Identifying the Woman
Following the First Century Jewish Teenager’s approach, we have climbed out the marsh on to the stepping stone regarding the seven heads on the dragon and the beast. Our next step is equally reliable because we can use their timing to identify the woman. Knowing the seven heads are the seven great Gentile empires that had ruled, were ruling, and would rule over Israel, we can be absolutely certain of the timing of the first six:
(i) Egypt (ruled over Israel 1876-1446 BC)
(ii) Assyria (ruled over Israel 740-606 BC)
(iii) Babylon (ruled over Israel 586-539 BC)
(iv) Medo-Persia (ruled over Israel 539-330 BC)
(v) Greece (ruled over Israel 330-178 BC)
(vi) Rome (conquered Israel 63 BC and still ruling when John is writing)
This means the first six heads spanned 2,000 years and enables us to unequivocally establish the identity of the woman being attacked by the seven-headed dragon in Revelation 12. If we get this right, we have another rock-solid stepping-stone;1 get it wrong and we are heading back into the marsh.
The Woman of Revelation 12
John describes her as ‘clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (v. 1) and giving birth to Messiah (v. 5). The seven-headed dragon is trying to ‘devour her child’ (v. 4) and when he fails, he ‘persecutes’ the woman (v. 13) but she is given ‘the two wings of the great eagle… to fly into the wilderness’ (v. 14). There ‘she would be nourished for 1,260 days’ (v. 6) or ‘a time, times, and half a time’ (v. 14).
Today, at this point, we are usually offered four different directions through the marsh but all four end up in the marsh. The New Oxford Annotated Bible gives three of them:
The woman is unnamed, and her precise identity is uncertain. Many scholars understand her as the symbolic representation of Israel, from whom the messiah is born (v. 5); the twelve stars thus refer to the twelve tribes. Patristic and mediaeval Christian interpreters most often take her to be Mary, or sometimes to be the church.2
The Roman Catholic Church, for example, teaches that she is Mary, ‘Queen of the Angels’, but Laurie Guy, that she may be all three:
At this point her person has mutated. Earlier she was Israel or Mary (12:13). Now she is the church…3
Dispensationalist teacher John Walvoord sees her as ‘the godly remnant of Israel standing true to God in the time of the great tribulation’4 while Craig R. Koester offers the fourth:
The woman represents the people of God… (She) is the mother of all believers… (She) encompasses the story of Israel, from whom the Messiah was born, as well as history of the church, which was persecuted after Jesus’ death and resurrection… (She encompasses) Eve, the mother of all living…5
N.T. Wright notes ‘the problem of identification’ and wishes John could have given his characters ‘at least a little label, now and then, to give us a clue’6 before also deciding she is indeed ‘God’s people’ back to Eve:
She is here seen not as the faithless Israel rebuked so often by the prophets, but as the true, faithful Israel… the ‘priestly kingdom, holy nation’ of Exodus 19.6. She represents the entire story of God’s people, chosen to carry forward his plans for the nations and indeed for the whole creation… The second image behind the woman in this passage may well be Eve… The two identities go together.7
He adds that after her child is caught up:
The woman – the faithful people of God – remains in danger. This, again, can scarcely refer to Mary, and at this point it can’t refer, either, to the ethnic people of Israel… [she] must be the church itself.8
So which is the reliable stepping stone? Is she Mary or ‘the true, faithful’ nation of Israel or the church or all the people of God from Eve onwards? She is none of these – which is why we have ended up in the marsh.
The First Century Jewish Teenager Approach
If we take the FCJT9 approach again, we will find the solid-rock stepping stone: the woman is the nation of Israel ‘according to the flesh… from whom is the Christ according to the flesh’.10 i.e.: the ethnic people of Israel. She is not ‘the true, faithful Israel’ but unbelieving Israel – ‘the ethnic people of Israel’ who had to leave the land of Israel and go back into the wilderness.11
How would a 1st Century Jewish teenager have known this? Because Professor Wright’s wish was granted – she is actually wearing seven identifying labels which we may not recognise today but which were all very familiar to them.
