Gog and Magog: Israel’s Mysterious Northern Foes

Like many children raised in an Evangelical, charismatic church environment in the 80s, I was surrounded by a simmering fervour regarding the End Times and the Rapture, which we were constantly reminded could happen at any time. And like so many Christian households of that era, our bookshelf held a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth¹, which warned of a looming world war that had been foretold in the Bible. When we visited certain friends of my parents, the grown-up conversation would inevitably turn to current events and biblical prophecy, and my curious ears always perked up. I also remember my first encounter with the extremely lucrative End Times media industry — an episode of Jack Van Impe Presents — which left a lasting impression on me. Host Jack Van Impe would quote snippets from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation in rapid fire, showing how they all described the coming apocalyptic war against Israel. Even the identities of the participants were helpfully provided by the Bible, Jack assured his viewers; Russia would be the main aggressor, leading a coalition of such diverse nations as Iran, Germany, Egypt, and Ethiopia against Israel and her Western allies. To reach this undeniable conclusion, one simply needed to convert the names provided by Ezekiel — Magog, Meshech, Tubal, Gomer, etc. — into their modern equivalents. Welcome to modern dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism — a framework for interpreting the Bible and Judeo-Christian history invented by Anglo-Irish preacher John Nelson Darby in the 19th century — relies heavily on a handful of biblical prophecies in its doctrine of the end times. Two mysterious names found in Ezekiel and Revelation play a key role in its vision of Armageddon: Gog and Magog.

The word of Yahweh came to me: Mortal, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. Prophesy against him and say: Thus says the Lord God: I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. (Ezekiel 38:1–3)

When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. (Revelation 20:7-8)

I think my more grounded readers will agree that the Bible does not contain encoded messages for readers of the 21st century. Nevertheless, the exact meaning of Gog and Magog is a puzzle that has eluded exegetes for centuries. Most commentaries on Ezekiel provide numerous suggestions—some plausible, some far-fetched. Can we shed more light on these elusive foes than Jack Van Impe and other sensationalist preachers?

“First resurrection: Satan’s host attack the City of Saints”, from a French/Anglo-Norman verse Apocalypse

Gog and Magog: Overview of Scriptural References

Gog and Magog are mentioned only sparingly in the Old Testament. However, by arranging what pieces we do have on the table, I think we can get a good idea of what the overall picture looks like.

First, of course, there’s Ezekiel. Chapters 38–39 contain a strange oracle of a war that is to be waged against Israel by one Gog of the land of Magog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. Joining him are the kingdoms of Persia, Cush, Put, Gomer, and Beth-togarmah (“from the remotest parts of the north”). Unlike all Ezekiel’s other oracles of judgment against various nations, this one seems to have no identifiable historical context — an important point we’ll come back to. Most of the kingdoms mentioned have identifiable historical referents; only Gog and Magog are uncertain.

Next, Magog shows up in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 and its parallel in 1 Chr 1. Here, the nations of the world known to the author are described in terms of Noah’s genealogy. Magog is one of the descendants of Japheth, mentioned along with identifiable nations from the region of Anatolia and the Black Sea (to the far north of Israel). We can assume that the author located Magog here as well.

Next, king Gog appears as a rival to Israel’s future messianic king in the Samaritan, Septuagint, Theodotian, and Old Latin versions of Balaam’s oracle in Numbers 24:7:

A man will come forth from his offspring,
and he shall rule over many nations,
and his reign shall be exalted above Gog,
and his reign shall be increased.

The Masoretic Hebrew text here reads Agag, the name of an Amalekite king defeated by Saul in 1 Samuel. In context, the mythical Gog seems to be a better fit, as both oracles (Balaam’s and Ezekiel’s) are about “the latter years”, and some scholars argue that “Gog” is the original reading (Tooman 140; see also “Agag”, ABD). Targum Pseudo-Jonathan adds an explicit reference to the “armies of Gog” in the same oracle (v. 17).

Lastly, LXX Amos 7:1 names Gog as the king of the locusts in a vision revealed to Amos:

Thus the Lord God showed me: behold, a swarm of locusts coming into action early in the morning, and behold, one locust was Gog the king.

This is probably a deliberate alteration of the Hebrew text, but may still be relevant.

With those puzzle pieces on the table, let’s look closer at the main text, Ezekiel.

“Gog and Magog eating people”, from Thomas de Kent, Roman de toute chevalerie, c. 1312

Ezekiel’s Gog Complex

Commentators often describe chapters 38 and 39 (the “Gog Oracle”) as the most difficult section of Ezekiel to make sense of—both internally and in terms of Ezekiel’s overall framework. Structurally, it is divided two halves. Each begins with a summation of the oracle, followed by God’s judgments and the consequences that follow. As we shall see, it shares a large amount of unique and distinctive vocabulary with other passages in the Pentateuch and the prophets. Nothing else in Ezekiel is composed like it.

