In Revelation 17-18, John the revelator is shown the judgment of the great harlot that sits upon seven hills (17:7), which he goes on to say is a “great city that rule over the kings of the earth” (17:18). To many today, calling a city “a prostitute” is an oddity at best. However, in ancient Israel, it was quite common. Idolatrous and disobedient Israel, in practicing unfaithfulness toward her covenant with YHWH, was frequently compared to a sexually loose woman (Jer 3:6-10; Ezek 16:15-22; 23:1-49; Hos 4:12-13; 5:3). But Aune points out that since YHWH and our Harlot city in question, code named Babylon, were never explicitly stated to be in covenant with one another, the usage of prostitution and harlotry ostensibly does not refer to this.
However, Tyre was also compared to a prostitute specifically for its economic exploitation of surrounding nations and cities (Isa 23:17). Just as Babylon was known for its political empire in the ancient world, Tyre was known for its economic empire. This economic exploitation of Tyre was renowned as being the frontrunner of maritime trade. Tyre was constantly called upon to funnel goods back and forth between the eastern and western Mediterranean. The various contracts and goods of Tyre are outlined in Ezek 27:12-24.
So how does this relate to the harlot in Revelation? When people think of Revelation 18, John’s prophetic oracle about the fall of Rome, many assume that he is simply evoking Jeremiah 51 and the oracle against Babylon. And though this is true, it is only half the story. John is also relying quite heavily upon various oracles from the Hebrew Bible concerning Tyre.
From our chart we see that John seemingly went out of his way to include oracles specifically about Tyre. Both Tyre (Isa 23:17) and the Harlot (Rev 17:2; 18:3, 9; 19:2) are said to have prostituted themselves with the surrounding kings/kingdoms. Revelation 18:12-13 loosely mimics Tyre’s list of luxuries found in Ezekiel 27:12-24. Just like the profiteers mourned and threw “dust on their heads” over Tyre’s fall in Ezekiel’s oracle (27:29, 32), John depicts those in lucrative positions in the Harlot system weeping over its fall, and also throwing “dust on their heads” (Rev 18:17-19). The weeping is not because of the death depicted but because the system and methods that once made them rich (cf. 18:3c) have met their disastrous end (18:11).
These oracles regarding Tyre were specifically about economic oppression. John’s employment of these oracles and his metaphorical use of prostitution when referring to Rome serve as a prophetic critique of the Empire’s monetary dealings. However, apart from the derivation of John’s critique and his metaphorical use of prostitution, the theme of fiscal corruption that runs through Revelation 17-18 is still staggeringly clear. The Harlot is depicted as robed in “purple and scarlet” attire (very expensive cloth) and adorned in “gold, precious stones and pearls” (Rev 17:4). She is said to have “excessive luxuries” (18:3). The threefold woe in 18:9-20 highlights three groups of people (kings, merchants, and trade-ship workers) that either “shared in her luxuries” (18:9), “gained great wealth” (18:15), or “became rich through her wealth” (18:19).
I had really only hoped to show one thing in this initial post; that the city symbolized as harlotry and fornication, while readily evoking the fiscal hold of ancient Tyre, was an encrypted way of speaking about the economic injustice of Rome. This, coupled with the reoccurring theme of the “luxuries” enjoyed by a few affluent groups in the empire, serves as the basis for YHWH’s impending judgment on a monetarily one-sided metropolis.
But how does this harlot system function as a harlot? How is the city of Rome prostituting itself with “the kings of the earth?” These are the questions we will look at next time. Stay tuned.
 Aune, David E. Word Biblical Commentary: Revelation 17-22. Texas: Word, 1997.