Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cascading to a New Creation

In my previous two posts, I discussed the six Creation Day "Great Passages" that are represented by Revelation Chapters 1-13.  These passages follow the structure of the creation account of Genesis as represented chronologically in the work that God performed from Day One to the Sixth Day.  The six sections of the text from Revelation Chapter One to the conclusion of Chapter 13 work through, in an allusive and a thematic fashion, the creation work of the six days.

In the end-times chronology, such a literary schema represents a fitting culmination to the "old order" of the creation.  The Revelation is describing a divine intervention into the final days of the old order in the same progressive order that the creation began.  The apocalyptic drama seems to be shaking the creation up in the same order it was created.  The end-times drama has taken the old creation out like a rug and is giving it a thorough shake-up and beating.  In the process, heavenly creatures are separating things out, sifting the wheat out from the chaff.  It is as if the old order of the world is being given a thorough inspection, so the "good" that is still in the creation can be preserved and rescued, like the animals of Noah's ark. 

But with the beginning of Chapter 14, a new work, a new order of creation, is also announced.  A "new song" is heard.  A new day has manifested itself.   But this new "Day One" breaks through like a ray into the old order in what I call a "cascading" fashion.  It cascades progressively through the three "dominions" of created things that the six days of the Creation Week represent to the Revelation author.  These three cosmological dominions represent the Genesis One created order as follows:

The works of the Three Dominions of the old order of the Creation:

The First Dominion -- "The Heaven and the Things in It" : The light created on Day One and the "creatures" of the Heavens that were created on the Fourth Day
The Second Dominion -- "The Sea and the Things in It": The firmament or "expanse of the sky" of the Second Day, the waters of the deep, and the creatures of the sea and the flying things in the expanse of the sky that were created on the Fifth Day
The Third Dominion -- "The Earth and the Things in It": The plant life of the Third Day, the rivers, seas and springs on the land, mankind and the walking/crawling creatures of the land that were created on the Sixth Day.

Notice the chronological pairing between the creation days above.  The poetic structure of the Creation Week in Genesis One is actually suggestive of such a pairing schema.  Day One, the Second Day, and the Third Day represent "stanzas" of a poem, which together represent one complete poetic cycle.  The Fourth Day, the Fifth Day, and the Sixth Day represent another, more elaborate poetic cycle which hearkens back to the works of the first cycle within each of these days in the same progressive fashion.  The Fourth Day hearkens back to Day One, the Fifth Day back to the Second Day and the Sixth back to the Third Day.  Day One through the Third Day, in other words, have established a chronology of three "dominions" that the creatures created on the Fourth Day through the Sixth Day go out and populate in the same chronological order.  This chronological repetition is what I call a "paralleled" chronology.

The section of Revelation from Chapters 14 to 19 works with the same parallel "dominion" chronology that the Creation Account uses, but the stepped order is reversed.  Instead of starting from the beginning of the chronology, beginning with the First Dominion, this section works its way backwards in three stages that begin with the Third Dominion, continues through the Second Dominion, and culminates in the First Dominion.  In the meantime, rays of a new order are peeking through.  A new day is breaking through, like light through a tear in the fabric. A New Day is cascading through the stepped chronology, until it finally overtakes it at the end, as the light of the old creation is snuffed out.

Here is the "Three Dominion" cycle that begins with Revelation 14:1...

1. The "Third Dominion" Passage (Rev. 14:1-20): The Final Harvest

Third Dominion in Creation: "The Earth and the Things in It."

Third Dominion Themes: Gathering.  Harvesting. The Exodus. Mountains (Sinai and Mt. Zion).  Man's control over the things on the Earth.  Naming/marking things. Receiving/having a dominion or something no one else knows about.

Look for the above themes in the letters to the Churches of Pergamum and Philadelphia and note how they appear in this passage.

2. The "Second Dominion" Passage (Rev. 15:1 - 17:18): The Wrath of God and the Harlot Who Sits on Many Waters.  

Second Dominion in Creation: "The Sea and the Things in It."

Second Dominion Themes: The "sea of glass" (firmament).  Clean/white linen. Pain and blasphemy.

