Identifying the Sea Beast of Revelation
(Berean Bible Conference, April 2019)
Copyright © Robert E. Cruickshank April 24, 2019
Nero as the Beast (PPT Slide 1)
It has been said that the Preterist position stands or falls on the early date of Revelation. Simply put: If the Book of Revelation was not written before AD 70, it cannot be a prophecy about AD 70.
This being said, the extent of Nero Caesar’s role in the Book, and the part it plays in helping to establish a pre-AD 70 date for the writing of the book, cannot be overemphasized. “As all roads lead to Rome,” writes Ken Gentry, “so do they all terminate at Nero Caesar’s palace. …Nero’s specter haunts the pages of Revelation” (BJF, pp. 218-219).
While there is much collaborating evidence to support the early date, this other evidence alone would not establish it apart from the direct evidence stemming from Nero.
Thirty years ago, as I read David Chilton’s commentary on Revelation, The Days of Vengeance, I was blown away as he demonstrated how Nero Ceaser fit the profile of “The Beast” like a hand in a glove. The three most salient points that stood out for me where:
- The forty-two-month war with the holy ones,
- The number of the Beast,
- The Identity of the sixth king.
While I’m sure most everyone here is familiar with these three things, I’ll recount them briefly:
The War with the Holy Ones (PPT Slide 2)
In Revelation 13:1-2, we’re introduced to a seven-headed Beast rising from the sea. In verse 4, the question is asked: “Who is like the Beast, and who is able to make war with him?”
As the chapter proceeds, we’re told that this seven-headed sea beast is given a “mouth to speak arrogant words and blasphemies” and “authority to act for 42 months” (13:5). “And it was given to him to make war with the Holy Ones and to overcome them…” (13:7).
I think most people are familiar with the atrocities committed under Nero. He fed Christians to the lions and burned them at the stake; the original “Roman Candles,” as Chilton says.
According to Church Tradition, both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul died at the hands of Nero. And, as a matter of historical record, Nero’s persecution of the Church, his “war with the Holy Ones” to “overcome them,” lasted exactly 42 months; from the middle of November AD 64 to the beginning of June AD 68.
The Number of the Beast “666” (PPT Slide 3)
In Revelation 13:18, “John’s readers are told: Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.”
In the ancient world, letters served as both letters of the alphabet and numerals in the numbering system. Thus, anyone’s name could be calculated by simply adding up the numerical value of its letters, and there are many examples of this in antiquity. John’s cryptogram, however, was not quite as easy as his readers might at first think. Hence it required “wisdom” and “understanding.” The calculation had to be made in Hebrew, and not Greek. This way, Greek-speaking Roman officials and informants couldn’t easily decode the fact that he was speaking about the Emperor: Nero Ceaser.
The Identity of the Sixth King (PPT Slide 4)
Finally, in revelation Chapter 17, John is told that the seven heads of the Sea Beast are “seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.” The first five Caesars were Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. Nero, the sixth Ceaser was on the throne as John was writing the Book and seeing the vision. The seventh on the list, Galba, had not yet come. When he did, he only remined “a little while;” his reign only lasted six months.
The Date of Revelation (PPT Slide 5)
I’ve briefly touched on the three important points here, and there’s much collaborating evidence for the early date of Revelation. In his book, Before Jerusalem Fell, Ken Gentry really leaves no stone unturned. If you haven’t read it, there’s a free PDF version of the first edition that’s easy enough to find online. The book is currently in its third edition.
To his credit, G.K. Beale is one of the few late date, AD 95-ish, advocates who attempts to interact with Gentry’s arguments. We should always check out both sides of every issue. When you do, I think you’ll find that it’s no exaggeration to say that the evidence for a pre-AD 70 date for the book of Revelation is simply overwhelming.
The Bottom Line is this: Nero’s footprints are all over Revelation. Since Nero played such a prominent role in the prophecy, and he died in AD 68, this places the writing of the Book no later than AD 68 and, hence, before the Destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Revelation 19:20 (PPT Slide 6)
Having said that, Revelation 19:20 presents us with a conundrum of sorts, a “catch 22” for the Preterist. In the context of the passage, the heavens open and Jesus comes on a white horse accompanied by Heavenly armies in the sky (vv. 11-14). We understand this as a reference to Jesus’ coming in judgment in AD 70. Verse 20 sates: “And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.”
