Revelation 12.1-18

 

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2) Dragon-Satan-Devil and his predicted ouster from Heaven

We need not pause over the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, Death, and his companion Hades (Rev. 6.8), whom we have considered before (chap. 2.3 above), except to say that they appear as agents in a vision of future destruction upon the earth that is sanctioned by the Lamb of God.

 

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We may give some consideration to other non-Satanic figures involved in future catastrophes, namely, two Stars that are envisaged as having fallen from the sky to earth.  One of them is called Wormwood, after the bitter drug of that name, which poisons a third of the rivers and springs of the world (Rev. 8.10-11).  The other Star is clearly an Angelic figure, because he is given the key to the Bottomless Abyss, and later seems to be identified as the Angel of the Bottomless Abyss, whose Hebrew name is Abaddon, “Destruction,” and whose Greek name is Apollyon, “Destroyer” (Rev. 9.1, 11).

Abaddon is “King” of some beings called Locusts, who must be gigantic, since they are like armored horses, having scorpionic tails and crowned human heads with women’s hair and lions’ teeth.  These nasty figures are programmed not to harm any foliage of the earth but only people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.  Such persons are to be tortured by them for five months, but not killed.  Their designated victims will long to die, and not be able to, for Death will flee from them (Rev. 9.3-10).

A singular monster from the Bottomless Abyss, known handily as “the Beast from the Bottomless Abyss,” will emerge to cause trouble (Rev. 11.7), as will the same or another such Beast later (Rev. 17.8), but neither has a stated connection with Satan.

Satan comes into the picture in chapter 12, though it is not obvious at first that we are dealing with Satan.  Rather the talk is of a great Dragon.  At this point, Dear Reader, I must ask you to put aside everything that you have heard about dragons, and everything that you think that you know about them.1  A dragon in the ancient world was simply a large serpent, whether a land-serpent or a sea-serpent.  It had no legs or feet.  Now and then dragons with wings were to be found, but not usually.  So why do we think of dragons as having legs?  No, the idea did not come from Chinese “dragons.”

 

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What happened is this.  During the European Middle Ages, starting in the eleventh century, all serpents began to be portrayed in the visual arts as being bipeds or quadrupeds, and also as having bird-feathers and bird-wings and dog-heads and dog-ears.  Why did this happen?  Who knows?  Some sort of hidden and unexplainable pictorial evolutionary force was at work.  As these painted and sculpted serpents evolved, some of them developed human heads instead of canine heads.  It was widely thought that Satan used a woman-headed serpent to persuade Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.  The most famous example of the womanized Eden Serpent is Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel—she is practically all woman, except that her legs end in serpentine coils.

Eventually, artists came to their senses, literally.  When they took their eyes off paintings and sculptures and looked around them, every real serpent that they saw lacked the artistic appendages they were endowed with in the realm of artificial images.  The trouble is, none of them ever spotted a dragon, with the result that dragons kept their feet, wings, dog-heads, and so on, and they retain them to this day.  The English word “dragon,” and its equivalents in other European languages, was imposed on the creatures of Chinese fantasy because, what else, they clearly look like dragons!

So, when a great dragon appears in the sky in John’s vision, let’s listen carefully to what John actually says he sees:

Then another great portent (semeion) appeared in the sky:  a Great Red Dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.  His tail swept down a third of the stars of the sky.  (Rev. 12.3)

Let’s list the results:

1) Item, fiery-red skin.

2) Item, seven heads.

3) Item, ten horns (meaning that some of the heads are unicornal; e.g., 4 unicornal,3 bicornal.  Other possibilities:  5 unicorns, 2 bicorns, 1 tricorn; or 6 unicorns and 1 quadricorn).

 

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4) Item, seven crowns.

5) Item, a great big tail.

6) Item, wings?  Optional:  maybe, but not necessarily.  The first portent that John sees in the sky, before the appearance of the Dragon, is an enormous Woman clothed with the Sun, crowned with the twelve Stars of the Zodiac, and with the Moon beneath her feet (Rev. 12.1).  She does not need wings until later, when she is given “the two wings of the great eagle” (v. 14).

It has always been obvious that John’s Dragon and his subsequent Beasts are based on the four great Beasts-from-the-Sea of the Book of Daniel, chapter 7:

1)  Beast-from-the-Sea no. 1:  Like a lion; with eagle’s wings (the wings are then plucked off and it stands up like a man and gets a human mind).

2)  Beast-from-the-Sea no. 2:  Like a bear; with three tusks.

3)  Beast-from-the-Sea no. 3:  Like a leopard; with four bird-wings and four heads.

4)  Beast-from-the-Sea no. 4:  Unlike the others; with iron teeth and ten horns, and feet (number unspecified); an eleventh horn appears, while three of the ten are plucked out; the new horn has humanlike eyes and a mouth given over to arrogant speech.  (Dan. 7.3-8)

Moreover, Red Dragon’s subsequent fight with Michael is inspired by Michael’s fight with the “General” of the Kingdom of Persia, that is, the Angelic Governor and Defender of that country (Dan. 10.13, 20).  However, none of Daniel’s Beasts is a dragon, although the fourth one starts out with ten horns.

John’s Great Red Dragon, therefore, would more readily conjure up the sea-monster Leviathan.  God’s question to Job, “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?” (Job 41.1) is rendered in the Greek Septuagint, “Can you draw out Dragon with a fishhook? (LXX Job 40.25).  And Isaiah says, “On that day Yahweh with His cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan, the fleeing serpent (nahash),

 

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Leviathan, the twisting serpent (nahash), and He will kill the monster (tannin) that lives in the sea” (Isa. 27.1).  In Greek it reads, “On that day God will plunge His holy and great and strong sword into Dragon, the fleeing serpent, into Dragon, the twisting serpent, and He will destroy Dragon” (LXX Isa. 27.1).

In Psalm 74, the monster appears with multiple heads:  “You broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.  You crushed the heads of Leviathan” (Ps. 74.13-14).  In the Septuagint, the last line reads, “You crushed the heads of Dragon” (LXX Ps. 73.14).

Other mythical dragons could also have contributed their DNA to John’s monster:  notably the Red Dragon Set in Egypt, who pursues the Goddess Isis and is eventually slain by her son, Horus; and the Greek Dragon Python, who attempts to kill Zeus’s son Apollo and his mother Leto and who is killed by Apollo.

But when picturing John’s Red Dragon, we would do best, I suggest, to concentrate on the obvious Alexandrian Jewish Scriptures and imagine a supersized Biblical combination of a sea-serpent, part multi-headed Dragon-Leviathan and part ten-horned beast, now red-skinned and air-borne, like a great Constellation in the sky, to match the comprehensive Constellation of the Woman.  This Draconic Constellation combines the existing Constellations of Draco, Serpens, and Hydra (the last-named having multiple heads).

When Red Dragon sweeps down a third of the stars with his tail, it parallels the devastation caused when the Fourth Angel blew his trumpet:  “a third of the sun was struck, and a third of the moon, and a third of the stars” (Rev. 8.12).

Right in the middle of the visionary account of the conflict between Red Dragon and the Woman, there is inserted an account of the fight between the Dragon (now identified as, or with, Satan) and the Angel Michael:

And war broke out in Heaven.  Michael and his Angels fought against Dragon.  Dragon and his Angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven.

 

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Dragon the Great was thrown down, that Ancient Serpent, who is called Devil and Satan, the one deceiving the whole inhabited world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his Angels were thrown down with him.  (Rev. 12.7-9)

It has been common to interpret the appellation, “that Ancient Serpent”– literally, “the Serpent, the Ancient One” (ho Ophis, ho Archaios)as referring to the Serpent of the Garden of Eden.