Who Is It About?

Son of man, set your face against Gog of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him, and say: Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal… Persia, Cush, and Put are with them, all of them with buckler and helmet; Gomer and all its troops; Beth-togarmah from the remotest parts of the north with all its troops—many peoples are with you. (38.1b–3, 5–6)

I am against you O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and I will turn you around; I will lead you on, and will cause you to come up from the remote reaches of the north… (39.1b–2a)

The oracle is introduced twice: once at the start of each half. It is addressed to Gog of the land of Magog, who leads a coalition of seven enemy nations. It also mentions Sheba, Dedan, and Tarshish as witnesses (38:13). Interestingly, there are a few other passages in the Hebrew Bible with similar nation lists:

  • Genesis 10 has all these names except for Persia.
  • Isaiah 66:19 lists Tarshish, Put, Tubal, and Meshech² among the nations that will see God’s glory.
  • Ezekiel 27, an oracle against Tyre, mentions Persia, Put, Tubal, Meshech, Beth-togarmah, Tarshish, Sheba, and Dedan.

The only nation that modern scholars can’t easily identify is Magog, but the author of Genesis places it in the Anatolian/Black Sea region. Josephus identifies it with the Scythians, although there are reasons to doubt his claim. (van Donzel and Schmidt 9)

The identity of Gog is more obscure. Some scholars think he is supposed to be Gyges, a legendary king of Lydia (in Anatolia)³, but it seems strange to me that Ezekiel would have known of Gyges but not the name of his actual country. Is it possible that the author either derived Gog from the name “Magog”—which in Hebrew, could mean “land of Gog”—or else borrowed it from one of the other two OT references? There’s one other possibility I’ll come back to.

These nations surround Israel in all directions, but they are all at the distant fringes of the known world, and a special emphasis is placed on the north. Gog is their “chief prince”—an unusual title. These same two words are used in Numbers 10:4 and 36:1 to refer to the princes and chiefs of the tribes of Israel.

When Does the Invasion Take Place?

After many days you will be summoned; in the latter years you shall go against a land restored from war, a land where people were gathered from many nations on the mountains of Israel… From the nations they have been brought forth. (38:8)

Unlike Ezekiel’s other prophecies, this one takes place in the “latter years”—that is, the end of history, much like the “latter days” spoken of in Balaam’s oracle about a future king who will be exalted above Gog (Num 24:7). Israel is described as a people “gathered from many nations” and “from the nations brought forth” — expressions from the exodus tradition used almost exclusively in the Pentateuch — though here it refers to the exiled diaspora.

What Is Gog’s Plan?

On that day…you will devise an evil plan. You will say: I will go up against the land of unwalled villages; I will fall upon the quiet people who dwell in safety, all of them living without walls, and having no bars or gates; to seize spoil and carry off plunder; to assail the waste places that are now inhabited, and the people who were gathered from the nations, who are acquiring cattle and goods, who live at the navel of the earth. (38:11–12)

Gog’s plan to attack an unarmed nation is taken almost verbatim from Jeremiah 49:30–32, which describes an invasion of Kedar and Hazor by Babylon. Both speak of forming a plan, going up against a nation at ease that dwells in safety and that has no gates or bars in order to seize plunder and take their cattle as booty. Isaiah 10:3–7, a warning of an Assyrian invasion of Judah, also shares vocabulary with Ezekiel here: a summons/visitation (same Hebrew root), evil plans, plunder and spoil. Tooman argues that the author of the GO found these two passages about conquests, though unrelated, and combined them. The unique identification of Israel as the navel of the earth is found in Judges 9:37.

Yahweh as Instigator

I will turn you around and put hooks into your jaws, and I will lead you out with all your army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed in full armor, a great company, all of them with shield and buckler, wielding swords. (38:4)

I will turn you around and drive you forward, and bring you up from the remotest parts of the north, and lead you against the mountains of Israel. (39:2)

Yahweh reveals that he himself is responsible for Gog’s attack. The expression remotest parts of the north occurs only here and in Isaiah 14:13, an oracle of judgment on Assyria/Babylon.