Here’s the monkey wrench: If Nero is to be identified with the Beast, and Nero died in AD 68, how is it that the Beast is “seized” in AD 70, and “thrown alive” into the Lake of Fire at that time?
Critics of the Preterist viewpoint waste no time in pointing out the apparent discrepancy. In an article entitled, “Preterism Examined & Refuted,” Charles Campbell uses this apparent inconsistently like a rhetorical weapon. His argument is succinct, to the point, and razor sharp:
“Nero committed suicide two years before preterists say Jesus came back. Preterists believe Jesus’ prophecy about coming back in Matthew 24 was fulfilled in A.D. 70. But Nero committed suicide in June of 68, two years before A.D. 70!”
Likewise, Michael Heiser wonders why “Nero gets mentioned so often…Nero is completely ruled out,” according to Heiser. The Beast’s demise comes “by the hand of Jesus when Jesus returns. That didn’t happen with Nero. It doesn’t describe Nero’s demise by any stretch. So, for the life of me,” continues Heiser, “I don’t know why people are still clinging to Nero …”
So, the very thing we use to clinch the pre-AD 70 date of Revelation, the death of Nero in 68, becomes the means by which futurists discount any identification of Nero with the Beast of Revelation at all. Both sides use the date of Nero’s death, in AD 68, to support their position.
How do we approach this? If the opening three points (the 42-Month War with the Holy Ones, the Number of the Beast, and the Identity of the 6th King) all point to Nero Caesar, Does Revelation 19:20 harmonize with our previous conclusions?
I’ve tried to research how other Preterists attempt to tackle this problem.
Generic vs. Specific Identity of the Beast (PPT Slide 7)
One way to approach this would be to distinguish between the Generic Identity of the Beast (the Roman Empire as a whole), and the Specific Identity of the Beast (Nero, or whichever Emperor was on the throne at any given time). This way, Nero’s death in AD 68 would no longer be an issue. The Roman Empire itself was obviously still around two years later.
The main problem with this is rather obvious: The Romans came out of the Jewish War relatively unscathed. They were the conquerors, not the conquered.
Some argue that the beginnings of the downfall of the Roman Empire can be traced to the Roman-Jewish War but, to place the ultimate fulfillment of any portion of the Book hundreds of years in the future, really goes against the Prophecy’s repeated claim that the prophesied events therein were to “shortly come to pass” (e.g., Rev. 1:1). Terms such as “shortly,” “quickly,” “near,” “at hand,” etc., clearly indicate that the prophesied events were looming on the horizon and imminent when the Book was written.
To say the passage speaks of the “eventual downfall of the Roman Empire” just doesn’t seem plausible.
Jewish Religious Zealots (PPT Slide 8)
Another approach, and this is gaining traction on Preterist websites, is to abandon the position that either Nero or Rome are the referent of the Beast Imagery at all. Instead, the increasingly popular idea is “the Beast” imagery refers to “first century Jewish religious zealots” who persecuted Christians and wanted to overthrow Rome.
The main problem with this is, once again, rather obvious: if we take Nero out of the equation and plug something else into that variable, the answer it yields negates the very reason we’re looking for an AD 70 fulfillment in the first place! In other words, it’s precisely because of Nero’s identification as the Beast that we can date the book as pre-AD 70.
Basically, no one is going to look at the three points I opened with (the 42-Month War with the Holy Ones, the Number of the Beast, and the Identity of the Sixth King) and think: “Wow, this is speaking of first century Jewish religious zealots! This is so obvious!”
There is simply no compelling reason to make that connection. One would only make such a connection if the early date for Revelation is already presupposed. But by eliminating Nero as “the Beast,” our Preterist Brothers who take this approach are now assuming what they are not able to prove. You simply can’t make the case for the early date without Nero. In short, this approach is self-defeating.
