The Dragon, Woman, and Son (Rev 12:1-6)

April 17, 2017 — Leave a comment

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Past Lessons 

B. Text of Revelation 12:1-6

“1Then a great sign was seen in heaven: A woman clothed in the sun, the moon was under her feet, and on hear head was a crown with twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and cried out in her birth pains and she was tormented to give birth. 3Then another sign came from heaven. Behold! A large fiery-red dragon had seven heads and ten horns. On his seven heads were seven crowns. 4The dragon’s tail swept one-third of the stars from the sky and threw them down to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman as she was about to give birth so that when she gave birth to her child he might devour the child. 5Then she gave birth to a male son. He was about to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. But, the child was taken to God and to his heaven. 6The woman fled into the wilderness—a place which had been prepared by God—in order that she could be nourished for 1,260 days.” (Rev 12:1-6)[/ref]Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own based on the NA28 text[/ref]

John's Vision of the Woman and the Dragon (Rev 12:1-6)

Photo Credit: Phillip Medhurst Collection

C. General Remarks

“Chapter 12 can be characterized as a flashback, telling of the birth of the Messiah and the attempt of King Herod to kill Jesus soon after he was born. However, instead of telling this as a historical narrative in a straightforward manner as Matthew does (Matt 2), John presents a heavenly tableau of characters that are portrayed with sensational Near Eastern imagery. In describing the tableau John borrows old apocalyptic motifs, some of which have their roots in a dim and distant past. Striking parallels have been found in Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, and Greek mythology, and in astrological lore.” (Metzger, Breaking the Code, 72)

QUESTION: WHAT IS A JEW OR GENTILE? AS WE HAVE READ THE BOOK OF REVELATION DO YOU FEEL THAT THE BOOK HAS MORE OF A “JEWISH” OR “GENTILE” BACKGROUND AND MESSAGE?

II. THE FIRST SIGN: A WOMAN (Rev 12:1-2)

A. Outer Description (v. 1)

Καὶ σημεῖον μέγα ὤφθη ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, γυνὴ περιβεβλημένη τὸν ἥλιον, καὶ ἡ σελήνη ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν αὐτῆς καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτῆς στέφανος ἀστέρων δώδεκα,

“Then a great sign was seen in heaven: A woman clothed in the sun, the moon was under her feet, and on her head was a crown with twelve stars.” (Rev 12:1)

1. Sign, Not Event

What John sees is a “sign” not an “event.” In my translation above I have listed it as a “great sign was seen in heaven” while the New Living Translation (which I often use) says that it was “an event of great significance.” Mulholland correctly notes, “A ‘sign’ may be an event, but not necessarily. In this case, the sign is not an event, but a person—a ‘woman’” (Mulholland, “Revelation” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, 504).

One of my favorite commentators on the book of Revelation—Robert Thomas—who sees most of the book as literal and future events even concedes that this is a “sign.” This little word “shows that the woman who constitutes the sign is not an actual woman, but symbolically represents some other entity or group” (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 119). Regarding these signs Osborne comments, “Here the woman and her adversary, the dragon, are ‘signs’ that alert the reader to the key conflict of the book” (Osborne, Revelation, 456).

A Woman Clothed with the Sun in Revelation 12

A Woman Clothed with the Sun in Revelation 12. Phillip Medhurst Collection

2. Moon Beneath Her Feet

While some commentators make a lot of focus about how Israel saw the earth at the center of the universe and that the sun and moon rotated around the earth, I take a much simpler view. I simply see this as a symbol of the Old Testament imagery we are not supposed to worship Mary.

In the Old Testament the Israelites were warned not to worship the moon itself (Deut 4:19; 17:3; 2 Kings 23:5). Just as the Israelites were not supposed to worship the moon, if this woman is “Mary” I believe it also says that we are not supposed to worship Mary.

The early church slipped into an “allegorical” method of interpretation that caused many different interpretations of the Bible.

This small phrase, “moon beneath her feet” had seven different interpretations among the early church:

  • (1) the church with heavenly glory (Hippolytus);
  • (2) while it might be dark the saints still have light (Victorinus of Petrovium);
  • (3) the faith of believers who were purified by baptism (Methodius);
  • (4) the church of heretics (Tyconius);
  • (5) the law of Moses (Oecumenius);
  • (6) the church which tramples every mutable thing (Primasius); and
  • (7) hypocritical and evil Christians (Caesarius of Arles). This list was shared by Mulholland, “Revelation” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, 512.

