Making Heads and Hands of the Mark of the Beast
If there is one aspect of Revelation that has been overused, abused and fallen prey to our constant temptation to make John’s first century letter a document that predicts the future it has to be the mark of the beast. What was the mark of the beast? What does 666 stand for?* There are many questions come up when we read passages like this.
When I read this I automatically gravitate to this unknown feature in the text. What are some of the things you have heard the Mark of Beast represented as?
Mikhail Gorbachev’s Birthmark, Obamacare, Enforced Sunday worship, One world government or The UN, Refers to a specific year, Verichip, Credit Cards
It raises a level of fascination that can be fun to imagine, but there is a problem with trying to figure out the mark: we don’t know the story behind the story. And when we don’t know the story behind the story we begin to read into it our own worldview, our own prejudices, and assumptions and this can really skew our reading and understanding of scripture. So it is essential that when we read this we remember that there is a story behind the story.
There are at least two problems with with trying to identify the eikon of the beast:
For one, John doesn’t describe it at all – so it was something that was most likely obvious to the people for whom this book was written. Second, if we read this with a future lens – as something meant to predict the future – then we begin trying to “find things that correlate,” which unfortunately leads us down a rabbit hole of totally missing the point of what is going on here.
And missed the point we have. We have been led to think that we are to always be on the lookout for some microchip, some barcode, somebody’s birthmark, so that when we find it we will know what to do and not do. Finally, once we have the mark, everything will be made clear because we will not who is bad and who is not – who is enemy of God and who is on the side of the lamb.
We have already seen two of the main sins of empire that John unmasks: the violence of empire that contrasted with the lamb that was slain, and the seduction of its “imperial religion,” which was like a siren song and meant to form people to be its subjects, rather than being subjects to the lamb. This leads us to a third sin of empire, the “eikon of the beast,” is the empire’s abusive economic practices (esp Rev. 18).
In other words, John reveals an economic system that succeeds by creating poles within society, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, and is based on some living in poverty and subjugation for the benefit of others. The Religion of Empire’s beastly economic system or structure is actually doing what it is supposed to do when there are some who are poor and some who are getting rich off of it.
When I was in NYC one of the things that we talked about is the way that we understand poverty. There are at least four ways in which we understand that people become poor, and our understanding of how people become poor influences how we response (thoughts presented from Colleen Wessel-McCoy):
Poverty as accident – economic cycles, disasters, politics, geography, racism. Poverty as accident assumes that the system is generally good and then sometimes bad things happen. Response: short-term assistance, plug the holes.
Poverty as pathological – this is characterized by bad choices, bad choices, certain values that create poverty. You’ll hear words like “culture of poverty” used to describe this model. Response: Stigmatize poverty so the poor don’t want to make bad choices. One of the clearest examples of this was the belittling use of the phrase “welfare queens” that got its start in the 80s.
Poverty as fate – poverty is desirable by God, some people are just going to be poor, it can be taken from a misunderstanding of Jesus’ phrase “the poor will be with you always,” or it is seen as “everything happening for a reason – God wanted me to bear this cross.” Response: is to accept ones lot in life, suck it up, and go about what you’re doing. “Stop complaining, at least you have a job.”
Poverty as structural – in this understanding poverty and exploitation is not an accident, but actually the response of the outworkings of the system – the system is controlled and set up to benefit a certain, very small subset of society, while everyone else accepts their role and follows orders. Response: empower the poor to make the changes deemed necessary.
Martin Luther King, Jr. summed up this final point when he said, “What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger.” He understood something very deep about our own country, that we can pay lip-service to “rights” while blocking equality in other spheres of our society.
From this perspective, it’s not good enough to have a “safety net” or simply to plug holes, instead we need to ask why there are holes to begin with, what is the safety net actually covering up? It’s not good enough to help pull people out of a river, we need to go upstream and find out who’s throwing them in to begin with.
Unveiling the Eikon of the Beast
This is, I believe, what John is trying to unveil for us to see. That inequity is not about accident, pathology or fate – it is a demonic “spirit” at work within the structures of society that create it.
John of Patmos is telling us from the first century that poverty is structural.
That there is a certain kind of beastly economics that has been at work in the world for a very long time – and if you don’t play by its rules you will not be able to “buy or sell” and it may get you killed – just as the people in Rev. 13.
Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza writes:
“Revelation consistently speaks of the power of Satan in national, political and cosmic terms. (13, 18 20). Satan deceives the nations and not merely individuals into sinful action (20:7-8). Revelation’s notion of ultimate evil is best understood today as systemic evil and structural sin” (87).
Let’s unpack this a little. Rev. 13 talks a lot about the “image or eikon of the beast.” This is significant because it stands in contrast to the “image of God,” which we see at the beginning of creation.