If we take Nero off the table, yes we still have the temporal expectation of the author (terms like “shorty,” “quickly,” “soon,” “near,” “at hand,” etc.). But if we can’t establish the latest possible date for the Book’s composition to be AD 68 (Nero’s death), perhaps John and his readers were looking for events to take place “soon” in the time of Domitian Ceaser? Late-date approaches to Revelation are going to try and argue for increased persecution and emperor worship under Domitian Ceaser in the 90’s.
Although I would note that anyone who attempts to make this case is really 30 years behind modern scholarship.
Game Changer (PPT Slide 9)
A “game changer” is defined “an event, idea, or procedure that effects a significant shift in the current manner of doing or thinking about something.”
Leonard Thompson’s 1990 book, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire, is a GAME CHANGER.
According to Steven Friesen, in the JOURNAL FOR THE STUDY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT:
“There was a time when most interpreters were satisfied to describe the social setting of Revelation as a crisis of persecution under the emperor Domitian, who claimed divine authority and required humans to worship him. Since the publication of Leonard Thompson’s book in 1990, however, it has been mostly clear that there was no crisis under Domitian, and that imperial cults were not particularly exaggerated during his reign” (“Satan’s Throne,” p. 351).
What’s important to note is that, both Thompson and Friesen are advocates of the late date. They believe that Revelation was written in the 90’s during Domitian’s reign. But, they’re honest enough to admit that there simply was no crisis under Domitian. They are doing the work of true scholars: Reporting the data as it truly is.
Interestingly, in a 1991 critical review of Thompson’s book, Ken Strand of Andrews University, basically concedes Thompson’s point that Domitian did not order the persecution of Christians, but dismisses by saying: “At this early time, Roman persecution of Christians was not normally by imperial decision…but was rather a local matter.” But, then Strand notes that the sole exception was Nero! To echo Gentry again, the Book of Revelation keeps taking us back to Nero’s palace.
More recently, Mark Wilson, of the BIBLICAL ARCHEOLOGICAL SOCITEY, notes that, even though decades have now passed since Thompson’s pivotal book officially pronounced the Domitian persecution theory dead, and most scholars “no longer accept the idea” of Christian persecution under Domitian, nevertheless “such claims continue to circulate in articles, books and sermons.”
“This shows how long it takes to repudiate ‘alternative facts’ that have circulated for over 1,500 years in Christendom.” Wilson concludes by saying: “The ‘fake news’ that Domitian instigated a severe persecution of Christians, and that his claim to be ‘Master and God’ provoked this persecution, needs to be removed from our ‘facts’ about the early church.”
Domitian is simply NOT a viable alternative to Nero as the persecuting power in the Book of Revelation. Anyone who says otherwise is, as Mark Wilson says, buying into “fake news” with regard to Church History.
But, this brings us back to the question then: How do we reconcile Nero’s death, in AD 68, with the Beast’s final demise in AD 70? To try and remove Nero as the referent of the Beast imagery, and replace it with something else like first century Jewish religious zealots, really isn’t a viable option…in my opinion.
An Extended Judgment (PPT Slide 10)
Another approach is the see the entire Jewish War, AD 66-70, as part of Christ’s “Judgment-Coming.” Ken Gentry takes this approach, and notes that “the ‘day of the Lord,’ is not one particular day…rather it involves an extended period of judgment (e.g., Joel 3:1, 9–14; Amos 5:18–20).” In other words, it was not a “one-and-done deal… the whole Jewish War with Rome is his judgment, and therefore…his judgment-coming. And like all wars, the Jewish War did not happen in a moment… Nero’s death occurs in the context of the three and one-half year-long Jewish War (Rev. 11:2), after he had initiated it.”
This approach is plausible; especially if you look at the usage of the word “Parousia” in normal, everyday language…where it’s not referring to some eschatological event. it certainly doesn’t carry the idea of a brief appearance. For example, Paul speaks of his own “Parousia” to the Philippians (Phil. 1:26, 2:12). We would assume that Paul actually spent some time in Philippi. The usage, in this context, implies an arrival and extended stay; followed by Paul’s eventual departure.
