(Rev. 12:1) Who is the woman: Israel, Mary, or the Church?

In Revelation 12, some of the symbols are very clear, while others are not.

The “red dragon” is no doubt Satan. John explicitly tells us that “the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan” (v.9; c.f. v.12). In addition, he wages war with Michael—the archangel—in heaven (v.7). Moreover, he is colored red, because he is drenched in the blood of believers (similar to the red horse of Revelation 6:4). He has a crown on his head (Rev. 12:3), as the current prince or ruler of the Earth (Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Eph. 2:2; 2 Cor. 4:4).

While the dragon imagery is clear, who is the woman whom he persecutes? Three primary answers are typically offered:

1. Israel?

Premillennial interpreters argue that the woman here is the nation of Israel. Advocates of this interpretation make a number of observations about the woman:

First, in the OT, the imagery of the sun, moon, and stars refers to the nation of Israel. Joseph said, “I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (Gen. 37:9). Osborne writes, “In Jewish literature ‘twelve stars’ often refers to the twelve patriarchs or the twelve tribes.”[1]

Second, in the OT, the image of a woman is frequently associated with Israel, Zion, or Jerusalem. Paul writes, “The Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother” (Gal. 4:26). Jeremiah writes, “Surely, as a woman treacherously departs from her lover, so you have dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel” (Jer. 3:20; c.f. Isa. 54:1-6; Ezek. 16:8-14; Hos. 2:19-20; Micah 4:9-10).

Third, in the OT, the image of being protected by eagle’s wings refers to Israel. In Exodus 19:4, we read, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself.” This seems to fit with the language in Revelation 12:14, where we read, “The two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman, so that she could fly into the wilderness to her place, where she was nourished.”

Fourth, the Woman is protected in the wilderness for 1,260 days. This fits with the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27, which is directed to Israel (“your people and your holy city”). This iteration of 3.5 years is mention five times through this section of Revelation (Rev. 11:2; 11:3; 12:6; 12:14; 13:5). Clearly, this time span of three and a half years must be important to the author. This seems to fit with half of the seven years, where the Antichrist will be in power (Dan. 9:26-27).

Fifth, Daniel 12 predicted that Michael would rise up at this time to protect Israel—not the Church (Dan. 12:1). Daniel writes, “Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued” (Daniel 12:1). We see a fulfillment of this, when John writes, “And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war” (Rev. 12:7).

Sixth, Jesus is said to rule the nations with a rod of iron. In Revelation 19:15, we read, “From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron.” Thus the man-child of verse 5 must be Jesus—not the Church.

2. Mary?

Roman Catholic interpreters argue that the woman here is Mary, Jesus’ mother. Advocates of this interpretation argue that the woman is referred to in the singular (Rev. 12:5, 17). If the nation of Israel or the Church were really in view, then why is this woman just a singular person? Also, the most natural and straightforward reading would be to think of this as Jesus’ mother, Mary.

Of course, critics of this view make a number of counter arguments to this interpretation:

First, this is symbolic language, and it shouldn’t be read rigidly. Since we are reading apocalyptic literature, we shouldn’t place too much weight on the fact that this is spoken of as a singular woman.

Second, when did the 1,260 days of nourishment occur in Mary’s life, as the text explains (vv.6, 14)? This time frame, which is mentioned five times in the text (Rev. 11:2; 11:3; 12:6; 12:14; 13:5), seems to fit best with Daniel’s vision of the 70th seven in Daniel 9:27 (as argued above).

Third, when was Mary persecuted so intensely? John writes, “When the dragon saw that he was thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child” (v.13). Roman Catholic interpreters usually identify this with Mary seeing Jesus crucified in front of her. But this doesn’t seem to fit the language of Revelation 12.

Fourth, Roman Catholics believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin—not giving birth to more children. While the Bible affirms that Mary had more children (Mt. 1:25; 12:46-47; 13:55; Mk. 6:2-3; Jn. 2:12; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:4-5; Gal. 1:19), Roman Catholics argue that this Greek word for “brothers” (adelphos) should actually be translated cousins. While NT scholars disagree with this view,[2] we should see how this doctrine would preclude Mary from being the woman in Revelation 12 from a Roman Catholic perspective. If Mary remained a perpetual virgin, then who are “the rest of her children” mentioned at the end of the chapter? (Rev. 12:17)

3. The Church?

Amillennial and historical premillennial interpreters argue that the woman here is the church. Advocates of this interpretation argue that the NT authors call the Church a woman (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25–27, 32; 2 Jn. 1, 5; 3 Jn. 9), and the early church fathers call the Church a woman as well (Hermas V.1.i–ii).[3] Moreover, Revelation 2:26-27 promises the church of Thyratira that they would reign with Christ with a rod of iron, as in verse 5 (“She gave birth to a son… who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron”).

However, this expression is also directed at Jesus specifically (Rev. 19:15), as was argued above. Moreover, this interpretation puts the amillennial interpreter in the awkward position of believing that the Church gave birth to Christ! Can we really hold to such a view? Surely this puts the cart before the horse! Additionally, if the woman is the church, then who are “the rest of her children” (v.17) mentioned later?

To avoid this difficulty, some amillennial and historical premillennial interpreters state that the male-child is actually the church that gave birth to more believers in Christ (v.17). However, this would negate the earlier argument that the Church is referred to as a woman. That is, here, the Church would be referred to as a man (i.e. a male-child; v.5), which doesn’t seem to fit any biblical imagery for the church.

Conclusion

For the reasons listed above, this author holds to the first view that the Woman is Israel, giving birth to the Messiah, and showing back up in the final tribulation at the end of human history.



[1] Osborne, Grant. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002. 456.

[2] Blomberg writes, “As Roman Catholicism developed, with its doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, alternate understandings of ‘brother’ developed as well, including the ideas that adelphos referred to a more distant relative of some kind or that Joseph had other children by a previous wife. But the most natural inference from Matthew 1:25 is that Joseph and Mary had other children after Jesus was born, and adelphos only very rarely means anything in Koine Greek other than a physical or spiritual sibling.” Blomberg, Craig. From Pentecost to Patmos: an Introduction to Acts through Revelation. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006. See footnote on page 387.

[3] Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (514). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.