Yahweh’s Judgment upon Gog

My wrath shall be aroused, for in my jealousy and in my blazing fury I declare: On that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel; the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and the animals of the field, and all creeping things that creep on the ground, and all human beings that are on the face of the earth, shall quake at my presence, and the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground. I will summon the sword against him in all my mountains, says the Lord Yahweh; the swords of all will be against their comrades. With pestilence and bloodshed I will enter into judgment with him; and I will pour down torrential rains and hailstones, fire and brimstone, upon him and his troops and the many peoples that are with him. (38:18-22)

A connection can be seen with Zephaniah, who is the only other biblical writer to express God’s anger by combining jealousy, fire, and fury (Zeph 1:18; 3:8). And Zephaniah also speaks of sweeping the earth clean of men, animals, birds, and fish (Zeph 1:2–3), the same categories of life created in Gen 1:26–28. Thus, we have a shared portrait of the divine judgment as the dissolution of creation (Tooman 166). The reference to a great shaking is found uniquely in Jeremiah 10:25, regarding an attack upon Judah from the north. The words fire and brimstone may come from Gen 19:24, where they describe Sodom and Gomorrah.

Yahweh’s Purpose

So I will magnify myself and show myself holy and make myself known in the eyes of many nations. Then they will know that I am Yahweh. (38:23)

I will send fire on Magog and on those who live securely in the coastlands; and they shall know that I am Yahweh. (39:6)

Ultimately, it is Yahweh who has provoked Gog’s coalition to invade, so that the nations will see his glory. As Tooman observes, “there is no concern for Israel evident in the announcement…God acts for the sake of his reputation.” (p. 165)

Chapter 39 fleshes out the outcome of the battle in additional detail, but I’ll omit it for the sake of space. I’d note in passing that themes and expressions from Psalm 79:1–4 are particularly prevalent in Ezekiel 39 (Tooman 130ff.).

The Gog Oracle—A Late Addition to Ezekiel?

To reliably interpret the oracle and its place in biblical tradition, we need some idea of when it was written. The balance of evidence suggests that it was not part of the original book of Ezekiel.

  • Ezekiel is supposed to have been an early exilic prophet. Yet the Gog Oracle is jam-packed with language that is borrowed from or allusive to contemporary prophets (like Jeremiah), post-exilic prophets (like Zephaniah and Trito-Isaiah), and the post-exilic Pentateuch.⁴
  • The Gog Oracle presupposes the return from Babylon and resettlement of Yehud, particularly in 38:8–12, implying it is post-exilic (Tooman 246ff.). Indeed, the very premise of the oracle is that Israel is not yet safe from its enemies despite the return of its people, which is undoubtedly the situation of the author’s day. As Ahroni notes (p. 9), no exilic or pre-exilic prophecy can be found that anticipates any hostilities after Israel’s restoration.
  • In the oracle, Yahweh states that Gog is “he of whom I spoke in former days by my servants the prophets of Israel, who in those days prophesied for years that I would bring you against them” (38:17). These prophets from “former days”, i.e. long before the Gog Oracle was written, are undoubtedly Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Trito-Isaiah, and other exilic/post-exilic texts used by the oracle.
  • The eschatological setting, exaggerated symbolism, cosmic scale of events, and other literary conventions clearly establish the Gog Oracle as apocalyptic in genre for many commentators (Cooke 407, Ahroni 15ff.). However, this genre only emerged in late Second Temple writings around 200 BCE. It is more similar to Daniel, Enoch, 2 Baruch, and 4 Ezra than to anything else in Ezekiel.

Is there any manuscript evidence for the Gog Oracle as a later insertion? Yes, some. The most significant is that Papyrus 967, our earliest Greek translation of Ezekiel, puts the Gog Oracle in a different location, between chapters 36 and 37. The same is true of the earliest Latin copy, Codex Wirceburgensis. These variations suggest that the oracle has no natural placement, and scribes disagreed where to insert it once it became an accepted part of the Ezekiel corpus.

There is other evidence that Ezekiel is a composite text. Josephus knew of two books of Ezekiel in his day (Ant. x.5.1), and according to rabbinical tradition, Ezekiel had more than one author: “The men of the Great Synagogue wrote Ezekiel,” states the Talmud (Baba Bathra 15a). Scholars since at least the 18th century have suspected that parts of Ezekiel were later additions (Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 241).

Tooman for his part dates the Gog Oracle between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE.

Walters manuscript W.659 depicting the monster of Gog and Magog (Yajuj va Majuj).

The Source of Ezekiel’s Gog and Magog

It seems very likely, then, that the Gog Oracle is a creative recombination of various oracle texts the author found elsewhere in the Old Testament. Because Ezek 38:17 claims that Gog’s coming was already predicted by the prophets, Tooman suggests that he took the name Gog from the Balaam oracle in Numbers 24 (p. 139). Magog, then, would have been taken from Genesis 10, where nearly all the same nations are listed, due to its similarity with the name “Gog” and the fact that it is a northern nation. That this invasion come from a distant nation to the north is important because of oracles in Jeremiah (4:6, 5:15, 6:1, 6:22, 10:22). It is also possible, of course, that the author chose Magog first, and then found (or invented) a similar-sounding foe called Gog.

