Babylon is portrayed as a prostitute in Revelation 17 and as a great city in Revelation 18. The judgment of Babylon is briefly mentioned in Revelation 17:16 with more details being given in chapter 18. The beast with its ten horns is the cause of Babylon’s downfall in 17:16, but that beast is no longer visible in chapter 18. The activities of the beast are portrayed in terms of its components; kings, sailors and merchants. In chapter 18 Babylon is described as an enthroned queen (18:7—parallel to Jezebel in 2:20) and as a great city, whose judgment is modeled on that of Tyre in Ezekiel 26-28. Since the great Queen of Babylon was Ishtar, the many parallels between Ishtar and the woman Babylon are relevant to Revelation’s vision accounts. The description of Babylon in Revelation 18 conforms well to an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cult image. The only cult image directly mentioned in the book of Revelation is the image of the beast of Revelation 13. So the connection between Babylon and the image of the beast is confirmed in Revelation 18.
Cities in the ANE were often personified as women, so the link between Babylon the woman in Revelation 17 and Babylon the great city in Revelation 18 is a natural one in John’s day. In Revelation 18 and Ezekiel 26-28, both Babylon and Tyre as cities are judged for the same two reasons, because they have killed the faithful (Ezek 26:2; Re 18:24) and because of pride in their wealth (Ezek 28:5; 18:7). Great cities of the ANE had at least three aspects. Each city was thought of as a community, as a religious center, and as a political center. Revelation contrasts Jerusalem, as the community of the faithful, with Babylon, the community of the unfaithful. Earlier, Rebekah demonstrated that the image of the beast represented the hypocritical community of the unfaithful in the church in 13:15-17 (analogy with the synagogue of Satan in 2:9). In the ANE, cities were also known as religious and political centers. Rebekah points out that the items of trade in Revelation 18 have religious overtones more than commercial ones. They are not all luxury items, but they are all items associated with ancient temples. This is compatible with the image of the beast, which is also a religious entity.
Rebekah Liu concludes her study of Revelation 17 and 18 with the question. Why is there no reference to the image of the beast in Revelation 17 and 18? Because the image of the beast is overwhelmingly present under the name of Babylon. The cult image of Ishtar was used in Revelation as a symbol for Babylon the great. This identifies Babylon with the only cult image in Revelation, the image of the beast. In the ANE context, the images of defeated nations were burned with fire. Since the image of the beast is not listed with the beast and the false prophet as being burned in Revelation 19, the burning of the image of the beast takes place in the burning of Babylon in 17:16. In the destruction of Babylon, the story of the image of the beast reaches completion.
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.
In Revelation 17 there are direct references to a beast and to a woman/Babylon who sits on the beast. In chapter 18 there are no references to a beast at all, but the woman is now described in terms of a great city. In Revelation 17 it is the beast that supports Babylon, in Revelation 18 it is the kings, merchants, and mariners who once supported Babylon but now withdraw that support. They are the ones who, presumably, burned prostitute Babylon in 17:16. So the beast seems to be present in chapter 18 in a more literal fashion, the political and economic powers of the world. As noted earlier, the image of the beast is mentioned in every chapter from 13-20 except 17 and 18, although it actually operates only in chapter 13. Since the beast can be present in Revelation 18 without being mentioned, is the image of the beast present in 17 and 18 without being mentioned? Is the lack of mention a clue that the image is very much present in another form?
Revelation 17 is, in a sense, a duodirectional text. It provides a large, interpretive summary of the sixth and seventh plagues of Revelation 16. It also points forward to chapters 18 and 19, summarizing in advance events that happen in those two chapters. The major themes of Revelation 17 are the beast and Babylon. The beast of Revelation 17 has several similarities to the beast of Rev 13:1-7. They look alike, are both associated with water and blasphemy, and act in similar ways. It also requires wisdom to understand either (Rev 13:18; 17:9). So identifying the beast of Revelation 17 with the sea beast is plausible. On the other hand, the beast of Revelation 17 is clearly distinguishable from Babylon, although Babylon also has features of the sea beast (Christian orientation, persecuting the saints, rule over the kings of the earth). Babylon and the beast are similar, they work together and yet are distinguishable. If Babylon is the image of the beast, it resolves the tension between the two. Babylon is the “cult-image” of the “god”.
