beauty and the beast: empire in the book of revelation (part 3)

Other parts of this series:

Part 1—Revelation in Context
Part 2—The Beast: Might and Power
Part 4—The Lamb: The Witness of the Cross

Part 3—The Prostitute: Seduction and Luxury

Hans Burgkmair the Elder: ‘The Whore of Babylon’, 1523

In this, the third part of this study, I will discuss another of Revelation’s major characters, the Great Prostitute of chapter 17-18.

Now, before I begin, I must follow the wisdom of Howard-Brook and Gwyther[1] and comment on the fact that it is a privileged male from the First World who is about to talk about a prostitute.

Indeed, John’s negative use of the image of a prostitute has, in some circles, been very controversial for its patriarchal and sexist depiction. Feminist biblical scholar Tina Pippin claims the disembodiment of the Prostitute in Revelation 17:16 “points to the ultimate misogynist fantasy!”[2]
Pippin’s point is that these images can be quite dangerous, particularly in the hands of man who can exert power over the bodies of women. Howard-Brook and Gwyther point to the example of the church’s burning of women as “witches” as the consequence of taking these depictions as the “word of God”.[3]

It will not do for a male like myself to simply say that this language was a product of the time. This would be to pass over, and even excuse, the real pain, violence and degradation that many women across the world have felt because of the use and abuse of such passages. I must acknowledge this pain. My only response is to say that the images of women used by Revelation were not produced with the intent to legitimate violence against women. Faithfulness to the text requires that no reading ever contradict this intention.

Ultimately the image of the Prostitute in Revelation, though a product of a different time, is not about human women: as we shall see the image represents a city and an empire.

Revelation 17:1-14 (The Great Prostitute)

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 prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” And 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. The woman was arrayed 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 sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.

When I saw her, I marveled greatly. But the angel said to me, “Why do you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come. This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. These are of one mind, and they hand over their power and authority to the beast. 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.”

In terms of the text itself, John describes the “Great Prostitute” (17:1) as being seated on many waters, and with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality and the dwellers of the earth have become drunk. (17:2) The sea is the paradigmatic symbol of death and chaos in Israel’s history (e.g. Noah’s Flood, the Exodus). The Prostitute is seated on death itself, the place of the Beast (13:1).  The kings have committed sexual immorality with her, a point we will explore below.

She also sits upon a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. (17:3; more on this below)

The Prostitute is “arrayed 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 sexual immorality.” (17:4) In other words, she is obscenely rich and luxurious, and her golden cup is the exact opposite of the golden bowls in heaven (5:8)—the bowls hold the prayers of the saints, but her cup holds abominations.

What, then, is John trying to “do” with the image of the Prostitute? We will return to these descriptions momentarily. First we must identify the Prostitute.

John says that on the forehead of the Prostitute is written “a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.’” (17:5) The reference here is reasonably clear: Babylon was the greatest empire of the ancient world, and had become the typical, paradigmatic image of empire in Israel’s tradition.

The prophetic sections of the Old Testament denounce heavily the political and economic tyranny of Babylon For example, Jeremiah 50:23-27:

How the hammer of the whole earth
is cut down and broken!
How Babylon has become
a horror among the nations!
I set a snare for you and you were taken, O Babylon,
and you did not know it;
you were found and caught,
because you opposed the Lord.
The Lord has opened his armory
and brought out the weapons of his wrath,
for the Lord God of hosts has a work to do
in the land of the Chaldeans.
Come against her from every quarter;
open her granaries;
pile her up like heaps of grain, and devote her to destruction;
let nothing be left of her.
Kill all her bulls;
let them go down to the slaughter.
Woe to them, for their day has come,
the time of their punishment.

It is also worth remembering that “Babel” in Genesis 11 is agreed by most scholars to be an allusion to Babylon – Babel was destroyed because it was (put simply) an attempt by humankind to construct an empire. In the Genesis story Babel was a move away from the Garden existence where human beings enjoyed communion with God, toward a city existence of oppression.

By the time of the late first century, Babylon became a label used in Jewish and Christian circles to refer to Rome (see for example 4 Ezra 3:1-2, 28-31; Sibylline Oracles 5.213-218)

One of the reasons for this was probably that Rome, like Babylon, had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple therein. And so this Prostitute in Revelation, as Babylon, represents the Roman Empire. This is further evidenced by the fact that the Prostitute is said to sit on seven mountains (17:9), a well-known reference to Rome, which was built on seven hills.

