Some Parallels between the Woman Clothed with the Sun and the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse of John

This post was originally a paper I submitted in the summer of 2006, for a class on Johannine literature.  In it, I propose to read the woman of Rev 12 as a representation of the New Jerusalem which appears concretely in Rev 21, using 4 Ezra as a key by which women and cities can be read in the apocalyptic genre of scripture.  If you choose to use any part of this post, please do cite me as your source.

This paper will examine the possible identification of the Woman Clothed in the Sun in Rev 12 with the Bride of the Lamb and the New Jerusalem in Rev 19 and 21.  This identification is postulated on the basis of parallels drawn not only from both internal textual evidence in Revelation itself and from apocalyptic material contemporary with Revelation, but also from the larger literary and iconographic context of the surrounding Hellenistic-Semitic culture of the period.

The book of Revelation arose in a social and literary setting not unlike that of the apocalyptic book 4 Ezra.  Both seem to have been written in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 AD.  The intention of the author of 4 Ezra was primarily concerned with consoling his audience in the wake of this tragedy and the subsequent degradations and oppression of his people under the Roman authorities.  4 Ezra not only provides a parallel socio-literary setting, but it also presents the most concrete literary example of a woman who, symbolizing the city of Zion, becomes transformed into that city (albeit a restored version thereof).

The passage which concerns us occurs in chapter 10.  At this point in the story, the protagonist (Ezra) has already been granted several revelations, mediated by the angel Uriel.  Still disconsolate over the loss and destruction of Zion, Ezra prays to the God of Israel who “did indeed show [him]self to our fathers in the wilderness.”[1]  His prayer ends with the lament that whereas in most cases that which contains a good remains after that good’s consumption, the opposite is the case with Israel:  the Torah/ law has remained, but the Temple (or more precisely, Jerusalem as a whole), which contained that law, has not.  Ezra then looks up to see a woman weeping next to him.  Inquiring about the cause of her sorrow, the woman explains to Ezra that she had been barren for thirty years before conceiving a son.  She took great care in bringing up that son, and chose a bride for him wisely, only to witness her son’s death as he entered the bridal chamber.  Ezra scolds the woman for weeping only for her one son, when “Zion the mother of us all, is in deep grief and affliction.”[2]  “We are all sorrowing,”[3] Ezra claims.

“And it came to pass, while I was talking to her, behold, her face suddenly shone exceedingly, and her countenance flashed like lightning, so that I was too frightened to approach her, and my heart was terrified.  While I was wondering what this meant, behold, she suddenly uttered a loud and fearful cry, so that the earth shook at her voice.  An I looked, and behold, the woman was no longer visible to me, but there was an established city, and a place of huge foundations showed itself…”[4]

The visionary becomes confused by this sudden transformation and cries out.  In good apocalyptic fashion an interpreting angel arrives to console him with an explanation:

“The woman who appeared to you a little while ago, whom you saw mourning and began to console – but you do not now see the form of a woman, but an established city has appeared to you – and as for her telling you about the misfortune of her son, this is the interpretation:  This woman whom you saw, whom you now behold as an established city, is Zion.”[5]

The angel also informs Ezra that the woman’s barrenness was symbolic of Jerusalem not having any offerings in it until Solomon built the (first) Temple.  (Recall that our protagonist is purportedly the Ezra who built the Second Temple.)

And as for her saying to you, ‘When my son entered his wedding chamber he died, and that misfortune had overtaken her, that was the destruction which befell Jerusalem… For now the Most High, seeing that you are sincerely grieved and profoundly distressed for her, has shown you the brilliance of her glory, and the loveliness of her beauty… Therefore I told you to go into the place where there was no foundation of any building, for no work of man’s building could endure in a place where the city of the Most High was to be revealed.”[6]

Although the main elements are obvious, a few remarks about its salient points are in order.  First, as Stone points out in his commentary on this passage, “Ezra sees both the woman and her transformation into the builded [sic] city.  Both elements are parts of the vision, but they differ.  The woman whom Ezra saw symbolizes Zion, while the city he saw, her true nature, does not symbolize Zion, it is Zion.”[7]  While this may contradict the text itself (“this woman… is Zion”) the authorial intent of using a woman to symbolize or embody the city is made clear by Stone’s reading.  A similar distinction should be borne in mind when we examine Rv 12 and 21.  Second, although she is identified as “mother of us all,” the woman’s son is symbolic of the Temple (or its offerings); the woman is not the Temple.[8]  Third, the woman choose a wife for her son, but this bride is neither identified nor interpreted.  Finally, her transformation into the city is witnessed by the visionary who mourns the destruction of her earthly counterpart (she herself is the “restored Zion”), and it is remarkable that the text portrays her as weeping specifically only for the death of her son.  We would also note that although in the context of a vision, the city remains standing subsequent to its/ her transformation.[9]