The image of the beast appears in Revelation 13 and is not seen again. Babylon appears in Revelation 14 and dominates the scene of Revelation until its final destruction in chapter 18. Are the two one and the same? Babylon in 17:1-6 is also antithetically parallel to the woman of Revelation 12. They are both described in detail. They are both mothers. Both are defined in relationship to God, to His believers and to His enemies. Both are located in the desert. And salvation comes from the child of the woman of Revelation 12 while death and destruction come from the prostitute and her offspring.
Babylon in Revelation 17 is also antithetically parallel to the bride of the Lamb in 21:9 – 22:5. Both scenes start with the same bowl-angel (Rev 17:1; 21:9) inviting John to see a woman. In both cases John is carried away by the Spirit to where the woman is. Revelation 21:9 repeats the exact same words as Revelation 17:1 in exactly the same order. Revelation 21:10 repeats five words of 17:3 in the same order. Both women are adorned with jewels. Each has a name written on her forehead (17:5: 22:4). Both are cities, one is called great and the other is called holy. One is a prostitute and the other is a bride. Those who belong to Babylon are not written in the book of life (Rev 17:8), while those who belong to the New Jerusalem are written in the book of life (21:27). The heavenly woman is connected in some way to the prostitute. Babylon the Great is, in fact, a parody of the New Jerusalem. The two female figures are in direct contrast.
The close link between the churches of Revelation 2 and 3 and the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 and 22 indicates that the New Jerusalem represents the community of the saints, the bride of the Lamb. The New Jerusalem is the fulfillment of the promises made to the overcomers in the seven churches. The inhabitants of the New Jerusalem are those who heeded the call to repentance in the seven churches. In contrast, Babylon the Great is the community of those in the churches who did not heed to call of the Spirit. Babylon represents humanity in chaos and rebellion against God. The stripping naked of the prostitute in 17:16 fulfills the warning of the Spirit to Laodicea and to those who gathered for Armageddon (Rev 16:15; 3:17-18). Both Babylon and the image of the beast are symbols for the unfaithful community within the Christian church. This understanding of Babylon links it with the image of the beast.
In her dissertation, Rebekah Liu skips over Revelation 17 and 18 as the phrase “image of the beast” is not mentioned in either chapter. But it is mentioned in passing in Revelation 19:20. There the false prophet is cast into the lake of fire, because it deceived those who ended up worshiping the image of the beast. Once again the image plays no active role in the chapter. While Babylon the Great is not named in chapter 19, the great prostitute is mentioned (Rev 19:1-2). But no connection is made between the great prostitute and the image of the beast.
A major motif of Revelation 19 is divine warfare (Rev 19:11-21). That warfare ends with the ultimate defeat of the beast and the false prophet at the end of the chapter. They are thrown into the lake of burning sulphur (19:20), with Satan to join them there after the millennium (20:10). But here is the interesting detail. Throughout the latter part of the book of Revelation, the image of the beast is always mentioned together with the beast (Rev 14:9, 11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). But when it comes to the final destruction, only the beast, the false prophet and Satan are mentioned. The destruction of the image of the beast seems to have disappeared from the scene without any closure.
Ancient Near Eastern divine-war imagery is very helpful in explaining the situation. In the ANE, nations fought wars in the names of their gods. In doing so the nations were acting out the will of the gods. Such divine wars occurred in three stages. First, there was a pre-battle consultation with the gods through the use of oracles. Second, during the battle there was a divine presence and guidance through prophets. Third, after a victory the spoils were gathered and dedicated to the winning gods (the divine warriors). We have seen in Revelation the first two stages of ANE war conduct. The gathering of the kings for battle was like a pre-battle consultation with the gods in the person of the demonic spirits (Rev 16:13-14). The three angels’ messages (Rev 14:6-12) provide the corresponding divine consultation on the side of God. Then in Revelation 13 the land beast (the false prophet) leads the battle against God and the faithful. Since the false prophet is destroyed at the end of the battle (Rev 19:20), it is clear that he was with the army during the war.