Another idea I had when I began writing this article is that Gog could be related to legendary King ʿOg. I was nearly finished before I discovered that Sverre Bøe and H. Gressmann (see below) had raised the same possibility. ʿOg, a king from the quasi-mythical⁵ northern land of Bashan, is said to have been a giant, the “last of the Rephaim” (Deut. 3:11). Giant legends are closely associated with Greek myth, which fits the locale of Magog and the Hellenistic dating of these texts (the Gog Oracle, the Balaam Oracle, LXX Amos, etc.). One major LXX manuscript (Vaticanus) even regularly substitutes “Gog” for “Og”, and Papyrus 967 has Og instead of Gog in Ezek 38:2. The name was possibly a Canaanite/Phoenician title (Galbraith 291) or a chtonic deity (“Og”, DDD) cognate to the South Semitic gwg meaning “man of valour” (Rabin 251–254). Some scholars of Greek mythology also argue that primeval king Ogygos of Boeotia, a demigod or Titan in some legends, is a version of the same myth (see Noegel below). Is it possible that Gog is derived from ʿOg or Ogygos rather than the more obscure king Gyges suggested by most commentaries?

Gog and Magog in the New Testament

The author of Revelation applies Ezekiel’s Gog Oracle to the eschatological conflict between Belial and Michael described in the Dead Sea Scrolls (as does the Qumran War Scroll), interpreting it as the final battle that will take place at the end of the Messianic Age.⁶ Satan, released from his dungeon, summons the nations Gog and Magog to attack Jerusalem.

When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle. (Rev 20:7)

But as Ezekiel predicted, the enemies are consumed by fire, and the Devil is punished with fire and brimstone (the fate promised to Gog in Ezek 38:22).

Why are both Gog and Magog nations in Revelation’s retelling? When Ezekiel was translated into Greek, the translator changed “Gog of the land of Magog” to “Gog and the land of Magog”, treating them as two nations. Like most early Christian writers, the author of Revelation relied on Greek versions of the Jewish scriptures.

Whether the author of Revelation intends to describe specific real-world foes by the names Gog and Magog, or merely presents them as mythological symbols of all the nations, is not clear. Furthermore, he applies the language of the Gog Oracle to two battles in which the nations are defeated — one that takes place before the millennium of Christ’s reign (ch. 19), and one that takes place after (ch. 20). This has led to confusion among modern interpreters attempting to construct an outline of the end times.

Alexander’s Gate

There is an interesting legend, attested already by Josephus in the late first century, that Alexander the Great built an iron gate across a key mountain pass in the Caucasus Mountains to keep the Scythian tribes to the north from attacking his empire. The seventh-century Syriac Alexander Legend combines this story with the myth of Gog and Magog. Gog and Magog are identified as the Huns, and when Alexander learns of them during his visit to the Caucasus, he summons thousands of blacksmiths and brass workers to build an enormous gate that will hold back the Huns. The story also “predicts” the future opening of the gates and the final victory of Alexander, representing Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, over the Khazars in 629, which is supposed to usher in the end-times kingdom of Christ. (Such was the writer’s view of the Byzantine regime.)

Although the millennial kingdom failed to materialize, the Alexander Legend inspired a number of apocalyptic tales over the following centuries in which the enemy du jour, equated with Gog and Magog, would invade christendom and be defeated by an eschatological Alexander figure. The Koran also records a Muslim tradition in which Alexander (called the “two-horned one”) built a wall to protect the world from Gog and Magog. Alexander’s great wall and iron gate are even described by a supposed eyewitness traveller in an account recorded in The Book of Roads and Kingdoms by Ibn Khurradadhbih, the Persian geographer (c. 846 CE).

(For more on Alexander’s gate, see the citation for van Donzel and Schmidt below.)

“Alexander building the brazen wall against the people of Gog and Magog”, probably from a Khamseh of Nizami manuscript, 12th century

Modern Mysta-gogs and Dema-gogs

The Protestant Reformation brought renewed interest in Gog and Magog, whose defeat  after the millennium described in Revelation — which theologians generally identified as the ongoing church age — would lead to the last judgment. Martin Luther identified Gog and Magog as the Turks, who were then seen as Europe’s biggest threat, and this interpretation held sway for a long time.

By the 18th century, the belief that the millennium was a future age had become commonplace in Britain and North America. 19th-century Anglo-Irish preacher John Nelson Darby became the most influential proponent of the view, called premillennialism, that Gog and Magog would invade Israel and be defeated before the millennial reign of Christ.

