Israel, guided by God, treated women differently

In the previous blog, we outlined the horrific way that women were treated in ancient wars. How does Deuteronomy 21:10-14 represent God’s incremental redemptive ethic in its historical context? While the Bible does not categorically state that Israel did not mistreat women after battle, there are a number of facts that make clear that Israel, guided by God, was very different than the ancient war practices summarized in the previous blog.

First of all, Israel’s warriors were not allowed to have sex with anyone during a campaign, not even with their spouses. Note the incident of David visiting the High Priest at the sanctuary while on a military mission. 1 Sam 21:2-5: “And David said to Ahimelech the priest, ‘The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, “Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.” I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.’ And the priest answered David, ‘I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread–if the young men have kept themselves from women.’ 5 And David answered the priest, ‘Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?’” The bread of the sanctuary was holy, and it could only be eaten by holy people. This indicates the military activity was considered as holy, with specific sexual requirements for the soldiers.

A similar passage is 2 Samuel 11:10-11: “When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house,’ David said to Uriah, ‘Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?’ Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.’” The presence of the ark with the army meant presence of temple. Israel’s soldiers were to behave on the battlefield the same way they would behave in the temple. Sexuality forbidden in temple context. God’s temple was to be very different than the pagan temples. There was no temple prostitution in God’s plan for Israel. Furthermore, the presence of the ark in battle meant Israel’s soldiers were allowed no sexual activity.

As we have seen previously, the temple and the battlefield were the places in the ancient world where women were most vulnerable to coerced sexuality. Yahweh specifically excluded these two domains from sexuality of any kind, much less coerced sexuality. Uriah the Hittite clearly understood that these rules applied to him, even though he was away from the battlefield. He was on a mission to communicate messages from his general to his king. That meant it would be inappropriate for him to have intercourse, even with his wife. This has profound implications for Deuteronomy 21:10-14. In light of these strictures, it would be fair to wonder if female captives were completely off-limits to Israelite soldiers. Deuteronomy 21 expresses God’s concession to ancient practices, providing a way forward for a soldier who took a liking to a female captive. In the next blog we will take a second look at Deuteronomy 21:10-14, with a deeper awareness of the context in which God was operating.

War Treatment of Women in the Ancient Near East

To understand Deuteronomy 21:10-14, it is important to set those instructions into the context of how women were treated in war in the Ancient Near East. As noted by William Webb, God was introducing an incremental, redemptive ethic into a very messed-up social situation. Deuteronomy 21 shines much more brightly when seen in the context of practices that the ancient world took for granted as normal. To make this point, it will be necessary to spell out what the Ancient Near East was like. Warning: What follows may be a little hard to take at times, but it is necessary to understand what God was doing in Deuteronomy 21.

Sexual violation of women was a common practice in ancient war. In fact, it was a central part of how they celebrated military victories. For those who are into football, it was a little like spiking the football in the end zone after a touchdown. You spike the football in the very territory that the opponent failed to protect. Sexually abusing captured women enacted an enemy’s defeat at the deepest psychological level. They were abusing the persons and property that the enemy had failed to protect. It was less about passion than about exerting dominance over the “property” of the enemy. Captured women were part of the “spoils of war”.

The Old Testament bears witness to this common practice. In Judges 5:28-30 (ESV), the mother of Sisera (Canaanite general) is wondering why his return from battle is delayed: “Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ 29 Her wisest princesses answer, indeed, she answers herself, 30 ‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?– A womb or two for every man; spoil of dyed materials for Sisera, spoil of dyed materials embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?’” The word “womb” (Hebrew: rachamah) here is a reference to the female vagina. Ancient understanding of human anatomy was not precise. They knew that a man went into the same opening from which babies later came out. So the word for “womb” here is sexual slang regarding the opening to the womb. This text shows that sexual violation of women was a standard Canaanite practice at the time. So much so, that Sisera’s mother was OK with it. It would be a valid excuse for tardiness.