3. A Crown with Twelve Stars

Matthewson says that this is in contrast to διαδηματαin verse three below. The στέφανος word was a wreath signifying victory, honor, or high office (LN 6.192).
This woman is often in connection with Joseph’s dream of Gen 37 and suggests a connection to twelve tribes (James 1:1; Rev 12:12) or twelve apostles (Rev 21:14). In Isaiah Israel is seen as a crown in Gods hand (Isa 62:3) and in Zechariah Israel is seen like jewels in a crown (Zech 9:16).

B. Inner Description (v. 2)

καὶ ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα, καὶ κράζει ὠδίνουσα καὶ βασανιζομένη τεκεῖν.

“She was pregnant and cried out in her birth pains and she was tormented to give birth.” (Rev 12:2)

1. Cause of the Pain

The cause of these pains seem to be the persecution of the nation of Israel throughout history. Everywhere the Jews have meant it seems that they are persecuted.

2. Past or Future

Sometimes I struggle when thinking through whether Rev 12 is past or future. Thomas states, “The reference is to the birth of Jesus at His first coming, but technically speaking this historical event had already occurred when John wrote. So this is a heavenly enactment of that past historical event just as other parts of this vision are enactments of events yet to occur” (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 121).

C. Backgrounds to these Signs

While there are views on who this woman is, there are also some historical and mythological backgrounds to this woman and the dragon scene. This brief section seeks to explain some of the contemporary images that might relate to the woman and the dragon scene of Revelation 12. In my opinion, there are a lot of connections between secular history and Rev 12. However, I think these are coincidental, not intentional. Material in this section has been adapted from Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 118-119; Osborne, Revelation, 545.

1. Ancient Myths

From my limited understanding, there are four major backgrounds to Revelation 12. Yet, within these four major backgrounds there seems to be four different ancient myths which I have listed below.

  • Birth of Apollo. In the Greek myth of the birth of Apollo, the child’s mother was pursued by the dragon Python when she was ready to give birth. The mother found refuge and four days later gave birth to Apollo, and Apollo found Python and killed him.
  • Birth of Horus. In Egypt the mother goddess Isis is pursed by the red dragon called “Set” or “Typhon” and flees to an island. On that island she gives birth to the sun god, Horus.
  • Baal’s Defeat of Leviathan. In Ugaritic myth the storm god Baal (which is well known in the OT) defeats the seven-headed serpent Leviathan and sets up his kingdom.
  • Marduk Kills Tiamat. In Mesopatamia the god of light—Marduk—kills the seven-headed dragon Tiamat. That sevenheaded dragon had thrown down one-third of the stars.

While John probably knew about these myths, it is unlikely that he chose them as a primary source for the book of Revelation.

(This section “Ancient Myths” has been primarily adapted from Grant Osborne’s fabulous summary in Revelation, 545.)

2. Activities of the Emperor Domitian in AD 80-90

The Emperor of Rome at the time John wrote this book (AD 95) was Domitian. Domitian’s ten-year-old son died so Domitian proclaimed that the boy was a god and that his mother, was the mother of god. Coins from that time period say Domitian’s son was the lord of heaven and savior of the world. However, Thomas believes that Domitian likely borrowed from the Christian story, rather than John borrowing from Domitian (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 118).

3. Dead Sea Scrolls Source

You might be familiar with the Qumran Community. It was a remote community that in addition to a full text of the Old Testament (except Esther), they had their own writings. The source of this vision some believe might have come from a Dead Sea Scroll called 1 Qumran Hymn 11:9-10:

“She who is big with the Man of distress is in her pains. For she shall give birth to a man-child in the billows of Death, and in the bonds of Sheol there shall spring from the crucible of the pregnant one a Marvellous Counsellor with his might; and he shall deliver every man from the billows because of Her who is big with him.”

While there are similarities to Rev 12, much of this connection seems to be coincidental, not intentional.

4. Joseph’s Dream of Gen 37 (my view)

In Joseph’s second dream he tells his brothers that he saw the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow low before him (Gen 37:9). In this dream the sun and moon represent Jacob and Rachel. And, the twelve stars represent the twelve patriarchs. In my opinion, this is the correct background to Revelation 12.

D. Views on the Identity of this Woman

1. God

This is the view of Mulholland who says the woman is “God bringing forth God’s own innermost being as the response to the dragon’s rebellion even before the rebellion arose” (Mulholland, “Revelation,” 508-510). Mulholland says that no one has identified this woman as God is because of 2,000 years of male domination of the church.