The third stage of the ANE divine war was dedicating the spoils of battle to the gods. The capture of the cult images of the enemy gods confirms the defeat of a nation or entity. The idols are captured and either exiled or destroyed by fire. The destruction of the cult images not only represented the defeat of the nation, but also of their gods. This practice is confirmed in Deuteronomy 7:24-26. When the Canaanite nations were defeated Israel was to burn the images of their gods in the fire (Deut 7:25). These images were devoted to destruction (Deut 7:26) and Israel would be defiled if they did not do this. That this destruction was a common practice over the centuries is evidenced by 2 Samuel 5:21, 1 Chronicles 14:12 and 2 Kings 10:26. In 2 Samuel 5:21, David and his men exiled the Philistine idols (carried them away) but in 1 Chronicles 14:12, they burned them. In 2 Kings 10:26 Jehu burned the cult pillar of the temple of Baal. Given this background, it is hard to imagine that the final destruction of the image of the beast would go unmentioned. Since the beast and the false prophet are destroyed by fire in Revelation 19, Rebekah Liu proposes that the image of the beast is destroyed somewhere in Revelation outside of chapter 19. The fact that the image of the beast is not mentioned in 19:20 suggest that the earlier burnings of Babylon in 17:16 and 18:8, 18 serve as the destruction also of the image of the beast. The equation between Babylon and the image of the beast is increasingly stronger. The burning of the prostitute is the same thing as the burning of the image of the beast.
The image of the beast is mentioned in passing (Rev 20:4) once again, but is not seen, nor does it act or is acted upon in the chapter. So there is no explicit mention of the final destruction of the image of the beast in the chapter. But the final destruction by fire of Satan and of those who worshiped the image of the beast (Rev 20:9) is clearly portrayed. This leaves the question open again, is it possible that the destruction of the image of the beast is left unwritten or was that destruction described earlier in the book under another name? The fact that the phrase “image of the beast” does not occur at all in chapters 17 and 18 may point to the image appearing there in the form of Babylon the Great Prostitute and the Great City. The end of cult images normally occurs by fire. Revelation 17:16 and 18:8, 18 are the only places outside of Revelation 19 and 20 that record destruction by fire. So we will look at Revelation 17 and 18 for answers to the final fate of the image of the beast.
The image of the beast is mentioned in passing in Revelation 16:2. The first bowl-plague falls on those who worshiped the image of the beast. Babylon is parallel to the Great City in 16:19, but no direct connection is made within the chapter between Babylon and the image of the beast. However, there are strong parallels between Revelation 16:13-16 and Revelation 13. Revelation 16:13 picks up on the motif of an unholy trinity, which work together in both passages for a common cause, to cause the inhabitants of the earth to worship the beast and its image (Rev 13:8, 14, 15). In order to achieve that, the dragon gives his authority to the sea beast (Rev 13:2). The land beast exercises its authority in behalf of the sea beast (13:12). The land beast then breathes life into the image of the beast (13:15). So there is a chain of authority running from the dragon to the image of the beast.
An additional parallel between Revelation 16 and 13 is the mouth motif.
The three frogs come out of the mouths of the dragon, beast and false prophet (16:13). Earlier, the dragon uses its mouth to accuse the faithful before God (Rev 12:10). Similarly, the sea beast uses its mouth to speak blasphemies (Rev 13:5), the land beast uses its mouth to breathe life into the image of the beast (13:15), and the image uses its mouth to order the death of all who will not worship the image (13:15). Through all these mouths, the dragon is able to gather the inhabitants of the earth before the image to worship it. A further parallel between Revelation 16 and 13 is the concept of worldwide deception through miraculous signs (Rev 16:14; 13:13-14). The demonic spirits work signs to lead the rulers of the earth into battle against God (16:14). In Revelation 13:13-15, the land beast/false prophet uses miraculous signs to gather the people of earth for the worship of the image of the beast. These passages (16:13-16 and 13:15-17) also share a number of verbal parallels with scene on the Plain of Dura in Daniel 3.
This all suggests that while the Battle of Armageddon makes no direct reference to the image of the beast, whether or not to worship the image is a part of that spiritual conflict. The worldwide worshiping of the image of the beast is likely the same event as the worldwide gathering for the battle of Armageddon, in which Babylon falls (Rev 16:16, 19). Revelation 13 and 16, then, are describing the same eschatological event, the last worldwide deception concerning worship. People are making decisions whether to worship God (Rev 14:7) or worship the image (13:15-17), someone/something other than God. Since Babylon is mentioned in the context of Revelation 16 and the image of the beast is mentioned in the context of Revelation 13, it is very possible, even likely, that Babylon and the image of the beast are one and the same entity.
The big challenge for interpreters of the image of the beast is the fact that the image is mentioned repeatedly in Revelation 14-20, yet is never explicitly portrayed. Is it to be equated with Babylon? With the beast of Revelation 17? With both of them together? Is there some other symbol in chapters 14-20 that plays the role of the image? Or is it acting only in 13:13-17 and does not appear again? Another challenge is the fact that the image of the beast is mentioned in every chapter from Revelation 14-20 except chapters 17 and 18, which center on Babylon. What is there about Babylon that might cause the author of Revelation not to mention the image of the beast in the same chapter? Rebekah Liu’s dissertation goes chapter by chapter through Revelation 14-20, looking for clues to solve the identity of the image of the beast in those chapters.