Further evidence for sexual violence after battle is found in Isaiah 47:1-3 (ESV), which speaks about the future fall of Babylon: “Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon; sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate. Take the millstones and grind flour, put off your veil, strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers. Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace shall be seen. I will take vengeance, and I will spare no one.” This is a poetic description of a rape victim; on the ground, with private parts exposed. This is what would happen to Babylon’s women, when the city was conquered.

I share these texts only because they are necessary to fully understand what God was doing in inspiring texts like Deuteronomy 21 and preserving them for us to study. An even more graphic reference is found in Jeremiah 13:22 (ESV): “And if you say in your heart, ‘Why have these things come upon me?’ it is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up and you suffer violence.” This text also refers to the future fate of Babylon. Sexual violence toward their women was an ancient metaphor for military defeat. After the battle, the skirts of Babylon’s women will be lifted up and they will suffer violence.

This prophecy is not an indication that God is pleased with such actions or determines that they will happen, it indicates that God knows what ancient human beings will do when a city is conquered. Women were treated so badly after ancient wars that when a city was about to fall, men often killed their own wives, so they wouldn’t have to endure what was coming. This reality became personal for me when I discovered that several aunts were teen-agers in Berlin in 1945. When the city fell to the Russians, they were captured as a group, confined to a basement and rotated among enemy soldiers for five full days, until they were able to escape. It is no wonder that the aunt I knew best hated men and hated God (knowing only the severe picture of God that so many Christians portray).

Today, soldiers who participate in such actions often try to hide that fact, they are deeply ashamed of what they have done. But the ancients were not ashamed of this, they bragged about it. They enshrined images of sexual violence in their war memorials, in their temples, and on their city walls. They included accounts of sexual violence in their war annals. To them, such behavior was as normal as breathing. They expected to do this, and they expected that it would be done to them in return. This was the world in which Deuteronomy 21 was written. This was the world of the Bible. The question we need to address next is whether Israel was any different than the pagan nations around them on this point. When God sent the Israelites into battle, how were they expected to behave toward women afterward?

The Big Principle: The Ideal and the Real

The work of William Webb and Gordon Oeste suggests a very important principle of interpretation, when it comes to the Bible. Since God meets people where they are, God’s revelations are couched not only in the language, time, and place of the biblical writer, they are accommodated to the understanding of those receiving the revelations. They are also limited in terms of what can be expected from the human response to each revelation. While the revelations of God sometimes express God’s highest and ultimate ideals, they often have to stoop much lower than that because of human limitations.

One way to express these two types of revelation are as the Ideal and the Real. God sometimes states His ideal and invites us to reach up toward it. But at other times God deals with the real, what human beings are capable of in a given time and place. Passages of Scripture like Deuteronomy 21:10-14 do not address God’s highest Ideals for the treatment of women in war, they are very much engaged in the Real. Regulating human wars is a divine accommodation, God ultimately does not want war at any time or any place. Regulating how human beings handle war is the Real. Beating swords into plowshares (Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3) is the Ideal. So regulating the treatment of women in war is an accommodation to human weakness, not an expression of the ideal way that God wants human beings to behave toward women.

The difference between the Ideal and the Real is easy to see in Matthew 19, a passage regarding divorce. First, Jesus states God’s ideal, in God’s perfect plan there is no such thing as divorce. “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”’? (Gen 2:24) So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Matthew 19:3-6, ESV. The ideal for marriage goes back to the very beginning of creation. The image of God includes both male and female (Gen 1:27). When the two are joined together in marriage, the image of God is complete. As Jesus notes, in what God has joined together there is no provision for divorce. That is the Ideal.

But that is not the end of the story. The Pharisees were puzzled why Jesus left some important marriage information out. “They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ (based on Deuteronomy 24:1-4) He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The Pharisees suggested a priority of Deuteronomy 24 over Genesis 2. But Jesus doubles down on Genesis 2. It is the expression of God’s ultimate will. God desires a universe in which there is no divorce. The reason Moses allowed divorce is because people’s hearts are hard. God meets people where they are. God’s revelation, therefore, can express both the Ideal and the Real.

