I want to revisit the distinction between atonement, prophecy, and apocalypse. When I last wrote about them, I noted that they operated on a common scale. Atonement regulated, prophecy criticized, and apocalypse transformed. While those structures that animate atonement and prophecy do seem vital to understanding apocalypse, I was reaching somewhat to call apocalypse ‘transformative.’ I suspect transformation belongs more properly to the evolutionary than to the apocalyptic, though I do think transformation can be reconnected to the regulative and critical dimensions of atonement and prophecy.
Distinguishing an evolutionary aesthetic from an apocalyptic one will then demand some attention to that shared structure. When all is said and done, I think it is possible to replace the apocalyptic with the evolutionary while preserving a place for both atonement and prophecy. It isn’t said and done yet,, and I will need to spend a little more time with the apocalypse proper to get there.
This post is broken into two sections. The first contextualizes Revelation rhetorically and symbolically in relationship to atonement and prophecy. The second examines Revelation from an esoteric perspective.
At the heart of this triplicate arrangement is the ‘demonic mimesis‘ observed by Orlov (which also dovetails nicely with the mimetic rivalry of Rene Girard…one thing at a time, though). In atonement, the demonic rival(s) are appeased in order that the the holy sacrifice can be achieved. In the prophetic texts, the demonic rival has inserted itself into the sacred world and the prophet has taken it upon himself to draw attention to this fact and demand the demonic rival be removed. In the apocalyptic text, the demonic rivals are destroyed, leading to a pure world untainted by their wickedness.
The three sorts of texts can also be distinguished according to their temporal relationship to each other. Without making any claims as to the actual temporal order in which they were written, it is clear that they position themselves, rhetorically, in temporal relationship to each other. The texts in which themes of atonement predominate are generally marked as more archaic than those of a prophetic character, while Revelation explicitly presents itself as a final and modern text.
You can approach the differentiation between these texts from several directions, but I want to talk about it through the (demonic) figures of Tamar, Asherah, Tyre, and Babylon and their contrast with the (holy) figures of Israel, Shekinah, and Jerusalem. Tamar develops within the regulative, atonement-central texts, Asherah and Tyre in the prophetic texts, and Babylon in the apocalyptic ones. Tyre is especially interesting to me because she appears in a prophetic text that looks very much like the apocalyptic text of Revelations. The differences between those two texts help illuminate and emphasize the radical and destructive lens of the apocalypse.
I’ve talked about Tamar a bit already, but I’ll highlight that she occupies an ambiguous place, being a figure who must be appeased and sent away or whom the failure to appease and dismiss has disastrous consequences. In the earlier Tamar story, things work out for the best because Judah acknowledges what he rightly owes her. In the later story, things come undone because David fails to bring Tamar’s rapist to justice. Notice in both cases, we are looking at a fundamentally judicial, i.e. regulative, issue. Is there an atonement made for wrongdoing?
I’ve talked a bit about Tyre, too. For all of Isaiah‘s railing against Hebrew men and women worshiping Asherah, the text assigns to Tyre a sacred role providing the holy people with their sacred raiment. Though Isaiah righteously scorns her influence over the Hebrew people, the text acknowledges that she has a place that is proper to her and in service to the most holy.
And it shall come to pass after the end of seventy years, that the Lord will remember Tyre, and she shall return to her hire, and shall have commerce with all the kingdoms of the world upon the face of the earth. And her gain and her hire shall be holiness to the Lord, it shall not be measured nor laid up; for her gain shall be for them that dwell before the Lord, to eat their fill, and for stately clothing.
(Isaiah 23: 17-18)
The prophetic texts, concerned with restoring the order envisioned to have existed within the regulative texts, only need to expel Tyre’s influence from the Hebrew circle. With that order restored, Tyre can take on an ancillary place outside the Temple order, as the servant whose labor serves the holy people.
The sense of future glory that lies at the heart of the prophetic texts sets the rhetorical stage for the more drastic apocalyptic material. The glory promised by Isaiah to Israel raises it above its previous heights, makes her material circumstance parallel her spiritual one as the chosen nation. In the prophetic mode, the world undergoes a dramatic realignment.
Contrast this with the apocalyptic attitude toward Babylon, whom the author of Revelation even clothes with purple (and red) in an allusion to Tyre’s role in Isaiah‘s prophecy. In the apocalyptic framework she serves as nothing but a negative example for the Jewish people. She only corrupts and thereby she is only punished and destroyed.
Then I heard another voice from heaven say:
“‘Come out of her, my people,’
so that you will not share in her sins,
so that you will not receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
and God has remembered her crimes.
Give back to her as she has given;
pay her back double for what she has done.
Pour her a double portion from her own cup.
Give her as much torment and grief
as the glory and luxury she gave herself.
In her heart she boasts,
‘I sit enthroned as queen.
I am not a widow;
I will never mourn.’
Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her:
death, mourning and famine.
She will be consumed by fire,
for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”
(Revelation 18: 4-8)
Notice that “I am not a widow.” That puts her in dialogue with the earliest Tamar who precisely is a widow, whose harlotry is justified because it is done in order to extract her claim as a widow from Judah. So, even as the apocalyptic material demands this harlot’s destruction, it makes sure to frame that this destruction is justified, because Babylon (unlike Tamar) operates outside the frame of atonement.
In Revelation, Babylon the harlot is contrasted with Jerusalem who gives birth to the Messiah in the wilderness. Jerusalem is redeemed, sanctified, and transfigured in the conclusion of the book, becoming the embodiment of heaven itself and the residence of all the chosen. Contrast this again with Babylon:
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.
