Who is the "woman" described in Revelation 12:1-6?

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At the beginning of Revelation 12, John wrote about a woman clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet, and having a crown with twelve stars on her head. Presumably, this woman is symbolic rather than literal. I have heard some say that the woman represents Israel, while others say that it is the Church who has replaced Israel in prophecy. What do you think?

Ted's Response:

In most of Chapters 12-14 of Revelation, John makes a restatement of the second half of the 70th Week (just as he did in Chapter 11). Initially, however, two "signs" are seen—a "woman" and an "enormous red dragon"—indicating that they are not literal but, rather, are symbolic of other things, which were present in the world long ago.

A "woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head" is seen (Revelation 12:1). According to Genesis 37:9,10, these represented the first family of Israel: Jacob (the "sun"), Rachel (the "moon"), and Jacob's twelve sons (the "twelve stars"). Israel was the "embodiment" of the Law/Torah, which consists of God's eternal commandments, rules, and guidelines.

John noted that the woman "gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter" (Revelation 12:5). Loosely speaking, this "son" could represent Judah, since Jacob (also named "Israel") prophesied that his son Judah would be associated with the "scepter"—a symbol of governance, rule, and law (Genesis 49:10). More specifically, the son of the woman—and the Son of God—who came into the world was Jesus Christ (1 John 4:14,15). He is the descendant of Judah who will rule the nations "with an iron scepter" when He comes (Revelation 19:15). Furthermore, those sons/children of God who overcome the ways of the world and do the Lord's will to the end will be given authority, along with Jesus, to rule the nations "with an iron scepter" (2:26,27).

Satan (the red dragon) attempted to destroy the woman's son (Jesus), via crucifixion. However, Jesus—the descendant of Judah "who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter"—was resurrected and taken up to God's throne in heaven (Revelation 12:4b,5). (The latter also may have a secondary fulfillment during a possible Mid-tribulation Rapture.)

In a sense, this "woman" is the earthly city of Jerusalem, since the Israelites were the embodiment of the woman, and their primary dwelling place was Jerusalem. Jerusalem was considered to be the "wife" or "bride" of God (Jeremiah 2:2); however, she was an "adulterous wife" (Ezekiel 16:32). Therefore, the New Jerusalem, the capital city of the new heaven, will become the perfect "Bride" of the Lamb of God when it comes out of the new heaven (just as Eve came out of Adam)—after a new heavens and a new earth have been created (Revelation 21:1,2,9,10) by God (see old and new Creations). Within the New Jerusalem will dwell "those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life" (21:27).

Incidentally, this "woman" is not symbolic of Christianity or the Church, a view which is embraced by some Christians. The Church did not "replace" Israel; rather, it was grafted into Israel. At a future time, Israel (Zion) will receive all of the blessings promised to her millennia ago by God (Isaiah 45:17, 51:2,3,16; Jeremiah 50:4,5; Ezekiel 36:1–37:28). Also, the "woman" does not represent only Jews, who are descendants of Judah, since they are only one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

The woman, as embodied by a remnant of her Israeli "offspring," will flee into the desert, to be protected by God, for 1,260 days (Revelation 12:6)—that is, for the last 3½ years of the 70th Week. Just as God reserved and protected a remnant of Israelites who were true to Him in the day of Elijah (1 Kings 19:18), so He will protect a remnant in the future. This endangered remnant, fleeing the land of Judea (probably mostly Jews), parallels what Jesus spoke about in His Olivet Discourse:

So when you see standing in the holy place "the abomination that causes desolation," spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress [great tribulation], unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again (Matthew 24:15-21).

As shown in abomination that causes desolation, the fleeing of people from Judea will take place at the midpoint of the 70th Week. It cannot be assumed that everybody in Judea will flee; many may not even heed the warning. Jesus indicated that they will flee to the mountains; John said that they will flee into the desert. Many Christian scholars suggest that they will flee to a place in the mountain-desert area of western Jordan (perhaps to the rocky, "fortified city" of Petra, accessible to Israelis as part of the Israeli-Jordanian peace accord of October 26, 1994). Wherever they go, it will be a place which God will have prepared for them, and He supernaturally will take care of them there for 1,260 days.

John wrote, "The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert...” (Revelation 12:14).  Some believe this is an indication that a large airplane or some other flying structure will take the people to their destination.  Yet, after the Israelites had left Egypt, God said to Moses, "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself" (Exodus 19:4).  Thus, it may be that “two wings of a great eagle” is a figurative phrase indicating a supernatural deliverance or rescue, directly by God, who parted the Red Sea for the ancient Israelites to pass through (14:13-31).

Other than the fleeing remnant, the remainder of the woman's "offspring" are "those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus"—that is, other Jews (those obeying God's Law in the Torah), as well as Christians (those testifying about Jesus) who have been "grafted into" Israel (Romans 11:17-19)—see grafted and re-grafted. They will be pursued by the "red dragon" (Revelation 12:17) or Satan.

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