The Woman Clothed With the Sun
Who is the “woman” in the apostle John’s strange vision? There is only one logical answer.
As you study the book of Revelation, you might not notice Israel’s presence much. In fact, a number of commentators say Israel is never mentioned there. But if you study Revelation carefully, you’ll see the Jewish people and national Israel appear several times, particularly in chapter 12.
This chapter opens with the apostle John seeing a strange vision: “Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars” (v. 1). The woman is pregnant and soon births a Child (vv. 2, 5). She then flees to the wilderness for 1,260 days (three and one-half years; vv. 6, 14). In the wilderness, God takes care of her and protects her from the attacking dragon (vv. 6, 13–17), who is identified as Satan, or the Devil (v. 9).
Who Is She?
Scholars have three major views concerning the woman’s identity:
1. The Virgin Mary. Some see her as the virgin Mary. After all, she gives birth to the Christ Child who will rule the nations, as the birth narratives in the Gospels reveal to us. In addition, Genesis 3:15 records the first prophecy of the gospel and predicts Satan will oppose the Seed of the woman (the first hint of the coming Messiah), a truth that fits Revelation 12.
This view, however, is incorrect. Revelation 12:1 calls the woman a “sign,” meaning she is symbolic and stands for something else. She is not an actual woman like the virgin Mary.
2. The Church. This view also is a common misinterpretation. Although it does justice to the idea that the woman functions as a sign or symbol, it does not align with the rest of the chapter’s description and is woefully inadequate for explaining her identity.
If this view were correct, verse 5 would teach the church gave birth to Christ. But it is Christ who gave birth to the church in Acts 2. It was Christ who sent the Spirit on the day of Pentecost to begin the baptizing ministry of the Holy Spirit where believers are placed into the body of Christ, the church (Acts 11:15–16; 1 Cor. 12:13). Jesus brought forth the church, not the other way around.
3. The Nation of Israel. This is the correct interpretation. Some balk at it, saying Israel is nowhere to be found in the context. But that is not true. Revelation 11 mentions a Jewish Temple (vv. 1–2) and two Jewish witnesses who are described as olive trees and lampstands, items common to Jewish culture (vv. 3–4). The miracles they perform are similar to those of Moses and Elijah (v. 6), and the context actually supports the idea of Israel at the beginning of chapter 12.
The image of the woman might bring to mind a similar description from Scripture. In Genesis 37:9–10, Joseph, one of the 12 sons of Jacob (whom God renamed Israel), had a dream in which God revealed that his brothers and parents would bow down to him. The sun, moon, and stars also bowed down to him.
His father, Jacob, rightly understood the symbolism: The sun represented him (Joseph’s father), the moon was Joseph’s mother, and the 11 stars were his brothers. All of them bowed to Joseph at the end of Genesis when he served as second only to Pharaoh. Added to the 11 stars that represented his 11 brothers, Joseph would be the 12th star.
So together, the sun, moon, and stars in Revelation 12 refer to the original family of Israel. The 12 sons became the 12 tribes of Israel, which produced the entire nation of Israel. Thus, the woman clothed in the sun, moon, and 12 stars in Revelation 12 is not a difficult symbol to understand in the context of the Old Testament.
Covenants and Captivity
The nation of Israel is rooted in God’s promises to Abraham, often referred to as the Abrahamic Covenant. These promises of land, seed, and blessing listed in Genesis 12:1–3 are formalized as an unconditional covenant in chapter 15 and fleshed out in more detail in chapter 17. God pledges to bless Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob and raise up a great nation.
But the people of Israel ended up in bondage in Egypt, and God used Moses to deliver them. Eventually, they reentered the Promised Land that God had set aside for His Chosen People (15:18).
Starting with Moses, Israel gave us the Old Testament. In it we find the great history of Israel, both good and bad, as the people followed the Lord sometimes and wandered into rebellion and idolatry at other times. We also find Moses promised the Israelites a prophet like him would eventually emerge from the nation (Dt. 18:15–18).
A high point in Israelite history was God’s establishment of the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89). In it, God promised that through the seed of one man, King David, a line of kings would emerge.
But the nation suffered many low points. After the reign of Solomon (David’s son), the nation was split into the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom (called Israel or Ephraim) and the two tribes of the southern kingdom (called Judah). Because of their sin, the northern tribes were taken captive into Assyria in the late 8th century BC. Then the southern tribes were taken captive to Babylon for 70 years in the late 6th century.
Later, during the Persian period, Haman attempted to eradicate all of the Jewish people. But God, as He has done in all of history, rose up to provide favor and deliverance, this time through Queen Esther.
The Coming Restoration
During all of these times of suffering, the promises of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants remained intact. The nation’s last king will be the Messiah, or Christ––the prophet like Moses, who will deliver His people.
The prophets often predicted the coming of this Messiah (Isa. 9:6–7; 53:1–12; Dan. 9:24–27; Mic. 5:2).1 When Jesus first came to Earth, He came in Jewish flesh. It is clear the woman of Revelation 12:1, which is the nation of Israel, brought forth the Christ Child: “She bore a male Child who was to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (v. 5).
Revelation 12 shows God’s ultimate intention is to restore Israel in its kingdom. When Satan is cast down during the future, end-times Tribulation, he will mercilessly attack Israel and the Jewish people for the last three and one-half years before the Messiah returns (vv. 12–14). The picture of this horrible persecution is the Dragon sending a flood after the woman: “So the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood” (v. 15).
But the earth opens up and swallows the flood to save the woman (v. 16). Jesus will save His Chosen People. As the vision of the woman indicates, Israel has a national and spiritual future, and God will always love the nation with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3).
- When studied carefully, the prophecies show the Messiah will come twice: once to die and once to rule and reign. This requires the resurrection of the Messiah after His death so He can return to Earth.