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!

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