Then, when the dragon saw that he had been cast out onto the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male.
And the women was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she could fly into the wilderness, into her place where she is being nourished for a time and a time and half of a time, from the presence of the serpent.
So the serpent spewed out of his mouth water like a torrent after the woman, so that she be carried away by the torrent.
But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened up its mouth and swallowed the torrent which the dragon had cast out of its mouth, so the dragon was provoked to anger over the woman, and departed to make war with the rest of her offspring, the ones keeping the Law of God and having the witness of Jesus.
And he stood upon the sand of the sea.Revelation 12:13-18
It is the final scene in the dragon’s three-act narrative, and as you might expect, there are a variety of ways to understand John’s vision.
Some theologians who look to historical fulfillment see the
Fleeing woman: as the church waning in fervor and faithfulness soon after Constantine officially established the Roman church.
Two wings: as Emperor Diocletian’s division of the Roman Empire in 285 CE into eastern and western portions. Both came under the protection of their governors.
Dragon’s River: as Emperors Constantius II (337-361) and Valens (364-378), the first king of Italy Odoacer (c. 443 – 493), the Goths and the Vandals. All persecuted the Roman Church until they disappeared from history (the earth symbolically swallowing them up).
Woman’s Offspring: as those who subscribed to doctrine considered orthodox by the Roman church, which came under severe opposition during the various early church-wide Councils. Blood was shed, martyrs made, even kings and popes threatened by those seeking to alter or undermine the church.
Other commentators shift their view to the Roman Catholic Church itself, positing the dragon’s strategy as now seeking to corrupt and destroy from within rather than from without. In this scenario, the fleeing woman is literally the fleeing early church fathers and mothers who took to the desert in the form of hermitages, which eventually became monasteries and convents. They had quickly recognized the dangers of a state-sanctioned, -organized, and -run religion, and the departure of their piety drained the church of true faith.
Such expositors liken a time and a time and half of a time to the one thousand, two hundred and sixty days found earlier in the passage (Revelation 12:6). Each day equals a year, counted from perhaps 254 – 1514 CE, and represents the severe persecution of the true church—a mere remnant found in such movements as the Waldenses and the Albigenses—until the commencement of the Reformation.
Because the dragon could not destroy the Church itself, it sought to destroy individual believers. But God prevailed in miraculously protecting this remnant, and the ember of truth the dragon tried so hard to extinguish.
During the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, Judean believers escaped the Roman siege and sacking of Jerusalem by actually fleeing into the wilderness and finding shelter in the surrounding hills.
Eagle’s wings: make reference to God’s protection of the Hebrews in their own flight into the wilderness during the Exodus.
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”God, Exodus 19:4 (NRSV, emphasis mine)
John’s oracle would have brought to mind other passages describing God’s power over the dragon—”you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters” and saying of Pharoah, “you are like a dragon in the seas.”
In general, then, the imagery recalls Israel being lifted up by God, escaping Egypt and being nurtured and nourished in the wilderness. Pharaoh’s attempts to destroy the people of God began with drowning countless Hebrew infant males in the River Nile, then pursuing them into the Red Sea. Yet God prevailed over Pharoah, turning both the Nile and the Red Sea against him, to his doom. In the same way, John’s vision reassured first century Christians God would save them too.
Seen in this way,
- the woman is the Judean Church, the dragon is the dark spiritual force at work in the Roman and Edomite invasion of Jerusalem.
- the dragon’s flood is the Roman fury that slaughtered what was left of the Jewish rebellion, and that tore the temple apart, stone from stone.
- fleeing brought the church into the safety of the wilderness until the dragon’s rage was spent.
- the rest of the woman’s offspring become non-Jewish Christians who were swept up into the persecution of the church. They are, in a way, the “sheep of another fold” that Jesus spoke of.
All this happens within the “short time” Satan knew he had, and that Daniel also referenced.
As I looked, that horn made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them, until the Ancient One came …Daniel 7:21-22 (NRSV)
Interpreters who see a future fulfilment tend not to read this chapter as a linear narrative, but rather as an interrupted account with bracketed historical material inserted by way of explaining the character and background of the dragon. Seen in this light, this final scene is really a continuation, and in some ways reiteration of the woman’s flight to her desert oasis.
Some new details are given, however.
The two eagle’s wings are perhaps indicative of an impressive humanitarian effort to airlift the Jewish people—who will be under bitter persecution by the Antichrist—to the relative safety of the ancient city of Petra, a sanctuary in the wilderness. Because the American bald eagle has long been recognized as the national symbol for the United States, it could be the airlift will be provided by US aircraft stationed in the Mediterranean.
Like preterist scholars, futurist writers reference God’s imagery of eagle’s wings in lifting up the people of God to safety.
As an eagle
- stirs up its nest
- and hovers over its young,
- as it spreads its wings,
- takes them up,
- and bears them aloft on its pinions,
the Lord alone guided him;Deuteronomy 32:11-12 (NRSV, modifications mine)
no foreign god was with him.
God lifted up God’s people during the Exodus, again during the siege of Jerusalem, and will one more time lift up the people of God to safety, succor, and sustenance during the Tribulation.
Some theologians spiritualize the meaning to indicate spiritual preservation in the face of physical persecution and martyrdom.
The flood: is understood as either
- an actual onslaught of water released from its sluice with the purpose of drowning refugees who are hiding in desert camps,
- or an onslaught of false and evil teaching which sweeps people away from the Gospel,
- or a substantial horde of armed forces sent by the Beast to pour into the desert in search of Jewish escapees.
If a flood of water or soldiers, then many interpreters expect the earth to physically open up as it did during Korah’s rebellion, to swallow up Satan’s river.
John’s vision illustrates the futility of Satan’s fury, for he has lost all authority and has no dominion over earth. Because he cannot destroy the Son, the dragon turns his attention to the annihilation of the woman, the church, and the rest of the woman’s offspring.
The eagle’s wings, as has been discussed, are scriptural imagery for God’s rescue and care, and God’s protection in particular times of persecution.
Perhaps John gives a specific time-frame as reassurance that God will limit the worst of it—as we have seen in the massacres of Christians in times past. Or, perhaps this is given in reference to the days of Elijah, quoted by both Luke and James, when God stopped the rain in judgment.
Satan’s flood could either be
- all the people of the world,
- or a constant stream of deceptive alternatives to the truth, in keeping with the Serpent’s original deception in the Garden of Eden.
Because the entire cosmos cooperates with God, beleaguered believers know that despite their suffering and martyrdom, yet will God save them.
The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views A Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg