Posted: 25 Dec 2010 11:00 PM PST
THE VISION OF THE PROSTITUTE OF Revelation 17 is replete with colorful language that has confounded many an interpreter. Yet the main lines are reasonably clear, and even the more disputed points are not completely obscure. Here we may reflect on three matters:
(1) Her basic identification to any reader in the first century would not have been in doubt. Reference to the seven hills on which the woman sits (Rev. 17:9), plus the explicit statement that the woman "is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth" (Rev. 17:18), would identify her with Rome.
(2) Formally, she is identified in slightly obscure terms: "Mystery: Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and of the Abominations of the Earth" (Rev. 17:5). Historical Babylon was by this point a ruin of a place, a relatively small and certainly enfeebled center without significant influence. But Babylon had stood in Old Testament times for all that was pagan, powerful, self-promoting, and vile. Babylon was the city that had sent Judah and Jerusalem into exile (however much the people of God had earned the judgment). Now the ancient city's name is transferred to Rome, the new geopolitical center. The word prostitutes is not in the first instance referring to ordinary human prostitutes, but to spiritual prostitution (once again drawn from the Old Testament). "The mother of all X" is a Semitic way of saying something like "the archetype of all X." And at the time, Rome was certainly, in this sense, the mother of all spiritual prostitution, the fount of the abominations of the earth. The title was merited not only because of her paganism, political corruption, endless violence and perversion, extraordinary wealth and wretched poverty, but also because this was the center where a human being, the current Caesar, was addressed on minted coins as "Our Lord and God," and from which emanated the political will that was increasingly directed against the people of God.
(3) The seven heads of this prostitute, we are told, point in two directions. On the one hand, they point to the seven hills of Rome. They also point to seven kings, five of whom have fallen, "one is, the other has not yet come" (Rev. 17:10). It is extremely difficult to align this list with the known Caesars of the first century. Various connections have been drawn; I am uncertain which one is right. But the beast on which the woman is riding, certainly identified with the beast out of the sea from chapter 13, this beast that receives a fatal wound and then is healed, "is an eighth king" (Rev. 17:11). This suggests to many (rightly, I think) a manifestation of evil beyond the Roman Empire.
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