Initially, it might not seem surprising that a city is portrayed as a woman in a Hellenistic era text, even one of Semitic provenance.  After all, not only are the words for “city” grammatically feminine in Greek, Latin, and several Semitic languages, artistic representations of personified cities abounded in the ancient world.  A coin from the reign of Ptolemy (in 61 BCE) portrays the city of Alexandria as a woman encrowned with a diadem in the form of the city’s turrets.[10]  And after the destruction of Jerusalem, Titus issued the famous “Judea Capta” coin, with the province portrayed as a defeated woman weeping under a tree with a Roman soldier hovering over her.  These more conventional depictions are more akin to what appears in Revelation; what is shocking in the text is the vision of the transformation itself, an image to rival anything in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

With regard to evidence of women as cities in the text of Revelation itself, the clearest example is the harlot Babylon, whose description appears in chapter 17.  Although both the description and interpretation of her appear there, John alerts us to her presence in two earlier verses, 14.8 (in the context of a vision of the Lamb on Mt Zion, where the fall of Babylon is initially proclaimed) and in 16.19 (in which the seventh bowl is poured out “and Babylon the Great was remembered before God and made to drink the cup of the wine of the fury of His wrath.”).  Both verses are clearly in the context of the final moments before the final culmination of history in the general resurrection and the death of Death.  Babylon, in fact, is declared to be a recipient of God’s verdict in both contexts.

In the fuller descriptions of the harlot/ Babylon in chapters 17 and 18, the interpreting angel specifically states, “the woman you saw is the great city who holds way over the Kings of the earth.”[11]  Thus, in contrast to 4 Ezra, the woman is symbolic of Rome, a symbolism identical with that of the named city Babylon.  (I suppose we could say the harlot is symbolic of a city which is itself symbolic of Rome; or that the harlot is symbolic of the goddess Roma, who is in turn the embodiment of the city on seven hills.)  Throughout the passages in chapters 17 and 18 characterizations of Babylon as a woman alternate with characterizations of her as a city.   As a woman, she is richly clothed in scarlet and jewels, riding on a seven headed scarlet beast.  She is the “mother of all harlots and of all obscenities on the earth.”[12]  Together with the beast she will war against the Lamb, and kills his followers, but she will be humiliated by the beast and the ten horns, who will strip her of her clothing and consume her flesh.[13]  In 18.7, she calls herself a queen who will not be widowed, and is decried as the one who “corrupted the earth with her fornication” in 19.2.  She is said to have led all astray through sorcery.  As a city, she suffers from the plagues of war, is burned down, darkened (no lamp remains in her[14]) and made desolate and sterile.  Her inhabitants go out from her (presumably to the New Jerusalem), called by an unidentified voice who claims kinship with those emigrants in 18.4, warning them not to partake in Babylon’s sins.  It would seem, however, that that the fornicators, murderers, liars and sorcerers are Babylon’s offspring, sharing in her sins, and these do not enter the New Jerusalem. The images of Rome as the harlot and city Babylon culminate in the combined image of 18.16:  “Alas for the great city which was robed in fine linen and purple.”  (The city is described as robed in the very garments the harlot was described as wearing in 17.4.)  This woman, at least, is clearly the same being as the city whose name she bears.

Having established the existence of a literary contemporary outside our text, as well as the presence of such an exemplar within our text itself, in addition to parallels in the iconography (numisography?) of the culture at large, we are ready to turn our attention to the characterization and context of the images of woman and city in Revelation 12 and 21.  Through such a comparison we may more securely posit an identification of the two.

