Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

She is introduced:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.—Revelation 12:1 (NIV)

Who is the woman referred to here? Is it Mary, the Church, the Jews, or someone else?

share|improve this question

migrated from Jun 29 '12 at 20:25

This question came from our site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more.

The EU! Ha, just kidding... – Wikis Jun 29 '12 at 20:44
I dealt with this some in answering this question. – Caleb Jun 29 '12 at 23:07
@Caleb I thought it was funny that your linked answer and my answer (below) arrived at the same conclusion, even though my emphasis was on how we need to understand it in the context of the passage which contains it, and your emphasis was on how it can't be understood without the context of Scriptures outside of the passage which contains it! (We probably agree in practice, but it was funny to me how we were making somewhat opposite points.) – Jas 3.1 Jun 30 '12 at 0:41
@Jas3.1 Your answer is excellent and I agree with the conclusion, however in point 3 at the end it hinges entirely on your assertion that no interpretation of this passage no matter how metaphoric can be seen to be filled in Mary. The Catholic church claims it was. In order to make sense of that (im)possibility I think one must bring the weight of the rest of scripture to bear on the matter. Your interpretation is good, but depends on your view on several issues going into the interpretation process. Rather than depending on your assumptions, why not let it depend on other scripture? – Caleb Jul 1 '12 at 5:49
@JohnMartin That's not really how this works. Some things can be fixed by third party edits, but the sort of re-focusing I suggested would need to come from the author. I've given my suggestion for how the answer could me improved. It's up to Jas to try to implement it or not; he already has my upvote this is just a suggested for fixing one area where it is weak. If I was going to do it I would spend the time answering myself. – Caleb Mar 25 '14 at 16:55
up vote 8 down vote accepted

One of my favorite sayings in hermeneutics is:

The meaning of a word is determined by the context in which it is used.

As you indicated in your question, there are many "women" mentioned in the Bible, so to determine which "woman" is being referenced here, we need to look at the context. As we proceed, keep in mind that this is "a great sign in heaven", so the language is very symbolic. (If you don't want to read the whole thing, I suppose you could just skip to the bottom.)

The Child

and she was with child, and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth. -v. 2

And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne. -v. 5

We are given enough familiar language in verse 5 to identify the "child" as Jesus. The child being "caught up to God and to His throne", then, is referring to the ascension of Jesus after His crucifixion. (NOTE: This identification is further reinforced by careful consideration of verses 17 and 10.)

her child was caught up to God and to His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God -v. 5-6

After the ascension of Jesus, the "woman" flees into a place prepared by God, although it is not clear from this verse if she flees immediately after the ascension, or if some events transpire between the ascension and fleeing.

The Dragon

(Verses 3-4) describe another character: "a great red dragon". If we jump ahead a bit to verse 9, we learn that the "dragon" is Satan.

And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan -v. 9

And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child. -v. 4

So the picture in verse 4 is that Satan was waiting for the "woman" to give birth to Jesus so he could destroy Him.

The War In Heaven

Starting in verse 7 we see a war in heaven between Michael's army and Satan's army. Satan's army loses, and they are cast out of heaven, which results in a proclamation of the beginning of Christ's reign (in verse 10). Satan's army is cast down to the earth, where the proclamation continues:

"Woe to the earth... because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time." -v. 12

This "casting down of Satan" appears to happen at some point after the ascension of Christ based on the structure, supporting passages (examples), and the proclamation in verses 10-11 of Christ's resulting position as well as the reflection on the functional power of His blood. In fact, there appears to be some time between the two events, during which there is a period of "overcoming by the blood of the Lamb" during times of persecution. Based on all of these things, it seems unnatural to think Satan was kicked out of heaven prior to the ascension (or even simultaneous to it.)

The Persecution

As we saw previously, at some point after the ascension of Jesus the "woman" flees into the "wilderness".

Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days. -v. 6

God had a purpose in preparing a place for her in the "wilderness"; this is where she would be nourished for 1260 days. Why would she need a place of nourishment for 1260 days? Because Satan goes after the "woman" once he is thrown down to the earth! The "wilderness" is a place of refuge for the "woman" to flee the persecution of Satan.