Revelation 14 provides a “divine perspective” on the activities of the two beasts and the image in Revelation 13. It provides insights into the fate of those who resist the worship of the beast and its image. Chapter 14 continues the theme of worship, which was central to chapter 13. But it adds a new theme, the theme of Babylon, introduced for the first time in 14:8. The fact that it appears without a visual description or a historical background suggests it has appeared in the book before in some form. The readers are expected to already know who this is. That an entity could appear in a variety of forms is already clear in Revelation. The dragon is identified as the devil and Satan, the ancient serpent and the deceiver of the world. Satan is also called Apollyon and Abaddon in Rev 9:11. Jesus is called the Son of Man, the Lamb and Michael. Is there a character earlier in the book of Revelation who corresponds to the Babylon of Revelation 14?
Since the first appearance of Babylon the Great is in chapter 14, it is possible that the previous action of Babylon is found in chapter 13. Rebekah Liu notices four pairs of parallel passages in Revelation 13 and 14. I won’t be offering the detailed observations that led to this structure, the reader will need to consult the dissertation itself for that. Revelation 13:1-6 is parallel with 14:1-5. The second pair is found in Rev 13:11-14 and 14:6-7. The fourth pair of parallels is Rev 13:16 and 14:9. That outline leaves a third pair unaccounted for, Rev 13:15 and 14:8. The figure in Revelation 13 most parallel to Babylon in Revelation 14 is the image of the beast. Both the image of the beast and Babylon are at the front line of the conflict between the dragon and God. If they are identified with each other, then drinking the wine of Babylon is identified with worshipping the beast and its image (Rev 13:15-17; 14:8-11). Identifying them as the same character, therefore, is not only logically possible, it would simplify the argument of the book and give it dramatic punch.
Revelation 15 is relatively brief. The image of the beast is mentioned in passing in 15:2. Those on the sea of glass had gained the victory over the beast and his image. Chapter 15 introduces the themes of temple and the seven bowl-plagues. But while the image of the beast is clearly a key component of the forces opposed to God and His faithful ones, seven-bowl-plagues do not specifically target the image of the beast in chapters 15 or 16. Where is the judgment of the image in Revelation?
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.
The context of the image of the beast passage (Rev 13:14-15) is a counterfeit trinity, made up of the dragon (beginning with Rev 12:4), the beast from the sea (beginning with 13:1), and the beast from the earth (beginning with 13:11). The dragon is a parody of God the Father. The sea beast is a parody of Jesus Christ, who looks like the dragon (Rev 13:1; John 14:9), receives authority from the dragon (Rev 13:2; Matt 28:18), has a “ministry” that lasts for 42 months (Rev 13:5), and undergoes a death and resurrection like that of Jesus (Rev 13:3, 8). The beast from the earth is a parody of the Holy Spirit, who speaks not about himself (John 16:13), brings fire down from heaven (Acts 2), and brings life to the image of the beast. In the context of Revelation 13, this counterfeit trinity has set itself up as an alternative to the God of Revelation in the end-time battle between the dragon and the remnant (Rev 12:17). The formation of the image of the beast is the crucial development in the counterfeit trinity’s war with the saints and the God they worship (Rev 13:5-7).
Within chapter 13 itself, there are three themes that come together in the image of the beast. One major theme of the chapter is that of beasts, the chapter begins with a beast (13:1) and ends with a beast (13:18), making an envelope structure surrounding the rise of the two beasts from the sea and the earth. The concept of sea and land monsters has a long background in the OT and early Jewish literature, particularly Daniel 7, which is clearly alluded to in the rise of the sea beast. Another theme of chapter thirteen is worship; five times the inhabitants of the world are urged to worship the dragon, the sea beast or the image of the beast (13:4, 8, 12, 15). That call to worship becomes the decisive event of the conflict. Another theme in chapter 13, already explored, is image-making. The Bible starts (Gen 1:26-27) and ends (Rev 13:14-15) with the making of an image. The ideas of beast, worship and image-making all come together in the image of the beast figure.