We see this worked out, not only in the writings of Moses (Genesis [Ideal] and Deuteronomy {Real], but in Jesus, Paul, and Ellen G. White we well. In Matthew 19:3-6 Jesus states the Ideal and invites people to strive for that Ideal. But when confronted with the woman taken in adultery, He does not condemn her, but invites her to a renewed focus on the Ideal (John 8:3-11). Jesus affirms God’s ultimate ideal in principle, but is very merciful in the application of that ideal. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul six times asserts God’s ideal, but then goes on to moderate it with a “but if” (1 Cor 7:1-2, 6-7, 10-11, 13-15, 26-28, 39). He holds up a high ideal in principle, but in specific instances shows great flexibility.

Similarly, Ellen G. White has many statements on marriage and divorce that sound inflexible, yet in specific applications she can apply those statements in a very flexible way. For example, many have applied her strong statements against divorce as absolutes in every situation. But in specific instances, she can be quite flexible. There was once a church where a couple divorced and each married someone else in the same church. The rest of the church were pressuring them to divorce their second spouses and get back together so they could live out God’s ideal. When Ellen White was consulted, she instead said, “Leave them alone, they have suffered enough!” Not what I would have expected. Ellen White also counseled that people should not marry someone who is greatly different from them in age. But she came under criticism for encouraging her 41-year-old son Willie to marry her 22-year-old secretary. When confronted about this she responded, “Best decision Willie ever made!”

Inspiration lives in a tension between the Ideal and the Real. God’s ideal is to hold up the highest standards in human behavior. But people’s hearts are hard. And in specific situations God reaches down into the depths of human depravity and makes the most of messy situations. God meets people where they are. And sometimes they are in a place so far removed from His Ideal that He settles for the best they can do, seeking incremental improvements that bring them a little closer to the Ideal. This reality helps us understand what God is doing in Deuteronomy 21:10-14.

The work of William Webb and Gordon Oeste

I have really appreciated the research done by William Webb and Gordon Oeste in the book entitled Bloody, Brutal and Barbaric? Wrestling with Troubling War Texts. It was published in 2019 by InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, Illinois. The book is heavy reading and quite detailed, but I highly recommend it for those who are willing to put out the effort and the time to dig deeper into this topic. I will be sharing a number of insights from the book along with thoughts of my own in this blog and the ones that follow.

Webb and Oeste approach texts like Deuteronomy 21:10-14 from four perspectives. I will label these four with the capital letters A, B, C, and D, for easy comparison. The first perspective is to understand the reality of the times in which the Bible was originally written. The Bible is not directly addressing the issues of our times, it is addressing another world a long time ago. While human nature has not changed all that much in the last 3500 years, human culture and practice has changed quite a bit in more recent times. The Bible was not written to address our questions and concerns, it was written to address the world of the Ancient Near East. So “perspective “A: seeks to understand the wider world to which the Bible was written, as far as that understanding is available to us.

The second perspective, which I will label “B”, addresses the ethics of the Bible itself. In the Bible we see a God who understands human weakness, and does not expect His people to understand or practice the highest ethical levels that He is capable of. Instead, He encourages His people to “be all that they can be” in their fallen condition and in the context of a very messed-up world. The ethics of the Bible are, in a sense, “frozen in time”, God’s recommendations within a specific context, not God’s ultimate ideal. One of the key insights we learn from the stories of the Bible is how God meets people where they are. God encourages people to reach for the “ideal”, but is accepting of the “real” as humanity’s best effort. In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, we will come to see God “settling” for small, incremental improvements in His peoples’ understanding and practice.