Look for the above themes in the letters to the Churches of Smyrna and Sardis. This Passage includes a musical "break" sub-passage describing the plagues of the "Bowls of Wrath" (Chapter 16), and a transitional sub-passage elaborating on the descent of the "woman" in the wilderness (Chapter 17).  As with breaks in other places, both passages contain imagery from other Dominions; they are improvisational interludes. Note that the Seven Bowls of Wrath parallel the exact same Creation Day thematic chronology of the Seven Trumpets.  Both passages use the Creation Days similarly, but note the difference: in this case, the sun of the fourth "bowl of wrath" is not "darkened" (as in the fourth trumpet blast) but the dial is turned up the other way instead.  Power is "given" to the sun.

In the "transitional passage" of Chapter 17, it might be very difficult to spot any link to Second Dominion (Second and Fifth Day) themes, but can you remember where we last encountered a "woman" in the wilderness?  I believe that the author considers the "woman" in Chapter 17 to be the very same woman who was given the "two wings of an eagle" to escape the dragon in Rev. 12:14.  She was once like an eagle who could escape the dragon in the wilderness, but, instead, we encounter her here drunk and sitting on the back of a beast in the wilderness.  Apparently, since her last mention, she had failed to stay in the midheaven, in the Second Dominion (remember that the woman's origin was originally higher, in the Dominion of the Heaven above, among the sun, moon and stars).  The commenting angels see the "woman" as a First then a Second Dominion denizen who has progressively fallen (see Rev. 14:8 and 18:2).  She is now at home in the Dominion of the Earth.  I'll comment more about this passage below.

3. The "First Dominion" Passage (Rev. 18:1 - 19:21): The Angel of Light, the Darkening of Babylon, the Preparation for the Marriage of the Bride and the Lamb, and the Victory of the Heavenly Dominion over the Earth.

First Dominion in Creation: "The Heaven and the Things in It."

First Dominion Themes: Lamp Light. Paying back according to deeds. Singing and music. Truth and Wisdom vs. the false wisdom of immorality (the "deep things of Satan").  Faithful Israel vs. worldly and wealthy Israel.  the Rod of Iron. Sun, moon and stars.

Look for the above themes in the letters to the Churches of Ephesus and Thyatira.

...After this cycle we briefly go back to the Second Dominion in Chapter 20.  Here, Satan is bound in an abyss for a thousand years and there is a "first resurrection" that brings the righteous back to life.  Satan is released again after a thousand years, deceiving the nations once again and gathering them for one last battle.  Fire from heaven, however, consumes his armies and they are cast into a "lake of fire".  A little noted verse is Rev. 20:11: "Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them." Only the sea is left now!  The sea, and Hades summarily give up their dead. Apparently, the sea, death itself and the Hades (as well as, it seems, the "abyss") are all considered "Second Dominion" places.  Their dead appear before the throne to be judged and the great "Book of Life" is opened along with books recording every deed on earth. Startlingly, "death" and Hades itself are thrown into the lake of fire along with everyone whose name did not appear in the Book of Life.  After this conclusion, there is a "new heaven and a new earth and there is no longer any sea."  Now the Second Dominion is passed away and a totally new dominion of heaven and earth appear.  There is only one dominion now.

These seemingly insignificant and obscure references to the dominions of "heaven", "earth" and "sea" seem like apocalyptic arcana that we tend to ignore, but they actually figure largely and centrally in the text of Revelation.  The Revelator attaches tremendous significance to them.  However, we are ill-prepared to understand their import because we are not steeped in the "Creation Week" language that forms the back-bone of his cosmology.  If there is one single takeaway from all of this, just remember always that Genesis One is the lens through which ancient Jews understood the universe.  Our cosmology is very different from theirs, and, partly because of that, Revelation continues to remain obscure and befuddling to our contemporaries.

As an example, lets go back to the description of the woman's activities in Chapter 17. Chapter 17 is one of those wonderful asides in the apocalyptic drama that can only be fully understood in light of the Creation Day themes.  Without seeing how the Revelator is working cohesively throughout the dramas of the apocalypse using the Genesis One creation story as a cosmological frame, we will miss a subtle lesson building up through his very carefully placed symbols.  The woman first appears in the Dominion of the Heaven, clothed with the sun and surrounded by the moon and stars.  She falls down to the earth and gives birth to a son.  The dragon is cast down and immediately, he pursues her.  Ah, but heaven comes to her rescue and she is given the wings of an eagle.  The Second Dominion comes to her rescue!  The dragon spews forth a river to sweep her away in a flood, but strike two!  The Earth swallows up the river.  The Third dominion comes to her rescue!

...These seemingly small details and obscure corners in John's Book of Revelation suddenly unravel marvelously and pop up into clear sight when we are aware how the author is using the Creation Week compositionally and as a thematic lesson tool.  They add layers to the apocalypse that give broader lessons to those Jewish heads "full of wisdom" who knew their Genesis One cosmology inside and out.  These wise people would be able to follow these insignificant details with fine interest and knowing attention and build layers of meaning out of them.  They would also spot immediately that the drama of Chapter 17 relates back to the drama of the woman in Chapter 12.  They would know that this woman, drunk now with the blood of the saints, is Israel in the Roman Empire, that slayer of the prophets, that adulteress of the beast.  That is a meaning that totally escapes us.

I have talked a lot about the Creation Days, the first six, but there is a Seventh Day, the Shabbat.  In my next post we will talk about the Shabbats in Revelation.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Creation of the Revelation (continued)

Continuing from where I left off yesterday...

4. Fourth Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 12:1-17): The Woman and the Dragon

Fourth Day in Creation: God creates the sun to rule the day, and the moon to rule the night, and he creates the stars. They are for signs and seasons and days and years and for separating night from day.

Fourth Day Themes: All the themes associated with Day One, PLUS: father, mother, and children. Parenthood (and its authority). Leadership, shepherding, ruling the nations with the "rod of iron". Receiving the rewards according to one's "deeds". Loyalty versus adultery. The Woman vs. Jezebel/Babylon. Israel in the wilderness vs. apostate, worldly, and wealthy Israel. Signs in heaven. A son is born.

Look for the above themes in the letter to the Church in Thyatira. The theme of parenthood is attached to the sun, moon and stars in Genesis. The sun, moon and stars appear as symbols for Jacob, Rachel and Joseph's brothers in one of Joseph's dreams. God also tells Abraham that his children will be as numerous as the "stars in the heavens".

At verse 9 in Chapter 12 an interesting rupture begins to occur in the creation day imagery. This is the beginning of a "break", a transition passage. Note the up and down, up and down movement caused between 4th Day (heaven, stars), 3rd Day (earth, rivers) and the 5th Day (midheaven, eagle) symbols. At verse 12, we hear an angel proclaim: "Rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them", but woe to the earth because the "devil has come down to you". From this point on in the text, the sun, moon and stars are no longer harmed in the text of Revelation. They are instead empowered. The heavenly denizens created on the Fourth Day are suddenly off the table from the tribulations/judgments that follow.

5. Fifth Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 13:1-10): The Beast From the Sea

Fifth Day in Creation: God creates the swarming creatures of the sea and the birds of the air (the midheaven).

Fifth Day Themes: All the themes associated with the Second Day, PLUS: Birds, sea creatures, wings and flying. Eagles and locusts. Midheaven. Completing, filling and multiplying, swarming over things. Being full of life, wriggling with life, being energetic and virile. Being healthy vs. being full of pain and blasphemy. Liveliness vs. deadness. Active vs. slumbering. The Book of Life.

Look for the above themes in the letter to the Church in Sardis and note how they appear in the Great Passage with some themes that also belong to the Second Day--being once slain but now healthy again most pertinently.

There are no (discernible) breaks in this passage. You are probably noticing by now that the Great Passages of Revelation have suddenly contracted in relative length. It's hard to understand why the pace picked up suddenly, but, actually, this kind of shortening or elongating of the literary structure seems typical of the text. The structures are somewhat elastic. Compare the relative lengths of the Seven Trumpet judgments for example.

5. Sixth Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 13:11-18): The Beast From the Earth

Sixth Day in Creation: God creates the beasts from the earth and the man and the woman and he gives the man and woman dominion over the beasts and he gives the humans and the beasts the green plants for food.

Sixth Day Themes: The beasts of the earth and mankind. Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Being empowered or given access vs. being weakened and denied access. Naming/marking things and having the power to do so. Exercising authority and granting authority or privilege, such as what to eat. Being given dominion over something. Images and giving "breath" to them. Making something in one's image. Giving one's name to something to mark its belonging/origin from oneself.

Look for the above themes in the letter to the Church in Philadelphia and note how they appear in the Great Passage. For greater effectiveness, go back and read the details of God's creation of Adam in Genesis 1-2 and then read Rev. 13:11-18. What do you notice?

...That's not the end of it. Revelation's Creation Day riffs only get more interesting from here. We are entering into what I call the "Great Break", an interlude leading to the Seventh Day that is quite a raucous and tempestuous passage of riffs wrestling with one another across many chapters...

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Creation of the Revelation

I just got back from a nice Bible Study led by my friend James-Michael Smith, who cautioned the audience at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church (here in Charlotte) about common pitfalls in studying the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation.  JM pointed us to view the book in the scope of what represents the majority of the ink that scripture is devoted to: the broad swath of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) that describe God's covenant with Israel.  I too agree that the loudest exhortation of the book is to hearken Israel back into that eternal, covenantal relationship with Himself, prying her away from the grips of the deadening corruptions in the greater world. God's covenant with Israel is one of the most overlooked relationships in excursions into the meaning of Revelation, but one that is quite necessary.

But another overlooked relationship of the book is exactly how it is written, how it is structured as a literary composition.  Revelation is a book that artists (like JM) and designers (like me) can truly appreciate.  JM's talk has inspired me to post a bit on how I reflect on the book of revelation as a designer, as someone who appreciates the beauty of patterns and, in this case, music.

Revelation is a very musical book.  Not only does it contain a lot of interludes of hymns and passages describing heavenly singing, and reference to musical instruments, but the book is wonderfully patterned like a symphony (or--as I prefer to compare it to--a jazz composition).  To spot the music of the book of the Revelation, you have to first spot what the notes or, better analogy, what the "riffs" of Revelation's jazz are.  The "riffs" of Revelation (as that of John's other book John--read John Chapter 1 for a taste) are actually the seven days of the creation account of Genesis Chapter One.

The book, believe it or not, is subtly structured in seven great passages that relate back to each day of the Creation Account.  All these sections are also in themselves working with sub-passages that are themselves structured as riffs borrowing or playing on the "themes" of the different days of Genesis Chapter One.  Between each of the "great passages" (that each represent a sub-drama or "movement" in the apocalypse)  are transitional passages that represent a kind of jazzy interlude between these larger overarching movements. 

For example, the first great passage, the Day One "great passage" of Revelation, is comprised of the book's opening and extends into the conclusion of the Letters to the Seven Churches (Rev. 1:1-3:22).  One of the important recurring items in the "first day" passages in Revelation is the voice of Jesus, who "spoke" the creation into being and who first calls out, seals, and designates what is "good" in the creation.  Jesus speaks with the authority of the Creator who first called the light "good" in Day One of the Creation.  In the seven letters, Jesus spends a lot of words dwelling on the subject of what is good and what is not.  But, each of the letters, it turns out, also contain thematic sub-elements and symbols that (I kid you not!), reoccur in the rest of the Revelation in the same progressive thematic patterns.  Within the "great passage" of the Letters to the Seven Churches, in other words, is a mini-Creation Day "riff" that extends through the main themes that Revelation attaches to each of the Seven Days of Genesis One.  Each letter of the Seven Letters is itself thematically composed as one of the Seven Days of the Creation.  The Seven Letters, thus, represent a kind of "table of contents" of the seven major passages that will follow and they also tell us how to spot the sevenfold "riff" themes that are riffed back and forth throughout the book between its subsections.  For now, you just have to take my word for it, until you delve into the details yourself, but, to get you started, let me lay out the outline of the primary "Creation Week" pattern of the overall Book of Revelation for you:

1. Day One "Great Passage" (Rev. 1:1-3:22): The Vision of the Son of Man and the Letters to the Seven Churches

Day One in Creation: God "speaks" the light into being and calls it "good" and he names it "day".
Day One Themes: Lampstands (light), the word, hearing the voice of Jesus, day and night, good vs. evil/incompleteness, naming things, designating things, Tree of the Knowledge (the implied contrastive is the "Tree of Life"), knowing secrets, understanding/wisdom/knowledge/clarity to the truth, unveiling (apocaplypsis), all things "first" (e.g. first-born, first-separated/first-fruits), loyalty/obedience, speaking truthfully.

