Israel and the Nations


The Book of Revelation claims to be a revelation received by the risen Jesus Christ from “God” who, by means of an angel, passed the information to “John” on the island of Patmos probably during the reign of Emperor Domitian (Rev 1:1). It was a revelation of events that “must soon take place”(1:1; 22:6) culminating in the return of the risen Lord “soon” (3:11; 22:7,12,20). Despite the failure of this prophecy, the Book of Revelation was eventually accepted into the canon of Scripture. But is it possible for this text to have any value as a meaningful discourse today when its central message about the return of the Risen Lord was mistaken?

The NT scholar R. H. Charles is typical of many exegetes when explaining the importance of this text. He valued Revelation as “the expression of great moral and spiritual truth” offering meaning “at sundry times and in divers manners and in varying degrees of completeness in the history of the world” (Charles, 1920, p cixxxiii). Recently, Richard Bauckham has reinforced this type of ahistorical contemporary relevance for Revelation. He writes:

No sequence of events within [the] final period of history is predicted. The kaleidoscope of images with which John depicts it are concerned with its nature and meaning. They explore the character of the beast’s power and deceit, the ineffectiveness of mere judgments of mere judgments to bring about repentance, the power of suffering witness to convince of the truth, the relationship of the church’s witness to that of Jesus, and so on. Above all, they give the church the heavenly perspective on the meaning of the conflict and the nature of victory in it that the church will need in order to persevere in its costly witness throughout. (Bauckham, 1993, p150,151)

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza proposed a method of interpretation that rejects this type of essentialism. Interpretations along the lines suggested by those scholars who discover timeless moral and spiritual truth, she argues, are in danger of ahistorically legitimating negative elements such as the androcentric and anti-Semitic presuppositions of the writer. She accepts that the symbols are tensive language, that is, expressing abiding truths, but rather than “essentialize” the images, she considers that their meaning should be derived from their position in the overall structure of Revelation. This type of analysis requires the exegete to speculate about the social matrix of the symbolic pattern, questioning what sorts of pressures and situations were responsible for producing its language and symbolism, and ascertaining what sorts of actions and responses the literature hoped to produce. She claims that “[t]he images of eschatological salvation… seek to mobilize the readers’ emotions, to attract and persuade them to make the right decision here and now and live accordingly in this life” (Fiorenza, 1985, p188). Only when the “rhetorical situation” which first generated the piece of literature recurs is it possible to reach an understanding. Revelation cannot be understood when its rhetorical situation no longer persists. Wherever it persists, however, the book will continue to evoke the same response sought by its author. In other words, wherever the social-political-religious tension generated by oppression and persecution persists or re-occurs, the dramatic action of Revelation will have the same cathartic effects it had in its original situation. Wherever a totally different situation exists, however, the book no longer elicits a fitting response. For Fiorenza, Revelation can only be understood properly by those who hunger and thirst for justice. However, since history is replete with oppressed groups of Christians having cathartic experiences related to their particular interpretations of Revelation, this conclusion is unsatisfactory. If the specific rhetorical situation which called forth this literature is to be interpreted, then it is necessary to understand how the historical principle of Revelation operates. By historical principle I mean the way in which the symbols and images related to the particular historical situation of the writer and audience. Zeitgeschichtlich interpretation is required before it is possible to question what Fiorenza calls “the theological relevance for the book in our present time” (Fiorenza, 1985, p43). Once the historical principle is discovered it becomes possible to test its relevance today by proposing a method of re-entering the symbolic universe through a re-interpretation of the present in mythical or symbolic terms. What follows will test the possibility that this ancient literature could have a contemporary application, or, to put it another way, it will discover how it is possible for the rhetorical situation to recur.

It is interesting to note that Fiorenza finds the main theme of Revelation is precisely expressed in the section 11:15-19 (Fiorenza, 1985, p56). It is also ironic that she rejects its significance in relation to “past and future history” in favor of “the eschatological reality of God’s kingdom” when, as we shall see below, this section introduces the pivotal section of Revelation, a section which charts the historical contours of the drama of salvation, from the election of Israel to the judgment of the human race. The reason Fiorenza rejects the view that the key to interpretation is the historical principle which Revelation shares with Jewish apocalyptic writings is on the grounds that the book is not pseudonymous and the writer has not attempted to predate the revelation by selecting a famous historical biblical figure as recipient of the vision. However, this view fails to acknowledge that although John is the writer, the recipient of the revelation in the first instance is Jesus Christ (1:1). Pseudonymity and predating are techniques for legitimating the authority of the revelation. This is, of course, superfluous when the authority is Jesus Christ himself, the “Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”(22:12).

