…and I have seen his grave
In my first days as a Christian, they filled me in that the Soviet Union was predicted in Ezekiel 38-39 and that Russia and the Warsaw Pact countries would attack Israel at any time. Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was the #1 bestseller; it had a chapter called “Russia is a Gog,” and said it was clear as could be that the Bible foretold a Soviet invasion more than 2500 years ago.
With the Russian invasion of Crimea and Ukraine, this topic has come to the fore once again. Google Magog Russia and you will see how many “prophecy experts” take the Lindsey/Russia view as gospel, without doing any serious biblical or historical research of the basic facts.  For example, now Perry Stone seems to have invented an entire End Time scenario out of this interpretation; it includes, of course, the prediction that the current US president – Obama – is the linchpin of the apocalypse; as I update this post, Obama only has 15 days left in office, so things had better speed up. I should also mention Joel Rosenberg’s Ezekiel Option; clearly, he too has done no independent research on this aspect of Ezekiel and depends on earlier, faulty, investigation.
Where did this idea that Magog is Russia come from? From an amateurish reading of certain Hebrew terms.
Rosh – this word is probably not in your Bible at Ezek 38:2 (unless you read the NKJV or the NASB), but the Hebrew word that is rendered “chief” is rosh = head. But others said, “Hey, think about it! Rosh…uh?? Roshuh? Russia, you see?”
Meshech – “Why, that sort of sounds like Moscow!”
Magog – “Mago was a Scythian city, and the Scythians later migrated into Russia, so Magog is Russia!” (Actually, they did no such thing, I later found out, but that is the accepted narrative among some prophecy buffs)
Tubal – “Well, this would have to be Tobolsk which (some wrongly stated) was the eastern capital of Russia!”
Gomer – “This must be East Germany!” (a country that no longer exists)
To cap it all off, these enemies come “from the north,” and Russia, at least its extreme western frontier, lies due north from Israel.
This meant, then, that Russia and its Warsaw Pact allies would attack Israel, immediately before or after the rapture
of the church, and that Israel’s enemies would be totally eliminated, perhaps by nuclear weapons. Imagine the chills this gave me in October 1973, when the United States and Russia very nearly intervened with A-bombs in the Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt.
I use the KJV here, since it is the version many prophecy buffs use, and because it correctly renders rosh as “chief,” which modifies nashi, “prince.”
And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog, the chief prince [nashi rosh] of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him, And say, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I am against thee, O Gog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal: And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed with all sorts of armour, even a great company with bucklers and shields, all of them handling swords: Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya with them; all of them with shield and helmet: Gomer, and all his bands; the house of Togarmah of the north quarters, and all his bands: and many people with thee. Ezekiel 38:1-6
When prophecy buffs play Charades with the Bible (“Rosh…sounds like…Russia? Russia!”) they have abandoned serious exegesis. For example, when we visit the US, we live in a small town called Aston. