Revelation (Part 27): Woman Is Fed
The story of Revelation 12 begins with the coming of the Messiah. Israel—representing God’s redemptive plan—gives birth (through the life, death, and resurrection—the atonement) to the Redeemer. That Redeemer is said to shepherd. The word shepherd is sometimes translated as rule, which is not necessarily wrong but is a little heavy handed for the intent. Shepherd, I think, is a better word here because the idea is to govern and supply for needs as a shepherd does with sheep, furnishing pasture and food. The iron scepter (or more appropriately, rod) then, is to be used as a shepherd would use it—not to pummel his own sheep but to fight off those who would attack his sheep. And in this Rev 12 passage, we are presented with the dragon’s attack that the shepherd would be interested in fighting off. In this chapter we have two incidents in which it appears that the dragon comes to attack and the woman is protected by taking her to the wilderness. The word translated wilderness is not simply a geographical term. It has a focus on solitary, desolate, and bereft characterization when applied to people, as one deprived of aid of others. So, although it is also used to specify an actual desert or wilderness, the idea in our imagery here in Rev 12 seems to be that God alone will protect this woman—the faithful of Israel—from the dragon’s attack because the world rejects her.
The woman is said to be fed in this deserted condition for 1260 days (12:6). Further down in the passage, we read again of the dragon attacking and the woman fleeing to the wilderness to be fed for a time, times, and half a time. Several questions immediately arise: Are these two passages describing the same event or separate events? What is the significance of the times discussed that both cover a period of 3½ years? What is the reason for presenting identical time periods with different descriptions? We have already seen the 3½ years described in Revelation 11, once as 1260 days in verse 4 and as 42 months in verse 3. To understand this fully, let’s take a deeper look.
This time period of 3½ years has its roots in the story of Elijah and his activity during the God-invoked drought on Israel in 1 Kings 16-17. The passage begins in verse 29 of chapter 16. These verses at the end of chapter 16 set up the story. King Ahab of Israel’s northern kingdom had ascended the throne. He is a wicked king, actually described as doing more evil than all the kings who came before him (1 K 16:30, 33). He married Jezebel, a Canaanite woman, who followed the Canaanite god, Baal. Ahab began to worship Baal as well, building a temple and altar for him and making an Asherah pole (or grove).
Baal actually means lord or master, so many of the Canaanite gods had Baal as part of their names: Baal Peor of the Moabites and Baal-Berith of the Philistines are two examples. However, there does appear to be one Baal (offspring of chief god El and goddess of the sea Asherah) that ascended over all, even considered mightier than his father El. This is the Baal worshipped by Ahab and thus be much of the northern tribes of Israel.
Baal was the god of the sky, depicted with a club in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other. As god of the sky, the needs of Israel in farming and shepherding for rain were thought to be dependent on him since they did not have the irrigation systems from the Nile as the Egyptians to their west or those of the Tigris and Euphrates in the Mesopotamian valley to their east. So they prayed and sacrificed to Baal for rain. Besides being god of the sky, Baal was also thought of as a god of fertility. Obviously if the sky god gave rain to make things grow, it is not a huge leap to connect growing crops with all life and growth to view him as having to do with fertility. Thus, human sacrifices—that of children—were offered to this fertility god to gain favor for blessing to their lives.
Chapter 16 actually ends up with a verse describing the child sacrifice of the man who rebuilt Jericho. Back when Jericho was destroyed by the children of Israel entering the promised land, Joshua imposed the curse that the one who rebuilt Jericho would do so at the cost of his firstborn and youngest child (Joshua 6:26). Here, 500 some years later, the curse comes true, but not through accident. Rather the children are intentionally sacrificed to gain the favor of Baal.
All of chapter 17 and 18 showcase God’s activity to reveal his sole authority over this made-up god Baal who had, through Ahab and Jezebel, come to dominate Israel’s religious activity. Because of the evil dominion, God sends Elijah to declare that the rain will stop until he decides to bring it again. Obviously, this is a direct assault on what is presumed to be Baal’s strength as god of the sky. The rain does not return until after the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel (chapter 18). Elijah had challenged the Baal’s prophets to build an altar and call on Baal to send fire (most probably a lightning bolt from the sky since that was Baal’s signature activity) to burn the sacrifice on the altar. The prophets prayed and danced and implored Baal to send the lightning bolt, but he (being an imaginary god) did not send anything. Elijah than built an altar, laid on it a bull sacrifice, and drenched the altar with water (most probably saltwater from the Mediterranean right next to Mt. Carmel). Elijah prayed and fire fell consuming the sacrifice and even the altar itself.
It is probable that this “fire from the sky” was an actual lightning bolt from the storm that God was calling in from the Mediterranean. A phenomenon called “bolt from the blue” is explained by our National Weather Service as a particularly dangerous type of lightning flash that comes from a storm cloud, travels horizontally a great distance (miles), before turning to come down and strike the earth. One such occurrence happened in Melbourne, Florida in 1995 in which the lightning traveled a distance of about 40 kilometers from the storm in seconds before turning earthward, striking seemingly “out of the blue.” God apparently directed such a bolt from the storm he had approaching from the west to strike Elijah’s altar, destroying the sacrifice and the altar itself. Immediately afterwards, Elijah tells his servant to go looking for a cloud coming in the sky. After seven tries, the servant finally notices a small cloud. The small cloud was the beginning of the storm sweeping in. Thus, in this instance God showed himself to be the one true God—controlling the rain and storm of the sky—greater than the imaginary god Baal.
