I kill where I wish and none dare resist. I laid low the warriors of old. Then I was but young and tender. Now I am old and strong, strong, strong…. My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death.
So says the dragon, Smaug, in JRR Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Hobbit.
Dragons have been part of the human imagination for almost as long as human have had an imagination. They cross cultural boundaries and endure across the ages, emerging in our dreams, our stories, and our art until this very day. The dragon in the myth may be slain, but the myth itself persists.
Why, then, are surprised to find the dragon lurking in the pages of our Bible?
Perhaps it is because we think of such creatures as suitable only for fairy tales and children’s stories. As the old song says, “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” Sooner or later, we grow up and realize that dragons aren’t real, fairy tales aren’t true, and there are no monsters under the bed. So as much as we may enjoy watching Game of Thrones at night, it’s a bit embarrassing to find such creatures appearing here in church on Sunday morning, lurking among the pages of the book of Revelation (Rev 12:1-12).
This is a night vision, this dragon of the Apocalypse. John of Patmos dreamed a dream, told a tale, saw a vision – pick whichever words you wish, but somehow, there came into John’s imagination a great red dragon. Emerging out of the darkness of John’s subconscious, it crouches in wait before a pregnant woman, ready to devour her child at birth.
It is an ancient and powerful image, one that was internationally known in John’s day. The dragon menacing the queen of heaven is a myth that appeared in various forms in Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor. To a Christian reader, the mother and her child are Mary and Jesus; to a Jewish reader, they are Israel and the Messiah; more universally, they are every mother and every child; they are the present and the future.
The child is hope, and the dragon threatens to devour it.
But in John’s vision, the mother and child are not alone. The child of hope is swept up in the arms of God, the mother flees to a place of sanctuary, and the hosts of heaven wage war on the red dragon. The serpent is cast down, from heaven to earth, where it continues its battle – not against angels, but against the children of the earth.
This is the stuff of high fantasy. Apocalypse is an ancient literary genre unto itself, with no precise modern equivalent; but if I had to shelve it in a bookstore or library, I think I would put it, not in the religion section, but next to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or The Handmaid’s Tale. In saying this, I do not in any way intend to diminish its importance, or to deny its truth. At its best, speculative fiction creates a counter-reality that can unmask the status quo. It is inherently and powerfully subversive.
How else to explain the fact that in Thailand, following the military coup, young people began signing their resistance by flashing the three-fingered salute from The Hunger Games? Or that, here in the US, during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, groups of women took to the streets dressed in the red cloaks and white hoods of The Handmaid’s Tale? In recent years, at anti-Fascist protests around the world, you can see young people carrying signs that say “Dumbledore’s Army.” Such is the power of myth.
So let us return to our dragon. Defeated in heaven, the red dragon falls to earth, to wage war against its inhabitants. But it does not do so directly; instead, it gives its “authority” – its power – to a great and monstrous beast that arises from the sea. This Great Beast in turn relies on another – a lesser beast from the earth – which acts as its agent and enforcer, demanding loyalty to the Great Beast. (Rev. 13:1-18)
Who, or what, is this Great Beast from the sea, this earthly incarnation of the dragon’s power? John gives us two details: first, that the Beast has seven heads, one of which has a mortal wound, yet lives; and second, that the number of the Beast is 666. These are clues to be deciphered by John’s readers; as he himself says: “this calls for wisdom.”
Here John’s vision becomes less global and more particular; for beasts, in the Hebrew apocalyptic tradition, represent specific earthly empires. In this case the beast with seven crowned heads is Rome and its seven emperors; the seventh head, with the mortal wound, refers to the Emperor Nero, who was at the time variously rumored to have committed suicide or to have survived the attempt.
As for the number of the beast: in Hebrew numerology, each letter has a number, and so each word has a corresponding number that is the sum of all its letters. The sum of the name Nero Caesar, is 666.
At this point, John’s vision becomes less high fantasy, and more political allegory; a bit less like Lord of the Rings, and more like Animal Farm.
Animal Farm, for those unfamiliar with it, is a classic twentieth century fable by George Orwell. It tells the story of a group of farm animals who rise up in revolution against the tyranny of their farmer. In this they are led by the pigs, who encourage them to build a utopian society in which all animals are equal. In time, however, the pigs themselves become as tyrannical as the farmers.
To those familiar contemporary world history, Animal Farm is clearly an allegory of the Russian Revolution, with the pigs corresponding to its leaders: Old Major is Karl Marx, Snowball is Trotsky, and the aptly named Napolean is Stalin. To those who are unfamiliar with this history, the story is still compelling, for its warning against totalitarianism rings true in any age.
And so it is with the book of Revelation. John’s contemporaries would have recognized his symbolism as referring to the particular political realities of their own time. Those of us farther removed from this setting may still find his vision compelling, for the forces of empire are active in every age. But we misinterpret the story if we read it too literally.
Let me be perfectly clear here; to come away from Revelation with a fear of the number 666 is like coming away from Animal Farm with a fear of pigs. In either case, it is to profoundly miss the point.
The purpose of John’s Apocalypse – and arguably, the purpose of Harry Potter or The Handmaid’s Tale as well – is to unveil the true nature of the Empire’s power, and to give courage to those who refuse to bow down before it. Apocalyptic literature is, in John’s own words, “a call for the endurance of the saints.” It is a loud and clear warning to those who drift into tyranny: Here be dragons.
This is no children’s fable. Quite the opposite.
I have been thinking back, this week, on the dragons of my childhood. Pete Seeger introduced me to Puff, the Magic Dragon, who frolicked in the autumn breeze with little Jackie Paper. Disney brought me the Reluctant Dragon, who wrote poetry and shared a cup of tea with the knight who came to slay him. Meanwhile, my books about dinosaurs taught me that giant lizards were a thing of the past.
But real dragons are neither pets or playmates. Real dragons devour and destroy. Take Smaug, for example. Now, that’s a dragon. He sits on a massive pile of plunder, for which he has slaughtered thousands. He craves gold – which is to say, wealth for wealth’s sake, power for power’s sake – and he will stop at nothing to acquire it.
As a child, I was lulled into believing, there were no real dragons. But I am no longer sure of that.
Real dragons cannot be seen by human eyes, or slain by human hands. Dragons exist in our world, the “real world,” only by proxy. They enlist us, to do their damage for them – to despoil and to dominate, to torture and to kill. We cannot lay hands on racism itself, or greed itself, or tyranny itself. But they are real enough. We can choose to serve them; or we can resist.
So, my fellow Hobbits, my fellow Handmaids, my fellow members of Dumbledore’s Army, take heart. You are not alone.
I leave you with this word of encouragement from John’s revelation:
The dragon’s wrath is great, because he knows his time is short.
Sermon by Liza B. Knapp
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA
May 19, 2019
(photo: Image from the 11th century Bamberg Apocalypse. Wikimedia Commons. )