And when the dragon saw that he was thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child. But [it was] given to the woman [to] fly into the wilderness to her place, where she was nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent. -v. 13-14

So the order of evens so far appears to be:

1) Satan waits for the "woman" to give birth to Jesus so he can destroy Him

2) The "woman" gives birth to Jesus

3) Jesus is caught up to God and to His throne

4) There is a period of time where:

  • The brethren overcome Satan by the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, etc.

  • There is a war in heaven, and Satan is overcome and cast out

5) There is a resulting proclamation in heaven that:

  • "Now" Christ will reign, and

  • "Woe to the earth" where Satan has been cast down to

6) Satan realizes he has been banished to earth and persecutes the "woman"

7) It is given to the "woman" to flee to the "wilderness" where she can take refuge from Satan's wrath.

8) The "woman" remains in the "wilderness" for 1260 days, or 3.5 "times" (i.e. 360-day years)

This "fleeing" doesn't stop Satan, though - he has a Plan B:

And the serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, so that he might cause her to be swept away with the flood. But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and drank up the river which the dragon poured out of his mouth. v. 13-16

Satan wanted to sweep her off the face of the planet (where he is at this point) with a flood of "water", but the "earth" helps her by consuming it all. (I'll forgo interpretation at this point, since it depends upon an understanding of the woman.)

The Other Children

The chapter ends with an explanation of the other children this woman has:

Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring —those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. -v. 17

Identifying The Woman

NOTE: To avoid confusion due to semantics, I will use the word "Church" to refer to Christians who live after the time of Christ, I will use the term "Natural Israel" to refer to the nation of Israel, and I will use the term "Spiritual Israel" to refer to the people of God, regardless of when they lived. "Spiritual Israel" would be the olive tree which started with "Jewish" followers like Abraham, and has had gentile Christians like me grafted in.

1) The "woman" "gave birth" to Jesus. Based solely on this, our candidates would include Mary, Eve, Natural Israel, and Spiritual Israel. The most natural way to read this would be symbolically (given the context), which makes Mary an unlikely candidate, but let's consider all possible readings for now. (It wouldn't make much sense to consider any other "woman" as the mother of Jesus. I'll assume that is clear.)

2) The "woman's offspring" are "those who keep God's commandments and hold fast their testimony about Jesus." This rules out Natural Israel and Eve, and leaves Mary and Spiritual Israel as the sole candidates.

3) The "woman" is protected in the "wilderness" for 1260 days during the time of Satan's great wrath at having been cast out of heaven and given "a short time" on earth. It seems to be clear to most Bible teachers that this is "end-times speak", but either way, I'm pretty sure this wasn't fulfilled during the life of Mary.

CONCLUSION: The safe bet seems to be that the woman in Revelation 13 is "Spiritual Israel", as defined above.

Hope that helps!

share|improve this answer
+1 - The crowns on her head could be the gospel preached by the Apostles, and she seems on the moon possibly representing the light on a dark world under law. She stands (is supported by) the law and the prophets which reflected the 'dawning of the gospel. Also she is clothed with the Sun. So it seems she is the church who births more of the same. – Mike Jun 30 '12 at 11:13
@Jas 3.1 Having just read Revelation again, I considered asking this type of question, but then looked for previous ones. Great, thorough answer! I guess I had already given you at +1. Thank you. – John Martin Mar 11 '14 at 11:55

This article explains why the woman doesn't necessarily have to mean only one thing, that is either one of Mary, or the church, or the Jews, but rather is an image that represents Mary, the Church, Israel and even Eve. The book of Revelation uses fusion imagery. For example, the 24 elders of Revelation 4:4 can be interpreted as symbolic of the 12 patriarchs and the 12 apostles, representing at once, the people of the Old Covenant and the New.

I will just demonstrate how, for example, the woman represents Mary -

  1. She is the mother of Jesus (Rev 12:5). The mother of Jesus is Mary.
  2. The woman fled to the wilderness for a while (Rev 12:6). Mary had to flee to Egypt for a while shortly after the birth of Jesus.

Similar parallels can be made for the Church, Israel and even Eve, as the article shows.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to the site! We are looking for complete answers that stand alone. Perhaps you could summarize the contents of the here? I see that the URL is already out of date! Thanks. – Jon Ericson Jun 30 '12 at 22:20
You mean that in the sense that, Mary is the 'mother of God' ? – John Unsworth Nov 14 '13 at 17:44

protected by Dan Mar 18 '14 at 23:13

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.