Revelation 7: The Seal of God, the Earth’s Corners, and Tribal Errors

This past Sunday in my Sunday school class, we talked about Revelation chapter 7. Given my sense of humor, you won’t be surprised that I mentioned that Revelation 7:2 doesn’t mean this:

William Blake’s painting, “improved” by an amateur

We also talked about how the chapter illustrates problems with both literalism and inerrancy. With literalism, not just because someone reading in English might think of the above when the read of an angel holding the seal of God, but also because the author makes reference to the “four corners of the Earth.” The author may well have meant that literally, but we cannot take it that way. And so it is up to the reader to determine whether the author held an ancient cosmology that we no longer do, or was speaking symbolically, but either way what the point of the language is and whether that is something that we can accept today. The idea that angels are involved in the harming of land, sea, and trees is no less problematic than the reference to the Earth having corners.

As for inerrancy, the list of twelve tribes is a problem, as anyone who actually knows the twelve tribes will spot, assuming they read carefully. The problem is not just the absence of Dan, for which which many have tried to come up with an explanation. The inclusion of Joseph as well Joseph’s son Manasseh simply doesn’t make sense. The author could have omitted Dan and included Levi, and the two Joseph tribes Ephraim and Manasseh, if the aim was to omit Dan. But as it is, the list is problematic.

It is ironic that groups which agree on the inerrancy of the Bible – from Jehovah’s Witnesses to fundamentalists within more mainstream forms of Christianity – have devoted a lot of attention to the identity of the 144,000, without spending as much time discussing why the list of tribes doesn’t make sense.

There is a simple and intuitive explanation for why the list is the way it is. Most people, if they try to rattle off a list of the twelve tribes, will not do nearly as well as the author of Revelation did. The author was a fallible human being, like us.

The point of the text is nevertheless clear – it reflects the idea that, even though there will be an enormous number of people from all over the world who come to faith, there will still be a subset of Israelites who do so as well. Early Christians had to wrestle with the fact that the majority of Jews did not accept their claim that Jesus was the Messiah. To cope with the cognitive dissonance, the author of Revelation, like Paul, seems to have embraced the view that there would be a significant number of people of Israelite descent who would believe – to be joined by an even larger number from the other peoples of the world. This was an expectation, not for some distant time in a future generation, which would by no means deal with what made this state of affairs so disconcerting, but for that generation, for the near future. And this did not happen, so here too we have something more troubling for the inerrantist than an erroneous list of tribes.

But when one reads the text not as fundamentalists do but with historical sensitivity, one can understand it, not as an offer of certainty about the future, but an expression of hope – hope that one’s own people would believe, hope that all people would worship the one true God, hope that persecution of the church would end and that those responsible for it would be held accountable.

For Christians today, thinking about God in the context of different historical circumstances and a different, science-enhanced understanding of the universe in which we find ourselves, we too must hope, but we cannot hope in exactly the same way that the author of Revelation did. Our hope for the future, in our time, cannot be his, but must be our own.

Our hope for the future may be less about “us vs. them” and more about justice not only for our own group but for all.

Our hope for the future may have every bit as much to do with envisaging a future in which people do not elevate human beings – or their own society or empire – to the status of deities.

And our hope for the future in a world that has seen the spread of democracy will involve less simply waiting for divine intervention, and more action on our part to bring about change in the world.

What do you hope for? What do you think that Christian hope in our time ought to look like? How might, and how should, it be different from that of the author of Revelation?

  • Greg

    May I suggest a different view of the tribes based on something that appears in both chapters 1 and 5? John, in chapter 1, hears a voice then turns to see the source of that voice. It is the risen and glorified Christ. He hears, then he sees. It is the same thing, first through an audio perception then through a visual perception. We see something similar in chapter 5. John hears from one of the elders that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah can open the scroll. Then he turns and sees this same character. An audio perception followed by a visual, although this time there is a contrast: lion vs lamb. Still the same character.
    In 7:4, it is significant that John “hears” the number sealed, 144,000, 12,000 from each tribe listed. In v 9, John turns and sees what he heard, an innumerable multitude. He is seeing the same thing he heard. Audio, visual.
    The tribal list has the “difficulties” you mention specifically so the interpretation cannot be the normal tribes of Israel but all the people of God now coming from every tribe, people, and tongue. It is a picture of the entirety of all of God’s people described in terms of the OT people of God.

