Beyond the Metaphor
An Exploration of the Virgin/ Whore Complex in John's Revelation
As both a symbol and as a Biblical figure, the Whore of Babylon retains her femininity in every interpretation, and it is her depiction as a woman that is the most damning to her. Drawing from the style of the Hebrew Prophets, this chapter from Revelation draws from what feminist theory calls, the “Virgin/Whore dichotomy” and is a typical reflection of male control of sexuality (Nelavala, 1). According to the Virgin and the Whore dichotomy, a woman’s sexuality is defined in extremes-either completely pure (the virgin) or completely defiled (the whore). Women within each category are assigned certain characteristics and behaviors that become defining of the woman entirely. The virgin, for example, is the Madonna figure: pure, righteous, respectable, and human. The whore is considered corrupt, evil, detestable, and even inhuman. The use of the dichotomy draws from the Hebrew Prophet’s metaphorical references to cities and nations as “Brides, wives, or harlots” (Coogan, 2173). While the Whore of Babylon is intended to be a metaphor for the Roman Empire, the decision to feminize the city of Rome was a deliberate choice to evoke pre-existing assumptions and social norms about women. As a woman, the Whore of Babylon helps to unpack the construction of the Virgin Whore dichotomy within the Bible, and to examine its impacts on external culture.
Throughout the Bible, the women generally fall into this dichotomy- with some sparse exceptions like Mary of Magdalene- and the use of the Virgin/Whore language is strongly indicative of a patriarchal audience that determines a woman’s worth based largely off of her sexuality. In reality, there is a spectrum of grey area that rests between the Virgin and the Whore, and the majority of women fall somewhere in that grey area. When there is a disconnect between the formative texts of a particular culture and the readership of the texts themselves, there can be serious consequences to social conduct and identity formation.
The use of woman-as-city metaphor is seen throughout the works of the Hebrew Prophets, and becomes a point of reference in the writing of Revelation. In Hosea, the lord says, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredome, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the lord” (Hosea 1:2). Similar to the Whore of Babylon, “the land” becomes feminized for its infidelity to the Lord. According to Hosea, “harlots” (prostitutes) can be given the name not because they have been prostitutes, but because of the “adulterous and idolatrous behavior” (Setel, 91). It also could be because of their unfaithfulness to Yahweh alone, and their participation in Canaanite ritual activity (relationships with male gods other than Yahweh). In Hosea 2:15, he states, “I will Punish her for the feast days of the ba’alim (Canaanite Gods) when she burned incense to them…” (Setel 91). Her punishment also parallels that which the Whore of Babylon is predicted to suffer. While the Whore of Babylon is said to be stripped of her clothing and revealed, God says of the whore of Hosea that he will, “I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and turn her into a parched land, and kill her with thirst.” (Hosea 2:2-3). The whore’s punishment is similarly seen as just and acceptable, for she had strayed from God. His views clearly show no sympathy for “harlots” and their unfaithfulness to men and Yahweh is cause for violence and destruction.
Drawing from the works of the Hebrew Prophets, the Whore of Babylon in Revelation builds on the construction of whoredome. She is described as “clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls,” (Rev 17:4). The Whore is very well dressed and is clearly very wealthy, which is exemplified through her abundance of jewelry. She is also “holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication” (Rev 17:4). This description represents her “sins.” By holding them in a golden cup, this portrays the great value she associates with them. The Whore is described as nameless, and she is only recognized as what she is: a whore. “On her forehead was written a name, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations’” (Rev. 17:5). Her name is left as a mystery, leaving her to only be recognized as the “Great mother of whores” and nothing else, thus removing any personal connection. Although it is not stated directly in the Bible, it is implied that she is a very beautiful and attractive woman. Along with her description, her actions are very crucial in understanding her role. Her tendency to seduce men defines her as a purely sexual individual. This exemplifies her power and need for control tremendously. The author of Revelation states, “With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk” (Rev 17:4). Men are purely drunk off her, and will participate the only type of interaction she will take part in, sexual activity. The Whore is purely a sexually driven individual and has the power to control anyone who will take part in it. She is also depicted as seated on a beast with seven heads and ten horns. The author states, “These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast” (Rev 17:14). This depicts her complete control and her desire to have a great deal of power. Having control of a beast implies she is a beast herself. Although the Whore is clearly a very central character in Revelation, she never directly speaks. The author of Revelation states, “Since in her heart she says, ‘I rule as a queen, I am no widow and I will never see grief” (Revelation, 18:7). She never directly speaks; it is only implied, but never is actually heard through Revelation. However, through comparing herself to a queen, it implies how powerful she believes she is. She is also not a widow, which implies her own independence; she has power, but it is solely hers, and is a result of her own actions.
John confronts the Whore of Babylon with both awe and hatred, playing on both her desirability as well as her baseness. When he first encounters the Whore of Babylon, John says, “I was greatly amazed” (Rev 17:7). Perhaps in awe of her power or her seductiveness, John seems to be rendered helpless in the presence of the Whore of Babylon, even if it is only temporary, and it sends the message that a powerful women is something amazing. Ironically the whore’s feminine power is also destroyed by her femininity. Whore of Babylon plays off pre existing patriarchal norms of female oppression. In many characterizations of conquered nations in Roman reliefs, the nations are depicted as women beaten by the conquering man. It is likely that the writer of Revelation took note of this trend in Roman Art as a way of humiliating and emasculating the Roman empire (Benedict). In both Roman and Israelite societies, being considered a woman is the ultimate insult. Not only is Rome a woman, which is already an insult, but it is also a whore, the lowest of the low.
