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?
The deception of Revelation 13:13-14 results in the formation of an image to and of the beast, presumably the first beast of Revelation 13 that came up out of the sea. “And he [the land beast] was permitted to give breath to the image of the beast, in order that the image of the beast might speak and might cause whoever does not worship the image of the beast to be killed.” Rev 13:15. Typical of Jewish apocalyptic literature, the book of Revelation never quotes the Old Testament, but it alludes to it very frequently, using key words, phrases, ideas and structures to signal the reading to incorporate OT knowledge into the interpretation of a passage. We saw such allusions to the OT in 13:13-14: the experience of Elijah on Mount Carmel (fire from heaven) and the deceptive miracles of Pharaoh’s magicians.
The combination of image and breath is an unmistakable allusion to the early chapters of Genesis. God created male and female in His own image (Gen 1:26-27), using His breath to install the software of life into Adam’s earthy body. More than just oxygen, God was installing the life principle, with its unique personality and traits and that life principle included the “image of God.” That phrase is not used for the creation of animals. So there was something very godlike about Adam and Eve. They reflected God’s character in their own.
The beast from the sea is in the image of the dragon (Rev 13:1, cf. 12:4), which is also defined as the ancient serpent, Satan (Rev 12:9). So the phrase “image of the beast” implies a similar relationship to Satan as Adam originally had to God. Revelation 13:15 is telling us that at the end of time Satan will seek to implant his image into the human race in contrast to the image and character of God. Just as God’s breath installed His design into the human race, Satan at the End will seek to install his own design into the human race. The contrast could not be more stark, as noted in the previous blog in this series. Satan’s character prized lies and unreality (deception—Rev 13:13-14), intimidation and force (Rev 13:12, 15-17). Both qualities are summed up by Jesus in John 8:44. In contrast, God always speaks the truth (Rev 3:14; 15:3) and prizes human freedom (Rev 22:17). God never forces anyone. So the two sides in the final conflict grow increasingly apart as they model more and more the character of the God they worship.
The ultimate outcome of the formation of an image to the beast is to exhibit the murderous character of Satan (John 8:44) in a death decree. When the image of the beast comes to life it will “cause whoever does not worship the image of the beast to be killed.” Rev 13:15. This is a clear allusion to the Plain of Dura event in Daniel 3. There an image was set up for worship. All who would not worship Nebuchanezzar’s image would be thrown into the fiery furnace. Likewise, at the end of time, a decree goes forth that all who would not worship the image of the beast, all who will not conform to the beast’s (Satan’s) character, will be killed. Two other OT death decrees may also be in mind here, the lion’s den incident of Daniel 6, and the genocidal decree of Haman in the book of Esther (3:6, 13). The final era of earth’s history will include a replay of earlier attempts to destroy God’s people. But that is not all that Satan has in mind for the End-time.