For those scholars trying to establish a coherent structure for Revelation, chapters 12-14 have proved difficult to assimilate. These chapters interrupt the chronological flow and insert a timescale which runs from the election of Israel to the final judgment of the nations. The timescale represents the full history of salvation, from the creation of Israel to the consummation of the divine plan, and this period can be termed the soteriological age. 11:15-19 introduces the section with the seventh angel blowing a trumpet and announcing that it is time for destroying the destroyers of the earth because the final judgment of the nations has arrived (11:18) and the world will be ruled eternally by the Lord and his Christ (11:15). Chapter 12 opens with a description of a pregnant woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown of twelve stars. Standing before the woman is a seven-headed red dragon waiting to devour the woman’s child once it is born. Both the child and the woman escape, the child being “caught up to God” and the woman fleeing into the wilderness for a predetermined period of time. In 12:7-12 the same events are presented from another perspective, the heavenly war between the angel Michael and Satan and their legions, but now the “blood of the Lamb” is included in the power which defeats Satan. 12:6 is elaborated in 12:13-16 where the woman’s escape is made possible by acquiring “two wings of the great eagle”, and where the serpent’s attack is described as a flood of water issuing from its mouth and threatening to sweep away the woman. Failing to destroy the woman, the serpent then attacks “the rest of her offspring,” those who “keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” Chapter 13 narrates the consequences of the dragon’s fall from heaven: beasts issue from the sea and the earth. 14:1-5 seems to refer back to 12:11 by portraying the triumph of the Blood of the Lamb and the martyrs as a Lamb standing on Mount Zion with 144,000 people, the “first fruits.” After this, and corresponding to the time period of 12:12, the gospel is proclaimed to all the nations of the world. This is followed by a couple of announcements about the destruction of Babylon (14:8) and references to the evil nature of the beasts (14:9ff) and the section concludes with the judgment of the human race depicted as a grain harvest (14:14-16) and a grape harvest (14:17-20).

Prior to the Parousia of Christ being presented as a marriage of the Lamb and his Bride (19:7) however, a section intervenes which supplies more details of the beasts and the judgment. The chapters following 11:15-14:20 do not appear to be a chronological extension. Chapters 15 and 16 indicate the effect on the human race of being trodden in the winepress of the wrath of God (cf 14:19), reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt. Chapter 17 supplies more information on the nature of Babylon, and also attempts to demythologize chapter 13 by linking the visions more directly to the writer’s contemporary situation. Chapter 18 expands 14:8, the destruction of Babylon, and chapter 19 completes the cycle with its description of the Parousia.

In order to understand the historical principle behind chapters 12-14 it is necessary to make a few preliminary observations about apocalyptic literature. The origins of this literature are significant and while many would locate its source in the eschatology of prophetism, a strong case can be made for its development from the Wisdom tradition. D S Russell in The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic writes that Apocalyptic was the product of “wise and learned men who were thoroughly acquainted not only with the historic Jewish faith, but also with the ‘wisdom’ of that time… which owed much to non-Jewish religious traditions” (Russell, 1964, p28). Gerhard von Rad regarded apocalyptic literature as an intellectual movement originating in the Wisdom schools. According to him, prophetic insights were adopted only as secondary accretions. The work consisted of reducing history to the primary forces operating within it, schematizing and unifying to the highest possible degree. The mythic narratives in chapters 2 and 7 of Daniel, for example, are pictorial representations indicating that a growth of evil in the form of nations and empires is something inherent in human nature from the beginning. Everything depends upon the fact that the epochs of world history are predetermined. It is related to Wisdom because Wisdom “is the effort made by the people of Israel to grasp the laws which governed the world in which she lived, and to systematize them” (Von Rad, 1975, p305). It is the effort to grasp the laws of motion of human society.

Although there are oracles against the nations in prophetic literature, in apocalyptic literature international politics becomes the focus of attention. If apocalyptic originates as a development of the Wisdom tradition it is possible to account for its emergence by considering the varying fortunes of Israel in the international arena. The growth of Israel’s Wisdom literature coincided with Israel’s commercial expansion and involvement in international trade. Wisdom schools served to initiate their pupils into the commonly accepted standards of international culture. Parochial interests were broadened and graduates were made to feel confident in social relations with the ruling classes. However, with Israel’s political and economic decline, international power politics was gradually conceived as a blasphemous ritual. To portray this ritual ancient Hebrew and Canaanite mythology was employed to illustrate that the dominant world powers threatening Israel and opposing God were reassertions of the primeval chaos subdued at the Creation. In many passages of hymnic praise throughout the Jewish scriptures significant events in the history of Israel were remythologized on a grand scale. For example, the Exodus and the passage of Israel through the sea were portrayed as the defeat of the primordial sea monster Rahab (eg Isa 51:9). The mythology could also be projected into the eschatological future such as Isaiah 27:1 which depicts YHWH slaying Leviathan: “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan, the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” By applying a similar technique of remythologizing the ‘rituals’ of the nations the dramatic victories of Israel and her God were projected into the eschatological future.

