Revelation 13 Rome Portrayed as a Beast

Emperor Claudius Portraying the Conquest of Brittanica in AD 43 as the Rape of a Woman from Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion South Building http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html#prettyPhoto

 Revelation 13: 1-10 The Beast from the Sea

1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 2 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 the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4 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?”

5 The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.

9 Let anyone who has an ear listen:
10 If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

The scene begins at the conclusion of Revelation 12 where the dragon stands upon the shore of the sea and then we enter our chapter with the first beast arising out of the sea, the second member of an unholy trinity opposed to the will of the Creator and an agent of the destruction of creation. These scenes are meant to be an unmasking of the powers, to use the title of Walter Wink’s book, but for many people unfamiliar with the rich tapestry of interweaving echoes and allusions present the beasts become an obfuscation of a simple message in John’s time: Rome’s power is not benevolent or divinely bestowed but rather is demonic and derives from the power of the devil. This is where there is a prophetic bite to the words of Revelation and where it becomes undeniably a reference to the Roman empire that seven churches in Asia found themselves living within. In contrast to the imperial claims of piety and security John uses metaphor to parody the seemingly unstoppable power of Roman might by proclaiming it is a savage beast subservient to the dragon who is the Devil and Satan.

From the Roman side the beast in particular embodies many traits that allude to Rome generally and to Emperor Nero (who will appear frequently in the explanations of this and coming chapters) in particular. John writes in the time after Nero’s death, but for the message John writes in Revelation Nero is the embodiment of the true character of the empire. In addition to the seven heads (which alludes to the seven hills around Rome and seven emperors) and the ten crowns (although emperors did not wear crowns the kings that ruled provinces on behalf of the Roman empire often did) as a representation of the empire (see also Revelation 17: 9-13) it is also helpful to know that the Jewish word for the Romans, the Kittim, also refers to people who come from the sea. The Kittim as they are mentioned in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2:10) and Ezekiel 27:6 are the people of Cypress, an island people who came across the sea but by the time of the New Testament the Kittim is a way of referring to the Romans. The head who received the death wound is almost certainly a reference to Nero who either committed suicide or was killed by a knife to the throat but rumors would persist of his remaining alive because few had seen his body.

Even some Greco-Roman authors could refer to Nero’s reign as that of a beast as Craig R. Koester can illustrate by quoting Philostratus saying,

“as for this beast, generally called tyrant, I have no idea how many heads it has,” but “its nature is wilder than the beasts of the mountains or forests” because “this beast is incited by those who stroke it” so that flattery makes it even more savage. (Vit. Apoll. 4.38.3; cf. Sib. Or. 8:157) (Koester, 2014, pp. 568-569)

Nero’s reign is also famous for the great fire that consumed much of Rome. Many believe that Nero was responsible for the blaze desiring to rebuild Rome in his own vision and even in Revelation it will be this Nero-like beast that will destroy its own city with fire (Rome as the harlot is burned by the beast in Revelation 17: 16). After the fire in 64 CE, Nero deflected criticism away from him by burning the Christian community in Rome. Tacitus records the persecution of the Christians by saying:

“Accordingly, and arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sot was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight expired…it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44) (Koester, 2014, p. 586)

Even though the churches in Asia were not on the receiving end of the persecution that occurred in Rome in 64 CE it probably remained a continual reminder of their vulnerability in the midst of the empire. Revelation wants its readers to understand that the Empire is not a benevolent and benign force but rather a beast whose trues character is revealed in its persecution of the people of God. In contrast to Christ who conquers through the cross the beast conquers through violence. Although the beast may inspire awe and fear by its military strength so that people may say, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” the early church know that they serve the Lord who has cast the great dragon out of heaven and Rome’s power is derivative from this already beaten Devil.

Those familiar with the book of Daniel will also hear a number of echoes from this book as well. Daniel and Ezekiel seem to provide the background for many of the images of Revelation and here we have a modification of the four beasts of Daniel 7, a chapter that has already appeared multiple times in our reading of Revelation. The relevant portion for our current discussion is Daniel 7: 1-8:

1In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: 2 I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, 3 and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. 5 Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” 6 After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. 8 I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

In Revelation the aspects of the four beasts (which represent four empires in Daniel) are combined into the image of the beast of the sea integrating the lion, leopard, bear, ten horns all into one chimera-like combination of animals into one monster. Now instead of a single horn uttering blasphemous names all seven heads have blasphemous names in addition to the mouth uttering blasphemous things. The blasphemous names refer to the claims of divinity that were made for the emperors and the worship they received through the emperor cult. The Roman Emperors, from a Jewish or Christian perspective, were claiming titles that were reserved for God alone and in their persecution of the early Christians placed them in opposition to the coming kingdom of God and the Lamb. Just like the beasts of Daniel’s dream, the time when this beast would be destroyed was coming quickly in the vision.

Emperor Claudius portrayed astride allegories of the land and sea from
the Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion, south building. Image from http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html

Revelation 13: 11-18 The Beast from the Land

11 Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15 and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 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, 17 so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

I mentioned in the section above how the two beasts and the dragon form an unholy trinity opposed to the will of the Creator and bent upon the destruction of the creation. The beast from the land becomes the third member of this alliance deriving its power both from the beast from the sea and, by extension, from the dragon who stands behind the first beast. Where the first beast represents Rome, the second beast represents the cult of the emperor and the forces that proclaimed the message of Rome. The image of a beast that in many ways resembles a lamb but speaks like a dragon points to the reality that it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing-it may appear to be harmless but it is not. This metaphor of a beast like a lamb with a dragon’s voice causes those who resist its proclamation of the first beast to be put to death. The ruler cult here is placed in opposition to the people of God. Using several resonant images combined it unmasks the destructive character of the forces at work in economic, religious and social pressures designed to make people conform to the desires of the empire.

