The Image of the Beast (Rebekah Liu Dissertation): (3) The Cultural Background of Rev 13:14-15

A major surprise for me in Rebekah Liu’s research was what she discovered about the pagan background to the image of the beast. The Greek term eikôn and its Hebrew/Aramaic equivalents were used in pagan worship to denote a cult statue or what we call an idol. Pagans knew that wood and stone weren’t gods. But they believed that, when the idol/statue was completed, they could attract the presence of the deity to the statue by a ritual of consecration called the mouth-opening or mouth-washing ceremony. Upon completion of the rite, the manmade object was filled with the life of the god and became an extension of the god’s personality on earth. This act transformed a manufactured icon into a living deity in their minds. Its origin as a human construction could now be ignored and their creation could be attributed solely to the god.

Ceremonies and beliefs like this were found all over the ancient world, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Greece and to Rome. And they seem to have had a long history, going back at least a thousand years before the writing of Revelation. And the evidence is that these beliefs and practices had not changed much over the centuries, by New Testament times they were rooted deeply in common tradition. Everybody, so to speak, knew about them.

Pagans believed that through these rituals, the idol/statue was animated, it was not just standing there, it became an actual manifestation of the god it represented. When the mouth of the idol was washed or opened, it allowed the image to breath and thus come to life. Ancient idols and temples became major centers of power. As the earthly manifestation of the deity, the image was fully identified with it, even though distinct from the god. If the idol was destroyed the god was not destroyed with it. But while it existed and was fully consecrated, it was the deity’s medium of revelation or self-disclosure. As such the image carried the highest level of religious authority for its community. The idol was also associated with political authority. In ancient Babylon, for example, the king was also the high priest of Marduk. He owed his kingship to the god. So the temple and its priests had a great deal of influence in the politics of the nation. Ancient temples often also served as banks, where people could deposit treasure or secure loans. They were also a place of economic redistribution when the nation sought to care for the neediest among them.

The parallels between Revelation 13:14-15 and these ancient religious practices are quite striking. In verse 14 the beast from the earth orders the inhabitants of the earth to construct an image to the beast. He then provides breath to the image of the beast. This echos the ancient Near Eastern ritual of mouth-opening or mouth-washing of the idol/statue. Through this ritual images received the breath of life and began to speak, revealing the god and making decisions for the people. These idol images assume religious, political and economic authority over the cities where they are housed. The image of the beast calls for worship (Rev 13:15–religious authority), exerts political power with the land beast (13:15– enforcing decrees, legal power to kill) and it has the economic power to boycott those who do not worship the beast or its image (13:17). So the parallels between the image of the beast vision and local cultic practices are truly striking. Rebekah will see this worked out in more detail in Revelation 17. She sees the image of the beast as Babylon and the sea beast as the beast of Revelation 17. Together they are the end-time equivalent of the role the sea beast playing in earlier human history. But in Revelation 17 they have much in common, yet are distinct from each other, just as the god and the idol are similar yet distinct.

The author of Revelation seems to be using both creation and some familiar popular practices as metaphorical models to make a powerful spiritual point about readiness for the final crisis. The sea beast is in the image of the dragon/Satan (Rev 13:1). The dragon is its god. Likewise in 13:15, the beast serves as the model for the image of the beast. The two are not the same, yet they are intimately related in the narrative. The image of the beast is an end-time religious entity/institution wielding religious, political and economic power. It embodies the principles of the sea beast and ultimately of Satan, using deception and force to accomplish its mission. It ends up reflecting the character of its creator (ultimately Satan). The world is given a choice between two pictures of God and two models of character. In the end, all will become like the God they choose to worship.

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