1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore who is seated on many waters, 2 with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.” 3 So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. 4 The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; 5 and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” 6 And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.
When I saw her, I was greatly amazed. 7 But the angel said to me, “Why are you so amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. 8 The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.
9 “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; 14 they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
15 And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the whore is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages. 16 And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by agreeing to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled. 18 The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
The language here is potent, and the subject matter below may be difficult for some readers, particularly those who would be triggered by imagery of sexual violence and the metaphorical use the word whore. Rhetorically this is a powerful use of satire to subvert many of the images of strength and piety that were a part of the portrayed identity of Rome. Interpreters across the generations have used this passage as a basis for satire in their own time. For example, Lucas Cranach the Elder in his initial edition of illustrations for Revelation portrayed the woman on the beast wearing a papal tiara, which visually reinforced that for many followers of Luther in their time they viewed the pope and the Roman catholic church as a reading of the text for their time. In later editions Cranach would modify the woodcut to have a simpler crown and a less political reading. Even though the initial readers of Revelation would have seen the imagery pointing satirically to the Roman empire of their day instead of the Roman catholic church, the understanding of the satirical intent of the text has been consistent.
The Roman empire portrayed itself as a virtuous, strong and benevolent empire. The peace of Rome, while it may have been a bloody peace as mentioned in earlier chapters, was enforced through the might of the legions, the alliance with local powers and in some cases the use of fear and terror to keep populations in line. The Romans did not invent crucifixion, for example, but they did perfect it as a tool to shame those who were crucified as they died a slow painful death exposed for the rest of the population to see. I have frequently heard people say that John in writing Revelation was encoding his message so that the Roman empire would not understand what he is saying but this is simply not true. To his readers the images he used would be as readable as most political cartoons in a newspaper would be today. For example, Rome was commonly known as a city on seven hills, or mountains, and by explaining the details of the seven heads being seven mountains and seven hills where the woman would be clear to any reader of the time who he was referring to. Especially when Roman coinage of the time portrays Rome the city as a goddess reclining upon the seven hills. The satire begins by taking the Roman image of their virtue and reversing it: Rome the goddess becomes instead personified as the whore dressed in opulence. As Craig Koester can state:
Such transparent allusion to Rome means that John does not use imagery to conceal his message but to reveal the opulence, arrogance, violence and idolatry of the world’s ruling power. (Koester, 2014, p. 690)
The emperor cult in the Roman empire was often embraced willingly by the people of the empire. Patrons would compete for the ability to dedicate a temple or a structure to the empire to show their loyalty and to curry favor. Since to many people the ruler cult was popular, even early Christians appeared to look for how they could participate in the economic and social benefits as we learned in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation two and three, and in the image the angel has to tell John not to be amazed by the portrayal of Rome. The people of Rome who actively participated in the emperor cult had either become numb to the violence of the empire, kept themselves distant from it or had become intoxicated with it themselves. John wants us to understand that the power behind Rome is not the God of Israel or any benevolent god, but instead by placing the woman on the beast we met in Revelation thirteen John wants his readers to understand that the empire is instead a beast created in the image of the great dragon, Satan, and a “demonic counterpart to the slain and living Lamb.” (Koester, 2014, p. 687)
For all the Roman empire’s talk of piety, they had no trouble using images of women being abused or raped by the emperor in military garb as a metaphor for the military conquest of nations. For example, in the excavations at Aphrodisias we can see in two reliefs emperor Claudius conquering Britain and Nero conquering Armenia portrayed as a soldier who is overpowering a woman.
The imagery of Rome as the conquering and overpowering essence of masculinity is now reversed as Rome becomes the prostitute who will be torn apart by the very ones that she has given her favors to. This imagery is similar to the end of Jeremiah four where the woman, representing Judah, prepares herself to receive lovers:
30 And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in crimson,
that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
Your lovers despise you; they seek your life.
31 For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
anguish as of one bringing forth her first child,
the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before killers!”
Much as the imagery of Rome the conqueror shows that conquering soldiers in this time did not pay for a prostitute but instead took women against their will, now Rome itself is torn apart by the very powers that once paid it homage and honor. Revelation understands that the forces aligned against God are indeed a house divided and they will devour one another even before Christ arrives. The violence that created the empire will become its undoing in John’s vision.