In addition, Bauckham claims that in this description the readers would have recognised characteristics of the goddess Roma, who was a personification of Rome.[4] Interestingly she also takes on characteristics of Jezebel from the Old Testament (18:7, 23-24) in addition to being a prostitute, no doubt a comment by John on the nature of the Empire.

Like the Beast, the Prostitute is not simply a generic depiction of the Empire, but rather is an image that emphasises certain characteristics of it.

If the Beast represents the violence and coercive power of Rome, then the Prostitute, with her ornate clothing and luxurious seductiveness (17:4, above), represents the economics of the Empire that seduces the imaginations of the people, particularly the “kings of the earth” (17:2, above).

We are told of the Prostitute that she causes the inhabitants of the earth to become drunk (17:2), and that even John, when confronted by her, is moved to “marvel greatly” (17:6b-7). This is significant:

The word used for prostitute is porneuō, the same word used in the Greek version of Exodus 34:15-16:

You will not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, lest when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore (porneuō) after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.

The issue here in Exodus is not sexual immorality, but the people’s worship of other gods and thus the selling out of the radical message of YHWH in distinction to the practices of the other people who lived around them. As Howard-Brook and Gwyther point out, idolatry was not merely about falling down before this statue or that tree – it was about adopting a cult and culture that was at odds with its covenant with YHWH.[5]

This covenant was, at its core, a way of life in faithfulness to the character of YHWH. The Law was simply an expression of this in a particular time and place. One of the central concerns of Israel’s covenant with YHWH was in fact economics—the Israelites are, again and again, commanded to treat each other fairly in terms of economic dealings.

One of the ways that Israel in the Old Testament was most unfaithful was in its constant entering into alliances with neighbouring empires for protection, thus abandoning their covenant with YHWH. These alliances were both military and economic, that is, they were trading alliances. (See Isaiah 23: 15-17; Ezekiel 16, esp. 26, 28-29)

Israel, in making such alliances, was being seduced into economic relationships that were contrary to its covenant with YHWH. By connecting Israel’s past covenant unfaithfulness with the Prostitute in Revelation, the implication is clear – the entire world has become drunk with the intoxicating and hypnotic seduction of the Prostitute, that is, an embodiment of an imperial economics that is in conflict with the will of YHWH. In other words, the people have fornicated with a lord other than YHWH, namely the Roman economic system under Caesar.

This is why John goes out of his way to indict the “kings of the earth” (17:2; 18:9) and “the merchants of the earth” (18:11-13)—they are the ones who benefit from the seduction of the Prostitute, from the oppressive economic system of the Empire.

When it is said in chapter 18 that Babylon (the Prostitute) is fallen, the kings of the earth “who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her” weep and wail (18:9) and the merchants “weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore (18:11). What is John talking about here? It must be said that the kings of the earth, namely the powerful members of society, and the merchants were those who became wealthy because of the oppressive economic system in place in the Empire.

It is important to have some background into this economic system to fully comprehend why John might be so antagonistic to it.

Lenski’s Model of an “Advanced Agrarian Society” (e.g. the Roman Empire) [Gerhard E. Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).]

The Roman Empire was what social-scientists call an “advanced agrarian society”. Advanced agrarian societies were agricultural societies. The invention of the plough made it possible for more efficient agriculture to take place. This meant households could yield an economic surplus of agricultural production, meaning they had more than what they needed to survive. This led to local trade, which in turn led to the establishment of villages where people could settle permanently, and then eventually cities.

The problem with the existence of surplus production was that it opened up the possibility of an “exploiter” class to come about, people who could live off the surplus of others without having to do any physical work. Cities led to the consolidation of the power of such exploiters who developed means of coercing agriculturalists to give over a portion of their produce. These coercive measures typically amounted to threats of armed violence.

Such extraction of produce from the agriculturalists was a form of what we might call taxation. In return the elites promised safety and security, though in truth they had little concern for the poorer members they exploited.

As this trend continued, the exploiter class gained more and more wealth, and thus the power to employ more coercive tactics, such as standing armies. The agriculturalists on the other hand became a peasantry. With the rise of elite bureaucracies that were necessary to support this system, the wealthy could begin to keep records, such as debt, and thus debt became perpetual.

Eventually the elite became so wealthy that there began to be a demand for rarer luxury goods. This necessitated the creation of a merchant class, people who would travel between places transporting luxury goods and selling them for high prices. They would typically buy these from artisans (like Joseph and Jesus) for low prices and sell them to the elite for much more. (This was the beginning of a widespread money economy, since prior to travelling merchants there was no real need for a money currency).

And so advanced agrarian societies were those where a tiny fraction of the population lived in luxury at the expense of the vast majority, who lived a life of subsistence. The elite worked out numerous ways of extracting all surplus from the peasantry, leaving them with just enough to survive.

