation echoes the appearance of the woman in this picture.
She is "arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and silver and pearls."
She also suffers the same fate, of putting her trust in lovers who betray her. At the beginning of the chapter, she's resting upon, getting support
from, the great scarlet Beast. Yet, at the end of the chapter, that same Beast has turned against her;
"The ten horns that you saw, they and the Beast will hate the Harlot; they will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with
The Jeremiah passage continues, in the next verse;
"And I heard a cry as of a woman in travail,
Anguish as of a woman bringing forth her first child".
But that verse finds its echo in Revelation ch12, in the description of the "woman in heaven";
"She was with child, and she cried out in the pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery"- ch12 v2
In effect, the "woman in heaven" and the "Harlot of Babylon" have taken Jeremiah ch4 vv30-31 and carved it up between them, taking one verse each.
Nothing could bring out more clearly the fact that these women are two sides of the same coin.
They are two different versions of Jerusalem.
They are two different versions of God's people, the "faithful" version, and the "unfaithful" version.
I've been assuming that these visions were addressed, in the first instance, to the church of John's own time, and then to the church of a later
How would the Christians of John's time have understood this picture?
There's a very suggestive parallel in Galatians, in Paul's distinction between the two Jerusalems, drawn from the story of Sarah and Hagar;
"Now Hagar...corresponds to the present Jerusalem,for she is in slavery with her children.
But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother"- Galatians ch4 vv25-26
The "other woman" in this case, of course, represents the Jews.
And the Jewish community was, in a sense, "resting upon" the support of the Roman state. The Jewish religion was "licensed" by the state (RELIGIO
LICITA), while the Christian faith was not. The Jews, it was alleged, might sometimes alert the authorities to this point. Thus in Revelation ch2 "the
slanders of the Jews" seem to lead into the imprisonment of Christians. I suggested, when I was dicussing the chapter, that this might be the reason
why they were labelled the "synagogue of Satan" (a name which Revelation associates with persecution).
If this was the interpretation which the church of John's time gave to this image, they would surely have recognised the sequel at the end of the
chapter, when the Beast turns on and attacks the Harlot, in the events of AD 70.
How might the "unfaithful" version of God's people emerge in the circumstances of a later church?
The real key to the image in Revelation is the relationship with the Beast.
We know from ch13 that the Beast is demanding worship from the world at large.
I suggest that the division between the "faithful woman" and the "Harlot" comes out of the difference bewteen the two ways of responding to that
On the one hand, the faithful portion of God's people would resist the claim.
These are described in many different passages in Revelation. They were "sealed" in ch7 in order to prepare them for this crisis. They are the
"worshippers round the altar" and the "Witnesses" in ch11. They are the underground church "nourished by God" in the wilderness in ch12. They are
facing the death-penalty as victims of the Beast's "war on the saints" in ch13.
They are the intended readers of this book Revelation, which is designed to encourage them in that time of persecution (which is why we have so much
trouble understanding it, when we're not in a time of persecution).
On the other hand, those on the other side of the dividing line would be compromising their faith. They would accept the demands of the Beast, instead
of resisting them. They would, perhaps, be co-operating with the policy of the Beast in his treatment of the church. At the beginning of ch12, the
dragon's tail sweeps up "a third of the stars of heaven" and draws them down from heaven to the earth; this could be warning us what proportion of
unfaithfulness might be expected in the Christian community.
That portion of the God's people would "resting on the Beast" instead of resting upon God.
But the end of the chapter indicates that this would not, in the end, save them from the hostility of the Beast.
Whereas the end of Revelation tells us that the "woman in heaven" is resting upon a God who will be found faithful.
(I have added a Supplement in the next post)
edit on 7-11-2010 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)