Furthermore, Darby attempted to solve various contradictions in the Bible (including Revelation’s two “final battles”) by proposing a scheme — called dispensationalism — in which God dealt with Israel and the Church separately. Thus, the battle with Gog and Magog would happen twice: first against the Christians, who would be raptured, and again after the Jews enjoyed a millennium with Christ as their king.⁷ Dispensationalism became a mainstream view in evangelical Christianity thanks to preacher Dwight L. Moody and Presbyterian minister Cyrus I. Scofield, whose hugely popular Scofield Reference Bible presented his version of dispensationalism as though it were standard theology at a time when personal Bible study was becoming a widespread phenomenon for the first time in history.

In his notes on Ezekiel, Scofield expressed certainty about who the enemies of Israel in chapter 38–39 were. Regarding Gog, he wrote:

That the primary reference is to the northern (European) powers, headed up by Russia, all agree. …The reference to Meshech and Tubal (Moscow and Tobolsk) is a clear mark of identification. Russia and the northern powers have been the latest persecutors of dispersed Israel, and it is congruous both with divine justice and with the covenants…. (1917 Edition, commentary on Ezek 38:2)

Scofield’s idiosyncratic exegesis and shaky scholarship on the names in Ezek 38 laid the foundation for endless speculation about the End Times by fundamentalist preachers over the following century. Hal Lindsey’s best-selling prophecy books, Jack Van Impe’s media empire, the best-selling Left Behind novels, and the ubiquitous evangelistic tracts by Jack Chick are just a few examples of the influence Scofield’s theology left on certain American religious movements — particularly Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and Zionism (see Sweetnam and Magnum). 

A panel from Here He Comes!, a tract by Jack Chick

Why Equate Gog with Russia?

To explain why Scofield associated Gog with Russia, we must look at another name added to the Gog Oracle by the Septuagint: Ross (or Rosh). When the translator of Ezekiel came across the difficult phrase nesi ro’š (“chief prince”), he mistook ro’š to be a place name and rendered it as “prince of Rosh” in Greek.

German Hebraicist Wilhelm Gesenius, who published an influential Old Testament lexicon in 1828, believed the Septuagint was correct and claimed that Rosh was an early form of the name Russia. He went on to add that Meshech and Tubal were modern-day Moscow and Tobolsk. Prussian patriotism at the time may have played a role, creating a political climate in which Russia was viewed as a villain by Germans. (Boyer 154) Darby himself took up Gesenius’s view, and others followed after the outbreak of the Crimean War, including two popular books on Bible prophecy published in 1854: Signs of the Times by Scottish minister John Cumming⁸, and Armageddon by S. D. Baldwin, a Methodist minister. Baldwin, though he did not cite any sources, claimed that Meshech’s colonies had “dispersed over the vast Russian empire”, and that Tubal was the region of Siberia that included the Tobol River (pp. 96f.).

Let’s put these misconceptions to rest.

  1. Modern scholars, with few exceptions, interpret nesi ro’š as “chief prince” or “chief of the princes”, not as a nation or ethnic group. Such an interpretation is grammatically difficult, and there is no known country by that name, whether in the Old Testament or in archaeological sources (Block 474).
  2. The name “Russia” comes not from the Septuagint’s Rosh, but from the ancient name for the Swedish Vikings: Rhos, meaning “men who row” (i.e. seafarers) in Old Norse. Their descendants settled in Russia and ruled the medieval state of Rus, which became Rhosia in Byzantine Greek and Rossiya in Russian. Sweden (rather than Russia) is still called Ruotsi / Rootsi in Finnish and Estonian, respectively.
  3. “Moscow”, named for the Moskva River, is of unknown origin, but no modern linguist supports a connection with biblical Meschech (Mushku). The etymology of “Tobol” (the river after which Tobolsk is named) is also unclear, but the Tobol River region is located in distant Siberia and inhabited by a Turkic people who speak a West-Siberian language, with no connection to the biblical Tubal — an Anatolian kingdom called Tabal in Assyrian sources.

Blenkinsopp, in his commentary on Ezekiel, states: “it is still necessary to repeat that ro’sh meshech … has nothing to do, etymologically or otherwise, with Russia and Moscow.” (p. 181) Nevertheless, end times preachers still cite Gesenius as proof of the Gog-Russia connection, as if modern scholarship simply did not exist.

The supervillain Magog vs. Wonder Woman in DC Comics’s New 52 Series

The Hazards of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The identification of Gog and Magog with Russia became so pervasive in the 20th century, it even influenced American politics and foreign policy to a fairly alarming extent. The establishment of the atheistic Soviet Union only added fuel to the fire: prophecy watchers felt that “a nation that denied God would naturally seek to destroy God’s chosen people.” (Boyer 154f.) From Hal Lindsey to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, and Jimmy Swaggert, all the big names in Evangelical/Pentecostal evangelism emphasized the Soviet Union’s role in the end times.