The Roman Empire was such a society. Everyone from Caesar and his bureaucracy down to the more well-off merchants made a killing from a system that heavily taxed the majority of rural peasants, leaving them in poverty and constantly in danger of many afflictions and dangers.

Revelation 18:14-17 says of the merchants who are standing weeping over the death of the Prostitute:

“The fruit for which your soul longed
has gone from you,
and all your delicacies and your splendors
are lost to you,
never to be found again!”

The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,

“Alas, alas, for the great city
that was clothed in fine linen,
in purple and scarlet,adorned with gold,
with jewels, and with pearls!\
For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste.”

If that system were to fall apart it would indeed be the kings of the earth and the merchants who would weep because they are the ones who have become rich off of it.

In 18:11-13 it is said that “no one buys their cargo anymore, cargo of gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.”

This list is representative of the trade in commodities at the time, both the luxuries (gold, jewels etc.), but also the staples of life (oil, flour, wheat cattle) – Babylon extracts everything from the entire earth, even humans!

This is the very system that John critiques when he portrays it as a Prostitute.

It is no surprise then that the Prostitute is said in Revelation 17:3 to ride on the Beast—John is aware that the exploitative economic system of the Empire is achieved and maintained only by the presence of the Beast, namely Rome’s imperial military and political power.

This takes us back to the last part of this study and the mark of the Beast—those who have not given their allegiance to the Beast, the military power of Rome, cannot participate in the economic system.

The imperial economic system is also held in place by the myths and propaganda controlled by the elites. The nations are indeed drunk on her, hypnotised by her seductive myths. She offers them a golden cup, and they drink deeply, to the point of intoxication. This cup no doubt includes the myth and propaganda about Pax Romana, according to which Rome had brought peace, security and prosperity to the whole world.

But John’s critique is devastating—the cup offered by the Prostitute, despite its seductiveness, is filled with the wine of her impurities, including according to 17:6 the blood of the saints, the blood of the witnesses of Jesus. The Prostitute may seduce the inhabitants of the earth, and indeed even John is entranced at first (17:6b-7), but the “heavenly” perspective on her is that she is, to put it offensively, a wily whore whose baubles and trinkets are merely illusions.[6]

John’s warning is to avoid the seduction of the Prostitute, who will ultimately come to ruin. Unlike the kings and the merchants, who fornicate with such exploitative systems, John’s audience is called to not drink from her cup, but to resist her oppression.

This was apparently a real issue for John’s audience. Even if one didn’t like the economic system of the Roman Empire, they were nonetheless forced to place their faith in it. It was easier to accommodate the Empire than to resist, especially since there was always the promise of prosperity (even though it was never fulfilled).

To resist was to risk much. As John says, the Prostitute is drunk on the blood of the saints (17:6)—Rome would not allow a group of misfits who follow an unknown crucified prophet from some backwater hick town in a minor province called Judea to create instability in its Empire.

Nonetheless, the call of God in Revelation is this – “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins…” (18:4).

Though the kings and merchants of the earth weep and wail when Babylon falls, those who have come out of her have no need to weep. John calls the people of God to continue to resist the oppressive and exploitative economic system of Rome. He also warns those who have colluded and compromised with Rome to get out of her now.

As Revelation goes on we find that the people of God are not merely called to come out of Babylon; they called also to come into the New Jerusalem. This is not a call to move geographically, as Howard-Brook and Gwyther point out – it is a call to the audience to discern the true character of Babylon/Rome, and to distance themselves from its seduction.[7] In other words, to give their allegiance to a kingdom alternative to that of Rome—God’s kingdom of justice and peace—and to create alternatives in fitting with this kingdom.

For us today we must turn our attention to our own economic situation and think about what it means for us to resist exploitative and oppressive systems here and now.

In other words, How can the Church be the Church in the face of powerful and seductive empire?

Note: At this point, when delivering this study, there was a facilitated discussion about economic exploitation in our own world and the imperative for the Church to be the Church in embodying equity and offering alternatives to exploitation, both local and global. If you wish to explore this more check out the fantastic resources available from TEAR Australia and also Manna Gum.


[1] Wes Howard-Brook & Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999), 161.

[2] Tina Pippin, Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Apocalypse of John (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 67.

[3] Howard-Brook & Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, 161.

[4] Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (London: T&T Clark, 1993), 343-344.

[5] Howard-Brook & Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, 167.

[6] In the words of Howard-Brook & Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, 169.

[7] Howard-Brook & Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, 184.

Posted on October 8, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Economics, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

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