When one explores the allusions to biblical texts in Revelation 13:14-15, the allusion to Genesis 1 has already been mentioned. But to that one needs to add Genesis 2. Giving breath to the image of the beast (13:15) recalls the creation of Adam in the Garden (Gen 2:7). The allusion is particularly strong in the Aramaic translation of Genesis 2:7, where the breath of life becomes in Adam a spirit capable of speech. Another allusion in Revelation 13:14-15 is to Isaiah 40:18-20. That passage extols the uniqueness of God in contrast with the nothingness of idols. The beasts parody that claim, but the author of Revelation suggests that because of the beasts unlikeness to God, the image of the beast project is doomed to fail from the start. A third powerful allusion is to Daniel 3. The demand for worship of the image of the beast is modeled on Nebuchadnezzar’s call to worship his image, on pain of death. Finally, the language of Revelation 13:14-15 parallels that of Acts 2:2-6. The bestowing of breath (spirit) on the image of the beast recalls the outpouring of the spirit (fire from heaven—13:14) on the disciples at Pentecost. A counterfeit spiritual revival falls on those who worship the image of the beast.
This coming together of images from the entire Bible paints a picture of the image of the beast as an end-time attempt to undermine God’s plan to reverse the consequences of the Fall by restoring the image of God in human beings. God’s plan is not only resisted by the beasts, they offer a counterfeit image and a counterfeit Pentecost to deceive the world into thinking they are the true God and the true objects of worship. What is not obvious, on the basis of the Bible alone, is how big a role the theme of idol-making played in the ancient world. The next part of Rebekah Liu’s third chapter turns to the evidence for idol-making in the ancient Mediterranean world.
When Rebekah Liu of China was in the New Testament doctoral program at Andrews University, she came to me one day to talk about the topic of her dissertation. She suggested exploring the image of the beast of Revelation 13:14-15. She noted that the topic had not been widely explored by scholars and that it would be of great interest to Seventh-day Adventists around the world, two good reasons for the choice. I noted that “image of the beast” is introduced in chapter thirteen, but is not described. While the phrase occurs several times more, it is not directly identified with any later beast or symbol in Revelation. For me, the best candidate was the beast of Revelation 17, which looks like the beast of Revelation 13, hence could be termed the “image of the (sea) beast”. In any case, I was delighted to work with her on that topic and she commenced work almost immediately. What I am sharing here is a summary of key points in her dissertation, with particular focus on the implications of the topic for Revelation 17. I do not imply that this is the best summary or even the best I could do with more time. I am sharing this summary for the sake of those followers who have requested such a summary. With Rebekah’s permission, I may one day add it as an excursis to my commentary on Revelation 17.
After an Introduction and a chapter exploring the literature on previous attempts to interpret the image of the beast, chapter 3 reports on Rebekah’s exegesis of Revelation 13:14-15. She begins with a word study of “image” (Greek: eikôn) and “beast” (Greek: thȇrion) in the Bible and the ancient world. Since both words occur in the creation story of Genesis, creation seems to be one of the primary sources of Revelation 13:15. The main meaning of eikôn is as a similitude of another figure, basically an idol. In a metaphorical and positive sense human beings are portrayed as idol-images of God. To be in the image of God means to bear enough resemblance to God to be God’s representative to the creation. In Second Temple Judaism (the period between the Testaments) and the pagan Greco-Roman world, the meaning of eikôn is similar. It can mean a likeness or portrait, a copy of something else, the cult statue of a god, or the same form as something else. In the New Testament, “image” also means a likeness/portait and a living image, like the original Adam or like Jesus Christ, who is the visible image of God. In summary, eikôn seems to have three primary meanings in the ancient world; 1) the image or likeness of a prototype (like the idol image of a god), 2) it can refer to outward forms and appearances, or 3) it can be a living representation of someone or something else.
When human beings were created in the image of God, it meant God’s image lies in human beings and nowhere else (therefore the second commandment). Because of the Fall, the image of God was damaged or marred in human beings, requiring a restoration of God’s image in humanity, beginning with Jesus Christ. That future restoration implies an eschatological meaning for “image”. While the “image of God” is never mentioned in Revelation, the “image of the beast” is an obverse allusion to the original image and the problem of sin. In Revelation, the beasts of Revelation are setting in motion a counterfeit of the image of God. People who have lost the image of God are recreated into the image of the beast. In the end, human beings become like the gods they worship. They will either embrace the restoration of God’s image and character in their lives or become more and more like the dragon (Satan). The image of the beast is more than just an identifying mark, it represents a change of character in the assembly of the unfaithful. The image of the beast is a composite of all who end up serving Satan in the final era of earth’s history.