N.T. Wright points out that the very word, Parousia, was a common word in Greco-Roman culture for “an emperor or dignitary making a state visit to a city province” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 217). The operative word being here is “visit.” The visiting dignitary didn’t simply show up and immediately leave. There would be an extended period of visitation.
This whole idea of Christ’s Parousia, as an extended event, would seem to be supported by Josephus’ famous statement about heavenly armies, on chariots in the sky, surrounding the city of Jerusalem. As Preterists we’re quick to use this passage in response to people who say there were no “heavenly anomalies,” or “cosmic disturbances,” associated with the Jewish War. What we sometimes neglect to say, however, is that this miraculous event occurred in AD 66 (the beginning of the war), and not AD 70 (the end of the war).
The bottom line: If the heavenly armies were seen at the beginning of the Jewish War, it is possible to view that entire span of judgment-events as Christ’s “Parousia.” His “royal visit,” so to speak.
My only problem with it would be that, in Matthew 24:29-30, the “coming (erchomai) of the Son of Man” takes place “after the Tribulation of those days,” and doesn’t seem to be equated with the entire period described as “the Tribulation.”
It would seem that the actual “judgment-coming” of Christ is part of the larger, over-all Parousia Event. “But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and (then) they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:29-30). Most Preterists would define “the Tribulation” as the period of time beginning with the Neronic Persecution and extending to the Jewish-Roman War, since Christ’s “coming” happens after the tribulation, it cannot be the tribulation.
So, where does this leave us?
The evidence definitely points in the direction of Nero Caesar, rather than “first century Jewish religious zealots,” as the Beast. But, Nero died two years prior to Christ’s “coming” in AD 70.
While it is true that the Beast imagery would extend beyond, specifically, Nero himself and would surely encompass the entire Roman Empire in General, the Roman Empire definitely did not fall in AD 70. Like any war, there were certainly casualties on both sides…no doubt. But, like any war, the casualties on the part of the victor cannot in any way be considered a “defeat.” The Romans were victorious in AD 70.
Additionally, as many of our critics point out, Revelation 13:10 states, specifically regarding the Beast: “If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed.” While it is true that Nero died at the hand of his own sword, the Romans were NOT taken captive in AD 70…by any stretch of the imagination. To borrow Heiser’s language, this simply does not describe “Nero’s demise,” or first century Rome, in any way whatsoever.
And, the idea of Christ’s Coming as an “extended judgment,” covering the entire period of the Tribulation, doesn’t seem to fit the clear statement in Matthew 24 to indicate that Christ’s “coming” takes place after the Tribulation and is not to be equated with the tribulation.
If we continue to see “the Beast” as defined in terms of Nero, and/or the Roman empire alone, we are clearly at an impasse when it comes to the Beast’s final demise and destruction. While “the Beast” definitely manifested itself in terms of Nero and the first century Roman Empire, I would suggest its ultimate identity was something much more ancient: an evil enemy of Yahweh whose origins stretch back eons before the first century.
Was, Is Not, and About to Come (PPT Slide 11)
The very language of Revelation 17:8 is indicative of this. “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss…” “Was” indicates something old, something ancient, something from the past.
“Is not” indicates that this ancient entity was not yet on the scene when John saw the vision. Interestingly, as we noted earlier, the sixth head of the Beast…the sixth king (Nero)…was on the scene when john saw the vision. This would suggest that this ancient enemy had not yet begun to use Nero for its own purposes yet. The angel tells John, the Beast “is not,” but the sixth head of the Beast now “is.” The conclusion of the sixth ruler -Nero- “about to” be used by an ancient beastly power…seems inescapable.
Just a Quick Side-Bar: that very language, “about to come up out of the abyss,” is so important. That’s a form of the Greek word MELLO. That word pops up everywhere when it comes to eschatological passages in the New Testament. You can’t escape it. You can’t get around it. The events that we associate with the “end times” were “about to” occur in the first century. The appearance of the Beast is no exception. This eschatological chaos monster would not wait for some 2,000+ years to immerge from the abyss. He, or it, was “about to” rise, from the spiritual chasm known as “the abyss,” in the first century.