The woman of Rev 12 and the New Jerusalem of chapter 21 are linked by their respective relations to the pivotal chapter 19, in which the son of the woman clothed in the sun reappears, and in which the bride of the Lamb is first mentioned.  These three chapters, though linked together on internal grounds, are separated by chapters whose content and context ought also to be taken into account.  Such an approach does not deny the very useful “purposeful repetition” methodology; rather, it enhances it by demonstrating these three chapters occur simultaneously, and that therefore, the characters who appear in each passage ought to be identified with one another.[15]

The appearance of the woman clothed in the sun immediately follows the blowing of the seventh trumpet inaugurating the reign of Christ (11.15-19), the judgment of the dead and the opening of the heavenly sanctuary.  It is possible that the woman emerges from this opened sanctuary, although this is neither explicitly stated nor entirely plausible.  However, if such were the case, the woman could be representative either of the Shekhinah, which departed into heaven (into the heavenly Temple) at the destruction of the first Temple, or of the Ark of the Covenant which is explicitly mentioned in 11.19.[16]  Alternately, the passage of Rev 12 can be considered a “flashback” to the birth of the warrior-logos who appears in chapter 19.  Such a view fits in better with recapitulation theory; it also has stronger textual support from 12.6, in which verse the woman is safeguarded in the desert from the dragon for the same amount of time given to the trampling of “the holy city” in 11.2 and to the prophets’ preaching in 11.3.  The period of time involving the woman’s flight after being given eagle’s wings might correspond to the same era in which the martyrs are given refuge from the Dragon in chapter 20; since this period of the woman’s hiding is not specified (“a time, a time, and half a time”), the correspondences of time given in the earlier text need not be exact, whereas those in 11.2-3 and 12.6 are.[17]

The woman’s confrontation with the Dragon has parallels in Canaanite mythology, as pointed out by both Murphy and Collins.  The battles of Ba’al and Yam (or Lothan) and Marduk with Tiamat come to mind.  The Dragon, identified with the sea or with a river, adequately represented the destructive power these elements had over the early cities of the fertile crescent.  It seems to be no coincidence that the woman was threatened by a torrent of water from the dragon’s mouth, particularly if she is indeed representative of a city.  In the Marduk myth, Marduk, the defender of his city, does battle to rescue the city (which in some sense is also his mother, particularly in a liturgical context in which the king of a city is identified as the son – and if victorious in battle, bridegroom– of that city).  This underlying mythological motif becomes all the more alluring when the warrior who appears in Rev 19.11 is related to the young warrior commissioned by the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7.11-12.  The young warrior in Daniel seems to draw on Canaanite images of the battle between Ba’al and Yam (the Sea); the Ancient of Days would be ‘El.[18]  Additionally, Philo, at least, seems to link the young warrior of Daniel 7 with his own conception of the Logos, which is exactly the title given to the warrior in Rev 19.11.[19]

The only plausible identification for the woman in these images is with a city; none of the Ugaritic goddesses seem to bear a resemblance to the woman of Revelation 12, neither ‘Anat (consort of Ba’al) nor Attirat/ Asherah (the consort of El and mother of the gods at Ugarit) seem to fit, although Attirat was often represented as a stylized tree (the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem?).  Perhaps the only candidate is Shapash, the sun goddess, who only appears in minor myths (which I have been unable to locate).[20]  A city, with whom (embodied in a priestess or the city’s temple) a warrior-king would enact a liturgical hieros gamos, seems to be the best fit.

It would seem therefore, that Rev 12 and 19, and perhaps 21, present the remnants of some underlying Semitic myth, turned to the author’s own purposes.  His source material could easily have come from Phoenician sailors in the Levant (particularly from Tyre, where the cult of Ba’al was still popular, as Ba’al-Zeus), or through Hebrew literature (in particular Daniel and some of the Psalms) which also draw on earlier Canaanite imagery.  Let us now turn to chapter 19, where the young warrior is presented and the Bride of the Lamb first mentioned.

In some ways, chapter 14 links chapters 12 and 19 and warrants inclusion here.  Chapter 19, which immediately follows the laments over Babylon’s destruction, contains the first mention of the bride of the Lamb.  It also marks the return of the son who will rule with a rod of iron first mentioned in chapter 12; he returns as a young warrior in a passage bearing certain similarities to Daniel 7, as mentioned above.  With him are his hosts, the non-fornicating (virgin) men from chapter 14 (where the fall of Babylon is first proclaimed).  Like the combat in chapter 12, the combat here in chapter 19 is entirely a result of the Lamb’s work (and note the Lamb’s presence in chapter 14).  Chapter 19 obviously falls in the period after the seventh trumpet but before the final resolution.  The bride is not explicitly identified here, although her attire is described as the good deeds of God’s people in 19.8 – again, the Lamb’s doing – and its simplicity contrasts with the opulence of the harlot. Chapter 21 is also connected to chapter 19 when the New Jerusalem, the bride, receives the kings who had died in chapter 19.