Ronald Reagan, an enthusiast of end times prophecy (and a fan of evangelists whom he mistook for Bible scholars), famously told a California state senator in 1971:

Ezekiel tells us that Gog, the nation that will lead all of the other powers of darkness against Israel, will come out of the north. Biblical scholars have been saying for generations that Gog must be Russia. What other powerful nation is to the north of Israel? None. But it didn’t seem to make sense before the Russian revolution, when Russia was a Christian country. Now it does, now that Russia has become communistic and atheistic, now that Russia has set itself against God. Now it fits the description of Gog perfectly.

Reagan believed that Ezekiel’s “fire and brimstone” described nuclear weapons, and that nuclear war was both imminent and inevitable. In an era when the West lived in constant fear of a nuclear attack, how much did misinterpretation of the Bible contribute to the danger? Would a U.S. president be more willing to initiate a preemptive nuclear attack if he thought God had preordained it in ancient prophecy?

Premillennialism is also largely responsible for the rise of Christian Zionism and the remarkable support for Israeli policies among evangelical Christians. Boyer describes how the Israeli government courted the American “end times” movement and feigned interest in their ideology as a political strategy:

As liberal Protestant support [for Israeli policies] eroded, Israel played its fundamentalist card. Privately ridiculing premillennialist readings of prophecy as those of a six-year-old child, they recognized an important political bloc and dealt with it accordingly. Not only did David Ben-Gurion welcome the 1971 Jerusalem prophecy conference, but his government provided the hall. Israel’s UN ambassador, Chaim Herzog, gave an interview for the film version of The Late Great Planet Earth. In the 1970s and 1980s, Holy Land tours led by televangelists and prophecy writers such as Falwell and Oral Roberts received red-carpet treatment, including briefings from top Israeli officials such as Defense Minister Moshe Arens. On one occasion Prime Minister Menachem Begin met with a delegation of some sixty U.S. evangelical leaders. “I have personally discussed the Ezekiel 38 passage with … Begin,” boasted one prophecy writer in 1982, “and I know that Rev. Hilton Sutton has met with Begin’s advisors, shown them films, and done a presentation for them on the Gog and Magog (Russia) passage.” (p. 204)

The Soviet Union may be gone, but the fascination with Gog and Magog, the quintessential end times villains, remains, and each new geopolitical crisis prompts prophecy enthusiasts to wring new interpretations from Ezekiel, Revelation, and other favoured texts. Just a year or so ago, a prominent right-wing website was making a case for Russian president Vladimir Putin as the biblical Gog. It remains to be seen how the End Times industry will be affected by the pro-Putin presidency of Trump, some of whose most vocal supporters are evangelical Christians (especially Pentecostals).

One thing we can count on, unfortunately: the prophecy-consuming public is not likely to be swayed by what actual experts on the Bible say about Ezekiel and the Gog Oracle.


  1. First published in 1970, Lindsey’s book on biblical prophecy had sold 28 million copies by 1990.

  2. Meshech is mentioned in the LXX but not the MT. I. L. Seeligmann has shown that the MT is probably corrupt, and the LXX reading original. (“Indications of Editorial Alteration and Adaptation in the Massoretic Text and the Septuagint”, VT 11/2, 1961.)

  3. Gyges of Lydia is called “Guggu of Ludu” on the Assyrian Rassam Cylinder (the annals of Ashurbanipal).

  4. For an opposing viewpoint, see Michael R. Stead, The Intertextuality of Zechariah 1–8, p. 62ff, who argues that the Gog Oracle is exilic and was rather used by Zechariah as a source. See also Reddish, “Gog and Magog”, ABD, who recognizes the oracle’s reliance on Jeremiah and Isaiah, but sidesteps the issue of literary dependence by vaguely suggesting that those prophets merely reflect “early traditions” that the Gog Oracle also used.

  5. See “Bashan”, DDD. In one Ugaritic text, Bashan appears to be a region of the underworld where dead kings go, and Psalm 68:16 portrays Bashan as a divine abode that stands in opposition to Yahweh and Sinai. The Rephaim themselves are residents of the underworld in Ugaritic texts, historicized as a race of primeval giants in the Bible.

  6. In fact, the author uses the Gog Oracle as a source for the pre-millennial battle in ch. 19 as well, but there, it is the Beast rather than Gog who gathers the nations, and whose armies become food for the birds.

  7. Premillennialists of the 19th century who were not also dispensationalists tended to view the United States as the true target of prophecies about Israel in Ezekiel and elsewhere in the Old Testament.

  8. Cumming cites an article titled “Eastern Question” in the Feb. 10, 1854 edition of a London newspaper, the Hebrew Observer, as the source of his geographical claims.


Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel: A Commentary, 1970.

Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Volume 2, 1983.

Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel, 1997.

Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, 1990.