Additionally, he believes it is “God” who brings forth a son who restores Israel. Weaknesses of this view include how God could birth God as well as how God would have to flee from Satan.

2. Mary

The Roman Catholic Church strongly holds this view. Strengths of this view are some of the similarities in Matt 1:18, 23 that describe Mary. There also are similarities to Isa 7:10-11, 14 that describe the virgin birth. Weakness is how Mary could be active in heaven even before Satan’s rebellion. Also, it goes against the word “sign” in verse 1 that states this is not a literal woman, it is a symbol and sign that represents something else.

3. The Ideal Community of God’s People

This is the view held by Bruce Metzger (Breaking the Code, 74). It sees the woman as the personification of the ideal community of God’s people which started with the Jewish nation, then later transferred to the Gentile Christians.

4. Israel and Eve

N. T. Wright believes that there are two figures that stand behind this woman: the nation of Israel and Eve. The nation of Israel was sometimes called the bride of God that was illustrated through the prophets when they described Israel not being faithful to God. She “represents the entire story of God’s people, chosen to carry forward his plans for the nations and indeed for the whole creation” (Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 107-108). Eve is seen as the second figure behind the woman because it was her “seed” that would crush the head of Satan (Gen 3:15). That event is what is described here.

5. A Sun-Goddess

A friend in my LIFEGroup has let me borrow his book, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. This book is written from a skeptical and slightly critical view of the Bible. According to Asimov, the woman is a sun-goddess. The twelve stars represent the signs of the zodiac which the sun passes through each year. With this view, Asimov is seeing a Babylonian mythology as the background to John’s vision. (Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, vol. 2, 548)

6. Israel (my view)

This represents the “matrix” which Jesus came (Walvoord, Revelation, 192). Support for this view comes for several reasons. One, in the Old Testament the nation of Israel is often described as the wife of God (Isa 26:17-18; 66:7; Jer 4:31; 13:21; Mic 4:10; 5:3; Hosea 1-2). Second, Gen 37:9-11 which describes Joseph’s second dream including sun (Jacob), moon (Rachel), and eleven stars (the tribes of Israel). Third, Isa 9:6 which states that the Messiah could come from the nation of Israel. Fourth, references to Israel’s ark of the covenant in 11:19 supports the Jewish focus. Fifth, the 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel sandwich Rev 12 (Rev 7, 14). Sixth, the 1,260 days mentioned here match the understanding that Israel will experience peace for the first three and a half years of the Tribulation. This view is held by Walvoord, Revelation, 192; Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 120-121; Osborne, Revelation, 456.

III. THE SECOND SIGN: A RED DRAGON (Rev 12:3-4)

A. The Dragon’s Description (v. 3)

καὶ ὤφθη ἄλλο σημεῖον ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, καὶ ἰδοὺ δράκων μέγας πυρρὸς ἔχων κεφαλὰς ἑπτὰ καὶ κέρατα δέκα καὶ ἐπὶ τὰς κεφαλὰς αὐτοῦ ἑπτὰ διαδήματα,

“Then another sign came from heaven. Behold! A large fiery-red dragon had seven heads and ten horns. On his seven heads were seven crowns.” (Rev 12:3)

1. Dragon

John chooses the image of a dragon to describe Satan because of the fierceness of dragons in Hebrew thought (Rev 12:4, 7, 9, 13, 17, 17; 13:2, 4, 11; 16:13; 20:2). The identity of the dragon is clearly Satan based on Rev 12:9 and 20:2. Just as the image of Christ in Rev 19:11-16 is absolutely Christ, this image of the dragon is absolutely Satan.

2. Seven Heads and Ten Horns

Walvoord says that these seven heads and ten horns refer to the original ten kingdoms of Dan 7:7-8. Three of those horns were subdued by the little horn. That little horn is the world ruler of the great tribulation who reigns over the revived Roman Empire (Walvoord, Revelation, 193).

The number symbolizes “totality or fullness” (Mulholland, “Revelation,” 505).

In the next chapter we will see the shift of the horns from the dragon to the beast of sea (Rev 13:1) which shows the transfer of authority from Satan to his world ruler.

3. Seven Crowns

These seven crowns appear again in Rev 13:1 on the beast of the sea and in 19:12. These seven crowns by the then kingdoms of the future that were reduced to seven due to the little horn of Dan 7:2-8.