J J Collins also notes an essential difference between apocalyptic literature and prophecy. “Events can be foretold centuries before their time only if they are predetermined. For that reason, apocalyptic revelations take on an informational character foreign to classical prophecy. There is no question of averting that which is to be. The apocalypses can only mediate knowledge and understanding of the inevitable. They cannot change it” (Collins, 1977 p87).

Jonathan Z. Smith links the emergence of apocalyptic to the Wisdom tradition and the political history of Israel. For him “[a]pocalypticism is Wisdom lacking a royal court and patron and therefore it surfaces… not as a response to religious persecution but as an expansion of the trauma of the cessation of the native kingship” (Smith, 1983, p101). Certainly in the section under discussion the “call to Wisdom” in 13:18 reinforces the argument that apocalyptic literature has its origins the Wisdom tradition.

Apocalypticism is therefore a primitive attempt at world-system analysis. The welter of experience constituting ‘the world’ is presented in a paradigmatic manner, a focus of coherence enabling the initiate to analyze isolated facts of experience into a comprehensive and meaningful totality. This method involves a cyclic understanding of reality, the gathering and integration of primal forces manifesting themselves in superficial patterns of world politics and economics. The clue to interpretation is that the patterns resemble a recapitulation of ancient mythology to do with the creation of the world and the ‘creation’ of Israel. The chaos and oppression of contemporary events do not, it is argued, threaten the power of Israel’s God. Just as primeval chaos and forces opposing the creation of Israel were overcome by the creator God, so too the present rebellion is encompassed by the will of God. The apocalyptic writer’s task is to demonstrate that present chaos has a recognizable form or pattern, recapitulating ancient mythology. Facts are selected from contemporary events to demonstrate that the present is experiencing a recapitulation of primal forces. The writers are not saying that the present is completely comprehensible, but moments of comprehension demonstrate that the threatening evil is incomprehensible, beyond the control of human power.


Rev12-14 represents the soteriological age, but most of the material concerns the eschatological age, from the Atonement (or Incarnation) to the Final Judgment. The whole section is governed by the principle of re-presenting ancient mythology (and motifs) concerning the creation of the world, the creation of the human race, and the creation of Israel, in order to demonstrate that the End will be like the Beginning. With this in mind, the recapitulated myths and motifs which find echoes in the section are: the figure of Eve; the serpent; the conflict between Eve and the serpent; the creation of Adam from the earth; the appearance of the ancient beasts of chaos, Leviathan and Behemoth; the escape of Israel through the sea; the sojourn of Israel in the desert; and the Exile from Jerusalem. In addition to these myths and motifs the second Antichrist figure recapitulates ancient motifs such as the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40); the mark on Cain for divine protection (Gen 4:5); the command of Moses to mark forehead and hand during religious observance (Ex 13:9,16; Dt 6:8; Dt 11:18); and Aaron’s casting of a golden calf (Ex 32:4-5) (with possible allusions also to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image in Dan.3). All these myths and motifs are woven into this central section of Revelation. Since God is in control of the process of world development, the writer is saying, the ‘end-time’ or the eschatological age will develop according to a discernible pattern recapitulating ancient patterns, and chapters 12-14 represent that pattern.

Perhaps a good indication that a presentation of the pattern takes precedence over the writer’s contemporary application and interpretation is when he is more concerned to identify the beast from the sea with the ancient serpent rather than allude to the Roman Empire. This particular beast combines most of the features of the four beasts of Dan.7 apart from two significant omissions, the eagle’s wings of Daniel’s first beast, and the metallic teeth and claws of the fourth beast. If the main purpose of the symbolism was to establish identification with Rome, then these allusions of the Roman military standard and the Roman military machine would surely have been included. Actually, in IV Ezra 11:1ff there is an example of an apocalyptic writer specifically referring to Dan.7 and reshaping the symbolism to represent Rome. An eagle with twelve wings and three heads and rising out of the sea is described as “the fourth kingdom which appeared in vision to thy brother Daniel but it was not interpreted unto him as I now interpret it unto thee”(12:10-12).