Between the stopping of the rain at the beginning of chapter 17 and the return of the rain in chapter 18, another story is told. God had directed Elijah to the city of Zarephath up near Sidon. Elijah called on her to make him some bread. The widow had only a little flour and oil left, which she had planned to use up that very day before she and her son would then, without food, surely starve. Elijah told her to make bread for him first, and God would not let the flour and oil run out throughout the days (years) of the drought. She showed her faith in the word of God by doing as Elijah had asked, and the flour and oil, indeed, did not run out through the years of the drought.
However, at some point during this period, her son became ill and died. The woman complained to Elijah that his presence, bringing a focus of God on her, had caused God to judge her for her sin (some unnamed previous sin or sins) and to take her son in death. Elijah went to the boy, prayed, and the boy was restored to life.
This incident is placed here to again show God’s authority and greatness over Baal. Baal demanded sacrifices of children’s lives in order to excuse sin and bring blessing. But the incident shows that from the one true God, Yahweh, blessing comes through faith in his word. Human sacrifice cannot satisfy the death requirement of sin for another unless that sacrifice of death has no sin itself. So God does not demand the death of one guilty person for another’s sin. It would have no effect. Rather, faith in God to provide his own sacrifice is the illustrative point here.
This story leads us to certain concluding principles. As evil dominates in the sin environment of this world, God will judge through the withholding of blessing (like the rain in Israel’s case). Amid this evil domination and God’s judgment, the good will suffer. But as they endure in faith and hope, God blesses individually, caring for his own. We read about these conclusions in the New Testament. In Luke 4:25, Jesus mentions this incident. He argues that there were many widows in Israel during this time when Elijah pronounced God’s withholding of the rain. Yet God sent Elijah to this particular widow based on her faith. Likewise, in James 5:17, amid the discussion of the fervent prayer of a righteous person availing much, James uses Elijah at the time of the drought as an example of fervent prayer in faith. In both these New Testament references to the 1 Kings 16-18 passage, mention is made that the drought (God’s judgment on the dominating evil) lasted 3½ years. The emphasis of the 3½ years is meant for us to associate evil domination, God judging, the good suffering but enduring, and God’s caring for his own with the lessons taught by the 3½ years of Elijah’s drought. And therefore, the prophetic expression of 3½ years, in all the various forms (1260 days; 42 months; half a week; time, times, and half a time) is intended to draw attention to significant times of evil domination, God judging, the good suffering yet enduring, and God caring for his own. I am repeating these characteristics to ensure that we get them in our thoughts. We will see these prophetic references in both Daniel and Revelation. When we read them, our minds must hold forward those principles learned from the Elijah passage.
However, in prophecy, God has placed these time period references in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Although the principles remain the same in both, the prophetic focus does not necessarily apply to both. What I mean is that the focus of Old Testament prophecy is not the same as New Testament prophecy, although both lead to the ultimate conclusion of redemption and everlasting love relationship with our God.
Adam and Eve breaking the original covenant of life resulted in death. But God planned for redemption. He would send a Redeemer to accomplish that redemption. Old Testament focus is on the coming of that Redeemer. With the Redeemer having come, New Testament focus is on the fulfilling or application of the redemption. Therefore, in the Old Testament, when we read of prophecy—such as found in Daniel—we must be careful to bear in mind that the prophecy focused on the coming of the Redeemer and not necessarily on the active application of redemption.
God used Israel in bringing about his plan. Israel—as a nation—had the purpose of bringing forth a Redeemer. Israel, as a nation, also provided foreshadowing illustration of God’s plan (e.g., Moses the redeemer leading the children of Israel out of Egypt and Cyrus the redeemer bringing Israel out of captivity to Babylon and Medo-Persia). But God also used the faithful of Israel to show God’s everlasting covenant relationship with those born of promise and faith. It was counted as righteousness (i.e., faithfulness to the covenant) when Abraham believed God—not simply when he had offspring. Thus, two parallel lines of purpose are unveiling in Old Testament prophecy: Israel the nation with focus on providing (and illustrating) a Redeemer and Israel the faithful with focus in ultimate fulfillment in redemption.
Importantly, during Jesus’s first advent, he lived sinlessly following God, gave his life, was resurrected, and through that became the Redeemer. Therefore, Israel the nation’s purpose was fulfilled—a Redeemer had come. This is an important point because it shows that Israel the nation is no longer a part of God’s prophetic plan. Israel the nation’s role has been accomplished. That is precisely the purpose for much of the prophecy in the book of Daniel, particularly the 70 weeks that counted down to the end of God’s dealing with Israel as a nation.
But the end of Israel the nation does not undermine God’s purpose for Israel the faithful. Based on faith, all those who come to God through Christ become part of Israel the faithful. As Paul said, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart” (Romans 2:28-29a) and also “There is no Jew or Greek, . . . if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:28-29)!