Persons, places and things: Images of women in Revelation


By Barb Arland-Fye

To illustrate the widespread misunderstanding of the Book of Revelation, Professor Micah Kiel played video clips and displayed images relating to predictions of when the world would end.

The last book of the New Testament has a lot of visions, but only one revelation: that Jesus is Lord, Micah told my classmates and me during last weekend’s Master of Pastoral Theology class.

We’d been assigned to read Revelation as part of what is called Johannine literature in the New Testament: John’s Gospel and the three letters (really, treatises) attributed to John or his followers. With his pop-culture introduction to our session on Revelation, Micah asked for our impressions of what we’d read in preparation for the class.

The over-the-top negative imagery of women in Revelation bothered me, I said: “I hold this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, who teaches and misleads my servants to play the harlot and to eat foods sacrificed to idols …” (Revelation 2:20). “… I saw a woman seated on a scarlet beast … She held in her hand a gold cup that was filled with the abominable and sordid deeds of her harlotry. On her forehead was written a name, which is a mystery, ‘Babylon, the great, the mother of harlots and of the abomination of the earth” (Revelation 17: 3b-6).


“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great. She has become a haunt for demons. She is a cage for every unclean spirit … Depart from her, my people, so as not to take part in her sins …” (Revelation 18:2j-5m).

Why did the author depict Babylon as a vile woman who behaves abominably? I asked. Among the deacon candidates, their wives, a couple of deacons and others I’m studying with in a cooperative program of St. Ambrose University and the Diocese of Davenport, some shared my concerns. But the focus clearly was on the symbolism of a city gone bad rather than the fact that the city was a woman!

During a break, a time where some really great discussion takes place, some of my male classmates assured me that they didn’t perceive the author of Revelation as being derogatory toward women. I agreed with them that women were not at the heart of the underlying message. But, the fact remains that the author used women to convey a visual image of sin. I insisted to these male classmates: you’re not women! Of course you wouldn’t see it the way I do. (They smiled knowingly. I’m sure they were thinking to themselves, Barb, no one sees things the way you do.)

When we returned to class, Micah assured me that my concern about the image of women in Revelation was legitimate. But it’s also important to put the book’s message in perspective.

Apocalyptic literature generally emerges during periods of severe oppression, when people don’t believe the problems of their community can be fixed in their time or by their government. They believe they need divine intervention. Justice comes from God’s intervention in history, Micah said.

It’s not about what will happen in the future, but the struggle to deal with the here and now. Christians in the first century, the first recipients of Revelation, needed a compelling message to keep them from falling away from their faith.

But, to get to the overarching message, one has to look past some images of women that are deeply misogynistic and should be troubling to anyone who reads them today.

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