The Merchandise of Babylon
by Duncan McKenzie
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Despite its many complexities, the basic subject of Revelation is relatively simple. Revelation is showing us two women, the harlot and the bride. These two women represent two cities, Babylon and New Jerusalem. These two cities are also two wives. While it is obvious that the bride is a wife (Rev. 21:9) it is easy to miss that the harlot is also a wife, a widowed wife, Rev. 18:7 (she became a widow when she had her husband, Jesus, killed). She denies this claiming that she is still a queen (cf. Matt. 21:5), that she is still God’s wife (cf. Hosea 2:2-4). The widowed wife (the harlot) is judged and destroyed in Revelation chapters 17 and 18 and then God marries his new covenant bride in Revelation chapter 19.
There is an almost exact parallel to this in Galatians 4 that deserves careful consideration. In Galatians 4:21-31 we are told of two women who are two wives (Hagar and Sarah) who correspond to two cities (physical Jerusalem and heavenly Jerusalem which is what the New Jerusalem of Revelation is, Rev. 21:10). We are told that these two women/cities are symbolic of two communities of people, those under the old covenant and those under the new covenant.
“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewomen. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar- for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children- but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all…But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” Galatians 4:21-31
Revelation is talking about the exact same subject as Galatians; both books are contrasting two “cities” (physical Jerusalem and heavenly Jerusalem in Galatians, Babylon and the New or heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation) that are two “wives” (Hagar and Sarah in Galatians, the widowed harlot and the bride in Revelation). These two women of Galatians and Revelation represent two communities, those of the old and new covenants. Notice that while the city of Jerusalem is mentioned in Galatians, it is representing all those under the old covenant not just the city of Jerusalem (“which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants”). It is important to understand that Babylon doesn’t just represent 1st century Jerusalem, it represents all those of the old covenant who were rejecting Jesus. Just as the New Jerusalem is not a literal city (she represents the fullness of God's covenant people) so harlot Babylon was not a literal city.
In the book of Revelation, as in Galatians (4:29), one woman persecutes the other (i.e. the harlot persecutes the bride, Rev. 17:6). Similarly in Revelation, as in Galatians, one of the two women is cast out (and destroyed Rev. 18:21) while the other woman receives her inheritance (i.e. the Lord takes her as His bride). This explains why the very next subject in Revelation after Babylon is destroyed is the wedding of the bride (Rev. 19:1-10). God deposes of His unfaithful old covenant wife (who irrevocably broke her covenant of marriage with God and became a widow when she had Jesus killed) and then marries his faithful new covenant bride. This sequence parallels Matt. 21:33-43 where God’s unfaithful old covenant people are destroyed and the kingdom of God is given to God’s new covenant people.
The harlot motif is a common OT image for unfaithful Israel: Lev. 17:7; 20:5-6; Num. 14:33; 15:39; Deut. 31:16; Judg. 2:17; 8:27; 1 Chr. 5:25; 2 Chr. 21:11; Ps. 73:27; Hosea 1:2; 2:2-5; 4:15; 9:1; Jer. 2:20; 3:2-13; 5:7, 11; 13:27; Ezek. 6:9; 16; 23; 43:7, 9. Ezekiel 16 is especially pertinent to the harlot of Revelation 17-18. Again, harlot Babylon is not simply a symbol of Jerusalem; she is a symbol of the unfaithful old covenant community that was centered in Jerusalem. Simply saying the harlot is Jerusalem is like saying that Uncle Sam is Washington D.C. While Uncle Sam is centered in Washington D.C., he is a symbol of all of America not just the city of Washington D.C. So it is with harlot Babylon; she was centered in Jerusalem (in the Temple) but she is a symbol of all of unfaithful Israel not just the city of Jerusalem. Thus when God tells His people to come out of Babylon (Rev. 18:4), he is telling them to come out of (to break with) old covenant Judaism. He is not telling the seven churches of Asia to come out of Jerusalem; they were already out of that city; they lived in the province of Asia. Just as the New Jerusalem, the bride, is not a literal city but a symbol of the new covenant community, so Babylon, the harlot, is not a literal city but a symbol of the unfaithful old covenant community. For more on this see my article “Babylon was not Jerusalem.” This brief introduction and clarification on Babylon brings me to the subject of this article, the merchandise of Babylon.