(i) The sun, moon, and twelve stars
Any Jewish teenager would have recognised these first three labels from Joseph’s prophetic dream when he was a teenager (Gen 37:9) in about 1900 BC because he was famous for saving his family and his generation. He and his dreams are still celebrated today even by Gentiles in Webber and Rice’s musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Jacob interpreted the dream as portraying himself as the sun, Rachel as the moon, and his eleven sons as eleven stars, Joseph being the twelfth.12
All three of these labels identify her as ethnic Israel.
(ii) Israel as a woman in labour
Israel was also often depicted as a woman in labour17 because, being God’s wife,18 she was to give birth to Messiah, Abraham’s promised Seed.19
(iii) Eagles’ wings
Israel became a nation when God bore them into the wilderness “on eagles’ wings”20 on the way to the Promised Land; these wings signify God’s care and protection.21 Accordingly, when John and his Jewish audience learn that Israel is again being given “the two wings of the great eagle” to flee into “the wilderness of the peoples”22 due to the Romans in 70 AD, they know God has still not given up on their nation.
(iv) She is ‘nourished’ in the wilderness
Who besides the ethnic nation of Israel was ever given manna, ‘bread out of heaven’,23 and water from rocks to sustain them for forty years in the wilderness? Would any 1st Century Jewish teenager have not known of this?
(v) The archangel Michael
The dragon was defeated by Michael and his angels24 and Jewish children were taught that Michael is “the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people”, Israel.25
All seven identifying features therefore show the woman to be the nation of Israel ‘according to the flesh’26 who brought forth Messiah ‘according to the flesh’.27 John then sees her being punished for rejecting Him by being exiled from the Promised Land to ‘the wilderness of the peoples’ where she was to be ‘nourished’28 rather than left to perish.
A Teenager’s Conclusions Re Revelation 12
What then could a 1st Century Jewish teenager have readily understood from the woman in Revelation 12?
(i) Israel’s purpose
Israel’s purpose and reason for being as a nation was to bring forth Messiah, despite her many failings and the attempts of six successive, powerful, and ruthless Gentile empires to annihilate or assimilate her over the previous 2,000 years to prevent this birth.
(ii) Satan’s opposition
These human attempts were orchestrated behind the scenes by a greater spiritual power, ‘a great red dragon’ who is ‘the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan’ (v. 9). Having failed to stop Messiah coming, Satan will not stop trying to kill her (v. 13, 15) and the rest of her children (v. 17).
(iii) The razing of Jerusalem
The woman’s fleeing from the land into the wilderness was due to the hand of God. If the teenager was a disciple of Jesus, he or she would have heard of His warning that they were to flee Jerusalem when they saw the Roman siege because these would be the “days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled”;29 that this was God’s “setting their city on fire” for rejecting Jesus as His Son, the Bridegroom.30
(iv) God’s faithfulness
This teenager could also be sure that despite everything, God had not given up on her as a nation. She was to be ‘nourished’ in the wilderness (v. 6, 14) during this new Roman exile and even helped by ‘the earth’ (v. 16) before being restored yet again.
Isaiah prophesied this time:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child
And have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.”31
The woman Israel had indeed forgotten – even agreed to the Romans crucifying – her Son but, contrary to what is often taught today, God will never reject her. He promised through Moses:
“Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God. But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD.”32
Unbelieving Israel will never be rejected as a nation by God. Unbelieving individuals will be, like branches broken off an olive tree,33 and an ‘entire generation’ was34 but God will always ensure the nation’s survival. Jeremiah reminded his countrymen of this promise during the Babylonian exile:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar… : “If this fixed order departs from before Me,” declares the LORD, “Then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before Me forever.” Thus says the LORD, “If the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,” declares the LORD.35
As long as the sun, moon, and stars shine and the waves roll, Israel will never cease to be a nation, 36 no matter what they have done,37 even in rejecting Jesus. As Paul explained to the Romans:
I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! …God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew …I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be!38
His expression ‘May it never be!’ (Grk, me genoito) means ‘Absolutely not!’ Paul uses this, the strongest negative Greek expression, fourteen times in his letters, always after rhetorical questions, to pronounce the thought absurd, outrageous, abhorrent. God will never reject Israel as a nation – as individuals who reject Him, yes,39 but as a nation, absolutely not.