Also occurring in this chapter is the vision of the angel standing in the sun, a sun which had formerly clothed the woman of Rev 12.  Unless we are to postulate two suns, or do violence to the text and claim the woman’s raiment shone like the sun, we must ask what happened to the woman?  Is she no longer clothed in the sun because she fled (“leaving her garment behind” as the man in Mark did in the Gesthamane)?  If so, in what is she now clothed?  Solely eagle’s wings?  Or is she the bride preparing herself while the Logos-Amnos goes to battle?  If that woman is to be identified as the “messianic community” or the Church, and if the Church is protected in heaven with the martyrs at the time of the battle with the dragon, is it not plausible that she is being clothed by the martyr’s deeds, the martyrs throwing her a bridal shower, as it were?[21] These questions, of course, can never be conclusively answered and must remain speculative.  However, they do gain weight if the connections I made in note 17, in which the eagle’s wings are a reference to Dt 32.10-13, the same song which the victorious martyrs sang in the heavenly throne room, are accurate.  We might also remember that  images of the Church in other NT sources include both the Church as Mother (Gal 4.26) and as Bride (Eph 5.25, 32 and 2 Cor 11.2).

The New Jerusalem finally emerges from heaven only after the first heaven and earth have passed away.  This follows not simply the “general” resurrection, but the appearance of the One on the great white throne.  From that One did the heaven and earth flee, but unlike the woman of Rev 12, “no place was found for them.”[22]  The New Jerusalem emerges only after the “battle” of Gog and Magog, which seems to be the battle prepared for at Armageddon in chapter 16 (after the sixth bowl is poured out).  This New Jerusalem is explicitly called the Bride of the Lamb in 21.9-11 by one of the phial (bowl)-bearing angels, one of whom also interpreted the harlot as the city in 17.18.

The chief adornments of the city are the twelve pearly gates, at each of which is stationed an angel.  It is explicitly stated in 21.23 that “the city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it,” thus dispensing with the clothing and footrest of the woman in chapter 12 altogether.  However, the absence of stars is not mentioned.   Earlier in the text (in 1.20), angels and stars are identified.  Can we thus posit that the city has twelve stars (plus Christ, the morning star)?  The only other place where twelve angels or stars appear is in the crown which the woman clothed in the sun wears.  We have already noted the Alexandrian coin portraying a crown in the shape of the turrets of that city.  It would seem plausible that the stars of the crown in chapter 12 are also the angels who will be stationed at each of the gates of the new city.

Based on parallel images drawn from sources within and outside the text, I believe that an identification of the woman clothed in the sun with the New Jerusalem is plausible.  Such an identification is supported not only by traditional exegesis of these passages as relating to the Church or Messianic community, but also by similar parallels in 4 Ezra, Canaanite myth, and Hellenistic Roman iconography.  This identification is strengthened also by a close reading of the text itself, keeping recapitulation theory in mind.  The woman and the New Jerusalem share the same time sequences as does the Lamb and the divine warrior who are generally easily identified as being the same.  In addition, the woman of chapter 12 flees twice, the second time to take refuge from the Dragon, from whom the martyrs of chapter 20 are also protected.  She is given eagle’s wings, which recall the image of the song of Moses and Joshua in Dt 32, which is also sung by the victorious martyrs in heaven.  While awaiting the destruction of the Dragon, the bride is prepared by the martyrs, and the woman of Revelation 12 is a perfect candidate for being clothed in the righteous deeds of God’s people, particularly since it appears the sun which clothed her was left behind.  Finally, when the new heaven and earth appear, the New Jerusalem has no need of such accoutrements, since the bride is enlightened and adorned by her husband the Lamb; however, the stars which encrowned the woman of Revelation 12 reappear in their true guise as angels stationed over the twelve gates of the city, continuing to crown the one who bore and wed the victorious Lamb and Word of God.