11 And the merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her, for no one buys their merchandise anymore: 12. merchandise of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet, every kind of object of ivory, every kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble; 13. and cinnamon and incense, fragrant oil and frankincense, wine and oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and bodies and souls of men.
First; why is John providing so much detail about Babylon’s merchandise? How does it add to what he is telling us? It is my position that this list of items here is another example, one of the most extensive in Revelation, of physical referents being given in the midst of a symbol to aid in the identification of that symbol. As I have stated earlier, Babylon was not a literal city (not Jerusalem and certainly not Rome). It was a symbol of a community of people, a symbol of God’s unfaithful old covenant community. This community is being represented by images associated with the Temple and the priesthood. If Babylon were a literal city this list of items would add little to the story being told here. If on the other hand Babylon is a symbol of unfaithful Israel then all of a sudden this merchandise makes much more sense. Quite simply, the “merchandise” of Babylon is the merchandise of the Temple.
Carrington wrote the following on the goods of Babylon,
“The long list of merchandise in 18:11-13 is surely a catalogue of materials for building the Temple, and stores for maintaining it.”
[Phillip Carrington, The Meaning of Revelation, (London: Society for Promotion Christian Knowledge, 1931), 287]
I have already given some examples of how the luxurious merchandise of Babylon was the merchandise of the Temple. The list of articles in Rev. 18:11-13 is for the most part too luxurious to be the merchandise of a literal city. Rather, it is the merchandise of the Temple, a place where the best of everything was the norm. The Temple was the house of God and as such everything in it had to be exquisite (cf. Mark 12:1). Ford had the following comments on the merchandise of Babylon and its relation to the Temple.
The second lament is sung by the merchants. These people were not dissociated from the temple in Jerusalem, for merchants were employed both in the building of Herod’s temple and in its maintenance. According to B. Mazar [The Mountain of the Lord, (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1975)] items of worship were purchased at the shops. Most commentators suggest that the text is influenced by Ezek 27:12-24, the oracle against Tyre. However, while there is some association, the wares cited differ considerably; those cited below appear to be more in keeping with those which would be used for the temple and its services. Of the items which are listed in Rev 18, gold and silver, precious stones, fine linen, purple, silk (for vestments) scarlet, precious wood, bronze, iron (cf. Deut 8:9), marble cinnamon (as an ingredient of the sacred anointing oil), spices, incense, ointment, frankincense, wine, oil fine meal (Gr. Semidalis, used frequently in Leviticus for fine flour offering), corn, beasts, sheep are all found in use in the temple. Ivory and probably pearls were found in Herod’s temple. Although horses and chariots do seem to be incongruous, the Greek word for chariot is rhede, a four-wheel chariot, a fairly rare word which appears to come from the Latin name. The author may be insinuating that Roman ways were introduced into the sacred city.
[ J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation, The Anchor Bible, vol. 38, eds. William R. Albright and David N. Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 304-305]
The four wheeled chariots (or carriages as Aune translates rhede) may allude to the wealthy aristocracy that had arisen around the current and former high priests.
The listing of merchandise in Revelation 18 is similar to the listing of the merchandise of Tyre in Ezekiel 27:12-24, as is the lamenting by those who got wealthy off the respective cities (Ezekiel 27:28-36). In Ezekiel 27 the city of Tyre is pictured as a ship (vv. 5-9) that sinks at sea (vv. 26, 32, 34). In Revelation 18 the Temple system of unfaithful Israel is pictured as a city that is overthrown. As Ford noted, the items in Revelation 18 are considerably different with those of the (literal) city of Tyre. Only fifteen of the twenty-seven items in Revelation 18:12-13 are the same as the thirty eight items listed in Ezekiel 27:12-24. [The count changes by an item or two depending on what translation one uses and whether one counts “bodies and souls” as two items or one (i.e. “slaves, the souls of men” RSV)] There is, however, a connection between the commerce of the Temple and that of Tyre. The currency of Tyre was the only currency allowed in the Temple. Thus Revelation 18’s allusion to the commerce of Tyre may contain an allusion to the commerce of the Temple. Jeremias wrote the following on the temple currency.