4. Diadem versus Stephanos

There are two types of crowns mentioned in the book of Revelation. Here’s a brief study of each. The diadems, according to the NET Bible, “were a type of crown used as a symbol of the highest ruling authority in a given area, and thus often associated with kingship.” It was a symbol of royal power. Stephanos, on the other hand, denoted victory in the games, civic worth, military valor, nuptial joy, or festal gladness.

B. The Dragon’s Activity (v. 4)

καὶ ἡ οὐρὰ αὐτοῦ σύρει τὸ τρίτον τῶν ἀστέρων τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἔβαλεν αὐτοὺς εἰς τὴν γῆν. Καὶ ὁ δράκων ἕστηκεν ἐνώπιον τῆς γυναικὸς τῆς μελλούσης τεκεῖν, ἵνα ὅταν τέκῃ τὸ τέκνον αὐτῆς καταφάγῃ.

“The dragon’s tail swept one-third of the stars from the sky and threw them down to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman as she was about to give birth so that when she gave birth to her child he might devour the child.” (Rev 12:4)

1. One-Third of the Stars

The image here is that heavenly beings are stars, and the dragon—Satan—has one-third of heaven that follows him during his fall. Other places in the Bible heavenly beings (especially “fallen” ones) are referred to as stars (Job 38:7; Dan 8:10; Jude 13).

Or, it could refer to the ruler of the world empire, the gathering under him those who oppose him and it involves the power over the portions of the earth (Walvoord, Revelation, 193).

2. Desire to Kill the Baby

Appears to be an allusion to or a fulfillment of Herod who was an Edomite—a descendant of Esau—and an enemy of Jacob’s descendants (Matt 2:13-15). The dragon’s feud is with the child, not the woman. This desire to kill the baby has been seen throughout the Old Testament. Cain killed Abel (Gen 4:8), a corruption of the line of Seth (Gen 6:1-2), attempted rapes of Sarah (Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18) and Rebekah (Gen 26:1-18), Rebekah’s plan to cheat Esau out of his birthright and the enmity of Esau against Jacob (Gen 27), murder of the male children in Egypt (Exod 1:15-22), attempted murders of David (1 Sam 18:10-11, among others), Queen Athaliah’s desire to destroy the royal seed (2 Chron 22:10), Haman’s attempt to eliminate the Jews (Esther 3-9),

C. The Dragon’s Identity

1. Roman Empire and Representation of Satanic Power

Based on the similar description in Rev 13:31 as well as parallel references in Dan 7:7-8, 24, some believe that this is the revived Roman Empire. Yet, later in this passage (12:9) the dragon is clearly labeled as Satan. Therefore, the dragon “is both the empire and the representation of satanic power (Walvoord, Revelation, 193).
Commentators who hold his view are Walvoord, Revelation, 193.

2. Chaos

According to Asimov, the dragon represents chaos. In this way, it is either the Babylonian Tiamat or the Hebrew Leviathan. Each of these were sea monsters that had to be defeated in order that the universe could be created. However, a couple sentences later Asimov says that the dragon also represents Satan or Antichrist. (Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, vol. 2, 548).

3. Satan

John chooses the image of a dragon to describe Satan because of the fierceness of dragons in Hebrew thought (Rev 12:4, 7, 9, 13, 17, 17; 13:2, 4, 11; 16:13; 20:2). The identity of the dragon is clearly Satan based on Rev 12:9 and 20:2. Just as the image of Christ in Rev 19:11-16 is absolutely Christ, this image of the dragon is absolutely Satan.

IV. THE WOMAN’S ACTIONS (Rev 12:5-6)

A. Birth of a Male Child (v. 5)

καὶ ἔτεκεν υἱὸν ἄρσεν, ὃς μέλλει ποιμαίνειν πάντα τὰ ἔθνη ἐν ῥάβδῳ σιδηρᾷ. καὶ ἡρπάσθη τὸ τέκνον αὐτῆς πρὸς τὸν θεὸν καὶ πρὸς τὸν θρόνον αὐτοῦ.

“Then she gave birth to a male son. He was about to shepherd all the nations with an iron rod. But, the child was taken to God and to his heaven.” (Rev 12:5)

1. He Will Rule

This short little phrase about how and who Christ will rule was predicted in one of the most famous Messianic Psalms:

  • “The kings of the earth prepare for battle; the rulers plot together against the LORD and against his anointed one.” (Psalm 2:2, NLT)
  • “You will break them with an iron rod and smash them like clay pots.” (Psalm 2:9, NLT)

2. Taken Away

The child taken away symbolizes the child being taken by force from the dragon as well taken to heaven. Mulholland writes that “John captures the Cross (the Messiah grasped by the dragon), the Resurrection (the Messiah taken away from the dragon), and the Ascension (the Messiah taken up to God)” (Mulholland, “Revelation” 506).
The child taken to heaven is a reference to Christ’s ascension (Metzger, Breaking the Code, 73; Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament).

