In Revelation 12, there is a pregnant woman clothed in the sun with the moon at her feet and a crown of stars on her head. She is chased by a dragon and gives birth to a child. A proxy war ensued in heaven, and Michael and his angels purged the woman’s antagonist, a dragon, and forced the dragon and his subordinates to the earth. After it became clear the dragon would not be able to capture the woman or her recently-born child, he turned his attention to the woman’s other children, who were the keepers of the law (Rev 12:17).
A person reading Revelation, with the knowledge that a Gnostic wave would soon merge into Christianity, might recognize this woman as an inkling of the heavenly wisdom aeon Sophia, whose actions caused an abortion in heaven and helped to give birth to the material realm.
The assumption that this heavenly woman and Sophia share attributes is correct; however, this woman was more than simply the inspiration for later Gnostic formulations. I believe she was the central figure in the cults which later became Christianity, Mandaeanism, and Manicheanism.
One question this plot development in Revelation 12 raises is: why should angels in heaven fight on her behalf?
She must have been very important in heaven to have triggered such a fierce defense. The fact that her child was taken up to heaven while the woman was on Earth implies some sort of detachment between her and the powers who took her child. Yet the child was so important that he compelled the highest forces in heaven to raise and prepare him for future principle roles.
This woman, her newborn child, and her older offspring (Rev 12:17) are critical to the story. They foreshadow a child of heavenly origins, as well as a nod to those religious communities who were waiting for the heavenly child to come to earth. This foreshadowing is fulfilled in Revelation 14, when the Lamb stands on Mount Zion, along with his 144,000 abstinent, blemish-free, truth-telling followers who were the only ones who knew the Lamb’s special song (Rev 14:3). We get earlier context in Revelation 5:6, when the lamb took the scroll, and the harp-holding creatures sang and burned incense.
So who was the woman on whose account the war in heaven was fought? Who gave birth to the coming messiah, and whose previous children were the keepers of God’s law?
The woman was the Queen of Heaven. She is in many different religions and has many different names. Jews called her Ashera, and the Egyptians and Canaanites called her Anat.
The Queen of Heaven was considered the wife of whichever God her adherents worshiped, and across various iterations, congregants burned incense for her.
She became known throughout Old Testament texts as Wisdom, and can be found in several books. Her influence might even be found in Genesis 2, where two trees were described, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. Of course, the tree of knowledge bore the fruit that eventually catalyzed man’s downfall, but as Margaret Barker points out in her paper “Wisdom and the Other Tree“,
The tree of life was the Lady and her wisdom in the temple; the other tree, which the Lord God had warned against and forbidden, must have represented the alternative to wisdom which had been established in the temple”.
Reference to the Lady Wisdom is also found in Proverbs 4
Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or turn away from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over…She will give you a garland to grace your head and present you with a glorious crown.
Consider words from the Wisdom of Solomon 6 in this context. It is not only relevant that wisdom is referred to as feminine (of course, this might simply be an aspect of the language), but also that this wisdom is accessible and hidden-in-plain sight – available for anyone who seeks her.
So then listen, you rulers, and understand. Learn, you who judge the far reaches of the earth. Pay attention, you who have power over multitudes, you who take pride in having power over throngs of nations…The Lord gave you authority to rule…Wisdom is bright and unfading. She readily appears to those who love her. She’s found by those who keep seeking after her…She herself goes about looking for those who are worthy of her…If you love Wisdom, you will keep her laws. If you are attentive to her laws, you can be assured that you will live forever…I’ll tell you what Wisdom is and how she came into being. I won’t hide these secret matters from you. I’ll show you her very origins.
The Queen of Heaven was featured prominently for the majority of the time that Solomon’s temple, the first Jewish temple, stood. Although she was nearly purged several centuries earlier by King Asa (1 Kings 15:9-13), it was only after King Josiah commissioned renovations on Solomon’s temple that the Queen of Heaven fell from grace.
2 Kings 22 has Josiah’s high priest discovering a secret “book of the law” which served to clarify religious rules – it seems to have been some long-lost portion of Deuteronomy, which is still extant. The clarification converted Judaism from a quasi-polytheistic religion which left room for Asherah and Baal into a rigid monotheism dogmatically attached to “Moses'” law.
It is likely the following excerpt was included in this “discovery”:
Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.
2 Kings 23 has Josiah ordering the removal of “all articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. They then burned these items outside of Jerusalem, and he pushed out priests who had burned incense “to the sun and moon, to the constellations and to all the starry hosts”. He proceeded to desecrate the other holy spots which the Queen’s followers would have treasured.
Furthermore, Josiah got rid of the mediums and spiritists, the household gods, the idols and all the other detestable things seen in Judah and Jerusalem. This he did to fulfill the requirements of the law written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of the Lord.
A reader of this story might assume this was the end of the Queen of Heaven’s rule on Earth. However, we see many indications in other Old Testament texts. There are ongoing popular concerns, depicted in Jeremiah 44, that the destruction of Solomon’s temple several years later was a result of Josiah’s purge.
Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”
The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?”
The interesting detail here is that the later pushback against the Queen of Heaven’s purge was occurring in Egypt, where many Jews had gone after being expelled from Judea following the Neo-Babylonian siege. In this context, it is interesting that Alexandria might very well have been the place where the Gnostic Sophia, who was also wisdom personified, was invented.
Consider an evolving picture of those who were the “elect wise”, found in 1 Enoch:
And for all of you sinners there shall be no salvation, But on you all shall abide a curse. But for the elect there shall be light and joy and peace, And they shall inherit the earth. And then there shall be bestowed upon the elect wisdom, And they shall all live and never again sin, Either through ungodliness or through pride.
Wisdom found no place where she might dwell; Then a dwelling-place was assigned her in the heavens. Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men, And found no dwelling-place: Wisdom returned to her place, And took her seat among the angels.
1 Enoch continues to lend tremendous insight into the view that gave rise to Revelation. In fact, this seems like a prerequisite to Revelation.
And behold! He cometh with ten thousands of His holy ones To execute judgement upon all, And to destroy all the ungodly…
In those days violence shall be cut off from its roots, And the roots of unrighteousness together with deceit, And they shall be destroyed from under heaven. And all the idols of the heathen shall be abandoned, And the temples burned with fire, And they shall remove them from the whole earth, And they (i.e. the heathen) shall be cast into the judgement of fire, And shall perish in wrath and in grievous judgement for ever. And the righteous shall arise from their sleep, And wisdom shall arise and be given unto them.
Probably more to come on this subject…