To defeat the power of Whore, God and the people with whom she fornicated turn against her to humiliate and destroy her. Described by Pippin as, “The Apocalypse is a misogynist male fantasy of the end of time” (Pippin, 193) the destruction of the Whore is a graphic destruction of femininity. The Angel says to John, “They and the beast will hate the whore, they will make her desolate and naked; they will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire” (Rev. 17:16). First make her desolate by stripping her of her luxuries and leaving her with nothing. Second, they leaver her naked, exposing her and making her vulnerable to violence. Third they devour her flesh which could be either beating or rape, and finally they burn her with fire- destroying her completely. In the wake of the brutal destruction of the Whore of Babylon, the Angel says to John,“Rejoice over her, O heaven, you saints and apostles and prophets! For God has given judgement for you against her” (Rev 18: 20). There is no pity for the Whore, and the brutality is considered to be just in the eyes of God.
Putting aside the woman-as- city- metaphor completely, each example draws on the gender relations of the time in which it was written and reinforces norms about power, violence, and sexuality for its readership. First, the imagery of the whore in Revelation as well as other biblical whores provide a framework to determine who is a whore. In each example a whore becomes most notably defined by her sexuality. But within the dichotomy, the line between whore and virgin can be drawn at any form of premarital sex.In her article, “Babylon the Great Mother of Whores: A Postcolonial Feminist Perspective” Surekha Nelavala describes how the metaphor of the whore of Babylon does not make it any less dangerous to modern women. Drawing from her research in India, Nelavala relates the stories of women who, for varying reasons, take on the title, whore, and its impact on their lives. In her most striking example she retells the story of Phoolan Devi, a young Indian woman who, after experiencing a rape, takes on the label of whore through no misdeeds of her own. “Because she had been raped,” Nelavala states, “the rumor was spread that she was a whore and available to any man for sex” (Nelavala 62). What follows is a lifetime of repeated rape and violence that parallels the destruction of the Whore of Babylon. “How could they read the violence directed against the whore in Revelation without appropriating it to themselves?” (Nelavala 63). While the experiences of Phoolan Devi and those of the Whore of Babylon are vastly different, they both share the title of “whore” as a part of the Whore/Virgin dichotomy. In this way, Phoolan’s experiences are in part due to the construction of the whore as described in Revelation. Once such a severe, yet general, title is applied, nuance is erased.
Aside from any indication of sexual activity, the label of the whore is so generally applied that it can even be attached to women who do not engage in sex of any kind. Nalavala states later in her argument that the Whore of Babylon was chosen to represent Rome “not because the Romans are evil, but primarily because they are the archetypal rich and powerful” (Nalavala 63). In this interpretation one does not become a whore simply by engaging in sex, but one can also fall under the label by being a woman who is particularly powerful, persuasive, or threatening. When reading the passage of the Whore of Babylon considering this, it sends a clear and unnerving message: women who speak out will be punished. In this way, the Virgin and Whore dichotomy is not only a product of the patriarchy but also a crucial part to continuing its existence. The construction of the whore within the context of the Bible and its readership reinforces a patriarchal structure of society by condemning women who either have sexual agency or whose independent power threatens or resembles forms of masculine power.
Second, the construction of the whore creates a code-of-conduct that justifies violence against women deemed as whores. If a woman becomes a whore when she is powerful, persuasive, or threatening (traits that are generally associated with masculinity), they make themselves subject to violence and ultimately destruction. The whore looses her identity as a human being all together. She becomes a vessel of vice through which thoses who she entrances becomes damned. In the destruction of the Whore of Babylon and the whore in Hosea, the humiliation, torture, and destruction are portrayed as just and evokes no pity from neither the people in the text, nor the readers because they have been constructed in such a way that rob them of their humanity. A whore is not a person; rather she is a “mother of whores and of earth’s abominations”, thus making it easier to treat them inhumanely (Revelation 17:6).The Virgin/Whore dichotomy simplifies the female experience into general categories that often leave little room for pity and understanding for anyone who does not conform to the impossible standards of the Virgin.
Benedict, James. 2016. “The great whore cast down: Revelation 17-18 and the imagery of roman conquest.” Brethren Life and Thought 61 (1) (2016): 39-48. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerial, EBSCOhost (accessed March 16, 2017).
Cole, William Graham. Sex And Love In The Bible. New York: Association Press, n.d
Coogan, Michael David., Marc Zvi. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
Nelavala, Surekha. 2009. "'Babylon the great mother of whores' (Rev 17:5): a postcolonial feminist perspective." The Expository Times 121, no. 2: 60-65. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 15, 2017).
Pippin, T. (1992). Eros and the End: Reading for Gender in the Apocalypse of John. Semeia: An Experimental Journal for Biblical Criticism, 59, 193-210. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 15, 2017
Russell, Letty M. Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Philadelphia: Westminister Press, n.d.