Another indication of the precedence of the mythical pattern is apparent in the fact that when interpretations are offered in the text they are flexible and fall short of being exhaustive. Even when interpretation is being offered mythical elements are added and developed. Both these points can be illustrated with reference to the beast in chapter 17. Here, the seven heads represent both the seven hills of Rome and seven kings. Also in chapter 17 the ten horns on the seven heads represent kings. Furthermore even though the seven heads of the beast have been identified as kings, the beast is also described as “one who was and is not…” When the beast reappears (in 17:11) it is described as “an eighth but it belongs to the seven.” Does this eighth best correspond with the beast of the earth in chapter 13? If this symbol is a recapitulation of an ancient myth perhaps it could possibly refer to the creation of Eve from the side of Adam. Thus even though interpretation is being offered in this section it is clear that primordial mythology is never far from the author’s mind.

One can only speculate about the original meaning of this literature. However, although the fine details of possible correlations between the mythical and historical components are no longer penetrable, it is possible to draw reasonably firm conclusions about the author’s general attitude to the status of Israel in salvation history. John M. Court, for example, makes the suggestion that “[t]he woman, as Israel, represents the nucleus of the nation, salvaged from the ruins of Jerusalem, which had built the new spiritual home of the nation at Jabneh. This is the place appointed in God’s plan in which the Jewish nation, at least as a religious unit, can recover some of its strength” (Court, 1979, p120).

But after this stab at a fairly precise correlation, a more general interpretation is drawn which allows this part of the mythical pattern to speak to other generations:

This protection [the woman in the wilderness] is offered to Judaism for as long as the phase of persecution for the Christian Church will last, until the period of crisis ends in the Final Judgment. Compared with some other parts of the New Testament, and with some interpretations placed on Revelation itself, this exegesis represents the author as holding quite an enlightened and tolerant view of Judaism… The ideal figure of Israel… has a worthy place in the divine plan. In this respect, then, the author of Revelation agrees with Paul that God has by no means rejected his original chosen people; rather ‘all Israel will be saved’, when the full number of the Gentiles has been gathered in (Rom.11:1,25-26). (Court, 1979, p121)

It seems probable that in the author’s mind the beast from the sea correlates with the Roman social system. It was pointed out earlier that the beast combines most of the features of the four beasts in Daniel 7. By combining all these features the writer is expressing the magnitude and inter-relation of the developed human rebellion against God. Thus, although the Roman social system is a possible correlate, the important feature is the mythic pattern, the recapitulation of ancient myth. The beast rises from the sea like the ancient beast of chaos, Leviathan, subdued by God at the Creation. The authority of this beast extends throughout the world over “every tribe and people and tongue and nation.” One of its seven heads appears to have a mortal wound, but this wound is healed and “the whole world followed the beast with wonder.” The beast’s attack of the woman, and the head with the mortal wound, recall God’s words to the serpent in Eden (Gen.3:15): “I will make you enemies of each other: you and the woman, your offspring and her offspring. It will crush your head and you will strike its heel.” (Jerusalem Bible) Therefore again the mythic pattern is of primary importance.

The second beast emerges like Adam from the earth (13:11). It is capable of performing great miracles including a feat only Elijah could perform, that of bringing fire down from heaven in the sight of people. Thus again, myths of creation and the formative period of Israel’s history are recalled. And it is in this context that the number 666 (13:18) can be interpreted, for it can be seen as a recapitulation of the sixth day of creation. 666 is formed by squaring 6 and then triangulating the square of 6 (ie 36).1 Squaring and triangulating 6 is a cryptic method of saying that the sixth day of creation, when human beings were created, has now reached its ultimate development. The command to the first human pair has run its course, except that it has taken place in a fallen world, and this ultimate development is an ultimate expression of the denial of God, the Antichrist.

Therefore while close correlations with the Roman social system and the Emperor Nero can be suggested, the important and enduring significance of this symbolism is this: Just as the destiny of Israel is encompassed within the plan of God, so too the Gentile nations’ rebellion against God is encompassed within the plan. The eschatological age will therefore see an exile of Israel from Jerusalem for a given period of time, and the development of a totally integrated social system governing “every tribe and people and tongue and nation.”