We have already come across fish merchants and other traders from Tyre, who displayed their goods for sale in the northern part of the city (Neh. 13:16). Tyre, like Sidon, was noted for its precious glassware, and also for the costly purple dye. There is also evidence of commerce with Tyre in the frequent equivalents drawn between the Jerusalem money and the Tyrian. According to T[almud], Ket[uboth] xiii.3 and elsewhere, the Jerusalem standard of currency was the same as the Tyrian. The prevalence of the Tyrian standard is explained not only by the brisk trade which went on, but also because in the Temple only Tyrian currency was allowed.
[Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, trans. F. H. and C. H. Cave (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975, copyright SCM Press 1969), 36.]
Again, the currency of Tyre was the currency of the Temple.
The items listed in Revelation 18:2 are the following: gold, silver, precious stones, pearls, fine linen, purple, silk, scarlet, every kind of citron wood, precious wood, bronze, iron and marble. Precious metals were used throughout the Temple. Josephus had the following description some of the precious metals used for the doors of the inner court of the Temple, “Of the gates, nine were completely overlaid with gold and silver, as were the posts and lintels, but the one outside the sanctuary was of Corinthian bronze and far more valuable that those overlaid with silver plates and set in gold. [Josephus, The Jewish War, 5, 5, 3, trans. Gaalya Cornfeld (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 356.] Gold was everywhere in the sanctuary as I have stated even the spikes to keep the away the unclean birds were made of gold. Much of what wasn’t precious metal was beautiful marble.
Herod built the Temple with blue, yellow, and white marble, the sections not in a straight line, but alternately projecting and receding. He wanted to cover it with gold overlay but was advised by the rabbis not to do so because it looked better as it was, having the appearance of a surging sea. It was said that he who had never seen the Temple of Herod had never truly seen a beautiful structure. [Judah Nadich, The Legends of the Rabbis, vol. 1: Jewish Legends of the Second Commonwealth (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1994), 106.]
I have already mentioned the gold, fine linen, purple and scarlet that were used in the high priest’s garments (the high priest’s attire also containing precious stones, cf. Ex. 28) as well as the furnishings of the Temple (cf. Ex. 26:1). As we are repeatedly reminded (Rev, 17:4; 18:12, 16) that this is the attire of the harlot-city. Beale had the following comments on this connection.
The religious facet of the economic system is also expressed in the description of the woman’s clothing. The LXX repeatedly describes the high priest’s garments and part of the sanctuary as adorned with ‘gold, purple, scarlet, linen, and [precious] stones.’ This combination of words has already been used to describe the Babylonian harlot’s attire in Rev. 17:4 and 18:16 (though ‘pearls’ is omitted from the LXX lists and ‘linen’ does not occur in Rev. 17:4…). Three of the twelve commodities not included in Ezek. 27:12-24 but mentioned in Rev. 18:12-13 (‘linen, purple, scarlet’ appear in the LXX’s descriptions of the priest’s garments (though they do also appear in Ezek. 27:7 and in Targ. Ezek. 27:16-24). In this light, it appears likely that the repeated OT portrayal of the priest’s attire has influenced the selection of items from 18:12-13 that are now applied to the harlot. brackets in the original
[G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, eds. I. Howard Marshall and Donald Hagner, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 912.]
Revelation 18:13 consists mostly of items that were used in the sacrifices and offerings of the Temple: cinnamon, incense, fragrant oil, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep.
The incense of the Temple included cinnamon and frankincense (Ex. 30:34). Wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep were used in the Temple offerings. Consider the components of what Sanders refers to as the ideal sacrifice, “Sacrifices were conceived as meals, or better, banquets, The full and ideal sacrificial offering consisted of meat, cereal, oil and wine (Num. 15.1-10; Antiquities of the Jews. 3.23f.)” emphasis added
[E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE-66CE (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 104.].
Of Babylon’s merchandise, cattle and sheep fit in the category of a meat offering, wheat and fine flour in the category of a cereal offering.
