The Vision of the Woman and the Scarlet Beast (17:1-7)
The angel promises to show John the punishment of the great prostitute (v. 1) with whom the kings of the earth committed adultery (v. 2). The angel's language, focusing on the prostitute's punishment, confirms the notion that the vision extends beyond chapter 17 through 19:10. Her punishment is not specified until 17:16, and it then goes on to occupy chapter 18 and the beginning of chapter 19. The angel begins by carrying John in the Spirit to a desert, where he is shown a kind of tableau, or still life, of the woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns (v. 3). The beast is recognizable from an earlier vision (13:1), but the center of the tableau is the seated woman, who is dressed in purple and . . . glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls (v. 4). She is a picture of wealth, extravagance, luxury and ease. John's attention is intently focused on this woman, and he identifies her by the name written on her forehead: BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH (v. 5). This name, he tells us, is a mystery. He has used the name "Babylon" before (14:8; 16:19), but now he explains that it is a figurative or symbolic name, like "Sodom and Egypt" applied earlier to the city where the two witnesses died (11:8).
The corruption of the woman is evident both in the angel's first mention of her (vv. 1-2) and in John's own observation (vv. 4-6). She is the great prostitute (v. 1) and the mother of prostitutes (v. 5), the latter probably in the sense that she deceived or led other cities astray. Her adulteries are compared to wine, with which the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated (v. 2; compare 14:8). John sees in her hand a golden cup . . . filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries (v. 4). He sees too that she herself is drunk, not with wine and adulteries, but with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus (v. 6). She is the evil genius behind those on earth who "shed the blood of your saints and prophets" and have been given blood to drink (16:6). The fierce rhetoric of John's vision is directed not against the woman's wealth, laziness, or luxurious living, nor against her drunkenness or prostitution. These characteristics are noted, but the vision's real target is the woman's deception of the earth (v. 2), and above all her violence against the people of God (v. 6). In this sense her crimes match those of the dragon (12:9, 17) and the beast (13:7-9).
Only rarely in his visions does John express emotion at what he sees. He collapsed at the feet of the figure who appeared to him in 1:17 and was told, "Do not be afraid." He began to weep bitterly (5:4-5) when "no one was found worthy to open the scroll or look into it" and was told, "Do not weep." Here he is greatly astonished at what he has just seen (v. 6), and the angel asks him, "Why are you astonished?" In each instance John's emotion is calmed and corrected by a heavenly being of some kind (compare also 19:10; 22:9).
What exactly is the emotion here? H. B. Swete (1908:218) defined it as sheer surprise: "The Seer had been invited to see the downfall of Babylon; the angel had offered to shew him her sentence executed. He expected to see a city in ruins. But instead of this there had risen before him on the floor of the desert the picture of a woman gilded, jewelled, splendidly attired, mounted on a scarlet monster, drunk with blood. It was a complete surprise. Who was this woman?" Tina Pippin (1992:57) describes it as something more akin to lust. "The narrator of the Apocalypse of John relates a marvelous feeling on encountering the Whore of Babylon. The female has seductive power. The desire of the male who views her erotic power is brought quickly under control by the angel: `Why are you so amazed?'"
Pippin is correct that John is being seduced here, yet John's language suggests that he sees Babylon first of all not as a seductive woman, but as a city, "the great city" of 16:19. A man can be "astonished" or "amazed" at the splendor of a world metropolis, but in the case of a sexually alluring woman, "astonishment" is not the right word! The Greek text says, literally, "And seeing her I marveled a great marvel." The archaic accents of the King James Version capture the meaning quite well: "and when I saw her I wondered with great admiration." A man may lust after a prostitute, but rarely "admires" her. John is on the brink of yielding to temptation, but the temptation is not sexual. John's astonishment is more dangerous than that, for it is closer to worship. It recalls the earlier account in which "the whole world was astonished and followed the beast" (13:3; see Caird 1966:214). John is taken in by the beast as much as by the woman. It is not "erotic power" that momentarily beguiles him, but the power and wealth and magnificence that ruled the world in which he lived. Seductive? Yes. Erotic? No.
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