Revelation 12-14 mythologically characterizes the eschatological age. Israel (the woman clothed with the sun) gives birth to the Messiah. In order to protect Israel from the repercussions of this event there will be an exodus into the wilderness, an exile into the diaspora, a scattering from Mount Zion, for a given period of time. The world will be a continual threat to the survival of Israel (“The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood.”), but will fail to destroy her (“But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river…”). Eventually, given the social nature of human development, a social system will evolve which completely embraces the peoples of the world. This social system gains its power and inspiration from the dragon which has been cast down to earth as a consequence of the male child being “caught up to God and to his throne”. This system will appear as though it has suffered a mortal wound, but it is restored to life. A second beast emerges from the earth and persuades the world to honor the beast from the sea, that is, accept and adopt the unified social system.

The writer of Revelation, having presented the mythic pattern of the eschatological age, then invites Christians to suspect that the contemporary world is developing in accordance with this pattern. He could point to the flight of the Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the religious settlement at Jabneh; the pervasive Roman social system; the imperial priesthood demanding allegiance to Roman ideals; the myths about Nero; and so on. The actual clues to interpretation are far from comprehensive and fixed, but he must have seen enough correlation between the pattern of contemporary events and the ancient mythology to declare that the risen Lord would return “soon.” In the first century world he would not have been able to conceive of a more comprehensive social system than the Roman system developing in the future.

Once the historical principle or the apocalyptic methodology of determining meaning is established, questioning for contemporary meaning involves testing for a possible re-occurrence of the rhetorical situation by repeating the writer’s technique. The rhetorical situation will recur if historical events can be construed in such a way as to conform to the mythic pattern. This involves asking the question: Is it possible to select events and developments out of the welter of world history which illustrate conformity to the mythical pattern without distorting both the history and the mythical pattern?


The mythic portrayal of Israel in the central section of Revelation is concerned with divine protection: Israel is exiled from Jerusalem for her own good, for her own survival. While this might seem an odd concept, that the Jews were defeated in their war against Rome for the sake of their preservation, it is nevertheless consonant with a theme Israel developed on reflection of the Babylonian exile. Walter Brueggemann has shown that the exile was eventually understood as an illustration of God’s mercy. He writes: “Israel’s rhetoric accomplished a stunning claim. It asserted that no savage power in the world could separate Israel from God’s mercy” (Brueggemann, 1991, p16). The future of Judaism had its origins with the exiles.

The text of Revelation does not overtly contain the theme of a return to Eretz Israel, but nevertheless, a return is implied when the sojourn in the desert is for a predetermined, not an indefinite, period of time. Israel and Jerusalem as the center of the divine plan is a constant feature of Jewish apocalyptic, and it is a development of a theme found in prophetic literature. In the New Testament Jerusalem is given prominence in the Gospel of Luke, and in 21:24b, “and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” there is an implicit return.

It is apparent therefore that Jewish history has supplied a correlation for part of the mythic pattern of the eschatological age in Revelation. The continuance of the Jewish people among the Gentiles, their survival despite persecutions and the Nazis’ systematic attempt to annihilate the entire Jewish race, and finally the re-establishing of the Jewish state, provide enough material to identify a correlation between the mythic portrayal and historical reality.

But what of Revelation’s insistence that a social system will develop which embraces all the nations of the world and that the inspiration for this social system is a direct consequence of the Incarnation and Christ’s victory over death? From among various sociological perceptions of the development and structure of the modern world, one that is proving very influential across a number of disciplines and the one that provides the most interesting material for points of contact with the apocalyptic paradigm is the World-System theory associated with Immanuel Wallerstein.

In recent years this particular school of social science has developed a conceptual framework with a basic premise identical to the basic premise of apocalyptic methodology, that of the unity of world history. The central functional paradigm can be found in outline in most of the school’s literature.2 Since it is the most comprehensive enquiry into the unity of the world as a single operative system, and since, according to the school, it is the first time in the history of the world that a “world-system” has actually encompassed the globe, it could be of possible comparative interest in view of the conclusion derived above about the nature of apocalyptic thought in relation to the world as a unified system. “Today,” writes Wallerstein, “there is only one social system” (Wallerstein, 1984, p165).

For Wallerstein, the unifying process of world history is historical capitalism, a concrete, temporal, spatial, integrated locus of productive activities for exchange. The endless accumulation of capital is the objective governing the fundamental economic activity. Other operative and influential forces exist, but in the end, the ceaseless drive of capital accumulation predominates. It is a social system in which those who operate by its rules have such a great impact that they create the conditions which force others to conform to the patterns or suffer the consequences. The enforcers of the system of historical capitalism move towards ever increasing intransigence, and the penetration of the rules of capital accumulation is ever greater. The genesis of the system is located in late fifteenth century Europe, and by the nineteenth century the system had covered the entire globe.

