The beast from the earth

Symbolism surrounding the mythical Behemoth may give us a more solid basis for our identification of Revelation 13's beast from the earth.

Robert Surridge is a pastor with the South England Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Seventh-day Adventists believe that the second beast of Rev elation 13, the lamb like beast that arises from the earth, rep resents apostate Protestantism, the amalgamation of church and state, and, more specifically, the United States of America. In support of this interpretation, Adventist commentators from Uriah Smith onward have argued that the sea in Revelation 13:1 represents the dwelling place of men, Europe in particular, and the earth in verse 11 represents the opposite, an uninhabited or sparsely populated wilderness.

The interpretation that the symbol "sea" means peoples and nations is soundly based on Revelation 17:15. But our interpretation of the symbol "earth" is not so soundly based—we have no comparable biblical evidence for this symbol. Rather, our interpretation has been based on what seems to me to be conjecture and assumption. Those propounding this latter position say things like: "Since 'sea' represents peoples and nations . . . , 'earth' may reasonably be assumed to represent a sparsely settled region."1 "The sea represents 'peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues' (Rev. 17:15), a true picture of Europe, where the papal beast arose. The earth must represent, not a crowded country of diverse nations, but a sparsely populated and isolated area."2 "When in closely related prophecies 'earth' is contrasted with 'sea' and 'sea' represents vast populations, we perceive that 'earth' represents an area with a very limited population."3

Having concluded that in John's vision the sea represents multitudes of people, heavily populated areas, can one then assume that the second beast's rising place is just the opposite—a peaceful, sparsely populated wilderness? Perhaps some are satisfied that it is so. But the scholar familiar with the terms involved will likely still entertain serious doubts.

It is not my purpose in this article to prove or disprove that the lamblike beast is the United States of America. Rather I hope to go some way toward developing an interpretation of Revelation 13:11 that does not violate the principles of biblical symbolism, the literary structure of Revelation, or the original intentions of its author. Significantly, I believe this sounder interpretive approach leads to the same conclusion, thus giving us greater confidence in that conclusion and making it more convincing to others.

To interpret Revelation aright, we must begin with the book itself. Next we need to consult the Old Testament, especially the apocalyptic passages—for Revelation is particularly dependent on Old Testament symbolism.4 The noncanonical apocalyptic works that influenced John's literary style also help us interpret the symbols he used.5

Sea and earth in Revelation

The first question we must consider is whether one can base the interpretation of Revelation 13:11's "earth" on the meaning of "sea" in verse 1. Did John intend to convey the idea of opposites, as Adventists assume, or could earth and sea together symbolize the whole of civilization?

In Revelation 17:15 an angel explains that the symbol "waters" used in verse 1 means "peoples, and multitudes, and nations and tongues." If the symbol "waters" (hudar) can be used for "sea" (thalassa), we have grounds for our interpretation of Revelation 13:1. Elsewhere in Revelation the sea is an inhabited place (for example, Revelation 8:9; 10:6; 16:3). But in all of these texts the sea's inhabitants are mentioned in close connection with those of the earth (often suffering the same or a similar fate, as in Revelation 16:2, 3.)

Inspecting the Old Testament texts that are used to support our interpretation, we find that only Daniel 7:2, 3 and Isaiah 17:12 refer to the sea. Isaiah 17:12, 13 parallels this term with "mighty waters" and "many waters," terminology also appearing in Isaiah 8:7, 8 and Jeremiah 46:7, 8. It refers to the rising waters of a flooding river, which symbolize an invading army. Isaiah 17:12 speaks of the multitude making a noise like the sea, and this is probably how the symbol originated.

So our position that the rising of the Revelation 13:1 beast from the "sea" rep resents its rising from among multitudes of people or from a heavily populated area is both reasonable and defensible. It has good exegetical support. But, as we have noted above, we can find no such biblical support for our interpretation of "earth."

How was "earth" used in John's day? To better understand the terminology and symbolism here, we need to expand our study to include another significant Greek word: ge, which is translated "earth" both in Revelation and in other apocalyptic and prophetic writings. Ge occurs more than 70 times in Revelation, including five times in chapter 13. At least half the occurrences refer to the earth's human inhabitants. Of these, 10 have ge and katoikeo ("dwell") in the same phrase; for example, tous katoikountas epi tes ges, "those who dwell on the earth" (Rev. 11:10, RSV). There are also many references to kings and rulers of the earth, implying a strong social structure rather than virgin territory. None of the references describe ge as an uninhabited wilderness.

In Revelation 13:3 the meaning of ge is the exact opposite of sparsely populated wilderness, for "the whole earth followed the beast" (RSV). Verse 8 claims that "all who dwell on earth will worship it" (RSV), and verse 12 says "tengen kai tous en autei katoikountas," literally, "the earth and the ones who dwell in it."

Daniel uses the Hebrew and Aramaic stem 'rs for "earth" nearly 20 times, and half of these uses refer to people dwelling on the earth. None refer to a wilderness. The rest of the Old Testament's apocalyptic and prophetic literature also considered the earth the dwelling place of man. It is often used simply to mean Israel, or Palestine. The same is true in intertestamental apocalyptic literature. So as an isolated word, "earth" carries no symbolic meaning for John or his sources.

If, then, ge so often refers to earth's inhabitants, where do we find the sup port I suggested exists for the traditional Adventist view? There is a hidden indicator, understandable to John's original readership, that shows that in verse 13 "earth" has the opposite meaning of what it has in the rest of the chapter—or throughout Revelation, for that matter.