Why can’t a compromise be reached in the apocalyptic as it was in the regulative and prophetic?
In part, the erasure of Babylon is also the effort to erase any lingering connections of Israel to Babylon’s cosmopolitanism, to the polyglot world that threatens the inherent unity of the Hebrew people. Demons and merchants appear in close proximity in Revelations and I suspect it is precisely the mingling that mercantilism represents which makes that comparison work. Consider, for example, the point Gordon made in his talk about the relationship between commerce, exoticism, and syncretism. Syncretism is, in part, an effort to domesticate the discomfiting alien presence of imported idols.
However, this doesn’t in itself allow us to distinguish prophecy from apocalypse. The issue of syncretism, mercanilism, and idolatry appear in relationship to Tyre, too. What makes Babylon exceptionally unforgivable is the Babylon Captivity. Tyre and Tamar represent rival powers that Israel feels itself to have overcome and surpassed, whereas Babylon embodies the subjugation of the Hebrew people from which they had to negotiate their freedom.
As captor, Babylon exerted a great deal of influence over Jewish thought. In the rite of apocalypse, Babylon’s influence over the Hebrew people is exorcised in order to make space for a fully Jewish genius. The apocalypse affirms that, regardless of past influence, Babylon is no longer part of the Hebrew world and is no longer needed.
I don’t want to go to far with this this as it leads toward a reduction of religious mystery to ideology and history. While the historical situation does play a determining role in the shape the apocalyptic mysteries take, they also need to be taken as having an irreducibly esoteric or occult dimension. Just as concepts rooted in our experience of color and sex cannot be reduced to color and sex, neither can a spiritual mystery cloaked in history be reduced to history.
While there is one way in which Babylon and Jerusalem, Tamar and Tyre, are simply metaphors for their cities and peoples, in other ways they are quite literally the spiritual guarantors of their people’s existence as a community. In this we need to consider that Babylon, Jerusalem, Tamar, and Tyre are all the same sort of spiritual being, forces of the material earth that serve as the matter and mater of human society.
These figures have a complex relationship to sovereignty in the region, one that has deep roots in the traditions of sacred marriage that stretch backward to ancient Sumer. Their materiality is precisely what makes them both troubling but necessary.
In the apocalypse, what is set before the reader is a world in which this troubling compromise is no longer necessary. The apocalypse embodies an effort to transcend the historical trappings that impinge upon the experience of transcendent divinity. What is exorcised isn’t just Babylon, but the historical contingencies that her influence represents. Here Babylon carries with it all the associations of the gnostic’s archonic subjugation and the apocalypse serves as the mythic/ritual vehicle that liberates people from it.
This is the moral dimension of the apocalypse that it inherits from prophetic discourse and magnifies. The world that this process destroys is destroyed according to its unworthiness, according to its inherent corruption. Apocalyptic thinking, even as it sets out to right the world, is inherently entangled with a loathing for the world.
There is a subtle movement in the text that helps support this. Over the course of Revelation the numerical emphasis shifts from seven to twelve. The text begins with the seven churches of Asia but it concludes with the twelve tribes of Israel. In the logic of the Sefer Yetzirah, this is a movement from the planetary order (which those gnostic ‘synagogues of satan’ associate with the planetary archons) to the zodiacal, and there Revelation shares at least some of this sensibility.
In the beginning, Christ holds in his hand seven stars. Remember, the visible planets had stellar associations, too. Even the Moon, which was transparently not a star, was nonetheless often thought to rule over the stars, including the planets. The sevens that follow are destructive sevens (seals, plagues, etc.), the repetition of which serve to eradicate the manifest world of the archons (i.e., the planetary powers).
The productive forces that replace the destroyed, corrupt archonic order, are all attached to the twelve. Toward the climax of Revelation‘s narrative, the woman who gives birth to the Messiah has a crown of twelve stars. At the conclusion, the new Jerusalem has twelve foundation stones and the tree of life at its heart yields twelve fruits. Early on, the righteous gathered around the throne, are related to twelve indirectly as the four and twenty (i.e., a doubling of twelve).
This move reflects a shift in the temporality of planets, which are more changeable, to the stars, whose cycles are far more stable and enduring. While the narrative opens with the churches of the present with their very practical problems living in the world among gentiles, it ends with the idealized tribes of Israel whose relations are untroubled by mundane concerns.
The historical markers that served a rhetorical function are now put to esoteric use. The radical finality of the apocalypse reflects the radical finality of a conversion that removes those who pass through it from the historical world and puts them into harmony with an unchanging eternal one, one that is symbolized by the difference between the cycles of the planets versus those of the stars.
I think it is precisely at this point at which we can engage in an evolutionary intervention. The absolute destruction which the apocalypse demands is strictly imaginal and does not bear out in manifestation. The world is not destroyed by the apocalypse, the convert’s connection to it is.
Mapping this out on the tree of life is useful. Wipe away the vertical lines and the only sefirot that is severed from it is Malkuth, the depths of the past in the Sefer Yetzirah. The apocalypse becomes the dying to the world of the redeemed and the destruction of Babylon, the Beast, and the Dragon are the destruction of the redeemed’s attachment to them. This positions the apocalyptic material as a sharp rejoinder to other mystery cults.
It is at this point that evolution can provide a counterpoint to, and replacement for, apocalypse. However, this post is long enough as-is, so I’ll save that for a later post when I can give it the treatment it deserves.