Revelation is at the same time both one of the most interesting and most confusing books in the Bible. The confusion doesn’t mean that we should lose interest.
One of the questions that comes up is the identity of the woman in Revelation 12. Here is part of the chapter:
Then a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and with the moon under her feet, and on her head was a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was screaming in labor pains, struggling to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: a huge red dragon that had seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadem crowns. Now the dragon’s tail swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. So the woman gave birth to a son, a male child, who is going to rule over all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was suddenly caught up to God and to his throne, and she fled into the wilderness where a place had been prepared for her by God, so she could be taken care of for 1,260 days. (Revelation 12:1-6, NET)
Let’s start with what is clear. The dragon seems to be Satan. The child seems to be Jesus. Both of these are relatively clear. But who is the woman?
The woman is described as giving birth to Jesus. Who was the mother of Jesus? That’s easy, it was Mary. Case closed. In fact many representations of Mary by the Roman Catholic Church use imagery from this passage.
But let’s not be too hasty.
We can identify the child being caught up as the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. But what is the fleeing into the wilderness of the woman?
And then there is this passage later in the chapter:
Now when the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of a giant eagle so that she could fly out into the wilderness, to the place God prepared for her, where she is taken care of—away from the presence of the serpent—for a time, times, and half a time. Then the serpent spouted water like a river out of his mouth after the woman in an attempt to sweep her away by a flood, but the earth came to her rescue; the ground opened up and swallowed the river that the dragon had spewed from his mouth. So the dragon became enraged at the woman and went away to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep God’s commandments and hold to the testimony about Jesus. And the dragon stood on the sand of the seashore. (Revelation 12:13-18, NET)
Who are the other children of the woman? Was this James, Jude and the other brothers of Jesus? Yes, but not in the way you might think. The other children are the church, all the true followers of Jesus. But in what way is Mary the mother of the church?
I would suggest that the woman in Revelation 12 is not Mary. In as much as she was the mother of Jesus, so was Israel. By providing genealogies, both Matthew and Luke stress Jesus’ connection with what happened before, especially God’s work through Israel. The woman has a crown with twelve stars. Very often, including the twelve apostles, this number is linked to the twelve tribes of Israel. It was from Israel, as God’s chosen people, the Jesus came into the world.
In the same way, Israel is also the mother of the church. The earliest Christians were Jews. They worshiped in the temple and discussed the messiah in the synagogues. Christianity was initially seen as a sect within Judaism. There are numerous connections made between the the church and Israel in the New Testament.
So I would say that rather than Mary, we should see the woman of Revelation 12 as a symbol of Israel.