3. Views on the Child

  • The Church. This child is not the church for several reasons. First, the church did not give birth to Jesus. Second, church is not to rule the nations. Third, the church is described as female (Rev 19:6-8).
  • The Christ. This child is Christ for several reasons. First, catching up throne seems to relate to Christ’s ascension in (Acts 1:9). Second, flight might be to Egypt (Matt 2:13-15). Third, the unmistakable reference to ruling the nations with an iron rod in Pss 2. This view is held by Metzger, Breaking the Code, 73; Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 107.

B. Flees to Wilderness (v. 6)

καὶ ἡ γυνὴ ἔφυγεν εἰς τὴν ἔρημον, ὅπου ἔχει ἐκεῖ τόπον ἡτοιμασμένον ἀπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ, ἵνα ἐκεῖ τρέφωσιν αὐτὴν ἡμέρας χιλίας διακοσίας ἑξήκοντα.

“The woman fled into the wilderness—a place which had been prepared by God—in order that she could be nourished for 1,260 days.” (Rev 12:6)

“The flight reported in this verse comes chronologically after the warfare in heaven about to be described in 12:7-12, and the woman’s escape receives a more detailed treatment in 12:13-17” (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 127).

1. Place

Mulholland believes that the “place” here is the place of God. This belief is from the idea that the Greek word, τοπος can be a synonym for “temple.” (Mulholland, “Revelation,” 506-507).

2. Three and a Half Years

The three and a half years seems to be the time of peace that Israel experiences (Dan 9:27) (Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 127). Regarding the time of this verse, Walvoord points out there is a tremendous time lapse between verse five and verse six. He says that this is the time of peace and tranquility that Israel will experience during the first three and a half years of the tribulation (Walvoord, Revelation, 195).

3. Different Woman?

While N. T. Wright said above that the woman has two figures which stand behind here: Israel and Eve. He flops his view in Rev 12:6 saying that is not the woman or her two figures that go away to the wilderness. But, the woman here is the “church” that goes away for three and a half years for protection. Then, two sentences later, he says that the idea of the woman fleeing into the desert is a reference to the Exodus story (Wright, Revelation for Everyone, 109).

QUESTION: WHERE DO YOU THINK WE ARE IN THIS?

V. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION

A. We are not supposed to worship Mary.

Catholics are often known for their worship of Mary. The term “immaculate conception” is well known to Catholics who are loyal to their church or to those who have walked way. Whatever the case might be, we need to know what this woman is over the moon, and just as the Israelites were are not supposed to worship the moon, we as Christians are not supposed to worship or pray to Mary. If you go into any protestant church it will be hard to find any candle lit in front of Mary or to even find a picture of her. I believe this is for good reason.

B. I can trust God to keep his promises.

Those promises God gave to Abraham in Gen 12-20 included a descendant that would bless all the nations. However, throughout the history of the world there has been countless direct persecutions of the nation of Israel. They have been conquered, carried away, trampled, killed, persecuted, put down, and slaughtered. All of this might cause someone to question God’s promises, yet he filled a part of that promise by sending his son to die on behalf of us and our sins. And, as a result, we get to receive eternal life through the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus. In this, amidst the suffering and persecution that Jesus faced, we too can trust that God keeps his promise.

C. Spiritual warfare is real and I must be ready for it.

The Bible tells us that Satan roams the earth and that he has an army of minions to assist him in his desire to deceive and disrupt Christian lives. It is too common that faithful Christian men and women sometimes experience the most persecution and difficulties. I believe this is often because of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and their work for him. My boss and senior pastor at Rocky Hill Community Church has served several large churches, but the difficulties he has had to experience seem to indicate that Satan is the one attacking him. All the way back to the book of Job, Satan chooses Job because Job was a loyal and faithful servant of God. Satan did not chose the carnal Christian that only went to church on Easter and Christmas. Satan chose the most loyal and prosperous follower of God. Our lives too will be difficult when we loyally and faithfully follow the Lord.

Christopher L. Scott

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I also may have received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."