The Image of the Beast (Rebekah Liu Dissertation): (8) The Image of the Beast in Rev 17 II


Babylon in Revelation 17 has numerous parallels with the fall of Babylon in Daniel 5. Both chapters share the theme of imminent judgment with a subsequent swift fall. In Daniel it is a disembodied hand writing on the wall that announces the fall of Babylon. In Revelation 17 and 18 it is an angel who announces that fall. Both chapters have kings drinking wine from golden vessels (Dan 5:2; Rev 17:2, 4). But in Daniel 5 that banquet was in praise of the gods or idols of Babylon. That motif is missing in Revelation 17. But if one understands the Babylon in Revelation 17 as the idol image of the beast, then the parallels between Daniel 5 and Revelation 17 are complete in regard to the fall of Babylon.

Identifying Babylon with the image of the beast also fits with the cultural perspective of John’s day. In Revelation 17 Babylon is presented as a great prostitute who sits on many waters (17:1) and then a scarlet beast (17:3). The kings of the earth commit adultery with her and are intoxicated with her wine (17:2). She is dressed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones and pearls (17:4). She has a golden cup in her hand and a title on her forehead (17:5) and is drunk with the blood of the saints (17:6). This description of Babylon seated on a beast fits very well with ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) iconography, Babylonian goddesses are often portrayed as seated on various animals. In particular, this portrayal of Babylon resembles the cult image of the goddess Ishtar, the most revered goddess of ancient Mesopotamia. While the veneration of Ishtar goes all the way back to Sumerian times, it was very much alive also in John’s day and was known in the Hellenistic world of that time.

Ishtar was portrayed riding on a lion, so the composite beast of Revelation 17 seems to be a deliberate disfiguring of the Ishtar tradition. Instead of the lion, a symbol of victory, Babylon rides an ugly disfigured beast. Extra-biblical sources mention jewelry and clothing being dedicated to the Babylonian gods and goddesses and placed on the idols to be worn by them. These garments were scarlet, purple, and bluish-purple. Jewelry of gold, silver and precious stones would be attached to the garments of Babylonian cult images. Ishtar was also depicted as holding a golden cup in her hands. So the portrayal of Babylon in Revelation 17 fits with the general picture of a Babylonian cult image of a goddess.

The activities of Ishtar also parallel Babylon in Revelation 17. In Babylonian mythology, Ishtar was the manifestation of sex and eroticism. She played the role of a seductive woman flaunting her sexual attraction. The goddess was known as a prostitute and a patron of prostitutes. Prostitutes were called daughters of Ishtar in Sumerian love songs. Ishtar as a mother of prostitutes fits Revelation 17 very well. The goddess Ishtar also had a close relationship with the Babylonian kings as a companion in war and also as a symbolic sexual partner. She was a divine bride, having sexual relationships with kings through sacred marriage.

Finally, Babylon is called the mother of the abominations of the earth (Rev 17:5), the source of all abominations. In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) the term “abominations” (Greek: bdelugma) is often used to denote idolatry. So the reference to Babylon’s abominations connects the Babylon of Revelation 17 with idolatry. This association with idolatry is one further reason to interpret Babylon in Revelation 17 as synonymous with the image of the beast of Revelation 13:14-15. In a number of ways, the portrayal of Babylon parallels the major characteristics of ANE cult images. The only cult image found in Revelation is the image of the beast. Rebekah Liu suggests that the image of the beast finds its active counterpart in the Babylon of Revelation 17 and 18. The destruction of Babylon by fire in 17:16 and 18:8, 18, therefore, supplies the missing element in Revelation’s portrayal of the image of the beast. It is not destroyed by fire in Revelation 19 or 20 because it has already passed off the scene.

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