"And a great portent appeared in heaven, a Woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. . . . [S]he brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne. . . . Then the dragon was angry with the Woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" (Rev. 12:1–2, 5, 17).
There is a lot of debate about what the symbol of this Woman represents. Different aspects of the symbol point to different possible meanings for it.
Unfortunately, most of the debate over what the Woman represents is misdirected because it does not take into account the way that Revelation uses symbolism.
The vision contains "fusion imagery," in which one symbol is composed of elements from several different things. For example, the four living creatures John sees around God’s throne (4:6–8) are a fusion of elements from the cherubim seen in Ezekiel (Ezek. 10:1–14) and the seraphim seen in Isaiah (Isa. 6:1–5).
Similarly, the priest-elders John sees around the throne (4:4) are numbered twenty-four because they are a fusion of the twelve patriarchs of Israel and the twelve apostles of Jesus, a symbolism which occurs at the end of the book (21:12–14), where New Jerusalem is seen to have twelve foundations with the names of the twelve apostles and twelve gates with the names of the twelve patriarchs.
The beast from the sea in chapter 13 is a fusion of elements from the all four of the beasts the prophet Daniel saw emerge from the sea in chapter 7 of his book.
Polyvalent symbolism, in which symbols have more than one meaning, also is part of Revelation’s imagery. For example, the seven heads of the beast are said to be both seven mountains (Rev. 17:9) and seven kings (17:10).
The Woman in Revelation 12 is part of the fusion imagery/polyvalent symbolism that is found in the book. She has four referents: Israel, the Church, Eve, and Mary.
She is Israel because she is associated with the sun, the moon, and twelve stars. These symbols are drawn from Genesis 37:9–11, in which the patriarch Joseph has a dream of the sun and moon (symbolizing his father and mother) and stars (representing his brothers), which bow down to him. Taken together, the sun, moon, and twelve stars symbolize the people of Israel.
The Woman is the Church because, as 12:17 tells us, "the rest of her offspring" are those who bear witness to Jesus, making them Christians.
The Woman is Eve because she is part of the three-way conflict also involving her Seed and the Dragon, who is identified with the ancient serpent (the one from Eden) in 20:2. This mirrors the conflict in Genesis 3:15 between Eve, the serpent, and her unborn seed—which in turn is a symbol of the conflict between Mary, Satan, and Jesus.
Finally, the Woman is Mary because she is the mother of Jesus, the child who will rule the nations with a rod of iron (19:11–16).
Because the Woman is a four-way symbol, different aspects of the narrative apply to different referents. Like Mary, she is pictured as being in heaven and she flies (mirroring Mary’s Assumption). Like the Church, she is persecuted by the Devil after the Ascension of Christ. Like Israel, she experiences great trauma as the Messiah is brought forth (figuratively) from the nation. And like Eve, it is her (distant) seed with which the serpent has his primary conflict.
Conversely, portions of the narrative do not apply to each referent. Mary did not experience literal pain when bringing forth the Messiah, but she suffered figuratively (the prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart at the Crucifixion). Eve did not ascend to heaven. And the Church did not bring forth the Messiah (rather, the Messiah brought forth his Church).