Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"90210" and the Number of the Beast

It has been right there in front of me for years: if you subtract 89,544 from 90210, you get 666, the Book of Revelation ’s “number of the beast."

Nah, I’m not that far gone. I just couldn’t let the return, nay - the rebirth, of 90210 pass without comment. And while there are many avenues that we could explore, the fact that there were numbers in the title made it a great vehicle for discussing gematria.

That’s right, gematria. You see, the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets have a number associated with each letter, and gematria is the“science” of discovering the hidden meanings of words by studying and comparing their numerical values. It most likely began with the Greeks, but is best known due to its use by Jewish rabbis. The author of the Gospel According to Matthew employs it for his Jewish readers when recounting Jesus’ genealogy, breaking it into three groups of 14. That was the numerical value of David in Hebrew, and thus a very cool way for Matthew to “double-up” on his proclamation that Jesus is the messianic descendant of King David.

Anyone who has watched The Omen or listened to metal is familiar with the best known example of gematria in Scripture; it comes from the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse. The author, John, describes a highly symbolic vision of the persecution to be suffered by the Church. It speaks of two beasts, the first of which is generally understood as antichrist. It had seven heads (one of which was wounded) and was given the throne of “the dragon,” or Satan. John then goes on to identify the beast for his readers: “This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six” (Revelation 13:18).

When we interpret these images in the context of first-century Christianity, we arrive at a pretty likely candidate for the beast: Nero Caesar. Consider the following: Nero was the first Roman Emperor to persecute Christians; Peter and Paul were martyred under his reign. Nero died by a self-inflicted wound to the throat (the Beast with a mortal head wound?) And whose name, when written in Hebrew, has the numerical value 666? That’s right - Nero Caesar. In fact, early Latin manuscripts of The Book of Revelation exist in which the verse reads 616 instead of 666. When the name Nero Caesar is written in Greek, 616 is its value. The early Church, believing it understood John’s code, made the adjustment when additional copies of the book were made in Greek.

Chapter 17 of Revelation gives us additional reasons to identity the beast with the Roman Emporers, personified by Nero at the time of the work’s composition. We’re told that the beast’s “seven heads are seven hills…they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while” (17:9-10). Rome is a city on seven hills and five emperors had preceded Nero; he was the last of the royal blood-line. With his suicide the empire was plunged into civil war as competitors vied for the throne. Galba succeeded Nero but was assassinated six months later, making him the seventh king, who “must remain only a little while” (17:10). Only Vespasian’s ascendancy to the throne returned stability to the empire; the “mortal wound” inflicted by Nero’s suicide “was healed, and the whole earth followed the beast with wonder” (13:3).

Reading Revelation in the historical context of the early Church makes sense to me. It doesn’t rob the book of its prophetic character either. Prophecy isn’t mainly about predicting the future; it is God giving His people a reality check. (So please, please, don't try reading this book with a newspaper in the other hand!) In this case He reminds us that even when the Church on earth looks like its being crushed, Jesus is still Lord of the situation; He will bring deliverance to His holy ones and rule the Earth as her King. Whenever the Church finds herself persecuted, under the gun, martyred - Revelation is God’s word addressed to that situation. The Roman Empire did fall; its former capitol is now the center of Christ’s Universal (Catholic) Church!

Both Scripture and Tradition give us reason to expect the Church to undergo another great persecution and face a definitive Antichrist before the Lord’s return. The symbols of Revelation may take on added significance at that time; it wouldn’t surprise me at all – Scripture’s Author is beyond time, and thus its applicability timeless as well.

And I’m going to be keeping that in my mind as I watch this new 90210….very, very carefully. You got that Dillon and Brandon? (I've always suspected that those sideburns held a message; I've just never been able to decipher it.) What? Dillon and Brandon aren't in the new series? Oh, just wait for "sweeps week" my friend. Both of these dudes have done movies for the Sci-Fi Channel; they're not above revisiting 90210.

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