The World-System consists of a series of commodity chains whose direction is from the periphery and semi-periphery states to the core states. Through a system of unequal exchange and worldwide division of labor, the core states are continually devising strategies to extract the surplus value of the periphery. Despite the obvious inequalities of the system its processes have remained remarkably hidden for hundreds of years by a self-justifying ideology of progress. The system depends on the formation of competing states. The structural pressures of the system militate against the formation of a world state. Whenever one or two states threaten to transform the interstate system into a world empire, new alliances are formed to prevent this from occurring. Nevertheless, when capitalism faces serious crises which develop into war, the wars are often followed by the emergence of a hegemonic state from the core group. This state becomes the most powerful of the core states, all vying with each other to benefit most from the system of capital accumulation and the appropriation of surplus value. There have been three examples of hegemony in the history of capitalism. In the mid seventeenth century the hegemonic state was the Netherlands, in the nineteenth century it was Great Britain, and after the Second World War (part of a thirty years war according to Wallerstein) it is the United States. The hegemonic state uses various forms of coercion to persuade the world-system to operate in such a way as to maximize its own advantage.

In addition to states striving and jostling for a hegemonic role, other states and movements resist the pressures of the system, and these are termed “anti-systemic” movements. The most significant anti-systemic movements in the history of the capitalist world-system have been Marxist states and regimes.

For Wallerstein, historical capitalism is “a patently absurd system”, accumulating capital in order to accumulate capital (Wallerstein, 1983, p40). Seen as a whole the system possesses the “characteristics of an organism” (Wallerstein, 1974, p347). Far from realizing any goals of liberty, equality and fraternity, it is a system which has reduced these ideals. If anyone should argue that industrial workers are better off now than workers have been at any time in the history of the world, Wallerstein replies that industrial workers are only a small proportion of the world’s population. “The overwhelming proportion of the world’s workforces, who live in rural zones or move between them and the urban slums, are worse off than their ancestors 500 years ago” (Wallerstein, 1983, p101).

In sum, the world-system of historical capitalism is the shape of the one social system which has evolved in order to transform the natural world into utilizable form. Unfortunately it is a system where part of the process, the accumulation of capital, has become the ultimate purpose of the system, utilizing the human social capacity to transform the world for this end. The system began to develop in late fifteenth century Europe and from there it spread throughout the entire world. It progresses by alternating cycles of expansion and stagnation. “These cycles,” writes Wallerstein, “have involved fluctuations of such significance and regularity that it is hard not to believe that they are intrinsic to the workings of the system. They seem… to be the breathing mechanism of the capitalist organism, inhaling the purifying oxygen and exhaling the poisonous waste” (Wallerstein, 1983, p34). This “organism” possesses a core of several states and a hegemonic state which is currently the United States. This hegemonic state achieved its power with remarkable rapidity moving from the periphery to the dominant core power in less than 200 years. Attacks on the “organism” by the anti-systemic states have not reduced the system’s vitality. The system always applies pressure for their reincorporation into the world-system. The whole system creates excessive wealth for core elites, and massive poverty and exploitation for the majority of the world’s population located in the periphery. Nevertheless, a persuasive and powerful ideology coupled with technological and military skill enable the system to persist despite its negativities and contradictions.


In Revelation 12-14, the mythological characterization of the eschatological age symbolizes the destiny of Israel and the fate of the nations, as one would expect in apocalyptic literature. While Israel is exiled from Jerusalem the Gentile nations develop a unified world-system. The system is inspired by the dragon, thrown to earth as a consequence of the Atonement. Israel’s exile is for a predetermined period of time after which, presumably, there will be a return to Jerusalem – another common feature of the destiny of Israel in apocalyptic literature. Historical reality in terms of Jewish history coheres with one part of the mythological pattern. Wallerstein’s theoretical model of the world-system coheres with the mythological portrayal of the comprehensive, unified, world-system, and Weber’s thesis on the Protestant influence in the emergence of capitalism coheres with the mythological portrayal of the origins and inspiration of the system. Given these elements of coherence, historical and theoretical, it is possible to develop the test by suggesting further correlations.

