Ezekiel's Gog and Magog are NOT Russia and are NOT a prediction of future events

By Barry Webb
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Perhaps no other book in the Bible has stirred the imaginations of Evangelical and Millennial Christians more than has the Book of Ezekiel.  And Perhaps no other passages in the Book of Ezekiel have caused such a row as have his powerful diatribes against “Gog” and “Magog.”

“Gog” and “Magog” have been identified as everything from The British Empire to the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany to U.S. capitalism to modern Russia to the European Common Market, and to God knows what else, by those who try to find a modern, or post modern, interpretation of Ezekiel’s prophecies.

Unfortunately folks, all of those interpretations are wrong, as we shall see.


In order to understand the Book of Ezekiel, one first has to understand the modus operandi of exilic and post-exilic Jewish “prophets.”  One of the first things one learns when they begin the study of Biblical Hebrew is the technique of tense switching.  In other words, events that have occurred in the past, are often expressed with the “imperfect” tense in Hebrew, which can be interpreted as either “present tense,” or “future tense.” 

Conversely, often events that are expected to occur in the future are expressed in the “perfect” tense which is usually interpreted as “past tense.”  This tense-switching is accomplished linguistically by usually placing the conjunction WAW in front of the verb as a signal that the tense is being reversed. Therefore, many passages in the Bible that have been interpreted as being “prophetic,” are really historical in that they (the “prophets”) were recording events that have already occurred while couching these events in the “imperfect,” or “future” tense for literary impact.


However, above and beyond the technique of tense-switching was the practice of purposely taking events that occurred in the past and recording them as if they really were a prophecy direct from heaven predicting some future event—without resorting to the tense-switching technique of inserting the WAW.  Often they would include the phrase “in those days,” or some similar wording in order to make it sound like something that might well be repeated in the future.  Mesopotamian writings are full of such “prophecies” such as the one issued by the Marduk Priesthood “predicting” Nabu Na’id’s rise, his seventeen-year rule, and his dethronement by someone from Iran.  

This “prophecy” was written after Nabu Na’id’s fall and was most likely commissioned by the conquering Persian authorities (i.e. Cyrus the Great).  “Prophecies” such as these were used by the ruling powers as part of a propaganda effort to convince the populace that the events that have just transpired were sanctioned, or even mandated, by the Gods.  The writers of the Bible, living in Babylonia as they were, could not help but have been influenced by the writing styles of those around them.


As a matter of fact, the Jews in Babylonia, beginning in the mid-sixth century B.C. had schools, or what we would call “colleges,” that did nothing but teach scribes how to write in the “prophetic” tradition.  In other words, these were creative writing classes where the students were taught specifically how to write what we today would call Science Fiction and Fantasy.  The better efforts of these students of creative, speculative writing have ended up in our Bible among the books of the “Prophets.”  For inspiration these students of creative writing not only turned to historic events and placed them in the “future,” but they also drew upon Babylonian and other mythologies, and most especially the fanciful art work on the walls of Babylon’s public buildings.


Of all of these students of fanciful writings in the Babylonian “exile,” none were better than Ezekiel.  His works were (and still are) literary masterpieces.  For any modern day preacher who wants to preach “fire” and “brimstone,” there is no book in the Bible that can serve the purpose as well as Ezekiel.  And no passage in Ezekiel can stir the fires as hotly as those against Gog and Magog.


The Kingdom of Lydia (900 - 547 BCE)

Gog and Magog are historical.  They are not likely prophetic, or meant to be interpreted as some future nation or great power.  The term “Gog” comes from the “Gogid” dynasty that ruled the country of Lydia in western Anatolia from 716 to 546 B.C.  The founder of the dynasty was a man the Greeks called “Gyges” who ruled from 716 to 644 B.C.  In Mesopotamian cuneiform his name was written as GU-GI, which we would pronounce as “Gog.”  Gog’s descendants who ruled the country until 546 B.C. have thus been called (by historians) the “Gogid” dynasty.  That is where Ezekiel got the idea for “Gog.”  In the Semitic languages, the noun of place for GOG is MAGOG.  So, “Magog,” is simply the place where this “Gogid” dynasty ruled (during Ezekiel’s time), i.e. Lydia in western Anatolia (called Turkey today).


But Ezekiel, like most of the Biblical writers, could not resist a good play on words when one was available.  In Ezekiel 39:6 the prophet has God saying:  “And I will send a fire on Magog, and among them that dwell carelessly in the isles.”  Even though Ezekiel used the Hebrew word AISH for “fire” in this instance, he knew perfectly well of an older Semitic term AGAGA (alif gimal gimal) meaning “to set on fire,” “to set ablaze.”  The noun of place formed from that root stem is: MAGOG.  So “Magog,” from Ezekiel’s standpoint, meant both the place where the “Gogid” dynasty ruled, and “a place of fire.”