William Tooman, Gog of Magog: Reuse of Scripture and Compositional Technique in Ezekiel 38–39, 2011.

Chaim Rabin, ‘Og’, Eretz Israel 8 (1967).

Reuben Ahroni, “The Gog Prophecy and the Book of Ezekiel”, Hebrew Annual Review 1 (1977).

Emeri van Donzel and Andrea Schmidt, Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources, 2009.

Deane Galbraith, Unpublished Dissertation: “Manufacturing Judean Myth: The Spy Narrative in Numbers 13–14 as Rewritten Tradition”

Scott B. Noegel, “The Aegean Ogygos of Boeotia and the Biblical Og of Bashan: Reflections of the Same Myth”, Zeitschrlft fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 110 (1998).

Sverre Bøe, Gog and Magog: Ezekiel 38-39 as Pre-text for Revelation 19,17-21 and 20,7-10, 2001.

H. Gressmann, Der Messias, 1929.

Jason Dittmer, “Of Gog and Magog: The Geopolitical Visions of Jack Chick and Premillennial Dispensationalism”, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(2), 278-303.

Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, 2009.

22 thoughts on “Gog and Magog: Israel’s Mysterious Northern Foes

  1. Thanks for another informative post. I once was intrigued by the end times prophecies. What cured me of that was to study Christian history, I was struck by how every generation seemed to be convinced that they were living in the end times and that the prophecies were relevant to their times. As I reflected on this I came to see how the current generation was no different and was as well likely to be incorrect.

    No doubt that contributed to my path out of faith entirely.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the comment, Peter. I think those of us who grew up in that environment, and then grew out of it, have a special perspective on the end times prophecy subculture, and our perspective on Christianity as a whole is definitely affected as well.


    • Indeed. Every generation seems to have its own retcon version of the biblical prophecies. My personal take on the situation is that all, or nearly all of these biblical prophecies were fulfilled in history.


  2. In the adventist-offshoot in which I was raised, I don’t recall speculation about the historical or present-day identities of the post-millennial Gog and Magog, probably more because events over a thousand years away don’t strike nearly as much fear into the wallets of biblical literalists than the imminent apocalyptic demise of everything you’ve ever known at the hands of the “beast,” “false prophet,” and the “king of the north” spoken of starting in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13. This is where almost all effort into figuring out identities was spent because—no joke—people wanted to know how to “correctly” interpret the news. The rest was spent speculating about the modern-day national identities of the “lost 10 tribes,” those which would bear the brunt of god’s aggression—because what says “loving father” more than abandoning your loved ones for two thousand years, and then beating the shit out of them when you come back because they didn’t know what you wanted them to do in your absence…but I digress…

    In our case, the “beast” nations, the 10 horns on the final beast, were a United Europe led by chief boogeyman Germany, who we identified as modern-day Assyria, because they were the ones who god used to punish the kingdom of Israel last time, led by Sennacherib, so naturally, that’s who he would have to use to do it this time as well. And where could you find the “lost 10 tribes” today, why, naturally, by using the old legend of British Israelism, of course, because legends are never wrong. Britain was Ephraim because of Jacob’s words in Genesis 48:19, “a multitude of nations,” and therefore the U.S. was his brother, Manasseh. Where these identifications went off the rails entirely, even in terms of internal consistency, was our identification of the rest of them: the tribe of Dan was Denmark, for similar reasons as why Meshech and Tubal are obviously Moscow and Tobolsk, and for some reason, France was identified as the tribe of Reuben. Now, you could argue that since the EU is more than just 10 nations, imposters like Denmark must eventually get ousted in the course of the reduction of the beast power to just 10 nations, so that it could then be punished along with the rest of “Israel,” but France is one of the cornerstones of the EU! The fact is, all of this was just the synchronization of bible and 20th century fears.

    There exist numerous other reasons to be skeptical and worse of the soundness of these identifications. But the reason I’d like to focus on for its broad applicability is the simple fact that political boundaries do not break across genetic lines, and populations do not remain pure except in cases of geographic isolation. Despite the recent rise of ugly ethnocentric themes, political nation-states today do not exist because the genetic descendants of ancient patriarchs mostly prefer to live together. This is a fiction for propaganda purposes. History is far too chaotic for this to be true. We know that forces such as the powerful empires of the past have each had dramatic mixing effects upon populations. We know a little bit from Roman records the degree to which the more than 500 recorded tribes of the Celtae, Belgae, Aquitani, and Germani did not stay in one place, left mostly to their own devices.