And, the Beast’s very origin itself points to something supernatural; something that transcends merely Nero or the Roman Empire. “The Abyss” is a place of imprisonment for divine beings. It is where the demons begged Jesus not to send them in Luke 8:31. It’s associated with the realm of the dead in Romans 10:7. It’s where the demons, described as “locusts,” are released from in Revelation chapter nine. This strongly suggests a supernatural origin for, and identification of, the Sea Beast.
A Common Theme in the Ancient World (PPT Slide 12)
But, can we get more specific? Does the Bible give us any clues as to exact identity of this ancient enemy? Yes, it does…and John’s readers would have recognized it instantly. And, if you’ve ever read David’s Chilton’s commentary on Revelation, you’d recognize it instantly as well. The idea of two Beasts, one associated with the sea and the other associated with the land, as Revelation 13 describes, was a well-known and common motif in the ancient world. The names of these beasts were, Leviathan and Behemoth, respectively.
This is precisely why David Chilton titled the section of his commentary, dealing with Revelation 13, “LEVIATHAN AND BEHEMOTH.” David Chilton was way ahead of his time! More and more scholars are beginning to make the connection between Revelation 13 and the ancient Leviathan and Behemoth texts.
PPT Slide 13: Ancient Leviathan & Behemoth Texts
Three of these texts, from the Second Temple Period, are shown here. The common theme? Leviathan dwells in the “abyss of the ocean,” and Behemoth dwells on the desert dry land. According to DDD, “Revelation 13 is blatantly informed by the Leviathan-Behemoth tradition. In this periscope two kindred beasts rise up in united opposition to the righteous; the one beast ‘from the sea’ (13:1) and ‘another beast which rose out of the earth’ (13: 11)” (P. 166).
PPT Slide 14: The Dragon Standing on the Sea Shore
I love the way Rebekah Yi Lui puts it: “The imagery of beasts in Revelation 13 draws upon a range of mythical Jewish and Gentile traditions” regarding “the Leviathan-Behemoth legend” (p. 93). After recounting Satan’s failure in chapter 12 to destroy the women and her child, John then “describes (him) as standing on the Seashore…anxiously expecting his allies to come to his aid: the beasts from the sea and the land” (p. 95).
JBL Scholar, Steven J. Friesen, notes that while “commentators are nearly unanimous that Rev 13 deals with Roman imperial power and with the worship of the Roman emperors” (p. 303), “the primary structure for the narrative in Rev 13 comes from the mythic pattern of Leviathan and Behemoth. Leviathan and Behemoth are two primordial monsters known from several Jewish texts. The oldest of these is Job 40-41, where they are cited as two of Gods most powerful creations” (Journal of Biblical Literature, MYTH AND SYMBOLIC RESISTANCE IN REVELATION 13, p. 304).
Scholar Andrew Angel, in his excellent book Chaos and the Son of Man, concurs. While the “beast from the sea represents Rome” (p. 146), and the beast from the land represents a local authority demanding emperor worship (p. 147), “Revelation 13 is a creative reworking of the Leviathan and Behemoth myth…to describe the contemporary persecution of the church under the power of Rome and local authorities…” (p. 148).
Even Amillennialist, G.K. Beale, is forced to concede that “The description of the two beasts in chapter 13 is based in part on Job chapters 40-41…Commentators cite the Job passages,” continues Beale, “but rarely discuss them or develop their relationship with Revelation. These two Beasts are echoed throughout Revelation 13…” (NIGTC: The Book of Revelation, p. 682).
Beale rightly understands the two beasts in Job chapters 40-41 as…“two demonic beings” (p. 682, n. 177).
“On the assumption that the beginning of history must be recapitulated at the end of history,” says Beale, “Judaism crystalized the implicit expectation of Job…these two beasts were symbolic of the powers of evil and were to be destroyed at the final judgment” (p. 682).
Beale’s comment about the “beginning of history” being “recapitulated” at the “end of history” is quite instructive. As a Preterist, I would qualify this by simply pointing out that we’re not talking the “end” of world “history,” but the end of Old Covenant “history.”
