I want to offer some thoughts, once again, on the Harlot of Babylon, from Revelation ch17.
I find her a complex figure, so I'm trying to approach the subject from different angles.
She's holding in her hand "a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication". I've already looked at the last ingredient in
that heady mixture. Fornication (which relates to the unfaithfulnes of God's people) was my theme in the last discussion;
"The other woman"
I'm now going to be focussing on the first ingredient.
I'm going to be asking the question; what is meant by the "cup of abominations"?
What is meant by the cup?
The image comes from Jeremiah.
The Lord God of Israel speaks to the prophet and gives him this instruction;
"Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and be crazed
because of the sword which I am sending among them."- Jeremiah ch25 vv15-16
(In Ezekiel, this cup is also given to Judah, which links it with my previous theme;
"You shall drink your sister's cup which is deep and large;
You shall be laughed at and held in derision, for it contains much;
You will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow." - Ezekiel ch23 vv32-33)
This is clearly an imaginary cup, and I don't suppose that Jeremiah was really expected to do anything more than announce the fact that the cup had
The first key point in the metaphor is that the cup comes from God.
It is an instrument in his hands.
It represents what he's doing to bring down the nations of the world.
The meaning of the image seems to be that he carries out his purpose by undermining their ability to act effectively, and making them ridiculous,
which is the effect of drinking strong wine.
This may include losing their sense of judgement, which is another effect of strong wine.
It has been said (anonymously, as far as I know); "Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad".
So the meaning is that the surrounding nations will be "knocked out" by what God is doing.
Babylon is listed among the nations drinking from the cup.
In a later passage, though, Babylon itself becomes the instrument of God's wrath;
"Babylon was a golden cup in the Lord's hand, making all the earth drunken;
The nations drank up her wine, therefore the nations went mad"
But this weapon is destroyed once God has finished with it;
"Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken; wail for her!"- Jeremiah ch51 vv7-8
So the message of that part of the image seems clear enough.
That golden cup in the Harlot's hand must be- though she may not know it- the instrument of God's wrath against the nations.
The effect of drinking from the cup must be that the nations would lose their sense of judgement, they would lose their abilty to act effectively.
And thus they would be "knocked over" and destroyed.
What is meant by "abomination"?
The Hebrew version of this word is found many times in the Old Testament.
Sometimes translated as "disgusting things", but the point is that God is the one who is disgusted.
I think the real heart of the concept can be found in the thought expressed in Deuteronomy ch13 vv13-14, where the name is applied to the proposal
"let us go and serve other gods".
God's first and primary directive to his people was "You shall have no other gods but me".
Anything that breaks that command is offensive to God, and so might be called an "abomination".
The term is used for the gods of other nations- "Milcom, the abomination of the Ammonites"- 1 Kings ch11 v5
It includes the idols associated with their worship- "Cursed be the man who makes a graven or a molten image, an abomination to the Lord"-
Deuteronomy ch27 v15
This includes, of course, the well-known Abomination that causes desolation.
The term can include anything else that has been associated with the worship of other gods- gold or silver stripped from their statues, or money
brought in from sacred prostitution- Deuteronomy ch23 v18
Finally, it can be extended to bahaviour which is not really compatible with obedience to God, such as adultery and dishonesty- Proverbs ch 6
So the "golden cup" has told us that the nations will be rendered powerless.
And the "golden cup of abominations" tells us that they will be rendered powerless by their idolatry, their attachment to other gods.
Why is her name Babylon?
All the nations around israel had been idolatrous, from the Israelite viewpoint.
Why, then, should the image of multiple idolatry be associated with the name of Babylon?
I think the answer is that Babylon represents idolatry in conjunction with hostile power
The Jewish religion, at home in Jerusalem, had been the "official" religion, with a dominant place in local society.
But the political arm of Babylonian power destroyed the Temple and the rest of the city of Jerusalem.
Then the Jewish religion of the exiles in Babylon had to survive in a completely different environment.
It was the religion of an uprooted social minority, attempting to compete with the multiple attractions of a religious culture which was on its home
There was a danger of absorption into the local community, just as the "ten tribes" must have been absorbed in their won place of exile.
So the God of Israel has a controversy with the gods of Babylon, which we find described in the later chapters of Isaiah.
It is presented as a controversy between the Creator God and the gods which have been made by human hands;
"Bel bows down,Nebo stoops, their idols are on beasts and cattle...
To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
And compare me that we may be alike?"- Isaiah ch46 v1, v5
This controversy bears witness to a sense that the Jewish religion was fighting for its life.
And of course this religious arm of Babylonian power was closely associated with the political arm.
Babylon represents the conjunction between the two.
It appears in John's image not just in the use of the name Babylon, but also in the fact that she sits upon the Beast.
We can apply this picture, in the first place, to the circumstances of John's own time.
The Roman world, as Babylon had been, was a world of multiple religions. The Roman empire had brought many different cultures and their gods into one
political structure. Religious authority and political authority were often found in combination. One of the most conspicuous links, locally, was the
temple dedicated to "Rome and Augustus" in Pergamum, which may well be the "Satan's throne" mentioned in ch2.
The Christian community, as the Jews had been in Babylon, were a social minority, needing to struggle to keep themselves distinct from the idolatrous
world around them. That is why Paul rebukes some of the Corinthians for taking part in the ritual ceremonies of other cults, "sharing meals with
demons". As in Babylon, the very existence of the multiple religions is a religious danger in itself.
The only open conflict described in the New Testament is the riot in Ephesus, raised by the followers of the goddess known in Acts as "Diana of the
Ephesians". Artemis, in the Greek. This was one version of the ancient "mother-goddess" religions of Asia Minor. Her temple at Ephesus was regarded
as one of the "seven wonders of the world". She would certainly have been one of the more formidable rivals of the Christian faith in that region.
It's possible, indeed, that she might be seen as taking the lead in non-Biblical popular religions, that her prominence might be one of the reasons
for depicting this figure of idolatry as female.
My understanding, then, is that this Harlot represents the idolatry of the surrounding world, possibly led by Artemis. Part of the meaning of the
image of the "cup" seems to be that idolatry takes away the sense of judgement. This Harlot is resting on the Beast, finding support in political
power. But the end of the chapter tells us how the Beast finally turns against her and destroys her. And we find in history that the religions of the
Roman world came to an end when they lost the support of the Roman imperial authority.
(Being continued in supplemental post)