    To relate this back to the topic at hand, assuming the initial historicity of Gog and Magog, to suspect that the descendants of those ancient populations from thousands of years ago have not only survived the chaos of the ages largely genetically pure and intact to be a distinct group in the modern day, and then, by their own religious logic, following the great tribulation, supposedly the most chaotic time ever to befall mankind during which, if you believe bible prophecy something like 90% of the earth’s population are going to perish, and then a thousand more years later, to suspect that the genetic descendants of those ancient populations would still be distinct and relatively pure populations, well, that’s just preposterous.


    • Thanks for the comment, Ephemerol. The identities of the beast and other characters in Revelation and Daniel definitely played a role in the end times speculation I was raised with. Not so much the “lost ten tribes” stuff — that seems to be more common in sabbatarian sects like the Armstrongian / Church of God denominations and whatever yours was.

      Like you say, it was a big deal when the EU came together, since practically all prophecy-watchers anticipated there to be ten EU nations, fulfilling the ten kings mentioned in Daniel. Enthusiasm waned as the EU kept expanding past the limit of ten, although you still find websites trying to identify a core ten that meet the requirements.

      I totally agree about the naive view of history that sees nations as pure lineages that can be identified in ancient prophecies. But to derive a meaningful prediction about the 20th/21st century from the Bible, you need to invent some method for decoding it.

      Ironically, it’s these endless failures of prophecy that demonstrate the popularity of apocalyptic texts. Even if none of the predictions come true, the symbolism can always be applied to the current era, so it seems fresh and relevant.


  3. It seems a rather important point that in Ezekiel Gog is a single person of the land of Magog while in Revelation it is two different nations. You covered the reason above which makes sense. But do evangelicals or others who subscribe to dispensationalism ever attempt to address this point?


    • In most of the examples I’ve seen, they ignore the discrepancy and focus mainly on the Ezekiel passage. One exception I found at the Christian Post, however, claims that Ezekiel 38–39 is a literal description of the battle before the millennium, and then Gog and Magog in Revelation 20 become “historical types” representing the antichrist in the battle after the millennium.


  4. Long-time reader, first-time commenter. I was compelled to read The Late Great Planet Earth after seeing the news on the Syria attack yesterday, which I found in my university library. I was curious what scholarship actually said about Gog and Magog, so the timing on this post was perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In the 13th century, once Gog and Magog had been brought to their attention by Joachim of Fiore, the arrival of King Genghis of the Mongols (from north of the Great Wall of China, had anyone known) was seen as clear fulfilment of the prophecies.
    In the Guildhall of the City of London you can see statues of Gog and Magog, twin giants. They have received the biblical names by accident. They were supposed to represent the prehistoric giant Gogmagog and British champion Corineus.


    • Thanks for the comment, Chris. I didn’t know that about the Mongols. I did know about Gog and Magog being the symbols of the City of London, but felt it was a bit too far out of the scope of my article. 🙂


  6. What are your thoughts on the idea that Gog and Magog are non-human supernatural foes, since they come from thr far reaches of the north, associated with the divine council in Isaiah 14


    • There are some thematic links between Isaiah 14 and the Gog oracle, such as an eschaton in which Israel is triumphant, and Babylon and Assyria are punished. Isaiah 14.24-27 in particular may have influenced the writer of the Gog oracle. But I don’t see any suggestion of supernatural foes in either text.


      • The heights of the North is where (according to Isaiah 14) God’s divine council is, so it could very well be divine enemies coming from the heights of the north.


      • I don’t see any reference to the divine council in Isaiah 14, unless you refer to the king of Babylon’s with to elevate himself upon Mount Zaphon. I don’t think the divine council is ever portrayed as an enemy opposing Yahweh or Israel in the Old Testament, is it?


  7. It is interesting that two of the most influential prophecies in the Bible come from (re)interpreting Jeremiah. (And the new prophecies were themselves reinterpreted!) Ezekiel’s Gog and Magog Oracle most likely comes from Jeremiah 1:14-15; 4:6; 6:1,22; 10:22–which you touch on above–though Jeremiah may have intended Babylonia and its allies (Jeremiah 25:9). Daniel 9:2 explicitly says that Jeremiah was consulted, and Daniel reinterpreted the 70 years into “weeks of years” (Daniel 9:24f), though a literal interpretation of 70 years is found in Zechariah 1:12 and 2 Chronicles 36:21. (Which is interesting, since these two books are putatively, though not actually, later than Daniel.)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Your memories of the 80’s resemble mine. I remember one book by an astronaut about why Christ would be back by 1988, I think it was, one generation after the establishment of Israel. Lately, I read somewhere that it was supposed to be 80 years so that’s, sigh, 2028. A lot of prophecy shows were on late at night on Clear Channel AM stations before the Reagan administration ended clear channels and the fairness laws, leading to the demise of AM radio even after Sony had invented AM stereo.

    I was hoping you would write about the merchants of Tarshish and maybe Atlantis too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s