No Jew, living in the Second Temple Period, would have read about a seven-headed-beast rising from the sea or the abyss, and NOT have immediately thought of Leviathan. In fact, the same can be said of Gentiles in that era.
According to Friesen, “the Leviathan tradition” is “one of the great mythic patterns shared by Yahwism and the surrounding religious traditions,” and is a common theme in the “late Hellenistic and early Roman period,” as well (pp. 306-307).
Tell Asmar Cylinder Seal (PPT Slide 15)
This common theme, of a seven-headed-beast, is clearly seen on what is known as the “Tell Asmar Cylinder Seal” – which dates “to the end of the third millennium BC” (William D. Barker, Isaiah’s Kingship Polemic, p. 130). According to scholar William D. Barker, this “may be the oldest attested representation of the creature we know as the biblical Leviathan” (p. 139).
PPT Slide 16: Artist Reworking of the Tell Asmar Cylinder Seal
This slide is an artist’s reworking of the seal. Again, you can see the seven-headed-beast “being speared by two men or, more likely, two deities. Four of the heads lay limp as though they’ve been mortally wounded, while the remaining three heads continue to struggle with one of the combatants” (Barker, p 131).
Barker notes that “every culture in the ancient near east used the Leviathan motif,” but “there were many differences in the application of it in both form and function” (p. 168). It some cultures, it was simply “a seven-headed-beast” (p. 135), while in others it was a seven-headed-dragon or serpent…most notably the Ugaritic and Hebrew literature.
PPT Slide 17: Godawa Comparison of Texts
This can be seen in a comparison of various Bible passages with different Ugaritic texts. These Bible passages would include Habakkuk 3, Isaiah 27, and Psalm 74. In Isaiah, Leviathan is called “the fleeing serpent” and the “twisted serpent” and Psalm 74 mentions Yahweh crushing the multiple heads of Leviathan. Brian Godawa notes that the Hebrew words in these texts are “etymologically equivalent” to the Ugaritic words describing the same creature in the texts to the left on the slide (Sea Dragon of Chaos, pp. 5-6).
PPT Slide 18: Richard Averbeck Comparison of Texts
This is no exaggeration, Richard Averbeck notes that the correspondence between the Hebrew texts and the Ugaritic texts are simply “indisputable’ (pp. 338-339), and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Isaiah 27:1 is a “free quotation of the myth of Baal’s battle with the sea monster.”
This doesn’t mean that the Biblical writers plagiarized the Baal Cycle, it means…very simply: No, its not Baal who defeats Chaos…its Yahweh! This is a polemic, not a plagiarization.
Until the discovery of the Ugaritic texts in 1928, it was literally impossible for Biblical commentators to know this stuff. That’s why its so important to keep up with modern scholarship.
As Michael Heiser says, with regard to the Ugaritic texts: “You might be thinking that all you really need to know about the religion of the Israelites is in the Bible. You’d only be partially correct in that thought. We are centuries removed from the world of the Bible, and a lot of material in the Bible is pretty obtuse to those of us in the 21st century. Those who wrote the Bible weren’t writing for a technological society, and so words, phrases, descriptions, and concepts that were completely familiar to an Israelite are lost on us.” https://www.logos.com/ugaritic
Today, we think it’s the opposite. We think that the Bible’s describing things that are “completely familiar” to us… but not…to its original readers. We think the Bible’s describing cobra helicopters and nuclear weapons. But, those ignorant and ancient people just didn’t know how to describe these things.
What an arrogant, pretentious attitude we…modern people have! It is us…we are the ones…who are ignorant. Ignorant of the symbols, motifs and concepts of the Ancient World. It is our job to go back and rediscover these concepts that would have been “completely familiar” to ancient people, and have become “lost” to us.
One of those concepts that would have been “completely familiar” to an Israelite, or any ancient person for that matter, is the concept of the Chaos Monster, the seven headed beast, the Hebrew Leviathan or Ugaritic Lotan.
PPT Slide 19: The Sumerian Shell Plaque
Revelation 13:1-2 seems to be a composite description of the seven-headed-beast; using the traditions of the various cultures in the Ancient Near East.
