One of the main problems biblical scholars face with Revelation is deciding exactly what sort of interpretative theories should be used to understand the text. Many interpretative theories classify Revelation as a historical apocalypse. This means that certain biblical scholars maintain that Revelation is primarily a representation of an elite, or at least well-educated, male’s attempt to document historical atrocities and inspire contemporary persecuted populations to believe in a future time when those who are oppressed would experience freedom from their cultural bonds.[i] Other scholars analyze the book through apocalyptic lenses and attempt to approach the text from various angles, [ii] or even as a dreamscape. [iii]
When dealing with an ancient text like Revelation, we should not assign one fixed meaning to any symbol; when we do, the symbol stops being symbolic. It is counter-productive to presume that an ancient apocalypse, specifically Revelation, has only one way that it should be interpreted. Interpretation suggestions in this blog are made with a multifaceted awareness that several classifications of apocalypses quite possibly apply to Revelation. In other words, the book may be simultaneously interpreted as historical and as one that is inclined to mysticism and cosmic speculation. [iv] The historical interpretation of Revelation has been well-addressed. The following commentary is based on an exploration of the mysticism and cosmic speculation classifications.
David Barr identifies five female figures in Revelation: the Queen Consort, the Queen Ruler, the Queen of Heaven, the Queen Jezebel, and Gaia, or Earth.[v] Queen Jezebel in Rev 2:20-6 most likely represents a socio-historical individual,[vi] as opposed to a mystical or cosmic entity. Gaia is a unique entity who will be fully addressed in another post. The Queen of Heaven found in Rev. 12 is certainly an important figure – who may or may not be the same entity as the Queen Consort in Rev. 21-22:5.[vii] But, for now, let’s really focus on the Queen Ruler in Rev. 17-18, or “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.”[viii]
How, exactly, should we form an interpretative theory to addresses the elements of mysticism and cosmic speculation found within this well-known figure? It seems helpful to review other examples of mystical and prophetic writings found within the Hebrew Bible that use females as symbolic representations for collective groups of people.
Within prophetic and mystical writings of the Hebrew Bible, a definite pattern emerges in passages where the author/editor used feminine entities to symbolize a certain population. Some scholars rightly argue that the habit of using imagery of a faithful or unfaithful woman to portray a collective group is misogynistic and reflective of male efforts to retain dominance in gender.[ix] Although these advocates for gender equality appear to be correct in their condemnation of the various authors who wrote these ancient texts, it is not possible to travel back through time and erase the symbolism choices the authors made.
Instead, let us momentarily look past the misogynistic language and observe the pattern within prophetic passages which employs a specific type of feminine imagery. The table below helps evidence the pattern of using depictions of fictitious feminine figures (faithful/unfaithful) to condemn the behavior of various groups of people – males and females alike – who have committed spiritual and ethical “adultery.”
Does the Queen Ruler of Rev. 17-18 adhere to this same pattern? There is a fictitious female figure present who is identified as the “mother of whores” in Rev 17:5.[xii] Not only is this female defined as the ultimate unfaithful female of all time, her behavior results in the long-awaited eschatological destruction of injustices.
What behaviors are synonymous with the Queen Ruler figure? Revelation 18 says that this entity has “become a dwelling place of demons,” inspires “all the nations...and kings of the earth” to commit idolatry, exhibits great pride – haughtiness, lives in excessive luxury, enslaves the weak, deceives the nations, and murders the “prophets…saints…and all who have been slaughtered on earth.”[xiii] The figure is described as the personification of behaviors aligned with the unfaithful female character in the above table. So far, the Queen Ruler of Revelation follows the exact pattern found in examples from the Hebrew Bible. The most significant question, in terms of the Queen Ruler, is whether or not this female represents a population that has made a covenant with God.
Regardless of how diligently some inquiries engage the theological beast of patriarchy lurking within the mythos of Revelation, conclusions are often drawn about the female figure in Rev. 17-18 that reflect patriarchal characterizations of a human female prostitute.[xiv] However, the above chart indicates that there was a pattern of using the unfaithful woman imagery for a group of people who claimed to be “God’s people,” or have a covenant with God, and were not holding up their end of the agreement.
Click here to continue to: Women of Revelation - Queen Ruler II
[i] David L. Barr, “The Apocalypse as a Symbolic Transformation of the World: A Literary Analysis,” quoted in Edith McEwan Humphries, The Ladies and the Cities: Transformation and apocalyptic identity in Joseph and Aseneth, 4 Ezra, the Apocalypse and The Shepherd of Hermas (Sheffield, England: Sheffield AP, 1995), 111; Tina Pippin, Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Apocalypse of John, (Westminster/John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 1992), 49.
[ii] Humphries, 95-6.
[iii] Catherine Keller, God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys (Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, MN, 2004) 39.
[iv] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 1998), 13.
[v] David L. Barr, “Women in Myth and History: Deconstructing John’s Characterizations” in A Feminist Companion to the Apocalypse of John, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Maria Mayo Robbins (New York: T & T Clark International, 2009), 55-68, 57.
[vi] Barr, 56.
[vii] Humphreys, 103-111.
[viii] Rev. 17:5 (NRSV).
[ix] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Why Do Men Need the Goddess? Male Creation of Female Religious Symbols,” in Faith + Feminism: Ecumenical Essays, eds. B. Diane Lipsett and Phyllis Trible (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2014), 246.
[x] Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 159.
[xi] Bellis, 163.
[xii] Barr, 58.
[xiii] Rev. 18:2-24 (NRSV).
[xiv] Barr, 58, 63; Pippin, 57-9; Adela Yarbro Collins, “Feminine Symbolism in the Book of Revelation” in A Feminist Companion to the Apocalypse of John, eds. Amy-Jill Levine amdMaria Mayo Robbins (New York: T & T Clark International, 2009), 121-30, 125, 130.