Scholars have long noted that the two beasts of Rev. 13 are a recapitulation of the Leviathan and Behemoth motif found in the Old Testament and intertestamental literature. These beasts are symbols of chaos and evil and form bookends capping the Israelite view of history. At the beginning of history, they represent the chaos which God overcame when He established the ordered cosmos. In the course of history, their continued subjugation by God serves to remind humans of God’s power, and their own weakness. At the end of history, they are destroyed in the eschatological battle and judgement: their death represents God’s final act to judge and annihilate evil from His kingdom; they are served as food for His saints at the marriage-supper of the Lamb.
St John took this motif primarily from Daniel, but it can be found in the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and elsewhere. The precise meaning of the images in Daniel and John’s reworking of them has plagued interpreters since they were first penned. Some have come to the conclusion that they are generic symbols of spiritual and human evil, without specific identification.
We can, nonetheless, draw some conclusions about what St John was saying, while also asking questions about how we approach the interpretation of this passage. The broad brushstrokes tell us that the beast from the sea is a political and military entity that oppresses Christians, while the beast from the earth is a religious figure. Preterists have understood the first beast as Nero and the Roman Empire, while they have interpreted the second beast as the priests of the imperial cult, since the second beast promotes worship of the first beast.
This analysis leads to some important exegetical questions. Are there historical figures which these beasts represent? Does a historical interpretation exclude a futurist one? Do both of the beasts represent specific human figures? There have been disagreements regarding the last question: some have seen the first beast as symbolic only of an empire(s), with the second beast being the Antichrist figure, while others have seen the first beast as representing both the Antichrist and his empire, with the second beast representing a religious figure who supports him.
Many adherents of the “Islamic Antichrist Theory” identify the first beast as a revived caliphate, led by the Mahdi, while they see the second beast as an imposter, pretending to be the “Muslim Jesus”, i.e. the Jesus of the Qur’an and Hadith, rather than the Jesus of the Bible. For more information on this theory, see The Islamic Antichrist, Mideast Beast, and Mystery Babylon, by Joel Richardson.
The text seems to indicate that an empire and/or its ruler is revived: “And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast” (v. 3, KJV). Some preterists have argued that this is a reference to “Nero redivivus”, the popular myth that Nero had survived his downfall and the imposters who claimed to be “Nero alive again”. Others have interpreted this as a resurrection (or resurrection stunt) perpetrated by the Antichrist as his challenge to the true Christ.
Some have taken the beast from the earth as the revival of the first beast, understanding the earth as a reference to the grave or “abyss” from which the empire re-emerges. While this reading is certainly possible, verse 12 seems to indicate that the two beasts are simultaneous, not sequential: “And [the second beast] exercises all the power of the first beast in its presence, and causes the earth and those who dwell on it to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.”
I could go on, but I wish to end this post by discussing its application and relevance.
- Evil may appear triumphant, but it will be destroyed: the Beast and False Prophet are thrown into the Lake of Fire.
- Christians face persecution from the state, but also religious seduction. Sometimes this comes from other religions, sometimes this comes from within Christianity.
- Sometimes Christians must die for their faith – particularly when the alternative is apostasy. Unrepentant apostates will end up in Hell (Rev. 14:9-10).
- There is a spiritual dimension to our struggle: Satan gives authority to the Beast and lying miracles for the False Prophet to perform.
- The woes of the Middle East are not going away anytime soon: scholars have always identified the beasts of Dan. 7, which John fuses as the composite beast of Rev. 13, as empires of the Middle East, viz.: Babylon; Medo-Persia; Alexander and his successors.