The people who “dwelt carelessly in the isles” are, of course, a reference to the Greek Ionians who lived on the islands in the Aegean Sea and were subject to the rule of Croesus, the last of the “Gogid” kings.  Ezekiel included this reference to the isles purposely to reinforce the idea that this was Lydia he was talking about, and not some other fanciful place.


As for the references to “Gog” and “Magog” controlling wealth and/or world trade, that is another reference confirming that Ezekiel meant Lydia under the rule of the last Gogid king Croesus.  Before the Gogid dynasty of Lydia came along, western Anatolia was dominated by the Phrygians who controlled much of the former Hittite mineral-rich mountain areas as well as the Bosporus straits separating Europe from Anatolia and Asia.  Assyrian sources say that one of the Phrygian kings was a certain “Mita” of the Mushki. 


This Mita of the Mushki started a dynasty that the Greeks termed “Midas,” meaning that their subsequent kings were all termed “Midas” (by the Greeks).  Because of Phrygian control of Anatolian mines (Gold, Iron, and Tin), and their control of the straits, and thus all trade between the Black Sea and the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, as well as between Europe and Asia, they became extremely wealthy.  The wealth of the “Midas” kings gave rise to the saying “the Midas touch,” meaning that everything that king “Midas” touched, turned to gold.


These Phrygian areas were then conquered by the Gogid Lydians in 620 B.C., so that by the time that Lydian king Croesus came along in 560-546 B.C., the Lydian Empire controlled all of western Anatolia (including the Gold, Tin, and Iron mines) and had a firm vice on the sea routes between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and the land routes between Europe and Asia.  In addition they controlled all of the well-to-do and rising Greek mini-states in the Aegean and along the coast of mainland Greece as well.  They were also challenging Phoenician dominance of the Mediterranean to boot.  If that wasn’t enough, the Lydians invented coinage in the late 7th century B.C., and their coins were used all over the civilized world, perhaps giving some the impression that they controlled world trade.

Because of this, and because of the huge mountains of wealth that flowed into King Croesus’s coffers, the Greeks “coined” (excuse the pun) the term “as rich as Croesus.”  And, all of this is the source of Ezekiel’s reference to Gog and Magog being controllers of world trade.

Editor's Note:
About Barry Webb

Barry Webb has had a life-long interest in things ancient since he was first introduced to dinosaurs at age eight.  Shortly thereafter a copy of Jack London's wonderful novella "Before Adam" appeared on the classroom bookshelf to hijack his imagination and he has never been the same since.  The remainder of his grade school years were spent devouring everything "ancient" he could get his hands on from "Alley Oop" comic books to Encyclopedia articles.

After the hormone-induced intellectual black hole called adolescence, he emerged in college with a burning interest in things Greek, Roman, and Biblical.  This interest was further stimulated by a flood of movies and books on those topics that came out in the late fifties and sixties (Mika Waltari novels, Quo Vadis, the Steve Reeves movies, Ben Hur, the REAL 300 Spartans, etc.).  As a result of these irrepressible desires for things ancient he changed his major from music to History.  Upon graduation from college he taught World History at the high school level which forced him to become a story-teller (as if he wasn't already).  Human nature has always been what it is, and he taught his students that History is made by people doing stupid, hilarious, awful, and wonderful things to each other and to themselves as they tried to achieve their goals, both good and bad.  Behind every event and personage in History there is a story--or several.  Somehow he knew back then that when all was said and done, he was going to be a writer of historical fiction dealing with ancient times.

After four-years of teaching High School Social Studies, the author fulfilled his military obligation by becoming a trumpeter in the U.S. Army band system.  Since then he has picked up two MA degrees, one in Ancient History, and the other in Near Eastern Studies, and pursued a career as an Arabic translator and language analyst for certain government agencies.  In the process he has lived, worked, and studied in the Middle East for a number of years.  In addition to Arabic, he has also studied Biblical Hebrew and Akkadian cuneiform, as well as smatterings of other related ancient languages.

During his spare time, while living in the D.C. area, he studied fiction-writing techniques at "The Writer's Center" in Bethesda, Maryland and experimented with a variety of genres, POVs, and story-telling techniques.

The author currently lives in the American West where he is engaged in writing about the Middle East, both ancient and modern.  He is a member of the Society of Southwestern Authors, the Historical Novel Society, and the International Thriller Writers group.
Some of the author's other interests, besides writing, the Middle East, and things ancient, include weight training, running, hiking, traveling, classical symphonies, big band and country-western music, College Football, and Mexican food--the hotter the better.
While the author's writing schedule makes it impossible to answer all e-mails, he can be reached at his g-mail address: lastkingofbabylon at gmail dot com.

Click here for Barry's fascinating 'Bible Babel' website

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