The primary meaning of “beast” (Greek: thȇrion) in the Bible and the Greco-Roman world is “wild animal,” especially the kind of wild animal that is hostile to human beings. Metaphorically, it can represent people who are cruel. As part of creation, the wild animals were placed under the dominion of human beings which were created in the image of God. It was after the Fall that the beasts became hostile to human beings. So the dominion over the animals proved to be conditional on human obedience to God. King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4 represented how far from the image of God human beings could fall. In Revelation 13 the beasts are hostile to God and appear as allies of the dragon/Satan. Given the background, the image of the beast recalls the king of Babylon’s fall and represents a counter-attack against God’s end-time plan to restore His image in the human race.
The previous paragraph underlines that the Sabbath is a crucial issue in the final conflict. It also suggests that some counterfeit of the Sabbath will be central to the beast’s actions in the same conflict. What is less clear in the text is exactly what form that counterfeit will take. I can think of four options: 1) Another day (as in Sunday), 2) no day is a Sabbath (abolished), 3) every day is a Sabbath (not much different than two), and 4) force work or forbid worship on Sabbath. When dealing with Revelation 13 Ellen White normally works from number 1) above, but on at least one occasion mentions number 4). Is it possible to narrow these options further on the basis of the Bible alone?
The mark of the beast passage (Rev 13:13-17) is found in the larger context of Revelation 13 with its two beasts, one from the sea and one from the earth. The sea beast is introduced in the first two verses of the chapter. “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.” Rev 13:1-2. This is clearly an allusion to Daniel 7. You have a beast coming up out of the sea. You have mention of a leopard, a bear and a lion. You have seven heads and ten horns (the four beasts of Daniel 7:3-8 have seven heads and ten horns combined). So it is plain that John had Daniel 7 in mind as he wrote out his vision.
The connection with Daniel 7 becomes even stronger when you consider verses 5-7 of Revelation 13. “And a mouth was given to him (the beast from the sea), speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to operate for forty-two months. He opened his mouth in order to speak blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name and His tabernacle, those who are in heaven. And to him it was given to make war with the saints and to conquer them. And to him was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation.” This clearly looks back to the little horn of Daniel 7:20-25. The little horn is a religious power that persecutes the saints for a period of three and a half prophetic years.
But there is one aspect of the little horn that may be particularly relevant to the meaning of the mark of the beast. This found in Daniel 7:25. “He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times (Aramaic: tzimnîn; Greek: kairous) and the law (Aramaic: dath; Greek: nomon); and they shall be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time.” The times of Daniel 7:25 are sacred appointed times and the term law generally has to do with the law of God in the Old Testament. The little horn power would seek to change laws related to appointed times. Since the ten commandments are a crucial background to Revelation 13 and 14, the allusion to Daniel 7 suggests that a change of the Sabbath day itself is the counterfeit John would have had in mind.
The mark of the beast as an alternate Sabbath day is further supported by the recognition that the Sabbath is a “sign commandment”. According to Anthony MacPherson, “sign commandments,” like circumcision and the Sabbath, are specific practices that God designates as “signs”. What is significant for our purpose about these sign commandments is that they involve the active performance of laws specific to Yahweh and not simply the prohibition of immoral conduct. They function as a sign because they are actionable and observable and identify a person as specifically loyal to Yahweh, as opposed to other gods. It is a specific worship practice that distinguishes the followers of Yahweh from others. MacPherson points out that that the mark of the beast in Revelation has several similarities to a sign commandment. The mark involves participation in some form of ritualized worship practice. Identifying it with Sunday fits that idea better than the other options for a Sabbath counterfeit.
Having said that, the word “Sunday” is obviously not in the book of Revelation. Not even “the first day of the week.” Here it is important to remember that if Adventist doctrines had to be exegetically compelling in order to be accepted, Adventists would not have many doctrines at all. A church’s doctrines combine what can be learned from Scripture with tradition, reason and experience. Such doctrines must be exegetically defensible. In other words, they cannot be in clear contradiction to Scripture, they must be compatible with an honest reading of Scripture. But not everything Adventists believe is compelling on the basis of exegesis alone.
This is relevant to the issue of Sunday laws in Revelation. The idea of a Christian power that would one day change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday is exegetically defensible from Revelation 13, it is compatible with the evidence of the text. I would even say it is the most likely option, from a purely exegetical perspective. But for even greater clarity and certainty, Seventh-day Adventists look to the counsel of Ellen G. White, not as the primary authority, but as a supplemental witness in determining the right reading of the Scriptural text where exegesis is not definitive. In the following we will look at the evidence of Ellen White herself in the context of American religious history.