The third perspective, which I will label “C”, approaches the Bible from the ethics of today. And while this may come as a surprise to some, the ethics of today are often better than whose of Bible times. Why would that be the case? In part, it would be the influence of the Bible as a whole on the culture and ethics of our world today. Whether or not people acknowledge it, we are living in the light of Jesus’ teachings and example, and the world is a much better place because of it. Given the influence of Jesus on our world today, the ethics of today can often seem superior to the ethics of the Bible, because we are reading from the perspective of a world that has gained much from the gradual influence of the Bible as a whole, when read in light of the life and death of Jesus.

The fourth perspective, which I will label “D”, reads the Bible in the light of God’s ideals and in light of the ethics of the final judgment. D discovers in the Bible the way that God always wanted to rule on this earth, but was not able to because of the hardness of human hearts. The final judgment will be a time when all the injustices of this world will be set right, and God’s true ethic will be clearly seen. Perspective D moves beyond God’s specific responses to specific situations to see the heart of God in the biblical text as a whole. The ethics of the final judgment will move far beyond the Geneva Conventions and other ethical advances of our time. But we are not there yet.

When you compare C (the ethics of today) with B (the ethics of the biblical text) the Bible often looks out of date. It can even seem repressive, a step back from what we know today to be right. But that is misreading the character of the biblical God, who steps into the sewer of human depravity to reach us where we are and take us a step or two in the right direction. He takes us no faster that we are able or willing to go. In so doing, He takes the risk of being misunderstood by later readers of the Bible. Instead, if you compare B (the ethics of the Bible) with A (the realities of the Ancient Near East) you will see in Deuteronomy 21:10-14 a tangible movement in a positive direction. It is an incremental, redemptive movement toward a better ethic that the ethic of the time. When we read the Bible in its original context, we will discover the goal of that strange text in Deuteronomy, better treatment of female prisoners of war. From our perspective (C) that step may seem too small, but it is a real step and led Israel to treat women much differently than their neighbors at the time did.

Deuteronomy 21:10-14: How Israelites Should Treat Female Captives After Battle

Deut 21:10-14:
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.”

Are you OK with these instructions? Should we make this passage the law of the land today? After all, it’s in the Bible. And the kind of battle this passage is talking about is a God-directed battle. It is God who “gave” these captives into the hands of Israelite soldiers, so the instructions that follow the battle must represent His will in some way. One option many choose is to say, “If God says it, it must be OK.” But for me and many Bible-believing readers of the Bible, that answer is not good enough. We expect God’s actions and directions to be on a higher ethical level than our own.

There are at least five aspects of this passage that trouble me. 1) The description in this passage is all about the male soldier, the captive woman’s opinion about what is going on doesn’t count. She is treated as an object. She is “spoils of war”. She is treated as property, rather than as a person with thoughts and feelings. 2) The focus is entirely on her outward beauty, not her character or her personality. The Hebrew behind “beautiful woman” combines two Hebrew words that could be translated “beautiful in shape”. The soldier is not attracted to her as a “soul-mate”, it is all about her looks. The text as written seems to reduce women to the sum total of their physical attractiveness. 3) The captive woman gets one month to grieve the loss of her parents. Keep in mind that she has not only lost her parents, she has lost her home, her friends, and her neighbors. She is a victim of war trauma. She may have seen her parents killed with her own eyes. A month would not be nearly enough to get over all of that. 4) This ruling doesn’t require her to agree to the marriage (verse 13 uses the language of a marriage covenant). This is a “shotgun wedding”. What the captive woman wants or feels is not being considered. 5) The man is not required to gain her consent for sexual intercourse after the marriage. It is treated as normal that he can have that privilege once he has waited a month and gone through the appropriate ceremony.

If I’m really honest, many things about this text seem ethically deficient. At the same time, this passage is part of the Bible, the Word of God. Shouldn’t the Bible always encourage the highest of ethical standards? Atheists often point to texts like this as reasons to reject the God of the Bible. They see the God of the Bible as someone they cannot respect and, therefore, they assume or wish that the God of the Bible didn’t exist.