    • Craig Wright

      Greg, I agree with your evaluation of the audio and the video,especially comparing ch. 5 with ch. 7. I wrote that as a comment earlier on this blog, but it didn’t come through. I would only add that the 144,000 gets even more symbolic in ch. 14, where they are portrayed as chaste males.

  • Susan Burns

    Yesterday, my father-in-law told me I was not a Christian. His reasoning was that obviously the Holy Spirit has not come into my heart to give me discernment regarding magical thinking. If the Holy Spirit had, indeed, transformed me then I would have no problem suspending all reason in order to believe that people can rise from the dead and become pregnant without benefit of spermatozoa. Even though my father-in-law is a good person, he just excluded me from the Body of Christ.
    The Governor (?) of Oklahoma has declared climate change to be a myth because “God is still up there”. Apparently, he thinks we can abuse the planet as much as we want because God would never allow our atmosphere to become compromised. Politicians that subscribe to this type of magical thinking have continuously blocked environmental legislation that could have done much more to save our ozone.
    The guru for the Right to Life coalition has stated that when a woman is raped, she “secretes secretions” that prevent conception. So if a rape victim does become pregnant she wasn’t really raped. Of course, this view has no basis in biology but then, neither does virgin birth. Climatology cannot be explained by religious dogma either.
    IMHO, Christianity today is destroying the planet, usurping a woman’s sovereignty over her own body and preventing reasonable people from knowing Jesus. I haven’t even mentioned what they are doing to the psyche of gay people.
    Perhaps we will have to follow the lead of Moses and wait 40 years for the magical thinkers to die off for a truly just society. But, then, will that mean we will have no spiritual aspect to our lives? Since the magical thinkers are excluding any reasonable thinkers from their ranks, will Christianity only exist in mountainous regions of the Southern United States? What a shame that would be.

    • Dr. David Tee

      If you do not believe the Bible then you do not have the Holy Spirit.

      • Susan Burns

        I think the OT has proven to be an amazingly accurate history of a tribal group. I think the NT is an after-the-fact account of the life of Jesus that has proven to be not as accurate. However, I am sure you mean I must believe everything in the OT and NT literally. I do not. Although I went through all the dogmatic steps (declaration, baptism, forgiveness, etc.) I still do not have the ability to suspend reason. Do you have any ideas why the Holy Spirit was not able to work its magic on me?

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_E7Z3TKCXJOJ3NP2MZJVXJME2HA David

          The Holy Spirit does not do magic. Magic is an illusion, a trick and what the Holy PSirit does is neither an illusion nor a trick.

          • Susan Burns

            Do you have any ideas why the Holy Spirit was not able to transform my thinking?

      • Beau Quilter

        Dr. David Tee

        What, exactly, are you a “Doctor” of? And where did you get your degree? Is “David Tee” your real name?

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_E7Z3TKCXJOJ3NP2MZJVXJME2HA David

          Such information is never placed on the internet nor is any personal information someone else places on the internet about me acknowledged, confirmed or verified.
          why would you listen to me even if you get such information? if you do not listen now I doubt that information would change your mind.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-MacDowell-Blue/730264445 David MacDowell Blue

            David MacDowell Blue is my real name. I have a BA from the University of West Florida. There. So much for “such information is never placed on the internet.” For the record, I must point out “believing” in the Bible means many things. I am Eastern Orthodox and we hold that to read the Bible literally is to totally miss the point of this spiritual, transcendant text. Yet we are the second largest Christian denomination in the world and certainly one of the oldest (we believe ourselves to be THE oldest but we cannot prove it).

          • Beau Quilter

            I see. You launch spiteful attacks from the safety of your pseudonym, while Dr. James McGrath displays his identity and his scholarly credentials for the world to see.

