Tag Archives: the image of the beast

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.

The Image of the Beast (Rebekah Liu Dissertation): (2) The Immediate Context of Rev 13:14-15

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.

The Image of the Beast (Rebekah Liu Dissertation): (1) Word Study

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.