The problem is that people today tend to read texts like this through the lens of contemporary culture. We are all familiar to some degree with the the Geneva Conventions and the Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflicts. Civilized people today are expected to treat captives in humane ways, and some of the actions recommended in Deuteronomy 21 could be prosecuted as war crimes today. But shouldn’t the Bible at least equal our ethical standards, if not exceed them? That is the challenge a passage like this poses for many readers today. I will seek to address issues like these in future blogs.

Women, War, and the Bible: Reflections on Deuteronomy 21:10-14

The world as we experience it is a mess. There are mass migrations, leading to tragedy and cultural conflict. There are mass shootings in many places, particularly in the United States. This was rare, even in the recent past. Cries of genocide are voiced by Ukrainians in Russian-controlled territory, and by Gazans under assault by Israel. Children growing up today are faced with unprecedented levels of gender confusion. Concerns over climate are expressed all around the world. Artificial intelligence is feared as the potential cause of the extinction of the human race. There are more and more weapons of mass destruction, and more and more places are faced with a breakdown of law and order. Among these tragic events is the horrific treatment of women in war, as we can witness in places like Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, and also Haiti in recent days.

Is there a word from the Lord for our situation today? Do we have any idea how God would handle a mess like the one we are living through? I think we do. I believe that is a major reason why there are so many troubling and violent texts in the Bible. God has given us the Bible as a record of how He handled many messy situations over a period of 1500 years. These stories do not give us the last word on how to handle any situation we might face. But they do exhibit a God who gets deeply involved in the human condition, and often acts in ways that risk Him being misunderstood by those reading the stories later on. But these stories are written up as examples of the way God handles messy situations. These things were written down for those upon whom “the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11).

One of the messiest of all situations in the Bible is Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Like today there was a mass migration of people from one part of the world to another. Illegal immigrants were pouring over the border of Canaan. There appears to be a genocide of the original inhabitants of the land in order to make room for a whole new group of people. As a result, there were wholesale injuries and many premature deaths. Families were separated, there were refugees everywhere in the land. The fact that these things seem to have happened at the direct command of God makes them even more troubling for many.

A full exploration of Israel’s conquest of Canaan would be too large a project for a short series of blogs. I propose instead that we look at one specific aspect of that conquest, the treatment of captive women in the wake of war. God through Moses gives some very direct instructions on how captive women should be treated by the Israelite soldiers (Deut 21:10-14). At first glance, these instructions are troubling to the point of being offensive in the minds of many. But I believe that a careful examination of this passage will help us understand what God was trying to do in the conquest, and by extension, help us gain a clearer picture of how to deal with today’s messy world. That is what I hope to do in this series of blogs on women, war, and the Bible.

A word of caution. The Bible addresses issues like this with great frankness and sometimes graphic clarity. If this blog were aimed at children, I would not do this, because not everything in the Bible is intended for children. From here on this blog series will be for adults only. Stay tuned.

Conclusion to the Series on Michael the Archangel

My attempted contribution to understanding of Michael’s identity here is a small one. But given the long-standing dispute among biblical scholars, even a small contribution can be helpful. In the book of Revelation multiple symbols often refer to the same entity (note, for example, the five designations for Satan in Revelation 12:9). The literary strategy behind Revelation 12 strongly suggests that Michael is not some esoteric, angelic figure who appears once and then appears no more. In Revelation, I suspect he is one of a number of designations for Jesus Christ, who is the primary subject of the book (Rev 1:1). Within the Adventist tradition, Michael plays a major role in the cosmic conflict, embodying in his name the very character of God.