One reason for this identification has been the assumption that Satan was already identified with the Eden Serpent, and that everyone was thinking about the sin of Adam.  However, as I have shown above, St. Paul is the only New Testament writer who makes a big deal, or any deal at all, out of Adam’s sin, and even he doesn’t implicate Satan in this sin.

Another reason for identifying the Red Dragon of the Apocalypse with the Eden Serpent has been the false inference that dragons and serpents were different genera or species of being.  Not so, as we have seen:  the Leviathan Dragon in the Septuagint is just as much a snake, ophis, as the upright garden-serpent of Genesis.  And since there is as much difference between Great Red Dragon and the talking Eden Serpent as there is between a Great Dane and a Chihuahua, the odds are against the ID.  Besides, the fate of the Eden Serpent was to go upon his belly and to eat dust all the days of his life (Gen. 3.14).

Another consideration is that this Ancient Serpent is said to deceive the whole Oikumene, the “lived-in” world, whereas the Eden Serpent went to work on Eve when she and Adam made up the entire human population of the newly formed earth.  Of course, readers who identify Red Dragon with the Eden Serpent understand “deceiving the whole world” to mean that Satan has deceived everyone in the world since the time of Adam.  But the deception mentioned in John’s vision has the look of referring to current activity.  John may have in mind the activities of the Dragon and his Beastly colleagues after he comes down to earth (more about this later).

 

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Since Red Dragon now has Angels, we are perhaps to think of him as assuming a single-headed anthropomorphic Angelic form during his fight with Michael, just as the fallen Star Abaddon became a key-wielder as Angel of the Bottomless Abyss.  The need to abandon the “portentous” fiction of the Great Red Dragon for a fully anthropomorphic form is even stronger when the semeion is interrupted for a proclamation, which informs us about what Devil’s day-job—and night-job—has been all these years, namely, Chief Prosecutor in the Celestial Court.  In other words, the same position he held in the Septuagint version of the Book of Job and the Book of Zechariah.  Here is the text:

Then I heard a loud voice in Heaven, proclaiming:

“Now has come the salvation and the force (dunamis) and the kingdom of our God and the power (exousia) of His Christ.  For the Accuser (ho Kategor) of our brothers has been thrown, the one accusing (ho kategoron) them day and night before our God.  They have triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the Word to which they bore witness, because they did not prefer their life to death.  So let the heavens rejoice and all who live there.

“But woe to the earth and sea, for Devil has come down to you with great anger, knowing that he has little time.”

(Rev. 12.10-12)

The passage that I put in bold type is the most important Biblical text in the whole history of Satan, in my view, because it decisively refutes the theory of a primeval Luciferian fall.  Let me give some other translations.  Here is the version of the NJB:

Now that the Accuser, who accused our brothers day and night before our God, has been brought down.

(NJB Rev. 12.10)

The New RSV makes it gender-inclusive, allowing for sisters as well as brothers:

 

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For the Accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.

(NRSV Rev. 12.10)

Is this notion, that Satan as the Heavenly accuser of the followers of Christ, will be cast out of Heaven only after the shedding of the blood of Christian martyrs, some newly discovered meaning in the Bible, recently brought out by fresh translations?  Not at all.  Here is the King James Version (1611):

For the Accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.

(KJV Rev. 12.10)

Let’s go back further.  Here is the Latin Vulgate version (ca. A.D. 400):

Quia projectus est Accusator fratrum nostrorum, qui accusabat illos ante conspectum Dei nostri die ac nocte.

(LVB Rev. 12.10)

And here is the Douai version of 1582, which translates the Vulgate:

Because the Accuser of our brethren is cast forth, who accused them before the sight of our God day and night.

(DR Rev. 12.10)

The facts are inescapable:  Satan has remained in his position as heavenly Accuser of humans since the time of Job and Zechariah’s vision.  He has continued to exercise this function through the present and into the future, adding Christians (“our brothers”) to his list of defendants.  But eventually he will be ousted from his position.2  The ouster is described in two ways.  First, as the outcome of a battle between Michael and Satan in his serpentine guise.  Second, as the outcome of a court-trial, in which the Accuser’s charges are decisively refuted by two kinds of evidence:  A) the Blood of the Lamb; and B) the testimony of witnesses (marturoi, “martyrs”), presumably the defendants themselves, the very “brothers” who were being accused.

 

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The reference to the Blood of the Lamb might suggest that the victory took place at the time of the crucifixion of Christ.  But there were as yet no testimonies of martyrs.  Just the opposite, in fact:  the Gospels make it clear that none of the followers of Christ suffered with him.  This, then, is decisive proof that Satan’s defeat is taken as occurring in the future.

Still, it seems odd that the flow of the narrative about Dragon is interrupted.  One solution that is popular with scholars is that verses 10-12 are a redactional interpolation, not by some later author, but by John himself.3  This means that after setting out the defeat of Dragon as coinciding with the death and resurrection of Jesus, John changed his mind and now specifies that the removal of Satan from heaven would occur sometime after a significant number of martyrs had suffered in the name of Christ.  “Paul” can be seen to undergo a similar change of mind.  In First Thessalonians Paul believed that the Lord would return during his own lifetime (1 Thess. 4.15-17).  But in Second Thessalonians, written after Paul’s death by someone pretending to be Paul, the delay in the Lord’s coming is explained, as we have seen above (chap. 5.1):  the Man of Lawlessness must first come (2 Thess. 2.2-3).

No matter how the text of Revelation finally was set and received, the result of the victory of the brothers is that Satan is totally discredited and removed from his official forensic position.  All that is left to him is to continue his efforts on the terrestrial level to discredit and disqualify humans from being accepted as virtuous and faithful servants of God.

But in spite of this clear proof that Satan’s ouster from Heaven has not yet happened, most readers of the Bible eventually came to believe that the fight of Satan with Michael has not only already taken

 

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place, but actually took place before the beginning of time.  Such is the power of “eisegetical prejudice,” the ability to read what we wish into given texts.

* * *

After the account of the Red Dragon’s ouster from the sky is interrupted by the forensic account of the Accuser and his termination as Accuser, the story of the Draconic Satan is resumed.  Having been thrown out of Heaven, he now persecutes the Church on Earth:

So when Dragon saw that he had been thrown down to Earth, he pursued the Woman who had given birth to the Man-Child.  But the Woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the Serpent into the wilderness. . . .  Then from his mouth the Serpent poured water like a river after the Woman. . . .  But Earth came to the help of the Woman, for Earth opened her mouth and swallowed the river that Dragon had poured from his mouth.  Then Dragon was angry with the Woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.  (Rev. 12.13-17)

We note here that “Dragon” and “Serpent” are interchangeable.  We also note that Dragon-Serpent has a great supply of water in him, perhaps reflecting Leviathan’s original habitat.

In our chapter on St. Paul (chap. 3.2), we discussed whether St. Paul’s reference to crushing the head of Satan (Rom 16.20) referred to the prophecy of Genesis 3.15 about the relationship between the Serpent and Eve, and we have to ask the same question here about the Dragon and the Woman.  The connection has often been taken for granted.  For one thing, the birth-pangs experienced by the Woman in the sky (Rev. 12.2) can easily be related to the curse upon Eve (Gen. 3.16).  But the Dragon’s pursuit of her does not resemble the predicted stand-off between human heel and serpentine head.

 

6.2          1On the evolution of serpents (including dragons), see my essay, “The Metamorphoses of the Eden Serpent during the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” Viator 2 (l97l) 30l-327.

                2On Satan’s contest with Michael as a forensic defeat and the termination of Satan’s juridical appointment in the Heavenly Court, see G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (London 1966), pp. 152-57.

                3On the idea that Revelation 12.10-12 (specifying that Satan’s removal from his post of heavenly Accuser occurs only after he has made accusations against Christian martyrs) is an interpolation by John himself, see David E. Aune, Revelation, 3 vols., Word Biblical Commentary 52A-C (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997-98), 2:702-03.