Ted Grimsrud—July 19, 2015
We read at the end of chapter sixteen, “God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath” (16:19). Now, in chapter seventeen and eighteen, the details of that “remembrance” will be presented. One of the bowl-plague angels comes to John to take him to see the “judgment of the great harlot” (17:1).
We should note that it is presumably the same angel who will later come again to John to take him to see “the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” that is, New Jerusalem (21:9). The same exact wording is used in both places, indicating that these two visions should be understood in relation to one another. These are the two destinations that John holds out for his readers—trust in the Dragon and end up in fallen Babylon or trust in God and end up in New Jerusalem.
We have got here a central symbol that is referring to another symbol. The “great harlot” refers to “great Babylon.” Clearly John does not have in mind an actual prostitute. And by the time of this writing, the ancient city of Babylon no longer existed. Probably the main source for the metaphors is the Old Testament. Already in the Old Testament these two images were used to signify the social embodiments of idolatry, rebellion against God, violence, and injustice.
On the immediate level, John surely means to apply these symbols to Rome, the “city of seven hills” (17:9) that “rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18). Rome, who promises peace and insists that it operates with divine favor, stands as the most profound temptation for John’s readers. Those John most vociferously opposes apparently suggested that followers of Jesus many also function as comfortable actors in the Roman world—including taking part in the requisite public expressions of acquiescence to Roman civil religion. The worship moments scattered throughout Revelation are meant to counter that acquiescence.
We should read this account now as reflecting a broader critique. Just as Babylon, formerly a great empire but by John’s time a distant memory, worked metaphorically to provide insight into the character of the Roman Empire, so now Rome, also formerly a great empire but now a distant memory, works metaphorically to provide insight into the character of present-day empires (and all other empires throughout history)—most obviously for readers of this book, the American Empire.
Part of what evoked expressions of fealty to Rome, along with its claims that it served “peace” and “justice,” was the sense of Rome’s great and irresistible power. The vision of the Beast in chapter thirteen reflects that sense, “who can fight against it?” (13:4). John’s agenda has been to counter that sense of Rome’s greatness. Rome was not serving God but was serving the powers of evil.
To link Rome with Babylon would signal to John’s readers, biblical people that they were, that in fact this current empire is in continuity with that terrible empire from the past. Like Babylon, Rome also destroyed the Jerusalem temple. And, even worse, Rome executed Jesus as a political rebel. In fact, it was Rome (like Babylon), that was in rebellion against God.
To add to the effect, now John adds this new symbol. That Babylon/Rome is not an entity of grandeur but in fact a simple harlot. In this chapter, John means to evoke disgust from his readers, a sense of repulsion. The flash and apparent glamour of Rome are actually superficial impressions that mask deep-seated corruption and rottenness.
The use of “harlot” (I prefer this term because it feels a little less personal) or “whore” or “prostitute” for John’s purpose may have been effective as part of his critique of Rome. And we should read the allusion is a social and political metaphor. However, it certainly also is not an innocent metaphor and tragically reinforces hurtful stereotypes concerning women. I am choosing to focus on the meaning I understand John to be giving to the symbol in this context, but I also believe it is a very unfortunate metaphor whose liabilities outweigh its positive value as a useful symbol for us today. We would do well to find other metaphors to convey the message, for example, that today’s American Empire is built on disgusting violence and injustice even as it claims to be worthy of obedience and loyalty.
It is true that the metaphor of “harlot” is used numerous times in the Old Testament, both of those societies who opposed God (e.g., Isa 1:21; 23:16-17; Nah 3:4) and of elements within Israel that were seeking after gods other than Yahweh (e.g., Hos). We should read Revelation seventeen as intending to convey a political message here. It is not that women or sex or even literally prostitution is the problem; the problem is a political system that is built on the backs of the exploited poor and vulnerable and that threatens to transform the core values of the community of Jesus’s followers with its notion of “conquering” through domination.
The “fornication” that the kings of the earth commit with the harlot probably involves all the various ways human kingdoms violate and exploit—but the reference to “the wine of [their] fornication” likely links it most directly to violence against those who stand for genuine justice, especially the Lamb and his followers. We have read already about the “wine” as a symbol for “blood,” most especially the blood shed by Jesus and his followers (14:17-20), and the link is made explicit here at 17:6: “The woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.” Later, at 18:24 we read that in Babylon “was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.”
That “the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk … with the wine of [their] fornication” as well (17:2) reflects the successful work of the False Prophet to gain widespread public support for the dynamics of imperial domination. Part of what is conveyed with the sense of being “drunk” is the notion of deception. Both the kings of the earth and the inhabitants of the earth are being deceived. On the one hand, they are identified here as being profoundly complicit with the works of Babylon and sharing in Babylon’s status as rebels against God. On the other hand, though, that they are “drunk” and deceived carries with it a hope that they could “turn” (repent) and recognize God as God. We will learn that after Babylon goes down and the spiritual forces of evil are destroyed, in fact such a turn happens (21:24).
A link between the harlot and the bride, we will learn, is that both are “adorned with gold and jewels and pearls” (17:3; see 21:18-21). However, the harlot sits “on a scarlet Beast” (almost certainly the same as the Beast of chapter thirteen) and holds “a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication” (17:4). This cup again alludes to the violent dynamics of empire. This is “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations, … drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:5-6). The problem here is not false religion, per se, but political dynamics of domination and exploitation. At the heart of the political order characterized by such dynamics is ruthlessness toward all who resist (remember the political meaning of the Roman practice of crucifixion—public torture, humiliation, and death in order to maintain social order).
So far in this vision, John mainly simply reiterates the portrayal of the Beast in chapter thirteen, emphasizing its overwhelming power, but adding an additional dimension of disgust by bringing in the imagery of harlotry. The Beast is seemingly overwhelmingly great, but also seemingly irredeemably evil and not to be sympathized with or acquiesced to. However, between chapter thirteen and now, we have seen visions that reemphasize the Lamb’s victory over the Powers and have also traced the denouement of the plague dynamics that are expressions of the Beast’s power—and lead ultimately to the Beast’s demise. We now turn to the demise.
The angel who shows John this vision now gets to the point: The Beast is about to go to its destruction (17:8). The details of the vision here are complicated and hard to decipher. We do learn that “the inhabitants of the earth” will be “amazed” when they see the Beast go down (17:8), hinting that their fate is not inevitably to go to destruction with it. We do not get a definitive picture of what happens to “the inhabitants of the earth;” it is most likely, I believe, that their fate is linked with the fate of “the kings of the earth”—which is ultimate healing once the Beast is gone.
Exactly what is meant by the account in 17:9-12 of the kings is probably beyond our ability to unravel. The general idea is clear, though. The Beast is unrelentingly opposed to the Lamb and gains the support of many kings who are “united in yielding their power and authority to the Beast” (17:13). And these kings join the Dragon and Beast in “making war on the Lamb” (17:13). The “mystery” that John cares about here is not the identity of the Beast; surely his readers knew that already. Rather, it is to reiterate once more that the Beast and the kings who yielded their authority to the Beast are serving the Dragon—not God. This is one more challenge to those in John’s churches to discern where their loyalty belongs.
The bottom line, of course, is that the though the Beast gathers all the kings and their authority to wage war on the Lamb, he is doomed. We already know this, so John need not elaborate the nature of the Lamb’s victory. He simply states again, “The Lamb will conquer them” (17:14). We should think back to the beginnings of chapter seventeen. The harlot has the golden cup full of the “blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:6). We know from chapter twelve that this “blood” is precisely the means of Jesus’s conquering: “They have conquered [the Dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life in the face of death” (12:11). So, the harlot’s cup itself, which seems a manifestation of the Beast’s dominating power that so impresses “the inhabitants of the earth,” those that follow “in amazement” (13:3), actually becomes the means by which the Lamb conquers—as we will see in chapter eighteen.
The angel continues to explain the John the meaning of what he sees in the final paragraph of the chapter. Again, the details are difficult to nail down with precision. The first “explanation”—the waters where the harlot sits “are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (17:15) repeats a phrase used throughout the book for both the countless numbers that worship the Lamb (chapter five) and make up God’s people (chapter thirteen) and the countless numbers that bow down to the Beast (chapter thirteen).
This reference points to what John sees to be at stake in Revelation. Which countless multitude that constitutes people from the entire world is most characteristic of the human destiny? In the end, it is the picture of the countless multitude worshiping the Lamb that shows us our end, “end” both as purpose and ultimate outcome. Here in chapter seventeen, John’s point may be to indicate that the fall of the Beast and Harlot will allow the countless multitude to achieve this end.
Then comes a challenging picture. The kings “and the Beast will hate the harlot; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire” (17:16). So, in some sense the Beast and the harlot are not identical. This is confusing, because the sense we have from the rest of the book (including elsewhere in this very chapter) is that they are essentially the same thing; as is Babylon or the great city. This is a good reminder to hold these images a bit loosely—John certainly does not simply have Rome in mind as the literal meaning of any of them.
Perhaps part of thought here is simply that these various structures and ideologies and kingdoms that manifest the spirit of the Dragon and of domination are actually inherently fragile, unstable, and prone to turning onto themselves in destructive ways. It certainly rings true to life that the great empires that are dependent upon the blood of the saints for their sustenance tend to act ultimately in self-destructive ways.
John adds the profound thought that “God has put it into their hearts to carry our God’s purpose” (17:17). Again, as with the plagues (and this is most likely a nutshell summary of the plagues), God’s purposes are carried out in this “wrathful” dynamic of cause and effect consequences where the powers of death only ultimately self-destruct and make space for God’s healing love to work its transformation.