Saturday, May 23, 2015

Faint with fear

12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev 6:12-17).
I'd like to give a bit more attention to the interpretation of this passage, in reference to Alan's post: 
i) What's the relationship between the initial earthquake and subsequent events? Is there a consistent cause-and-effect relationship? Does the earthquake directly trigger these events?
To a modern reader, there's no causal relationship between earthquakes and shooting stars. Perhaps, though, someone would argue that if ancient people believed in the three-story universe, then an earthquake might shake things loose from the sky. The land would be equivalent to the floor or foundation, and the sky to the roof or ceiling.
If so, one problem with that argument is that there's no correlation between earthquakes and shooting stars. Earthquakes occur without shooting stars and shooting stars occur without earthquakes. Ancient people were keen observers of the natural world. So there's no reason to think they'd connect the two. Indeed, there's reason to think they wouldn't connect the two, given the absence of any correlation. In their experience, earthquakes didn't trigger meteor showers. 
ii) There's the question of what the second clause in v14 envisions. With reference to mountains, it seems to suggest landslides. The earthquake leveled mountains.
Islands can also be shaken by earthquakes. Question is whether the verb means "moved" or "removed." As we know, earthquakes can generate tsunamis and tidal waves. It's possible that that's alluded to here, although text doesn't say that or imply that. 
Islands can also be susceptible to volcanic destruction. The Minoan eruption is a famous case. The Mt. Tabora eruption is another case in point. Likewise, the Krakatau eruption.  Once again, though, the text doesn't say that or imply that. It's just a wild guess. 
iii) Then there's the question of whether we should construe the imagery literally or figuratively. 
a) On the one hand, the OT records God using actual natural disasters in divine judgment. So it's certainly possible, perhaps even probable, that natural disasters will figure in the final judgment.
b) On the other hand, Beale has documented that stars, mountains, and islands can symbolize human and heavenly powers. In addition, the same end-of-the-world imagery recurs in subsequent chapters. But, of course, the world can only end once.
Furthermore, I assume any earthquake of sufficient magnitude to level mountain ranges would annihilate life on earth. 
c) In addition, v14 is literally inconsistent with vv15-16. If the earthquake leveled the mountains, then people couldn't take refuge in the mountains after the earthquake. By then the mountain ranges would be heaps of rubble. Vv15-16 presume that the mountains are still intact (pace v14). So the imagery is flexible.
d) However, it's possible that the choice between literal and metaphorical is a false dichotomy. Maybe the specific imagery is figurative, but that's used to as placeholders to indicate real natural disasters. In other words, perhaps the text employs stock imagery for natural disasters. These don't describe the natural disasters. Rather, they are conventional synonyms for natural disasters. Paradigm examples of familiar kinds of natural disasters. So there could be real natural disasters, but not necessarily the specific catastrophes denoted by the stock imagery.
It's hard to say if the language refers to actual physical cataclysms. Only time will tell.
iv) Contrary to Alan's interpretation, the text doesn't say the people were terrified by the natural disasters. Rather, they were terrified by Jesus returning in judgment. 
Indeed, they are so horrified by the prospect of facing him that they'd rather be buried alive in collapsing caves and crumbling mountains (cf. Lk 23:30). Although the natural disasters are undoubtedly horrendous, they pale in comparison with Jesus himself, as the eschatological judge.
v) Another problem with Alan's interpretation is that if these cascading disasters were triggered by volcanic activity, why would they head for the hills? Why take refuge in mountains to escape volcanic activity when volcanoes are mountains? Would they not be motivated to put as much distance as possible between themselves and nearby mountains or mountain ranges? Do people who fear the forest fire seek refuge in the forest? 
vi) Incidentally, both Aune and Koester document how Greco-Roman literature identified the solar/lunar imagery with solar/lunar eclipses, and attached ominous significance to these phenomena. So that would be a natural association for the original audience to make.

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