[1] 4 Ezra 9.29.  An a manner remarkably parallel to Revelation, the visionary prays to the God who showed himself, only to then be granted a vision of a woman whom we learn is Zion.  It is tempting to see in this situation a reflection of the final verse of Ps 48, which literally reads in Hebrew:  “Walk around Zion, circle it, count its towers, take note of its ramparts, go through its citadels, that you may recount it to a future age.  For this is God, our God forever…”

[2] 4 Ezra 10.7

[3] 4 Ezra 10.8

[4] 4 Ezra 10.25-27

[5] 4 Ezra 10.41

[6] 4 Ezra 10.48, 50, 53.

[7] Stone, Michael Edward.  4 Ezra.  A commentary on the Fourth Book of Ezra.  Fortress Press, 1990.

[8] It might be a fruitful endeavour to examine if the Temple building itself is characterized as masculine in other texts, particularly in light of the characteristically feminine Shekhinah (God’s presence) which inhabited the First Temple building.  Is a sort of hieros gamos indicated by these characterizations?  Was the unidentified “bride” of 4 Ezra supposed to be the Shekhinah or the Ark of the Covenant, a piece of the image which would not stand up to interpretation in the text as we have it now?

[9] Stone, 334.

[11] Rev 17.18

[12] Rev 17.5

[13] Rev 17.6

[14] In 4 Ezra, the woman Zion describes how she and the townsfolk put out the lamps after her son’s death, presumably a common mourning custom which fits in perfectly with the laments about Babylon’s lamps being darkened in Rev 18.

[15] See Collins, A.Y.  The Apocalypse.  (New Testament Message 22). Michael Glazier Inc, 1979, page xii for a concise definition of “recapitulation theory.”  Also note that E. Schussler-Fiorenza has also argued for the same technique in the collected essays contained in her Book of Revelation – Justice and Judgement, 1998.

[16] See Howard Schwartz’s references to this tradition in Jewish literature in Tree of Souls, pp 50 – 52.  Numbers Rabbah 12.6 (although late) seems to be a primary representative of this image, in which the Shekhinah, which departed earth upon Adam’s sin (cf. 1 Enoch), did not return to earth until the erection of the Ark and Tabernacle.

[17]  Frederick Murphy, in Fallen Is Babylon.  The Revelation to John.  (Trinity Press, 1998) points out that the eagle’s wings may be a reference to Dt 32.10-13 (p286).  This reference occurs in the Song of Moses (sometimes called the Song of Moses and Joshua (= Jesus)), which one author (Schussler-Fiorenza, if I recall correctly) makes the case is the “song of Moses and the Lamb” mentioned in Rev 15.3, rather than the more well known Song at the Sea in Ex 15.  Since this image in Rev 15.3 clearly occurs in the presence of the martyrs in heaven before the final battle, is it not reasonable to assert that this heavenly abode is the place to which the woman flew for protection from the dragon?

[18] This is the parallel drawn in Collins, John J.  Daniel.  A Commentary on the Book of Daniel.  Fortress Press, 1993, p286-287, and in Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic.  Harvard University Press, 1973, pp16-18.

[19] See Segal, Alan.  Two Powers in Heaven.  Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism.  Brill, 1977, pp160 – 181 for Philo’s conception of the Logos.  Cf also pp 188-189 for the logos and Daniel 7 and 204 and 206ff for the use of Ps 110 to identify the Messiah and Divine Warrior.

[20] Day, John.  Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan.  Sheffield Academic Press, 2000. pp134-5; Cf 44ff and 59-60.  For an example of a city as goddess see ibid p52.  Other sources I used include del Olmo Lete, G.  Canaanite Religion According to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit.  Eisenbrauns, 2004, and Mullen, E. Theodore.  The Assembly of the Gods.  Harvard Semitic Monographs 24, Scholar’s Press, 1980.  Applicable to the theory I presented above might also be Fymer-Kensky, T.  In the Wake of the Goddesses. Maxwell McMillan International, 1992, which I was unable to consult at this time.

[21] “Rev 12 also pictures the Messianic community as a woman whom God nourishes in the wilderness, and in chapter 19 the community is seen as Christ’s bride.”  Frederick Murphy, Fallen Is Babylon.  The Revelation to John.  Trinity Press, 1998, p286.  It is tempting to identify one of the unknown voices (in the wilderness, no less) as that of John the Baptist, the “friend of the Bridegroom.”

[22] Rev 20.11.

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