Mud on the Wall: Brainstorming the Apocalypse (LII)

June 8, 2010

I have taken some extra time to do some thinking while I have been out of town recently.  Frankly, I have never understood the 144,000 as well as I have wanted.  So, instead of forging ahead with my thoughts on the innumerable multitude in heaven (Rev. 7:9ff.), I am going to muse further on the 144,000, both from 7:1-8 and 14:1-5, where they are also discussed.

The first thing I am going to focus on is the significance of the wording in 7:4-8.  Yes, I am fully aware that many say that this passage cannot possibly be talking about actual Israel because of the “10 lost tribes” of the northern kingdom.  However, those tribes were not as “lost” as some people seem to think.  After all, besides Judah and Benjamin, the tribes of the southern kingdom, there could have been no Temple worship without the Levites.  Also, the prophetess, Anna, is said to be from the tribe of Asher in Luke 2:36.  Even these two examples make it clear that the common argument above does not hold water, if for no other reason than it is extremely likely many people from (all of) the northern tribes fled to the south in the face of the invading Assyrians.

The next obvious issues to arise have to do with the order of the tribes and why Dan and Ephraim are not included in the list.  In regard to the first, it should be said immediately is that there is no listing of the tribes in the OT exactly like this one in Revelation 7:4-8.  So, no help in interpretation is going to come from a particular OT passage.

What do we find when we look carefully at the order of the tribes?  Well, things do seem to break down in an interesting way: Judah, the royal/messianic tribe of Genesis 49:10 is first.  Then, Reuben, Jabob’s actual firstborn son by Leah, is second.  Next are the sons of the handmaid Zilpah (Gad, Asher) and one of Bilhah’s (Naphtali—Dan being completely omitted from the list).  Right in the middle is Manasseh, Joseph’s older son.  Next are Leah’s 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th sons (working around Judah, Leah’s 4th son): Simeon, Levi, Issachar and Zebulun.  The list ends with Rachel’s two sons: Joseph and Benjamin.

In comparison to the numerous other tribal listings in the OT, there are some curious things worth noting about this list: 1) Since so much of the list is according to birth order, it is odd that Judah is listed first; 2) Levi being listed, but Dan not being listed, seems quite strange; and 3) Manasseh and Joseph being listed, but Ephraim being omitted is unusual, to say the least.

The surface answer to observation #1 is simple: Judah is the messianic tribe.  However, I think it is also likely that Judah being is to get the careful student of the OT to think of the fact that Judah is listed first in the defensive military formation around the Tabernacle in Numbers 2 (more on the significance of this momentarily).

I also think the standard answers on the absence of Dan and Ephraim are likely correct.  Both tribes were (in)famous for their idolatry (e.g., Judg. 18 and 1 Kgs. 12:25ff.).  And, since idolatry has already come up in Revelation as a practical issue among the churches (e.g., 2:14, 20) and would soon come center stage at the end of the age (e.g., 9:20; 13:14-15), this makes sense within the context of the book.

If this is a defensive military formation being depicted in 7:4-8, the truly oddest thing about this listing is that Levi is listed in birth order, among the other tribes and not at the center, along with the Tabernacle, as in Numbers 1-2.  How can that be, given that Levi is the priestly tribe?

That was indeed the case under the Old Covenant.  However, as the Epistle to the Hebrews makes clear, the Levites are not the priests of the New Covenant—and, if my understanding of the echoes of Ezekiel 36, 37 in this passage are correct, then the 144,000 are being brought under the New Covenant at this point and are “sealed” in that new relationship with the Lord.  Thus, even though the Levites retain their identity as those with unconditional covenant promises from God, they are now simply “believer-priests,” like every other child of God under the New Covenant.

If the tribal listing in Revelation 7:4-8 is indeed reflective of a military formation, what is it defending (or possibly going on the offensive for) in this case?  Well, it can’t be defending the “sanctuary”/Tabernacle, as was the case in Numbers 1-2.  In this context, the true spiritual sanctuary (Gk. naos) is, in this context, now in heaven (see Rev. 7:15), and the “tabernacling” angle is in that same verse (see skenoo in 7:15, the cognate of skene, “Tabernacle”).

That leaves two other possibilities in my mind: 1) the actual Temple in Jerusalem, which 11:1-2 leaves the impression that it is rebuilt by that point in time—in that regard, it cannot be ruled out that that they are those who worship in the “sanctuary” in the holy city in 11:1-2; or 2) the two witnesses (11:3ff.), whose ministry would have begun at almost exactly the same time as the 144,000, if the interlude nature of chapter 7 means the 144,000 are “sealed” just as the seven years is about to begin and 11:3 is talking about the protected ministry of the “dynamic duo” as being the first half of the seven years.

I will pick up in my next post with the discussion of these two possibilities in regard to the role of the 144,000, as well as some other factors.  By the post after that, I hope to have brought into play the additional material in 14:1-5 on the 144,000.

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