As Adela Yarbo Collins says, in her dissertation, THE COMABT MYTH IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION, John’s description is a “fusion of diverse traditions” that do not seem possible to interpret “strictly within” an Israelite/Jewish framework alone. She argues “rather that the author was deliberately choosing to be international by composing his narrative with elements taken from a variety of cultural contexts” (p. 187).
In his book, Isaiah’s Kingship Polemic, Daniel Barker states that the chaos motif in some ancient cultures was that of a “seven-headed-lion” (pp. 136-137). Johns describes the beast in terms of a leopard, a bear, a lion and the familiar Hebrew and Ugaritic “dragon.”
Another ancient artifact, depicting the seven-headed-beast, known as the Sumerian Shell Plaque, shows it with a spotted body, which…I would suggest, is reminiscent of a leopard. Notice as well, the fatal wound to one of its heads. I think it’s a distinct possibility that this imagery is what may be ungirding Revelation 13:3 – “And I saw one of its heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal head wound was healed.”
PPT Slide 20: Artist Rendition of Sumerian Shell Plaque
This slide is another artist rendition. Again, you can see the seven heads, the spotted leopard-like body, and the fatal wound to one of its heads.
PPT Slide 21: Chaos Monster in Various Cultures/Religions
So what does all this mean, and how does it help us in understanding the Book of Revelation?
For the ancient peoples, Leviathan symbolized the chaotic forces of darkness that had to be subdued and conquered before order and purpose could be brought to the world. In the creation accounts of ancient cultures, order was brought to the world through the slaying of sea dragon (who represented chaos) by that culture’s god or deity. In Babylonian literature, it’s Marduk vs. Tiamat. In the Ugaritic Literature, it’s Baal vs. Lotan or Yamm. In ancient Egypt, the battle was fought every night as Ra defeated Apophis every morning when the sun came up. Brain Godawa notes that “the Sumerians had three stories where the gods…destroy sea monsters in their pursuit of establishing order.”
In a recent episode of the Naked Bible Podcast, episode 225 if you want to check it out, Michael Heiser talks about how Leviathan was a “very well-known symbol for chaos” in the ancient world. “Everyone in the ancient world knows this stuff,” says Heiser. He explains that, “if we were Canaanites, we’d talk about Lotan, and Baal is the one who defeats Lotan. If you were Babylonian, you would say the great chaos monster was Tiamat (the Babylonian equivalent of Leviathan), that’s who Marduk defeats,” and it’s Marduk who “brings order to the world” (Transcript, p. 9).
Every culture wanted to claim that it was their god who defeated, and/or defeats, the Chaos Monster. In Job 41:8, God addresses this. God asks Job to “remember the battle.” What battle? The battle at the beginning of creation that all the ancient cultures were familiar with.
Yahweh says that He, and He alone, is the one who defeats Leviathan (vv. 9ff). Verse 25 says that, when Leviathan “raises himself up, the mighty fear.” The word translated “mighty” is “EL,” the ancient word for “god” or “goddess.” Yahweh is saying that, contrary to the claims of the other cultures, their gods not only didn’t defeat Leviathan…their gods are actually afraid of him!
PPT Slide 22: The Exodus Event
Just as Yahweh defeated Leviathan at the beginning of creation, so too He defeats Leviathan at the Exodus event, which is described as a new creation. This is brought out clearly in Psalm 74 and Isaiah 51. Isaiah 51:9-10 says: “Was it not You who cut Rahab in pieces (Rahab is another Hebrew name for Leviathan), Was it not you who pierced the dragon? Was it not You who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; Who made the depths of the sea a pathway for the redeemed to cross over?”
Verses 15-16 go on to say: “For I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea and its waves roar (the Lord of hosts is His name). I have put My words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, ‘You are My people.’”
The great puritan theologian, John Owen, noted that the Exodus event, and the establishment of the Covenant with Israel, is described in this passage in terms of a creation of the heavens and earth.
If the establishment of the Old Covenant is described in these terms, it is no surprise then that the calling out of God’s New Covenant People would be accompanied by a defeat of the Chaos beast (Rev 19) and followed by the creation of a New Heaven and New Earth (Rev 21-22).
