The 1993 Waco Disaster—How Not to Negotiate with Apocalyptic Believers
James D. Tabor, retired professor of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte
In this three-part series James Tabor surveys what happened 30 years ago outside Waco, TX as Federal authorities violently confronted a group of apocalyptic believers who believed that David Koresh, their prophetic leader was a final messianic messenger of the book of Revelation.
Part II: Opening the Seven Seals of the Book of Revelation
It should be noted that at this point Koresh and his followers had been labeled a “cult” and thoroughly “demonized” in a series of articles called “The Sinful Messiah” printed in the Waco Tribune–Herald beginning on February 27, just one day before the BATF raid. This series, based largely on charges by disaffected former Branch Davidians, painted a grim and bizarre picture of Koresh and his followers, echoing all the stereotypes the public had come to associate with unfamiliar groups or new religious movements that are pejoratively labeled “cults.” Hungry for any “information” about this heretofore unknown religious group, all the major print, radio, and television media had snapped up this material the day of the February 28 raid. The FBI apparently shared and certainly tried to perpetuate the public perception of Koresh, charging that he was a power-mad, sex-crazed “con man” who constantly made up and changed the rules as things unfolded. They maintained that his word was completely unreliable, pointing to his broken promise to exit Mount Carmel on March 2, following the broadcast over radio of a fifty-eight-minute message he had recorded. After his default on March 2, two days after the BATF raid, however, Koresh stuck irrevocably to his position: God had told him to wait. No matter how hard the authorities pressed Koresh or his followers, demanding that they surrender and come out, the reply was the same: the group would not come out until Koresh received his “word from God.” The potential horror of the situation was that if the group perceived itself to be “in the fifth seal,” might they not unwittingly, or even willfully, orchestrate their own deaths in order to fulfill this prophecy of martyrdom?
Koresh talked most, almost incessantly, throughout the fifty-one days about the Seven Seals of the book of Revelation. Inseparable from his view of these Seven Seals was his understanding of himself as the unique messianic figure, sent by God to reveal the hidden meaning of the entire biblical prophetic corpus. This was clearly Koresh’s primary theme. He would constantly challenge anyone, particularly the ministers and preachers of Christianity, to “prove him wrong” on the Seven Seals or to match him in expounding their hidden meaning.
In its opening chapters the book of Revelation describes a scene in which a mysterious book or scroll sealed with seven wax seals is introduced. The question is then raised: “Who is worthy to open this sealed book?” Koresh understood the sealed book to be the entire Bible, particularly the prophetic writings. Accordingly, to open the book is not only to explain it but also to orchestrate the events it sets forth, leading to the climax of human history, the end of the world. According to the book of Revelation, only one person can open this book, a figure called “the Lamb,” whom Christians have always understood to be Jesus of Nazareth. Koresh, however, had an elaborate set of arguments to demonstrate that a figure other than Jesus was intended here, a second