            You are clearly not someone to be trusted.

  • Dr, David Tee

    First, the question is Did Dr. mcgrath look at all the verses in the Bible regarding Dan to see if God had passed judgement on them for some sin they had committed BEFORE leaping to his conclusions?
    Second, he obviously doesn’t know what he is talking baout when it comes to scripture. EVERYONE knows that the term ’4 corners’ does not refer to some ancient cosmology, or that the earth is flat or some other inane explanation unbelievers come up with.
    It has always been a sailor’s term referring to the whole earth or every part of it. But then, those people who do not believe Moses have always failed to grasp what other parts of scripture teach and try to interpret instead of looking for the truth.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      How dare you allow the perspective of secular sailors to color your interpretation of the Bible?!

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_E7Z3TKCXJOJ3NP2MZJVXJME2HA David

        funny….I do not interpret I look to the Holy Spirit to lead me to the truth

        • Susan Burns

          Please explain more fully. When the Holy Spirit leads you, how do you know that it is not your own mind doing the interpreting? What is the indicator that the answer is from the Holy Spirit?

    • rmwilliamsjr

      re:
      a sailor’s term referring to the whole earth or every part of it. But then,

      afaik the only maritime people the ancient Israelites interacted with for an extended period of time are the Phoenicians. what evidence is there that the hebraic term כָּנָף (kanaph) had anything to do with sailing?

      everything i found points at wing or extremity. like http://concordances.org/hebrew/3671.htm

      but i’ll read your evidence for this (wild?) assertions.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_E7Z3TKCXJOJ3NP2MZJVXJME2HA David

        So I who have never interacted with sailors know and understand the term yet the ancient Israelites who did interact with sailors did not…hmmm.
        How do you, as an unbeliever, know what the Bible says?

        • rmwilliamsjr

          I am a Christian.

          you asserted that כָּנָף (kanaph) is a sailor’s term.
          are you going to present evidence for your statement’s truthfulness?

          • rmwilliamsjr

            did i miss the evidence that kanaph was a sailor’s term?

            assertions without evidence are one things, but false “facts” are another.
            don’t you just hate it when the facts get in the way of a good argument?

        • Susan Burns

          Psalm 17:8 Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me in the shadow of Thy wings (kanaph).

        • arcseconds

          I don’t suppose there’s any possibility that sailors could have got this expression from the bible, and not the other way around, is there?

    • christopher_young

      If the author of Revelation shared the views of the somewhat later Cosmas Indicopleustes, who was both a sailor and a Christian (a monk in later life), he may very well have meant the “4 corners” literally. He would have been in a minority among his fellow believers in holding such views, but that’s the way it goes.

  • Bilbo

    Good questions, James. I’ve been a political liberal for most of my life. Recently I was convinced by ae911truth.org that 9/11 was very likely an inside job. Since Bush was an evil Republican, this wasn’t difficult for me to accept. But since Obama has shown no interest in re-opening the investigation into 9/11, it has shaken my confidence in the ability of politics to effect meaningful change. I find myself taking the devil’s claim that he controls all the kingdoms of the world seriously. So my hope is that Jesus will return soon.

  • Linda

    What’s the problem with the list of the 12 tribes being different in Revelation? Dan’s tribe led people into idolatry. Genesis 49:16-17 is a prophesy concerning Dan. Judges chapters 17 and 18 shows idolatry was being committed. Amos 8: 14 briefly mentions him. I believe Revelation 7:4-8 was deliberately written that way.

    • rmwilliamsjr

      16 “Dan[h] will provide justice for his people
      as one of the tribes of Israel.
      17 Dan will be a snake by the roadside,
      a viper along the path,
      that bites the horse’s heels
      so that its rider tumbles backward.

      is Dan being portrayed as a good guy and the horse’s rider bad or the other way around?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      What about the Joseph overlap?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/William-Leavenworth/1096143582 William Leavenworth

    Only those who lack two connected cerebral neurons would believe anything written by John in his cave on Patmos. He was clearly delusional, probably because he had eaten bread made with flour from ergot-infected grain.


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