Further arguments from Revelation 12

Since writing up the above blog sequence and presenting it at the annual meeting of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies in San Antonio (November 2023), I have observed further aspects of the context of Revelation 12:7 that lean me in favor of identifying Michael with Jesus Christ. For one thing, the male child appears in verse 5 never to be mentioned again. When the scene moves to heaven, Michael appears as the adversary of the dragon/Satan. It is likely that Michael and the male child are two ways of describing the same historical entity, Jesus Christ. Michael is powerful enough to cast out Satan (Rev 12:9-10) and make way for the authority of Jesus Christ (12:10). Outside of God and Christ, Michael is the only person in Revelation powerful enough to defeat Satan. Designations of Jesus Christ switch frequently in Revelation, He is the “son of man”, the “Lamb”, “the male child”, the rider on the white horse, “Christ”, and “Jesus Christ”. Adding Michael to the list is not a stretch. Also the language of Revelation 12 recalls the messianic premotions of the Old Testament, such as Psalm 2 (“rule with a rod of iron”) and Genesis 3:15.

In fact, according to Ekkehardt Mueller, the entirety of chapter 12 reads like a midrash on Genesis 3:15. The “male child” of 12:5 echoes the male offspring of the woman in Genesis 3:15 that will crush the serpent’s head. The renaming of the dragon/Satan as “the ancient serpent” (12:9, cf. 12:14) introduces a structural parallel to Genesis 3, making Genesis 3:15 a foretaste of the cosmic conflict language in the rest of Scripture. The use of language like “seed of the woman” in 12:17 to describe the enmity between the dragon and the remnant would be rather odd if we were not dealing with an allusion to Genesis 3:15. So the warfare between the dragon and the woman, and between the dragon and “the remnant of her seed”, and the ultimate defeat of the dragon, all reflect John’s awareness that Genesis 3:15 is a prototype of the whole plan of salvation; which culminates in the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and heavenly reign of Jesus Christ. In that larger context, equating Michael with Jesus Christ makes the most sense.

Perhaps even more decisive is the fact that the Greek word for “war (polemos) appears 14 times in the book of Revelation. Eleven times the warfare is either neutral or is engaged in by the enemy powers of Revelation (Rev 11:7; 12:17; 13:7; 17:14; 19:19, etc.). Only three times is war waged by positive powers, in Revelation 2:16, 12:7, and 19:11. In Revelation 2:16 it is Jesus who makes war against the Nicolaitans. In Revelation 19:11, it is the rider on the white horse (Jesus) who judges and makes war. In both cases, the means of Jesus’ warfare is by “the sword of his mouth”. I take this odd metaphor to mean that He fights the war with persuasion rather than force. In Revelation 12:7-8, it is Michael and his angels who make war with the dragon and his angels. It seems that is also a war of words (Rev 12:9-11). It was through words that the ancient serpent deceived Eve (Rev 12:9). It is through accusations that Satan seeks to gain an advantage in the war (Rev 12:10). It is through the “word of their testimony” that the people of God counter those accusations (Rev 12:11). This use of war language as a metaphor for heavenly conflict over the character of God is further evidence within Revelation that Michael is Jesus Christ by another name.

A Literary Pattern

The previous blog was a short summary of the debate among biblical scholars regarding the identity of Michael. In this blog, I would like to explore some fresh evidence regarding the identity of Michael drawn from a literary pattern in Revelation. I’ve noticed that whenever the author of Revelation introduces a new character, it is as if he hits a pause button on the vision and gives a visual description of the new character, followed by a glimpse of the character’s back story. John then continues the vision. including the new character into the narrative. A few illustrations should suffice to establish the pattern. In Revelation 1, the voice of a son of man breaks into John’s self-introduction (Rev 1:9-11). When John turns to see who is speaking, he sees a glorious image of the heavenly Christ (1:12-16) followed by a brief back story (1:17-18). The vision then continues with messages from the same Jesus to the seven churches (2:1 – 3:22).

In Revelation 13, the vision of the dragon and the remnant (12:17) adds a beast from the sea and a beast from the earth. The beast from the sea (Rev 13:1-10) gets a visual description (13:1-2) followed by a considerable back story (13:3-7). The sea beast’s actions within the vision follow in 13:8-10 and are also mentioned in passing in 13:12-18. The beast from the earth (Rev 13:11-18) gets a very brief visual description (“two horns like a lamb”—13:11b) followed by an equally brief back story (“it spoke like a dragon”—13:11c). The beast from the earth then plays a major role in the rest of the vision (13:12-18). What adds to the picture in chapter 13 is that the visual descriptions and back stories are told in past tenses (13:1-7, 11), while the ensuing visionary sequences are in present and future tenses (13:8-10, 12-18). So the distinction in these literary elements seems quite clear.

