By: Timothy Wotring
So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. (Revelation 12:13-16 NRSV)
Apocalyptic images permeate our culture and society. On front pages of newspapers depictions of war torn areas, political and social leaders changing societies, and other developments with our technocratic world take up the ink of these pages. If you were raised in a fundamentalist dispensationalist church, I assume the landscape of your theological imagination consisted of the book of Revelation and the end times. According to these churches, Revelation is a map of things to come, which includes violence, the destruction of the Earth, hopeful rest for believers, and hellfire for those whom God has not chosen. Amongst these images, one could miss a beautiful description of Earth as a subject and a character. Before we proceed, let me lay a textual framework.
Revelation can be described like a ping-pong game, events and people bouncing from Earth to heaven and back again. In heaven, the twelfth chapter begins; an angry red dragon stalks a starry crowned woman pregnant with child. The woman gives birth to one “who will rule over the nations”, and he is snuck away to God’s throne. The furious dragon makes trouble and the woman escapes to the Earth to a place hidden in the wilderness. Michael the archangel and his crew throw the dragon to Earth and we have arrived at our passage above.
The woman hides in the wilderness; unable to find her, the dragon uses his cosmic fire-hose mouth to drown out the woman. At this point, it is the reaction of Earth that should startle us. Earth opened her mouth and swallows the water, thus keeping the woman safe and alive. Although, Earth has been caused much harm, especially in the eighth chapter, she still cares for the starry woman.
The Christian Scripture does not speak of Earth as a subject. Of course, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, all of creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the children of God (8:19). Still this verse is anthropocentric, and all of creation finds hope in the revealing rather than its own autonominity as we find in Revelation.
On the other hand, the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrate a connection between humanity, Earth, and Divine. Although, most sacred sites and events include an aspect of nature, e.g. YHWH speaking to Moses through a burning bush, there are two other ways they viewed nature. First, the domination motif found in the opening chapter of Genesis, which God commands humanity to care for the Earth. The second motif, found in Psalms, is the idea that nature points to the greatness of God. In all three of these cases—sacred, domination, and symbol—Earth is not referred to as a subject.
Let me just add, I do not think that the writer of Revelation was trying to add an environmental concern. Instead, I think John of Patmos saw the entire universe as animated. Earth is not in the background, as we often place scenes of it on our desktops; instead, Earth is moving, along with God, toward justice and redemption. Natural disasters could take on a new role in society of a wake up call for citizens of the Earth. We care for Earth, and Earth will take care of us just like the starry crowned woman. Yet, too often we are the red dragon, destroying Earth for our own benefit and gain. The book of Revelation infuses counter-logic calling readers to draw us close to God and see Earth as a person amongst us.
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