The Book of Revelation features four female figures: Jezebel (2:20), the Cosmic Woman (12:1-5, 13-17), the great Whore (17:1-17; and the Bride of the Lamb (21:9-11). The two most prominent figures are the Whore and the Bride. Feminist interpreters are almost uniformly alarmed by images John evokes with these figures. For example, John writes of the death of the Whore:
[The kings] and the beast will hate the whore; they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire. (17:16)
Professor Tina Pippin comments on this scene:
The object of desire is made the object of death. The Whore/Goddess/Queen/Babylon is murdered (a sexual murder) and eaten and burned. This grotesquely exaggerated vision of death and desire accentuates the hatred of the imperial power—and of women. This story of death and desire is the most vividly misogynist passage in the New Testament. The Apocalypse is cathartic on many levels, but in terms of an ideology of gender, both women characters in the narrative and women readers are victimized. (Pippin, Death and Desire, 58)
Now I have a bit of a quibble with Pippin’s take on this. The Apocalypse is an apocalypse, which means that the Whore is not a whore. She/it is probably more of an ideology, and to John an ideology espoused by men. In the world of the Apocalypse, this is male-on-male violence. But all that’s rather minor. I have a stronger reaction to Professor David L. Barr’s comments:
Pippin is absolutely right to confront the way women are portrayed in this text. Contemporary men can justify their mistreatment of women by such ancient texts; contemporary women draw self-images from such stories. No one can be allowed to feel that what happens to John’s whore in this story could ever be justified for any woman. (Barr, “Doing Violence,” in Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students, ed. David L. Barr, 104)
I see a lot of smoke and noise here, but I’m not so sure I can find a real fire. First, there’s no footnote supporting the idea that men actually do justify mistreatment of women using this passage, or that women have found themselves in these images. If such a grotesque self-justification is really a problem, I want to know the details. In particular, I want to know the when and the who, so I can judge the relevance of Barr’s warnings to the here and now.
Second, if it is problem, that is, if there are men who have actually acted out sexual violence against women under motivation of this passage, I suspect that there’s more wrong with them than just their hermeneutics. Although there is always a need for suspicion about the application of ancient gender roles to modern life, the abusers of the Whore seem unlikely candidates for role models in the mind the average guy.
Although I find Barr’s work somewhat flawed, this does not mean that I find every feminist interpreter of Revelation unenlightening. On the contrary, one of my favorite exegetes is Professor Edith Humphrey. Her work with gender is a pleasure to read precisely because her take on Revelation’s gender relationships shows a sensitivity to all the relationships John creates:
It is not as if Revelation were concerned with an elaborate chain of being, from God, through angels, through males, through females, down to the inanimate created order. For John is twice forbidden to do obeisance to the mediating angel (19:10; 22:9) and all, great or small, find a level place before the throne of God and the Lamb (19:12). (Humphrey, “A Tale of Two Cities,” in Barr, Revelation, 94.)
Professor Humphrey’s reading demonstrates a “complex network of associative metaphors” woven in and through the Cosmic Woman, the Whore, and the Bride. Two are mothers; one a virgin. Two are associated with the wilderness; one is viewed from a high mountain. Two are harried by their enemies; one is never exposed. Two are clothed in terrestrial finery; one in the celestial . Two are humble; one thinks she “sits a queen” and has no needs.
I want to focus on the humility of the Cosmic Woman and the Bride because this subordination often bothers other feminists. I think Professor Humphrey scores a particularly good point here:
The subordination of the female figure of the bride (and of the refugee queen) in Revelation is, in the first place, a reflection on the supreme authority of the Alpha and Omega…these figures are subordinate to God, so they retain strength over their detractors. (Humphrey, 94)
This is a point too often dismissed by feminist interpretation. It is perfectly okay for a woman to submit to, and be protected by, God. Our interactions with men require considerably more scrutiny — and any real gentleman as well as every human father ought to have no qualms about it — but God is an entirely different matter.
The status of beloved daughter of a perfect Father carries no stigma. It should receive the positive counterpart of the attention devoted by feminists such as Professor Barr to identifying and critiquing the less savory images that can surely be found. Only as feminism develops enough balance to ensure that this happens, that is, that the positive aspects of a woman’s relationship with God are brought to light, will it be living up to its real potential as an ideology of, and for, women.