The following quotation from the Mishnah shows the use of wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep in the offerings for the Temple. I have underlined the relevant items (the brackets are in the original).
MENAHOT 12:3 A-C [He who says,] “Lo, I pledge myself [to bring] a meal offering made of barley.” [in any case] must bring one made of wheat. [He who says, “Lo, I pledge myself to bring a meal offering made] of meal,” must bring one made of fine flour. [He who says, “lo, I pledge myself to bring a meal offering] without wine and frankincense,” must bring one with oil and frankincense… 13:4 A-B [He who says,] “Lo, I pledge myself [to bring] gold” [for the upkeep of the Temple] should not [bring] less than a golden denar. [He who says, “Lo, I pledge myself to bring] silver” should not [bring] less than a denar of silver… 13:6 D [He who says, “I expressly said that I should offer a beast] of the cattle but I do not know what I expressly said” must bring a bullock, a calf, a ram, a goat, and a lamb.
[The Mishnah: A New Translation, trans. Jacob Neusner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 760-763]
The word translated as cattle( Gr. ktenos) in Revelation 18:3 refers to domestic animals, especially of the flocks and herds; a bullock, calf, ram, goat and lamb would fit into this category.
The last two items that are mentioned in harlot Babylon’s list of merchandise are translated by the NKJV as the “bodies and souls of men.” (Rev. 18:13). I don’t think this translation adequately conveys the emotional impact of this culmination of Babylon’s merchandise. The Greek word “body” (soma) was a Greek idiom for a slave. Thus “bodies” is better translated as “slaves” here (as it was translated in the old King James Version). Thayer said the following about this, “Since according to ancient law in the case of slave the body was the chief thing taken into account, it is a usage of later Grk. to call slaves simply somata [bodies]; once so in the N.T.: Rev. XVIII.13 where the Vulg. correctly translates by mancipia (A.V. slaves). [Joseph Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1889), 611.]
I think the Revised Standard Version gives a much better translation of the shocking end of the list of Babylon’s merchandise “… and slaves, that is, human souls” (Rev. 18:13 RSV). The Phillips Modern English translation also conveys this same sense (“…slaves, the very souls of men” Rev. 18:13 PME). In the merchandise of Tyre, slaves are mentioned early in the list (Ezek. 27:13); there is nothing unusual about an ancient city having slaves. The slaves of harlot Babylon on the other hand form the climax of its merchandise; the slaves of this “city” were the very souls of men. Jesus had accused the Jewish leadership of enslaving men’s souls by preventing them from entering the kingdom of God.
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in… Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (Matt. 23:13, 15).
In Galatians 4:24-25 Paul tells how those under the old covenant were enslaved, as opposed to those under New Covenant who were free (Gal. 4:26-27). This gets back to the parallel between the two women/cities of Galatians 4:21-31 and the two women/cities of Revelation. Just as the “other woman” in Galatians had children who were enslaved (those staying under the old covenant, Gal. 4:24-25) so harlot Babylon had her slaves. The slaves of Babylon were the very souls of men.
Revelation’s treatment of the fall of Babylon is not a failed prophecy of the destruction of Rome. Rather, it is a true prophecy talking about the destruction of the old covenant system (Rev. 17-18) and subsequent full establishment of the new covenant kingdom (Rev. 19-20). Again, the slaves of the “city” of Babylon were the very souls of men. The leaders of the Jewish temple system were enslaving men’s souls by turning them away from Jesus and attempting to keep them under the old covenant. The Temple hierarchy had been in bed with Rome (so much so that Rome even appointed the high priest). The Roman beast was about to turn on the harlot and destroy the whole old covenant Temple system. Harlot Babylon would go up in flames with the Temple (and subsequent slaughter of the priesthood by Titus, cf Dan. 9:26) in the holocaust of AD 70.
Robert Gundry (In the introduction to his article "The New Jerusalem: People as Place, not Place for People") writes,
"The proofs of an interpretive hypothesis lie first in its power to bring the text to life, to make it understandable why the author took the time and trouble to write the text . . . ."
I believe I have made it understandable why this particular set of merchandise is presented here. If someone can do better in applying this merchandise (of Revelation 18:12-13) to Rome or a future persecuting city I would like to see it.