Between Two Errors
Richard Bauckham insists that the letters to the seven churches must be read ‘in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers’ if we are to understand their meaning and use them today. Previous posts noted that the rich imagery John uses throughout the book is also very specific to the world of his readers/hearers. On that basis, RB sees two errors to avoid concerning John’s images.
Not timeless symbols
RB sees it as a ‘serious mistake’ to read the imagery as ‘timeless symbols.’ As he says, John’s images ‘relate to the real world’ of his day.
Not Literal Descriptions
But RB also cautions us against reading the imagery too literally or as ‘encoded literal descriptions’ to be rendered into exact people or events. Both of these opposite errors [too symbolic/literal] are to be avoided.
The Right Stroke
Whatever the sources and associations of John’s imagery, they must not be read literally. The images must instead be read for their theological meaning. And they must be read for their power to evoke a faithful, believing response in readers/hearers.
RB illustrates with the plagues of the seven trumpets [8:6-9:21] and seven bowls [16:1-21]. Noting that the pattern itself contains meaning, he finds the following content in those two series of judgment:
- The plagues of Egypt
- The Exodus
- The fall of Jericho
- The army of locusts [from Joel]
- the Sinai theophany [lawgiving?]
- Contemporary fear of invasion by Parthian calalry
- Earthquakes [not infrequent in Asia Minor]
- Possibly the [then recent] eruption of Vesuvius
RB names these not as the whole, but a sampling of the biblical and extra-biblical allusions in those two series of judgments. Then he says:
‘John has taken some of his contemporaries’ worst experiences and worst fears of wars and natural disasters, blown them up to apocalyptic proportions, and cast them in biblically allusive terms. The point is not to predict a sequence of events. The point is to evoke and to explore the meaning of the divine judgment which is impending on the sinful world’ [p. 20].
The Fall of Babylon
That is illustrated in the last of the seven bowl judgments, which is the fall of Babylon. RB points out that in Re 16:17-31, the city is destroyed in an enormous earthquake. And the problem with reading this as a literal depiction of Babylon’s doom? In Re 17:16, Babylon is a whore, ‘stripped, devoured and burned by the beast and the ten kings.’ It is destroyed again.
Then Re 18 continues this image of a city ‘besieged and burned to the ground’ with the pestilence and famine that routinely accompanied the burning of defeated cities. Then RB says this:
‘On the literal level, these images are quite inconsistent with each other, but on the level of theological meaning, conveyed by the allusions to the Old Testament and to contemporary myth, they offer complementary perspectives on the meaning of Babylon’s fall’ [p. 21].
This amounts to saying that Re 16, 17 and 18 overlay image upon image to create a composite picture more complete than any one image alone.
‘The fire of Re 17:16 becomes in chapter 18 the fire of divine judgment’ RB says, the core OT reference for this being Sodom and Gomorrah. He continues:
‘Like an apocalyptic Sodom sunk in the eternal lake of fire and sulfur, Babylon’s smoke ascends for ever [Ge 10:28 cf. Re 14:10-11, 19;20]. The desolation of Babylon as a haunt of desert creatures evokes Old Testament prophetic pictures of the fate of both Edom and Babylon, the two great enemies of the people of God in much of Old Testament prophecy’ [p. 21].
This does not attempt to predict HOW judgment will fall on Rome; but it gives definite theological meaning TO that judgment. In my opinion, it is also a baseline from which to ponder what this imagery suggests about our system of earthly ideology/authority/power/coercion/oppression in our own time and place. In my opinion, we project the Revelation into the future because we would not fare well to do otherwise.