beauty and the beast: empire in the book of revelation (part 2)

Other parts of this series:

Part 1—Revelation in Context
Part 3—The Prostitute: Seduction and Luxury
Part 4—The Lamb: The Witness of the Cross

Part 2—The Beast: Might and Power

Revelation 13:1-10 (The Beast from the Sea)

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” 

And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear:

If anyone is to be taken captive,
to captivity he goes;
if anyone is to be slain with the sword,
with the sword must he be slain.

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

Who/what is the Beast?

THE FOUR BEASTS IN DANIEL 7
John borrows this image of a Beast from Daniel 7:1-8 which describes four beasts, with the fourth being the most horrifying. These beasts represent successive empires with whom Israel was confronted, as explained in Daniel 7:15-28, though these empires are not explicitly identified. Scholars basically agree though that the beasts represent the Babylonian Empire, the Median Empire, the Persian Empire, and Alexander’s Macedonian (Greek) Empire (the most terrifying).

The fourth terrible beast has a “little horn” (7:7), which in the world behind Daniel probably represents Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the despotic ruler of the Seleucid Empire. This empire was an offshoot of the larger Macedonian Empire and ran into trouble later with the rising Roman Empire.

Soon in Daniel, however, the focus shifts from the beasts to the “Ancient of Days” (7:9-12). He ultimately kills the fourth beast and takes the authority of the other three away. In the place of the beasts authority is given to one like a son of man, whose kingdom will never be destroyed (7:13-14).

JOHN’S USE OF DANIEL’S BEASTS
By the time of Revelation the fourth beast in Daniel was interpreted by some to represent Rome (such as in 4 Ezra 12:11-30).

Revelation pictures Rome differently—it is not merely the fourth beast of Daniel, but in fact a conglomerate of all four beasts in Daniel’s vision. This is the Beast from the sea in chapter 13:

The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. … asecond one, like a bear. … another (the third), like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. … a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth … and it had ten horns. (Daniel 7:4-7)

Ten horns … And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. (Revelation 13:1-2)

Rather than reinterpret Daniel’s four beasts, John creates an entirely new beast, one that is all four of Daniel’s beasts in one. This is one bad figure, worse than anything Daniel could have imagined.

It should be clear by now that the Beast out of the sea in Revelation 13 represents the Roman Empire. John uses the image of a Beast in the same way as it is used in Daniel, namely for a great empire or kingdom. The difference is that John’s Beast is more fearsome, more terrifying. This makes sense of Rome’s power, even in comparison to previous empires.

THE APPEARANCE OF THE BEAST AND ITS MEANING
What do we make of the ten horns, seven heads and ten diadems of the first Beast? We find out later in Revelation’s narrative:

This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast. (Revelation 17:9-13)

The seven heads, which are seven mountains, represent emperors that have succeeded one another, from Augustus, through to Domitian (commentators note the issues with this, but this is not the time to discuss it). Moreover, it was well known at the time that Rome was built on seven hills (mountains).

The ten horns, each with a diadem or crown (13:1), represent smaller regional powers under the auspices of the larger Beast (empire). Rome had ten provinces, and this probably refers to them. They have no independent authority apart from the Beast.

Thus the Beast is a symbol that embodies all these realities, namely empire. The beast comes from the sea, that is, the place of chaos and death according to the thought of ancient Israel (e.g. Noah’s flood, the Exodus, the Leviathan myth [Job]).

The first beast also has a healed mortal wound (13:3). This is likens the beast to the emperor Nero who had committed suicide in 68CE. There was in fact a rumour that he would return, called the Nero Redivivus legend, and John seems to be referencing this.

The other hint that the beast is a depiction of Nero is the number 666 (later, in 13:18). So often obsessed over, this number is simply a construction of Hebrew “gematria“, which is the practice of assigning numeric value to letters. 666 is simply the total of the numbers which make up Nero’s name:

Neron Caesar = Nrwn Qsr

R (resh) — 200
S (samekh) — 60
Q (qoph) — 100
N (nun) — 50
W (vav) — 6
R (resh) — 200
N (nun) — 50

Sum = 666

That the Beast is described according to the legend about Nero implies much about its character. Nero was a particularly brutal emperor, and of course had persecuted the Christians in Rome after using them as a scapegoat for the burning down of the city in 64CE.

Historically speaking, after Nero’s death the Empire almost collapsed, with four emperors taking the throne within the space of one year. It was the dynasty of the Flavian emperors, including Domitian (most probably emperor at the time of Revelation), which brought the Empire back from the brink. And so the Empire had almost died, but alas had come back to life! This is perhaps what John is trying to allude to in his use of the Nero image.

WORSHIP OF THE BEAST
Given the apparent resurrection of the Beast it is no wonder that the people worship it, proclaiming in 13:4 – “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

The people absolutise the power of the Beast, the Empire, asserting that no other power can come to defeat it – they claim it is invincible. The statement “Who is like the Beast?” is an obvious allusion back to Exodus 15:11: “Who is like you, O LORD?” The Beast is only ever a parody of the true reality:

  • The Beast has been resurrected, but this is a poor man’s version of the Resurrection of the Lamb depicted in Revelation 5
  • The Beast is a parody of the God of Israel – “Who is like you?”

