As the title for this post implies, there is a lot packed into the following text. As a result, to cover the ground necessary to connect the textual dots, the post will not focus on either the history of interpretation of this difficult passage, or the variety of interpretive options that do not provide help in pulling the story together.
The beginning of Revelation 12 is the most abrupt shift of topics in the entire structure of the Apocalypse. That sense of a lurching change in direction comes from the expectation of immediacy of the events set up by the wording in Revelation 11:18-19:
The nations were angry,
But your wrath has come.
The time has come
for the dead to be judged
and to give the reward
to your servants the prophets,
to the saints, to those who fear
both small and great,
and the time has come to destroy
those who destroy the earth.
Then the temple of God in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant appeared in his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder, an earthquake, and severe hail.
Interestingly, the next things expected to take place from this wording in Revelation 11:18-19 don’t occur for another five chapters—until 16:18, 21: “There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder,” plus an earthquake of unprecedented severity and, finally, “enormous hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds.” Thus, the entire “preface” to the Bowl Judgments (Revelation 12-15), as well as six of the seven bowls of wrath (16:1-16) intervene before the flow of the Apocalypse gets back to the pouring out of phenomena listed in 11:19 with the seventh bowl of wrath (16:17-21). So, what’s going on at the outset of Revelation 12?
The Inverted Parallel Structure of Revelation 12:1-6
To begin to answer the various aspects of that question, it is helpful to consider the elegant structure of 12:1-6, which follows:
The mirroring interaction within this paragraph is clear. In the a/a’ layer, the woman is introduced in 12:1 and is fleeing in 12:6. In the b/b’ layer, the woman cries out in labor pain in 12:2, then bears her child in 12:5. In the c/c’ layer, the dragon is introduced (12:3), then positions himself to devour the newborn child (12:4b). The apparently head-scratching part of the structure is why 12:4a would be the spotlighted center of the chiasm: “[The dragon] swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to the earth.”
As set forth in the structural diagram of 12:1-6 just above, the wording about the “woman” in 12:1 echoes Genesis 37:9, in which Joseph says: “… the sun, moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” In that context, Joseph is speaking of his father (Jacob), stepmother (Leah), and his eleven brothers (whose names, along with Joseph’s sons, would be given to the tribes of Israel). The apparently Jewish woman depicted in Revelation 12 is pregnant, about to give birth (Revelation 12:2), and her labor pains echo Genesis 3:16. She gives birth to a male child (Revelation 12:5) who must be the Messiah, because of the echo of messianic prophecy in Psalm 2 (i.e., he would “rule the nations with an iron rod” [Revelation 12:5]). The dragon is, in Revelation 12:9, stated to be “the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan,” echoing Genesis 3:1ff.
The attempted violent action of the dragon against the “woman” and her son (i.e., the singular “seed” [descendant] of the woman) echoes Genesis 3:15. If this understanding is correct, Revelation 12:1-5 backtracks to the beginning of the biblical record, to the initial prophecy in Scripture, then moves forward in God’s plan through the choosing of Abraham’s “seed” to play out the progressive fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. The Jewish “woman” in Revelation 12 thus appears to be both Mary, the mother of the singular seed of the woman, Jesus Christ, in one sense, but also Israel as the plural seed, at the same time, in this passage. In 12:1-5, Mary is in view as the woman, but from 12:6 forward, now back in the flow of the end times events of the Apocalypse, it’s corporate Israel who is the woman. The rapid-fire movement of events in 12:5—from Messiah’s birth to His ascension to and session in heaven—projects things forward quickly through Jesus’s life and ministry. Then, 12:6 telescopes the movement of the narrative all the way forward to where the end times, where 11:1-13 ended. The next section of the post will demonstrate the connection of the latter events within the second Interlude (i.e., 10:1-11:13).
In the meantime, it is helpful to answer a puzzling question about Revelation 12:4a above: What is meant that the devil sweeps away one-third of the “stars”—which symbol was interpreted to be “angels” in Revelation 1:20—from heaven to earth? A common answer is that 12:4a describes the “fall” of an original proportion of God’s angels, who followed Satan and thus became “demons.” That view may be supported by the reference to “the dragon and his angels” in 12:7. However, the sequence of thought in 12:1-6 implies a different understanding. The impending birth of the Messiah (12:2) causes Satan to deploy the bulk of his forces to make the strongest attempt to stop God’s plan (12:3-4). But his strategy—which may well have included Herod trying to kill all the boy babies in Bethlehem (Matthew 2)—is thwarted as the child is born and escapes to heaven (12:5). All that remains for Satan to do on earth to significantly derail the focus of God’s plan is to destroy the “woman”: Israel.
Interpretative Summary: In the unfolding fulfillment of the proto-prophecy in Genesis 3:15 (i.e., the first—and overarching—prophecy in the Bible), a specific “woman” (i.e., Mary) give birth to the singular “seed,” Jesus Christ. In the end times, a Jewish “woman” (symbolizing a portion of the plural “seed of the woman”) will be protected by God from Satan’s persecution.