From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.40
This is a rock-solid stepping stone on which we can stand and rest.
The next stone is the length of time Israel would be in the Roman exile but let’s summarise what we have established so far.
(i) While today’s scholars are confused about the identity of the woman John saw in Revelation 12, a 1st Century Jewish teenager would have immediately recognised her. We should therefore follow the FCJT (First Century Jewish Teenager’s) approach.
(ii) She is not Mary, as Roman Catholicism teaches, nor the church, as many Protestant teachers believe, nor is she the people of God, from Eve through the nation of Israel to the church, as others teach, nor ‘the godly remnant of Israel standing true to God in the time of the great tribulation’, as taught by Dispensationalism.
(iii) N.T. Wright’s wish that John could have used ‘at least a little label, now and then, to give us a clue’ was actually granted – her seven labels would have been quickly recognised by the Jewish teenager because the first three come from the famous dream of their most famous teenager and, ultimately, national saviour, Joseph.
(iv) The fourth label of the woman in labour was a frequently used metaphor for Israel; the fifth of ‘the two wings of the great eagle’ spoke of Israel’s becoming a nation; the sixth, being ‘nourished’ in the wilderness was unique to Israel; and the seventh, it is Michael, the guardian archangel of Israel, who fights the dragon on her behalf.
(v) We know therefore beyond any doubt she is Israel ‘according to the flesh’, unbelieving Israel. She had to flee to the wilderness of all the nations, exiled again from the Promised Land, because she had rejected her promised son, Jesus of Nazareth, as Messiah.
Mary: By Diego Velázquez – Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15587492
Dispora: By Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper,, pp. 324-325. – http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?ils:14:./temp/~pp_UbCa::, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5108973
Label image byBrett Jordan from Pexels
Mother & baby image by: Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels
The State of Israel: By Rudi Weissenstein – Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33261039
- See Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 435 NT.
- Making Sense of the Book of Revelation, p. 119. Also Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, p. 157.
- The Revelation of Jesus Christ, p. 188.
- Revelation and the End of All Things, pp. 123-124. So too Merrill C. Tenney (Interpreting Revelation, p. 77) and Michael Wilcock (The Message of Revelation, pp. 118-119).
- Revelation for Everyone, p. 107, emphasis added.
- Revelation for Everyone, p. 108.
- Ibid, p. 109.
- First Century Jewish Teenager
- Rom 9:3-5
- Rev 12:6
- Gen 37:10-11
- Clothes denote identity (Matt 6:29, Luke 15:22, Gal 3:27, Rev 3:5).
- Gen 32:28
- Jer 31:15, Matt 2:18
- The Greek, stephanos, is to identify a bride or a winning athlete cf. diadema, a crown of authority
- Isa 26:17, Jer 4:31, 6:24, 30:6; Mic 4:10, 5:3
- Isa 54:5, Jer 31:32, Ezek 16:32, Hos 2:2
- Gen 12:3, Num 24:17, Mic 5:2, Gal 3:16
- Ex 19:4
- Deut 32:11
- Ezek 20:35
- Psa 78:24
- Rev 12:7-9
- Dan 12:1. Also 10:21.
- Rom 9:3
- Rom 9:5
- Rev 12:6 & 14
- Luke 21:22
- Matt 22:7
- Isa 49:15
- Lev 26:44-45, emphasis added.
- Rom 11:20-22
- Num 32:13
- Jer 31:35-37, emphasis added
- Rom 11:1-2, 11
- Rom 11:20-22. Also Matt 7:21-23, 2 Tim 2:12-13
- Rom 11:28-29, emphasis added