Revelation reveals that the people, by saying such magnificent things about the beast, by esteeming the Empire, are in fact worshipping the Dragon, or Satan (13:4), that horrible figure from Revelation 12 who attempted to kill the woman and her child. Indeed, what gives authority to the Beast, and indeed the source of his power, is in fact according to John the great source of evil himself!

THE ACTIONS OF THE BEAST
And so the Beast goes about doing what a Beast does:

And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling,that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them.And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation… (Revelation 13:5-7)

Why is he given authority for forty-two months? What does this mean? The answer is reasonably simple when biblical numerology is understood: 7=completion, wholeness; 6=incompletion, imperfection.

42 = 7 x 6 (if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear…)

The time of the Beast one of completion (7), in that God is ultimately in control, but the beast’s time is also incomplete (6), inasmuch as it is limited and will not go on forever. During this time of reigning on earth the Beast will blaspheme against God and make war on his people (the saints). The result is that:

… all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. (Revelation 13:8)

That is to say, the beast will capture the imagination and thus the loyalty of the people. In this way these people’s names are not written in the book of life, since life does not come from the Beast.

THE SECOND BEAST
In Revelation 13 there is a second beast:

Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence ofthe beast it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that was wounded by the sword and yet lived. And it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave,to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13: 11-18)

What is quite clear from this passage is that the second beast acts to legitimate the rule of the first beast. It does great signs that seemingly authenticate the power of the beast and cause (coerce?) the people to worship it.

Note well that this second beast speaks with the voice of a dragon—it is a speaker of lies.

It is clear what this beast might represent to John’s audience – if the first beast represents the might of the empire and its rulers then the second beast is the imperial religion and propaganda machine, creating the myths that support this regime. After all, every imperial regime needs an official “religion” to legitimate it and to create digestible propaganda.

THE MARK OF THE BEAST

Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave,to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (13:16-18)

The mark of the beast, far from being some future conspiracy, is simply the antitype to the mark of the saints from back in Revelation 7, and also in the very next verse (14:1):

“Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servantsof our God on their foreheads.” (7:2-3)

Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. (14:1)

Those who worship God are marked with this symbolic seal, while the mark of the beast is the symbolic designation given to those who worship the Beast. Neither are literal seals/marks.

The Beast’s mark on the forehead and right hand is a sign that the minds and hands (work) of these people are characterised by loyalty to the Beast, particularly in their economic transactions. Indeed, the clearest sign of the emperor was his likeness on coins. By accepting the Beast’s symbolic “mark” (not least his coins and thus the imperial economy) the people displayed their loyalty to and worship of the emperor and his empire.

John is aware that to refuse to worship the Beast is to upset the proverbial apple cart. This of course has dire consequences for one’s place in the local community, and thus in the local economy – how can one buy and sell if they have been marginalised in their community for not worshipping the Beast? This is why it is said that those who refuse the symbolic mark (i.e. to refuse to collude in the false worship  and unjust practices of the empire) cannot buy or sell—they have opposed the empire and its economy, and suffer exclusion as a result.

Why would John describe Rome as a Beast?

THE BEAST AS ROMAN IMPERIAL VIOLENCE AND MILITARY POWER
John’s description of Rome as a Beast is the heavenly perspective on what is apparently invisible to most humans – Rome is a monstrous, murderous, maniacal entity.

But the Beast is not merely an image of Rome generally, since Revelation uses numerous other metaphors for Rome (a prostitute, Babylon). The image of a beast emphasises certain characteristics of the empire – might, power, cruelty, violence.

In other words, the beast represents Roman military power.

There was a myth that Roman propagandists circulated throughout the empire called Pax Romana. This narrative stated that Roman military force and conquest had brought peace to the whole world! John challenges this – this so-called “peace”, enforced by the constant threat of force, is possible only through beastly, even inhuman, coercion and violence.

What is interesting is the final line of the section about the Beast (13:10):

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

John is not merely describing Rome’s military power as a beast because he thinks it would make a good book. He is describing a terrible reality in his world that must be opposed. Thus the question from Part 1 of this study, the question that frames Revelation, becomes crucial—How should followers of Jesus, who was crucified by the empire but raised by God, negotiate Rome’s empire in their daily lives?

In other words, How can the Church be the Church in the face of powerful and seductive empire?

This is the question of Revelation in light of the Roman “beast”.


Note: At this point, when delivering this study, there was a facilitated discussion about violence in our own world and the imperative for the Church to be the Church in embodying peace and offering alternatives to violence, both local and global. If you wish to explore this more check out the fantastic resources available from TEAR Australia and also Pace e Bene Australia.

MCA

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Posted on October 5, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Conflict and Nonviolence, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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