Wallerstein maintains that the world-system is one social system operating one world-economy. Historical capitalism is an anarchy of production to fulfill the requirements of capital accumulation rather than production for the fulfillment of human needs. It should be noted that the beast from the sea in Rev.13, which owes its origin to a conflation of the four beasts of Dan.7, possesses seven heads but only one mouth – an unrealistic visual image. In other words, the comprehensive system speaks one language, the language of capital accumulation. The heads are part of a larger whole and cannot express themselves apart from the whole system. It is not surprising that these images in Revelation should have attracted the attention of Marx in his efforts to convey the reality of historical capitalism.3

There are other suggestions for testing the plausibility of the mythological pattern. It was stated above that the mortal wound sustained by one of the heads of the beast from the sea was a recapitulation of part of the Eve/serpent conflict in Genesis. Given the world-system model of historical capitalism as a correlation with this symbol in Rev.13, then the mortal wound which recovered would presumably have something to do with an anti-systemic thrust that failed. The predominant historical threat to the capitalist world-system has been the existence and expansion of Marxist states and regimes throughout the world. Communist ideology aimed for the eventual overthrow of the capitalist system. If historical world development is to correlate with the symbolic pattern of the eschatological age then one would predict the eventual total collapse of world communism and the integration of former communist states into the world-economy. In the earliest draft of this essay (1987) this was a bold prediction.

To counteract anti-systemic threats there are also forces of cohesion located in the core states. Among the core states there is usually one hegemonic state, and this role is presently occupied by the United States, the most powerful state in the history of the world. Its function as the hegemonic power is to continue to sustain political and economic structures required by the system of capital accumulation. Therefore, pursuing the test for coherence and correlation, the mythical pattern in Rev.13 presents the specific function of the beast from the earth as that of drawing attention to the beast from the sea in order to coerce acceptance of that power. In the mythology it does so by performing marvelous signs and by maintaining economic control (13:17). The commitment of the hegemonic state to economic control can be gauged, for example, by the size of the US commitment in the Gulf War. This war prevented a peripheral state from gaining monopoly control over the vital raw material, oil. The war also demonstrated some of the latest technical achievements, and it does not take a great leap of the imagination to visualize demonstrations of warfare and defense systems making “fire come down from heaven in the sight of men”(13:13).

Turning to the derivation of the image of the beast from the earth, it was seen above as a recapitulation of the primordial myth of the creation of Adam from the earth, the counterpart of the heavenly “second Adam.” And from chapter 17 a possible echo of the creation of Eve from the side of Adam was suggested. To conclude the test for coherence, historical correlations with the mythic pattern would be the dramatic rise from a sparsely populated land in the “external arena” of the world-system to first the periphery, and then within 200 years to the dominant core power. Second, the massive waves of immigration initially from the European core states illustrate how the “eighth is of the seven.”


If the world-system paradigm of historical capitalism, the fact of US hegemony and its relation to the world-system, the anti-systemic thrust of Communism and its eventual collapse, and the survival of the Jewish race and the return to Israel and Jerusalem, and the thesis that Protestant Christianity provided the initial impetus for the development of the historical system of capitalism, could be transposed into mythological language, the mythological drama of Rev. 12 and 13 would not be inadequate. If also it is recalled that the historical principle behind the derivation of the symbols of Rev. 12 and 13 and their original relation to contemporary events illustrate how the eschatological age is a recapitulation of the protological age, then it is possible to understand how the rhetorical situation can recur. It recurs when depictions of the real world conform to the mythological pattern as presented in the central section of Revelation which encompasses the soteriological age.

However, it must be remembered that this possible recurrence of the rhetorical situation depends on the validity of the world-system paradigm as an accurate conceptual basis of world development. And Wallerstein’s theory has been criticized in various ways. The main critiques seek to undermine the claim of the pervasive nature of the system by eliminating geographical areas. The most obvious one centered on the idea that there were two world-systems, the capitalist and the Communist systems, but the collapse of command economies, largely due to the increasing pressures of the world-system over anti-systemic thrusts, adds weight to Wallerstein’s theory. Another critique which seeks to eliminate geographical areas is the dispute over Wallerstein’s definition of capitalism. It should not be defined in terms of exchange, argue some critics, but rather in terms of production. Wallerstein’s defense of his theory centers on the argument that if labor is producing surplus value then it does not matter whether it is free labor in the core states or coerced labor in the periphery, it is still part of the one system. A third criticism of world-system analysis argues that it is over-deterministic, and leads to fatalism and resignation, and portrays a system so tightly knit that it seems impossible to break out of it. Behind this type of criticism one senses the imputation of non-scientific motives for the exercise of a scientific sociological study of the modern world, and it is of a similar nature to theological arguments of previous centuries which condemned scientific enquiry as heresy. Ironically, the existence of this criticism suggests a correlation between the world-system model and the mythical symbol, for of the beast it was questioned: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”(13:4).

