We need to free ourselves from the deranged notion that a text must be either literal or figurative and that we have to read consistently one way or the other.
The demand for consistency can only lead to absurdities.
“Babylon” is a great city and a great harlot (Rev 17—18). Whichisit, John? If it’s the city “Babylon,” “Harlot” can’t be literal. A city might be full of harlots, but the city itself cannot be a harlot. And it’s not literally “Babylon” either. By John’s day, Babylon wasn’t a great power. Both terms are figurative. We can’t take either one literally without talking nonsense.
Yet deciding that “Babylon the great harlot” is figurative does notmean that there’s no literal city. “Babylon” refers, I believe, to a specific city, Jerusalem, that was literally conquered in A.D. 70. Yet, on the other hand, taking “Babylon” as a real city does not commit us to taking every detail of John’s description literally. John sees Babylon dressed in scarlet and purple, wearing a name on her forehead, drinking blood from a golden cup. We don’t need to ask whether cities have foreheads, or whether they can wear clothes, or where you find a city’s hand to hold a golden cup.
Yet again, though figures, all of those details have some sort of literal force. The harlot city Babylon kills martyrs, spilling real blood. Her clothing and headgear indicate she’s a priestess, and the city is the priestly city Jerusalem. With her idolatries and acts of unfaithfulness, Jerusalem truly is a harlot, albeit not literally so.
John’s description is a blessedly bewildering mash of literal and figurative, and as readers we have the priestly-royal privilege of drawing lines and making distinctions. It’s a mash of literal figures.
How do we make sense of a text like this? How do we know the difference between literal and figurative? There’s no trick, machine, or manual. Start by refusing to polarize the two. Find a mature mentor who is willing to teach you to read. Under his guidance, cultivate a sacramental imagination that can see bread and body, water and Spirit, city and harlot, tree and man, both together at a glance, without division or confusion. And then, armed with a transformed imagination and alerted senses, learn to read.
This post is adapted from the book, Theopolitan Reading, by Peter J. Leithart, published as part of the Theopolis Fundamentals series (Theopolis Books, 2020).