I recently realized that the above literary pattern had implications for the identity of Michael in Revelation 12:7. Michael is the fourth of four new characters that are introduced in Revelation 12. The first of these new characters is the woman of 12:1-2. It is quite evident that the literary pattern applies to her. When the woman appears, John hits the “pause button” and offers a distinct visual description of her in verse 1 (“And a great sign was seen in heaven, a woman dressed with the sun. The moon was under her feet and upon her head was a victory crown of twelve stars”, my translation). This is followed by her back story in verse 2 (“She was pregnant and she cried out in pain as she labored to give birth”). Then a new character appears in verse 3 of the vision, a seven-headed, ten-crowned dragon (“And another sign was seen in heaven; a great, fiery red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and upon his heads seven crowns”). This is followed by the dragon’s back story (“His tail dragged down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. The dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth in order that when her child was born, he might eat it up”). Up until now, Revelation 12 follows the literary pattern with detailed precision.

A third new character is introduced in Revelation 12:5. It is the male child. But in contrast to the woman and the dragon, there is no visual description of the male child at all. And instead of a back story, there is mention of the child’s future (“And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is about to shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron. And her child was snatched up to God and to His throne”). The most likely reason for this shift is because the male child needs no introduction. He is clearly identified as Jesus by His birth and His ascension to heaven. So the male child has been in the story before, as the son of man in chapter 1 and the Lamb in chapter 5.

After noting the woman’s flight into the desert (Rev 12:6), the narrative moves to the war in heaven (12:7-8). The dragon, seen previously on earth (12:4), is now seen in heaven (12:7—“And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels gathered to fight against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels also fought.”). The male child, snatched up to God in verse 5, is nowhere to be seen in this battle. Instead, a new character named Michael appears. He is not called an archangel here, but he is clearly commander of the angels in the heavenly conflict.

The awkward Greek of the verse (tou polemesai meta) mirrors the Greek (Theodotion) of Daniel 10:20, where Michael battles the satanic “prince” of Persia. As was the case with the male child, the narrative of Michael in Revelation 12:7 is missing the typical visual description and back story. The most likely explanation for this absence is that, like the male child, Michael is a character who has appeared in the story before. Who would that be? I would suggest the son of man in chapter 1, the Lamb in chapter 5, the male child earlier in this chapter, and Christ in 12:10. The great antagonist of Satan in Revelation 12 would be none other than Jesus Christ, from His birth as the male child (12:5), to His heavenly battle as leader of the angels, to His casting down of the dragon/Satan, to His enthronement in heaven (Rev 12:10).

Response to the Counter-Arguments

While the counter-arguments against equating Jesus and Michael are impressive in their own right, they overlook another line of evidence. Portraying Jesus as an angelic figure is compatible with early Judaism, which often portrayed the coming Messiah in angelic terms. Some scholars have referred to the picture of Christ in Revelation 1 as “angelomorphic Christology”. The mighty angel of Revelation 10:1-2 bears striking resemblance to both the exalted Christ of Revelation 1 and the man clothed in linen of Daniel 10:5-6 and 12:7. The Son of Man appears in the midst of a series of angels in Revelation 14:14. Since the angel that appears in 14:15 is dubbed “another angel”, it could be inferred that the son of man on the clouds is also an angel. While angels are created beings, so are humans, and Jesus’ humanity was an act of creation (John 1:1-3, 14). So spending time in the form of an angel is not inconceivable for Christ. Evidence that the incarnation of Christ should not be limited to a single act is found in Genesis 18, where both Yahweh and two angels appear to Abraham as “men” (Gen 18:2, 10, 22; 19:1).