Symbolic arithmetic

Sometimes you take agin a book of the Bible just as you might do with a person.  For years, I turned away from Revelation, until I decided to get to grips with it by doing a Quiet Day on the book one Advent.  I read Richard Bauckham on it and my eyes were opened.  It was not just the ravings of a mad hermit on LSD, full of nasty vengeance against his enemies.   The subtlety of the imagery and its long-rootedness in Jewish thought – and the way the St John turns it on its head – was revealed itself.  It’s like Tolkein – good and evil incarnated in apparently wacky but actually very traditional ways.  I love the epic, but I also love the hope, the justice, the eternity.  

And because it’s so dense and intricate, there’s always something new to discover.  Today’s reading (11:1-19)was about the ‘Two witnesses’ to God (2 because you need 2 for the testimony to be accepted).  They are the lampstands shining out to the world – and they get killed for it and then resurrected.  An earthquake causes a tenth of the city to collapse, and 7000 people were killed.  The survivors were terrified and began to worship God.

Yes, you could say – there you are:  nasty stuff.  Death, destruction and fear.  But if you follow Bauckham’s lead, you find that in the Hebrew Scriptures, ‘7000’ signifies the godly, faithful ‘remnant’ that is saved.  The ‘rest’  – a greater number – is destroyed (see 1 Kings 19:18).  But in Revelation, the smaller number is killed and this triggers the turning of the ‘rest’ – the ungodly, faithless majority – to God.  John is calling the Church to be the witnesses who bring the multitude of the nations back to God.  He has turned the maths on its head and opened salvation to the many and the unworthy.

Of course, there is the problem of the 7000.  Why couldn’t they have been converted too?  Or is John saying that if you think you are the ‘godly remnant’ you’d better watch out?

I can’t help trying to see if this bears on protesters – whether at St Paul’s in London, or wherever.  It’s not much help trying to make a strict allegory where each bit of Revelation is supposed to fit a part played by contemporary groups.  But a few can make the many take notice – and maybe even fear for their safety.  Who is the ‘godly remnant’?

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4 Responses to Symbolic arithmetic

  1. Eamonn says:

    I’ve often wondered how Revelation got into the canon, but you’ve made me think again. I shall read Bauckham. Many thanks.

  2. Thanks for these interesting thoughts Alison. My understanding is that there was a bit of a fight over including the Apocalypse in the canon, but I think I’m glad it’s there! With Baukham, I think the book really only makes sense when read ‘from below’ as the language of a persecuted minority. When this language gets into the hands of the powerful, it takes on a very different, and potentially menacing character. For me, the question of how one ‘endures to the end’ is a very practical one, and one that looms large in most people’s spiritual lives. Revelation gives some encouragement along the way – others have gone there before us.
    Thanks again!

    • alisonpeden says:

      Yes, a very tangible encouragement at this time of year – solidarity with the saints and with those ‘coming through the great ordeal’ (7:14) in many countries today.

  3. frpip says:

    Only just got round to reading this so sorry if it’s not a bit off topic – but Alison, I can’t believe you didn’t like Revelation! I love it – it was the first bit of the bible that I read and thought “Wow this is clever” and made me read more. There’s a brilliant book in the Sacra Pagina series which turned me around on it. An amazing book, with vision, satire, prophesy and beauty all mixed into one bucket and then stirred up on a high heat. It also has an enormous thurible carrying the prayers of the saints, thus justifying beyond doubt the validity of anglo-catholicism… I’m amazed it made it into the canon when Enoch didn’t, but I’m very glad it was that way round…

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