John's literary background

When we deal with symbolic passages of Scripture, we realize that the writer is trying to illustrate a spiritual truth. While the spiritual truth may have a universal application, the symbol he uses does not. It must by necessity come from his own cultural background. So to appreciate the spiritual truth fully, we need to understand what the symbol meant to the author and his first audience.

It is in the intertestamental apocalyptic literature, the source of some of John's rich symbolism, that we find a clue to the meaning of his cryptic message in Revelation 13:11. J. M. Ford points out that "chapter 13 introduces another Jewish belief associated with the coming of the Messianic era, namely, the activities of Leviathan and Behemoth. . . . [These] are the names of gigantic beasts or monsters described in Job 40 [and] 41."6

There are a number of references to these two monsters in various Jewish and Christian apocalyptic works and, most significantly, in the Old Testament. Since this is the case, we need to examine this myth as it occurs in biblical and intertestamental literature.

John's use of the Leviathan- Behemoth myth in Revelation 13

Job 40:15-24 is the only biblical reference to Behemoth, an oxlike animal of the land. Leviathan, however, appears in Job 41; Isaiah 27:1; Psalm 74:12-14; and Psalm 104:26. It is a large, fierce, fire-breathing water beast that is proud and haughty like the beast of Revelation 13. It is also a many-headed dragon that God will slay in the days of Israel's deliverance (Ps. 74:14; Isa. 27:1).

In his commentary on Job, Pope traces the origin of Behemoth back through Ugaritic myth to the Epic of Gilgamesh. 7 Throughout these myths Behemoth, the devouring one, is always a land animal with prominent horns, as in Revelation 13:11.

Jewish writers made free use of the imagery of these mythical beasts. In the Apocrypha they appear together somewhat as they do in Revelation. The text of 4 Ezra 6:49-52 describes Leviathan and Behemoth as pre-Creation water monsters that God named on the fifth day of Creation week (see verse 47). On the third day, according to this passage, Behemoth was cast onto the dry land and lived among a thou sand hills because the water that was left could not hold both beasts.

In 1 Enoch 60 we find a similar story, and an extra detail that is relevant to our understanding of Revelation 13. Here Behemoth "occupied with his breast a waste wilderness named Duidain [or Deddain] on the east of the garden where the elect and righteous dwell" (verse 8). Significantly, 2 Baruch 29:4 states, "Behemoth shall be revealed from his place and Leviathan shall ascend from the sea" locating the places where they dwell just as does Revelation 13.

This myth was well known to first-century Jews through apocalyptic literature,8 and they would have known that one beast arose out of a populous sea and the other from a distant, sparsely populated wilderness.

Milik also traces this mythical mate rial back to the Epic of Gilgamesh. After discussing the twin mountains, and the gloomy desert of Deddain described in 1 Enoch 10:4, he states, "In Christian times the author of the Book of Parables was to place in the same region (Deddain) the male monster with the name Behemoth."9 So John was not alone among early Christian writers in making reference to this material.

Indeed the use of myth material was quite acceptable in primitive Christianity. A Leviathan-like creature appears in the Shepherd of Hernias.10 And Jesus Himself used mythical material—the story of the rich man and Lazarus—to good effect. Just as an understanding of the origins of that story helps us fit it credibly into our system of belief, so an understanding of the story underlying the lamblike beast of Revelation 13 gives us the basis for interpreting the passage properly.


The word "earth" does not have a consistent symbolic application in Revelation, as "horns," "stars," the "Lamb," and other words do. So in interpreting Revelation 13:11, we ought to abandon our old argument that merely contrasts "earth" with "sea." But we need not abandon our traditional position. The imagery of John clearly draws upon a well-known myth, long established as a metaphor in Jewish religious thinking, to express his prophetic message. In this legend the second beast was lord of the wilderness of Duidain. In Revelation 13:11, then, the place the beast arises from is an uninhabited, rugged wilderness. Only by invoking the Behemoth- Leviathan image can we hope to show that John meant something different by "earth" in Revelation 13:11 than he meant by it in the rest of the book.

1 The SDA Bible Commentary (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), vol.
7, pp. 819, 820. (Italics supplied.)

2 R. A. Andersen, Unfolding the Revelation
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn.,
1974), p. 138. (Italics supplied.)

3 C. M. Maxwell, God Cares: The Message of
Revelation for You and Your Family (Boise, Idaho:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1985), vol. 2, p. 341.
(Italics supplied.)

4 See, for instance, R. H. Charles, The Revelation
of Saint John, Vol. I of The International Critical
Commentary (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1971),
p. Ixv.

5 Most modern writers on Revelation stress its
indebtedness to apocalyptic literature. See, for in
stance, J. M. Ford, Revelation (Anchor Bible) (New
York Doubleday and Co., 1975), p. 27.

6 Ibid., p. 217.

7 M. H. Pope, Job (Anchor Bible) (New York:
Doubleday and Co., 1975), pp. 321, 322.

8 See A. Y. Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The
Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1984), pp. 148f. Collins says that sea and
land monster symbols were common first-century
political symbols.

9 J.T. Milik, The Book of Enoch (Oxford: Clar
endon Press, 1976), p. 30.

10 E. Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha
(London: SCM Press, 1973), vol. 2, pp. 631-638.

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Robert Surridge is a pastor with the South England Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

June 1991

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