On the one hand the two beasts may allude to Leviathan and Behemoth, great chaos creatures from the land and sea that appear as threatening beasts to the ancient people and who appear as figures in the poetic imagery in the Psalms and Isaiah. A stronger correlation in Jewish tradition would be the traditions about false prophets who lead people astray and here the beast is a false prophet who leads people to deify the beast and turn away from the King of kings. Yet, even stronger for me, is the resonance with two familiar stories from the book of Daniel (as mentioned above Daniel and Ezekiel seem to provide background images that many of the images of Revelation resonate with). The first story in Daniel is from Daniel 3 when King Nebuchadnezzar has a golden statue erected and declares, “Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” (Daniel 3:6) and the heroes of our story, three Jewish exiles renamed in Babylon Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, refuse to worship the golden statue. A central to Jewish (and later Christian) faith was the statement that there are no gods that are to be worshipped before the LORD the God of Israel and in keeping with this central portion of their faith they refuse and are cast into the flaming furnace. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are rescued by God in the midst of the fiery furnace and the people are reminded to remain steadfast in their faith in the midst of the oppression of Babylon. Later in the book of Daniel (Daniel 6) the current king, Darius, is tricked into making a proclamation that all must pray to him for thirty days. Daniel knows the document has been signed and is the law and yet he continues to pray to God. Daniel is cast into the lions’ den, but God closes the mouth of the lions and Daniel is safe while those who accused Daniel, along with their families, are thrown into the lions’ den and are consumed by the lions. Both of these stories helped people of faith remain faithful during times of persecution and to trust that God would ultimately deliver them from the empire of the day and the claims made on behalf of rulers.

The action of the second beast to make others worship the first beast is accompanied by violence, false signs, and social and economic pressures. Violence is used against those who do not comply, who will not worship the emperor and by extension Rome. For these false prophets there is to be no alternative gospel. There was no freedom of the press nor separation of church and state in the ancient world and the imperial cult, as well as most other religions in the empire, were viewed as being in service of the state. The gospel of Rome may have fashioned itself as the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but it was a bloody peace spoken with a dragon’s voice and enforced through the violence of both the legions and the local authorities. While we are not aware of any miracles claimed by the imperial cult there is the continual demonstration of the power and might of Rome and as mentioned in the previous section, ‘Who can fight against it.’ Finally, is the social and economic pressure particularly highlighted by the mark of the beast.  Being a part of the imperial cult could bring a feeling of belonging, but it also allowed people the ability to participate in commercial opportunities. The mark may have been an allusion to the requirement to be a part of a trade organization, many of whom may have required people to demonstrate their allegiance to the emperor, or it may refer to Roman coinage, who many Jewish and early Christians viewed as containing blasphemous messages even though it was the medium of trade for the empire, or it may have referred to other types of pressures that Christians felt to demonstrate they were loyal.

The number of the beast which is a number for a person. In the ancient world gematria, adding up the numerical values of a word, was commonly used. Most historical readers assumed the name would have been known to John’s audience and the most common reading is Nero. Nrwn Qsr, as it is written in Greek (the language of the New Testament) is 666. When transliterated into Hebrew it comes to be 616 which is a common alternative to 666 in some ancient manuscripts. The number has been used to represent many individuals by different interpreters across time, but Nero was probably the individual that the first readers of John’s letter were to hear in this number.

Finally, a brief word about a word that does not appear in Revelation but is commonly linked with this chapter: Antichrist. The Antichrist appears as an opponent in 1 & 2 John which replace the true faith with a faith that is, from the author of the Johannine Epistles perspective, false. Matthew, Mark and Luke can mention false messiahs and 2 Thessalonians develops a theme from the book of Daniel about ‘the man of lawlessness’ who receives power from Satan but it is only in 1 & 2 John where the word Antichrist is used. The term is helpful in thinking about Revelation in the understanding that the second beast is in many ways the opposite of Christ and against Christ (what the anti- prefix means). But historically there is a desire to locate in one figure the role of an Antichrist: so, for Luther the pope could be the Antichrist, others would point to figures like Hitler or Stalin as the Antichrist or look for some futuristic figure. While I am uncomfortable when people use the term as an absolute title, searching for the Antichrist, as an adjective I find it is helpful. Is a concrete person acting in a way that is the opposite or opposed to Christ? Then the adjective can be illustrative. Yet, I still wouldn’t throw it around casually. Nor would I commonly refer to someone as a beast, as Revelation does, yet metaphor has its power. Revelation uses images both for illustration and parody, it wants its readers to see the world in the way that John is being enabled to see but it also wants to demonstrate the difference between the claims of, in this case, the Roman empire and its servants and its reality. Revelation continues to be powerful because its metaphors and parodies continue to resonate for people in multiple times, places and experiences to make sense of the reality of their world and to be reminded that whatever savage beasts that they are facing, no matter the bellow of the dragon and its servants that their God is ultimately able to allow them to persevere no matter the oppression they may experience.

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2 Responses to Revelation 13 Rome Portrayed as a Beast

  1. Pingback: Revelation 14 The Harvest of God | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Revelation 13 Rome Portrayed as a Beast — Sign of the Rose – SHOWERS OF BLESSINGS COVENANT HOUSE

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