We can describe God’s creation of the world as structuring/ordering the world to work in a certain way that was largely based on taking care of the land, animals, sea and one another. We know from OT texts like Exodus 16, and Lev. 25 that God instructed people to take only what they need, so that there would be “enough daily bread” for everyone, and that they practiced something called jubilee, where every 49 years everyone’s debts would be cancels, and indentured servants were freed. As a part of jubilee, they let the land lie fallow every 7 years. Jesus, who is the completion of this Creation, shows humanity how to live this out in human relationships.
But in Rev 13. we see that the beast is involved in a counter-creation story. Listen to some of the wording:
- “makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast…”
- “it performs great signs”
- “it deceives the inhabitants of the earth, telling them to make an image for the beast…”
- “and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast…”
- “and those who would not worship the beast would kill…” (cf. Daniel 3:19)
So in this first portion of our text you get this sense of the beast as a counter-creation story, breathing life into the “image of the beast” (cf. Gen 1:26-27), an new god that emerges out of the ground — made by human hands — and has its own structuring/ordering of things.
As Crystal Hall (whose brilliant masters-thesis on Rev 13. I read in preparation for this sermon) points out, what is going on between these two contrasting “eikons” is that Revelation shows us that the beast seeks to recreates its followers in its image. To encompass and literally enslave all of humankind to its own greedy and violent ends.
Then it says:
“Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked [be given] on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” (Revelation 13:16–17)
Here we see that the eikon of the Beast symbolizes participation in the empire’s economy. In fact, the greek word for “Mark” (charagma) means to stamp or make an impression on something. It is used when referring to imperial coins which would have had the emperor’s face “marked” on the coin, an official seal for business contracts and the branding impressed upon prisoners, slaves and religious devotees of the Imperial religion. This “eikon” was important to form and shape its subjects as Wes Howard-Brook points out:
“The charagma [mark] of ancient Rome was not some esoteric symbol but a stamp used to certify deeds of sale, and the impress of the emperor’s head on the coinage. The imperial currency bore the image, name, year, and titles of the emperor. This made coinage an important means by which Roman myth was propagated. These coins were an affront to those who resisted empire. As far as Revelation is concerned it was not possible to denounce Rome as satanic and simultaneously use the empire’s medium of exchange – its currency” (WHB 175).
John writing about “the image of the beast” then is an attempt to unmask the true “spirit” behind the myth and structure of the empire – which would have told its people all kinds of things in order to keep them pacified.
Revelation is about crashing the beasts party of luxury and idolatry as John calls the people to “come out” of empire.
So what does it mean to come out from and resist this “eikon of the beast?” To be non-combatants, non-participants in a system that is opposed to the “image of God in creation” and the lamb that was slain.
Honestly, this is a much harder question and no easy answers are available – especially when we ourselves see the effects of this kind of system still in place today.
There is no wonder then why Christians have been tempted to find alternative readings that soften John’s critique or divert it altogether. I would much rather be let off the hook here then consider how I myself may be subject to a system that uses and abuses me and others. Or how I have helped to support that system.
In either case, this is a difficult word to us this morning.
But John tells his first churches, who were small in number and poor by the empire’s standards, not so they will be crushed with defeat, but so they will have no illusion, so that they will see these structures for what they are: affronts to the way of the lamb that was slain.
And I believe that our role as the church is to do our best to see through these illusions, to ask the penetrating questions, and to live as best as we can as a community grounded in the “eikon of the lamb” where there is no slave nor free, but “ multitudes of every nation, from all tribes and peoples, and languages…”
Instead of perpetuating inequity, or plugging its holes, we are to end it all together. We must challenge the systems that create inequity, hungry children, houseless people, unsecure and menial work that is often dehumanizing, and division between rich and poor, slave and free.
Recently there was a struggle that involved Hilton housekeepers in Vancouver who were working full-time and still making under the poverty level – this while employed by a multi-million dollar international corporation. They were constantly being asked to clean more rooms for less pay, and not given mops or other basic tools needed to do the job efficiently or effectively. Many of these women were single-moms, people with little education or immigrants who lived in section 8 housing and had to get groceries from food banks in order to feed their families and government assistance to pay for other basics. But as they grew frustrated enough, and began to find courage and their own voices, they began to challenge this system and ask the questions that needed asked. They were, after a year-long battle, able to get a little more pay, some basic equipment, and a cap on how many rooms they were expected to clean. And we know that this battle continues in many places and under many disguises throughout the world.
From people being burned alive in a Bangladeshi clothing factory, to Agro-Business that sells “terminator” seeds that self-destruct so third-world farmers go into deeper and deeper debt buying more seeds from that same company, to the eroding away of basic worker-rights within our own country, the eikon of the beast is still at work in our world today.
It just doesn’t look like a barcode and it won’t be showing up as a pill anytime soon.
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza says that there are three basic possibilities for 666 which most scholars believe either a) it was a numeric spelling of the name Nero, b) it was a numeric abbreviation of domitian, or c) it was an exaggeration of the number 6 which means imperfection.
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