Tomorrow is the feast of Michael and All Angels, which some will be celebrating at the weekend, and the key lectionary reading for the feast is Rev 12.7–12. Although the festival focusses on Michael, everything about this passages actually focusses away from Michael and points us to the victory of God and the lamb—even Michael’s name! This is what I wrote in my Tyndale Commentary, as an introduction to chapter 12, comments on the particular verses, and a theological conclusion to the whole chapter.
We now come to what commentators universally agree is the central and pivotal chapter in the book. Although this chapter is not styled as an interlude to a series in way chapters 7 and 10–11 are, it stands out as distinctive in style and language. A decisive break with the previous narrative is marked by the opening comment, not ‘And I saw…’ but ‘And a great sign appeared in heaven…’
The shape of this chapter and the one that follows are also distinctive. Together, Rev. 12–13 form the longest continuous narrative within the whole book. But Rev. 12 itself has perhaps the clearest structure of any section, following into four interconnected parts:
opening narrative about the woman, the child and the dragon (vv. 1–6)
short narrative about war in heaven (vv. 7–9)
poetic hymn of praise (vv. 10–12)
resumption of the opening narrative of woman, child and dragon (vv. 13–17)
As we shall see, sections 2 and 3 are epexegetical of each preceding section, that is, they function to explain what has gone before, until the original narrative is resumed after the hymn has made clear what this whole episode is about. And explanation is needed because of the unusual nature of the main narrative in 1–6 and 13–17, which contains many ideas that are not found in the Old Testament nor earlier in Revelation. We can recognize the characters easily enough – the woman as the people of God awaiting deliverance, the dragon as ‘that ancient serpent called the devil’, the child who is the anointed king in Psalm 2, Michael the great angelic prince of Israel – but the plot is strange to us.
However, it would not have been strange to John nor to his audience. It has clear connections to a myth that was widely circulated from the third century BC to the second century AD in a variety of forms, the best known being the story of Leto, Python and Apollo. Python, a huge dragon, was warned by an oracle that he would be destroyed by one of Leto’s children. Leto was a lover of Zeus who was married to Hera. When Hera learned that Leto was pregnant, she banished her; Leto gave birth to her twins, Artemis and Apollo, on the island of Delos (about 40 miles (70 km) due West of Patmos). Python pursued her in order to destroy her offspring, but she was carried away by Aquilo (Latin for the north wind) and protected by Poseidon with waves. When four days old, Apollo hunted down Python and killed him with arrows (both Apollo and Artemis were archers). [This is a summary of the version recorded by the Latin author Hyginus in his collection of mythology Fabulae (no. 140). Hyginus (ca. 64 BC to AD 17) was a freedman of Augustus and the superintendent of the library on the Palatine.] This story was used as imperial propaganda, particularly by Domitian, to portray the emperor as Apollo, the son of the gods and defeater of the chaos monster.