Look for the above themes in Jesus' letter to the first church, Ephesus. Incidentally, I don't think that it is coincidental that, in the passage of the Seven Letters, a lot of ink (or, shall we say, "red ink") is actually devoted to the very words of Jesus...much, much more than all the other sections of the book combined. Whenever the topic of "speech" or "words" or "voice" is highlighted in Revelation, your feelers should go up...You may be in a "first day" passage or sub-passage or first-day "note" (or even "half-note") in an interlude.  Revelation likes to nest "creation day riffs" within larger, overarching "creation days or weeks" at a number of scales, especially in breaking interludes--that is part of the jazzy, multi-valent scaling of its music.

2. Second Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 4:1-5:14, and the Seven Seals interlude or "break" of Chapter 6): The Visit Above the Firmament (aka, the "sea of glass, like crystal" beneath God's throne)

Second Day in Creation: God creates a firmament to separate the "waters above" from the "waters below".   
Second Day Themes: Above and below contrasts, separating, second things, breaking through or ripping apart, establishing one greater/worthier in importance and one lesser in importance, death and life, and especially: resurrection, coming back to life. Repeating things. Being once dead and now alive. Being once lowly/dirty but now righteous/clean/worthy and apart from the world.  Being made pure, putting on white garments, and, perhaps, other such concepts Jews associated with "baptism".  Note: the waters of the deep are a symbol for the grave in Jonas' song in the belly of the great fish.  (Another interesting note is that in Jewish tradition the "waters that are above" in the Second Day of the creation account are the especially flowing, "alive", sweet and refreshing drinking waters that are reserved for the cleansing/satiation of "the righteous in the world to come".)

Again, look for the above themes in Jesus' letter to the second church, Smyrna, and note the appearance of a "sea of glass, like crystal" (this is the hard, translucent "firmament" that God created on the second day) in the Second Day Great Passage.  Note also the themes of "being once slain" and "now alive".  Note the theme of breaking/separating through things in the Seven Seals improvisational "break" interlude (which riffs on other days besides the Second Day).  Note especially the sky (firmament) being ripped apart "like a scroll that is rolled back".

3. Third Day "Great Passage" (Rev. 7:1-11:19, this passage has within it several involved"breaks", including the Seven Trumpets and the "Two Witnessess"): The Gatherings of the Faithful

Third Day in Creation: God "gathers" the waters into "seas" (collections of water) and the dry earth appears. God causes the grass, plants, and trees to grow from the earth.  

Third Day Themes: Gathering things. Moses, Phinehas/Elijah and other "Exodus themes" (esp. fleeing someone, being faithful in contrast to everyone else, and gathering in the desert). Being a "witness" (esp. in seeing/hearing the Torah).  Seas, rivers and springs. Dry land, earth, stones, mountains. Harvest, growth, swords and sickles.  Mannah.  Stumbling blocks and words of teaching. Note: the symbol of the "mountain" refers to Sinai, i.e., the teaching or witnessing of Torah, in Jewish tradition.  The theme of "teaching" may also come from the symbol mannah in Jewish tradition and perhaps also the symbol of the dew "dropping on the grass", which was a symbol for the "words/explication of Torah" as it flowed from the lips of Moses on top the Israelites (it appears in Moses' blessing at the end of Deuteronomy).

Look for the above themes in Jesus' letter to the third church, Pergamum, and note the central importance of the teaching/faithfulness theme here. Note themes of "gathering" in the Third Day Great Passage.  Note that the very first of the Seven Trumpets "blasts" a judgment against the things that "appeared" in the Third Day of Creation. Note the density of all the imagery pulled from the Exodus story in these passages.

That's it for tonight...I will get to the remainder of the "Creation Days" in my next post.  Sorry for the long break from 33ad!