The Old Testament, in fact, looked forward to this third and final defeat of Chaos in, what is known as, “Isaiah’s Little Apocalypse.”
“In that day the Lord will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
With His fierce and great and mighty sword,
Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;
And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1 NASB).
If Isaiah’s “Little Apocalypse” previewed Leviathan being vanquished once and for all, where do we find this final victory over chaos being referred to in John’s “Big Apocalypse” (so to speak)? I would suggest Revelation 19:20, where the seven-headed-beast is thrown alive into the lake of fire.
And, Again, Revelation 13:10, speaking of the Sea Beast, says: “If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed.” In Isaiah 27:1, Leviathan is pierced with Yahweh’s fierce, great and mighty sword. Revelation 19:15 speaks of the “sharp sword” that comes from Yeshua’s mouth.
PPT Slide 23: Captivity
Interestingly, I would note that the only other place in the New Testament where this exact word for “captivity” (aichmalōsia) is used is Ephesians 4:8…where Jesus conquers the demonic spirits associated with the land of Bashan and takes them captive (Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm, 291-295; Reversing Hermon, 96-99). Thus, the word is previously associated with the captivity of supernatural or divine beings. I would suggest that it is being used in the same way here. Yahweh is once again taking Leviathan into captivity; this time permanently…in the Lake of Fire.
PPT Slide 24: The Image of the Beast
In “THE BACKGROUNDS AND MEANING OF THE IMAGE OF THE BEAST,” Rebekah Yi Liu makes the interesting observation: “The Bible starts and ends with the making of an image.
The first mention of making an image is found in Gen 1: the making of human beings in God’s image. The language of Revelation 13 alludes to the Genesis story of the creation of human beings. Verbally, the language of Revelation 13 parallels the language of creation in Genesis 1-2. The same nouns occur in both passages, i.e., sea (Gen 1:10, Rev 13:1), land (Gen 1:10, Rev 13:11), beasts (Gen 1: 24, Rev 13:1, 11), image (Gen 1: 26, 27, Rev 13:14).”
Drawing on the Septuagint, she notes that “the verbs used for the making of the image are the same” (p. 97).
In Genesis, God “makes” man in his own “image” (Gen. 1:26) and “breathes” life into his nostrils (Gen. 2:7). In Revelation 13, an “image” is “made” of the Sea Beast, and life is “breathed” into it (Rev. 13:14-15). This represents “a reversal of the creation account” (Yi Liu, p. 98).
Verse 15 talks about The False Prophet causing people to worship the image of the Beast. Steven Friesen notes: “Sacrificial activity for the emperors took place in a myriad of contexts. Emperors were worshipped in their own temples, at temples of other gods, in theaters, in gymnasiums, in stoas…in judicial settings, in private homes and elsewhere. Imperial cults,” says Friesen, “were everywhere” (Satan’s Throne, p. 363).
Just as man was made to be God’s image-bearer, by subduing the earth and bringing order to God’s Creation, Nero became the image-bearer of Leviathan (God’s age-old enemy) and attempted to bring chaos to God’s newly created order – the New covenant Church.
PPT Slide 25: Closing
The role of Nero Ceaser in the Book of Revelation is blatantly obvious. As Adela Collins notes, Revelation chapters 13 and 17 “express” a “clear and intense interest in the figure of Nero” Caesar (p. 188).
Another thing that is blatantly obvious is the Leviathan imagery that undergirds Revelation’s portrayal of the Beast. When these two factors are taken together, Nero’s death, prior to AD 70, is irreverent to the overall picture John is painting. Nero Ceaser was merely the temporal manifestation of something that pre…and postdates his time on the throne.
Nero died in AD 68, but the chaotic forces of darkness continued to wage their war for two more years. They failed.
While the temple lay in ruins, and city of Jerusalem in rubble, the heavenly temple and city, that we are all a part of today, rose from the ashes.
And, the chaotic powers of darkness, that attempted to halt Yahweh’s plans to bring all peoples into the new city and the new temple, are forever consigned to the Lake of Fire…prepared for the Devil and his angels.