Sunday, October 26, 2014

All Agog

The French President was frankly puzzled.  He had received a call from the American President who hoped to enlist his country’s aid in America’s Global War on Terrorism.  The American appealed to their common Christian faith, and then added:

“Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East.... The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled.... This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

The French President made polite diplomatic noises to the American, but as soon as he got off the phone he had his staff contact one of the top Biblical scholars at the University of Lausanne with an urgent question:

Who the heck are Gog and Magog?

The answer he got probably didn’t help him much, because I remember wondering the same thing when I first encountered those mysterious names and was frustrated by the lack of useful information.  This is one of those annoying places in the Bible where the text makes a throwaway reference to something the original readers were probably very familiar with, but then later readers spend the next couple thousand years speculating on what it meant.

Depending on who you ask, Gog and Magog could be giants, or demons, or chieftains, or symbolic personifications, or harbingers of the Apocalypse.  Or all of them at once.  Take your pick.

They first turn up in the Book of Genesis in one of the many genealogical lists that pop up in the first few chapters.  This particular genealogy lists the descendants of the sons of Noah, and is sometimes called “The Table of Nations”, because it purports to show how all the nations of the region known at the time descended from Noah’s sons.  Broadly speaking, the Sons of Japheth settled in Europe and the North; the sons of Ham moved South to Africa, and the sons of Shem, the Semetic people, got the Middle East and Asia.  A lot of the assumptions classifying humanity into three “races”, (Black, White and Asian) owe their own genealogy to the Sons of Noah.

But back to the list:

The sons of Japheth:  Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras.  (Genesis 10:2 NIV)

Yes, this passage is where Gomer Pyle got his name from.  We aren’t told if Gomer ever settled in Mayberry, NC, or joined the Marine Corps.  We are told even less about Magog; we’re just given his name.

Some ancient Greek text associate Magog with the kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.  The First Century Jewish historian Josephus said that Magog was the ancestor of the Scythians.  A later medieval writer said that Magog moved to Scandinavia and became the first King of Sweden, (which the Swedes thought was actually kind of cool).  Irish chroniclers also claimed descent from Japheth through Magog’s Scythian children.  Other writers blamed Magog for begetting the Goths, the Finns, the Huns and the Slavs.  Still later, others equated the descendants of Magog with the Mongols and identified Gog and Magog as provinces in the legendary Kingdom of Prester John.

Note that these are all northern tribes; (Japheth’s descendants were thought to have spread out north, remember); and that all of them were considered barbaric, and in most cases unusually war-like.

Gog does not turn up in the Table of Nations, but there is a guy named Gog mentioned in 1 Chronicles chapter 5 as one of the descendants of Reuben, one of the twelve sons of Jacob.  He has no connection to the Son of Japheth as far as I can tell.

Magog might have just remained just a name on the Table of Nations and a source for 1960s sitcom characters but for the wacky prophet Ezekiel.

The word of the LORD came to me:  “Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal; prophesy against him and say:  ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.’” (Ezekiel 38:1-3 NIV)

It could be that this “Gog” is a descendant of the tribe of Magog; but the prefix “ma-“ in Hebrew can also mean “place of”; so perhaps Ezekiel is talking about “Gog, from the Land of Gog.”  Which would be redundant, but since Ezekiel is using the names as code words for an otherwise unnamed enemy and other names from the descendants of Japheth as its allies, I suppose it really doesn’t matter.

The prophecy goes on to describe Gog as commanding vast armies and predicting that he will sweep down from the north with his hordes to conquer all the lands to the south.  Barbarian hordes from the north, remember?  This is why later readers liked to associate Gog and Magog with Scythians and Huns and Visigoths and Swedes and such. Then, in his pride, Gog will attack the land of Israel; at which point God will say, “enough is enough, butt-head!”

“I will summon a sword against Gog on all my mountains, declares the Sovereign LORD.  Every man’s sword will be against his brother.  I will execute judgment upon him with plague and bloodshed; I will pour down torrents of rain, hailstones and burning sulfur on him and on his troops and on the many nations with him.  And so I will show my greatness and my holiness , and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations.  Then they will know that I am the LORD.”  (Ezekiel 38:21-23)

Hoo-hah!  Real apocalyptic stuff.  And that’s just a sample; chapters 28 and 29 of Ezekiel are full of stuff like that.  At the time he was writing, Ezekiel was one of the exiles carried off to Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar  conquered the Kingdom of Judah.  Shortly before this particular prophecy, he and his fellow exiles had learned that the city of Jerusalem and its Temple had finally been destroyed.  So in this section, Ezekiel is anticipating a day when the people of Israel have returned to their land; and when “the Nations”, future enemies of Israel, will again try to attack it.

Not surprisingly, this and related passages of Ezekiel have been regarded as prophecies of the End Times.  Nor is it surprising that John, in writing his Book of Revelation, evoked Ezekiel in his own psychedelic imagining of the End of the Ages:

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth – Gog and Magog – to gather them for battle.  In number they are like the sand on the seashore.  They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the comp of God’s people, the city he loves.  But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.  (Revelation 20:7-9)

Here Gog and Magog have been split into two different guys, but John is essentially summarizing the prophecy in Ezekiel, except where the earlier prophet has Gog representing a foreign nation or group of nations arrayed against Israel, John seems to have Gog and Magog symbolizing spiritual and moral evil assaulting God’s people from within as well as from without.

In the Qur’an, Gog and Magog are referred to as Yajuj and Majuj; and there is a story of how a righteous king named Dhul-Qarnayn built a huge wall to hold back their hordes from attacking. The name Dhul-Qarnayn means “possessor of two horns”, and some scholars have identified him with Alexander the Great, who portrayed himself on his coinage wearing ram’s horns.  The story of the Great Wall holding the barbarians back is doubtless what led some scholars to think of the Mongols and the Great Wall of China.  Regardless of who built the wall and who was behind it, the Qur’an states that eventually that wall will crumble and the imprisoned hordes unleashed to bring destruction on the earth.

In British tradition, however, Gog and Magog are neither nations nor kings; they are giants.  Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain tells a story about a hero named Corinus who wrestles a giant named Gogmagog and chucks him off a cliff.  There is a group of hills just south of Cambridge called the Gog Magog Downs, said to be the transformed body of a giant who had been rejected by a river nymph.  I guess rejection will do that to a guy.

But the giants Gog and Magog also appear in British legend as downright benign characters in London, where an old tradition names them as guardians of the city.  Images of them are carried in the annual Lord Mayor’s show.

But for the most part, Gog and Magog are associated with destruction and battle, which is why George W. Bush invoked them in his conversation with Jacques Chirac.

Interestingly enough, though, when Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, was in college, his nickname in Yale’s Skull and Bones club was “Magog”.

Just sayin’, is all.

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