Although Wallerstein’s theoretical model provides an interesting correlation with the mythological pattern, his predictions for the future of the world-system diverge from the pattern. In Christian apocalyptic the ultimate development of a fallen human species is conceived as one where the majority of people have little or no freedom over their life activity. The system becomes so tightly knit and oppressive that only the coming of the Messiah, the return of the Risen Lord, will release the species from bondage. Wallerstein, by contrast, rejects the Jewish and Christian religious vision because it has been revealed to him that the coming of the Messiah, the second coming of Christ… is not a historical prospect, but a current mythology. Socialism, by contrast, is a realizable historical system which may one day be instituted in the world (Wallerstein, 1983, p109).


The historical principle which Revelation shares with apocalyptic literature consists of a re-presentation of archetypal images and a strong suspicion that contemporary events fit the predetermined pattern. Fiorenza is correct when she argues that the images are not fully reducible to essential substance applicable ahistorically. But they are re-applicable, and if this were not the case the writer of Revelation would not have gathered together the four eschatological beasts of Dan.7 and sought to re-apply them to the contemporary situation. The same process is evident in IV Ezra 11 and 12 where images from Dan.7 are re-applied and re-interpreted, possibly contemporary with Revelation in the reign of Domitian. However, Fiorenza’s concept of a re-occurring rhetorical situation remains an ahistorical concept because no clues are derived from the text regarding the writer’s depiction of the world-system. In the final analysis her interpretation does not seem to be an improvement on “essentialism” because of its lack of specificity. Fundamentalism must be interpreted as a reaction against essentialist and historical zeitgeschichtlich approaches to Revelation and its existence illuminates an area of neglect in mainstream Christianity. Fiorenza’s interpretation of Revelation really only specifies the sorts of conditions where fundamentalist positivist interpretations are likely to flourish. History has supplied plenty of examples of extreme literalist interpretations of Revelation in response to persecution and oppression. The literature becomes meaningful to the group but is it a correct interpretation of the text?

In order to determine what constitutes a re-occurrence of the rhetorical situation it is necessary to establish the historical principle of Revelation. The rhetorical situation will recur when a rational presentation of historical development discovers tangents of coherence with the mythical pattern of the historical development of Israel and the Nations, of Exile/Return and the World-System. The original interpretation of Revelation 12-14 hints at the possibility of correlation between the Roman Empire as an all-pervasive and integrated social system and the recapitulation of the ancient beast of chaos. History has shown that this identification was premature but it has not invalidated the mythical characterization of the eschatological age. And now, when history has unfurled part of the mythological schema, and when a social science documents the construction of a comprehensive, tightly knit world-system, it is a legitimate exercise to test for the possibility of correlations between the symbolism of the eschatological age and contemporary depictions of historical and sociological development.

The value of the test presented here depends on the continuing reality of the US world hegemony and the plausibility of Wallerstein’s model as a construal of the real world. But if US hegemony collapsed, or if Wallerstein’s paradigm proved unrealistic, the apocalyptic method of mythologically characterizing the eschatological age would not be impugned. It would simply mean concluding that, as with previous generations, historical events had moved beyond contemporary appropriation. However, while these particular conditions exist, the eschatological urgency imparted by the text continues to be a vivid reality.

1 This is A M Farrer’s calculation in, A Rebirth of Images, London, 1949.

2 For example, see the article by Terence K Hopkins, “The Study of the Capitalist World-Economy” in, World-System Analysis: Theory and Methodology, New York, 1982, pp9,10.

3 For Marx’s fascination with the beasts of Revelation, see Grundrisse (Harmondsworth, 1973) p237 and Capital Vol I (Harmondsworth, 1976) p181.


Bauckham, R. (1993) The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge)

Breuggemann, W. (1991) “At the mercy of Babylon” in JBL 110/1 (1991)

Charles, R. H. (1920) The Revelation of St. John Vol I (Edinburgh)

Collins, A. Y. (1975) The Combat Myth in the Book of Revelation (Missoula)

Collins, J. J. (1977) The Apocalyptic Vision of the Book of Daniel (Missoula)

Court, J. M. (1979) Myth and History in the Book of Revelation (London)

Fiorenza, E. S. (1985) The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (Philadelphia)

Smith, J. Z. (1983) “Wisdom and apocalyptic” in Hanson, P. D. (ed) Visionaries and their Apocalypses (Philadelphia)

Von Rad, G (1975) Old Testament Theology Vol I (London)

Wallerstein, I. (1974) The Modern World-System (New York)

Wallerstein, I. (1984) Politics of the World-Economy (Cambridge)

Wallerstein, I. (1983) Historical Capitalism (London)

ã Ken Durkin

September 1993

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