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Animal Imagery in Apocalyptic Literature

Strange animal-like creatures often function symbolically for the real-life concerns of the writers of the ancient apocalyptic texts.

Victor Vasnetsov. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - Conquest
Victor Vasnetsov. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Conquest

Horses, lambs, rams, goats, bulls, leopards, eagles, and more—animals practically leap from the pages of ancient apocalyptic literature. Though often strange to contemporary readers, animal imagery was one way that the writers of ancient apocalyptic texts addressed real-life concerns.

Found only in Rev 6:1-8, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse remain among the most enduring images from the book of Revelation and continue to appear across popular culture: a regular segment was named after them on The Colbert Report, Marvel Comics uses the supervillains dubbed “Horsemen of Apocalypse,” and Viktor Vasnetov’s painting is often instantly recognized as depicting the “Four Horsemen.”

Within Revelation, the horses—white, red, black, and pale—function as symbols. Usually, interpreters understand that white equals conquest, red stands for war, black for famine, and pale (a green or grey color) for disease and death; in other words, the horses symbolize what might take place during the end times. Scholars often note that the author(s) of Rev 6:1-8 reused horse imagery from the book of Zechariah in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Zech 1:7-11, Zech 6:1-8). Ancient apocalyptic texts often employ animal imagery symbolically, (re)using earlier traditions in order to address current concerns.

In another example, a dragon, two beasts, and a lamb appear in Rev 13:1-18. Each of these animals evokes older traditions and myths to create new symbolic meanings. Some scholars see the first beast as an indirect allusion to Leviathan, a sea monster often associated with chaos that has precedents in ancient Near Eastern myths. The second beast may be an indirect reference to Behemoth, a giant land animal that is identified as a mythological creature in several noncanonical texts. Within the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh sometimes defeats Leviathan (Ps 74:14, Job 3:8, Job 26:13, Job 41:1-34); Leviathan and Behemoth are also imagined in apocalyptic texts as the source of the food available at the end of days feast when God ultimately defeats chaos (1 En 60:7-9, 1 En 24, 2Esd 6:49-42).

While these particular animal images symbolize chaos, and their defeat signifies God’s power over it (especially at the time of [re]creation), their appearance in Rev 13 suggests the magnitude of the power that opposes the Christian God (e.g., Rev 12:1-13:14). The first beast is a symbol for the then-dominant Roman Empire, while the second beast is often understood as a symbol for the more local powers that may have threatened some early Christians. The lamb, usually associated with meekness or sacrifice, is powerful throughout Revelation, representing the crucified Jesus as the risen Christ working at the command of God (e.g., Rev 5).

In Rev 13:7, the first beast is a combination of leopard, bear, and lion. In the Hebrew Bible, precedent animal imagery is found in Dan 7:1-8, where a series of four mythic beasts emerge from the sea: a lion with eagle’s wings (Dan 7:4), a bear-like creature with terrifying teeth (Dan 7:5), and a four-headed, four-winged leopard-like creature that is given “dominion” (Dan 7:6).

Following the first three creatures, a fourth beast arises, spouting ten horns, which often indicate power in ancient literature (Dan 7:7). As Daniel watches, a “little horn” emerges and three of the other horns are destroyed (Dan 7:8). Scholarly consensus is that the ten horns likely symbolize the Seleucid emperors who came to power in the wake of the fall of the Persian Empire, while the “little horn” is a coded way to discuss Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who is remembered for his tyrannical rule and how he desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem.

According to some scholars, the hybrid creatures are borrowed from Babylonian imagery. Other explanations focus on the predatory nature of the animals, which is a coded reference to the dangerous empires they represent. Alternatively, perhaps such unnatural combinations demonstrate how these empires are the antithesis of God’s orderly creation. That the strange beasts are symbolic tropes and so not expected to actually rise out of the sea is made abundantly clear when Daniel asks a divine attendant to explain them: the beasts are the four empires that will eventually be destroyed by Yahweh (Dan 7:15-28).

  • murphy-kelly

    Kelly J. Murphy is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University. Her research focuses on the Hebrew Bible, including the construction of gender in the Bible, the functions and use of apocalyptic literature in both the ancient and contemporary worlds, and the afterlives of biblical narratives on wealth and poverty. She is coeditor of a volume entitled Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents throughout the Ages (Fortress Press, 2016).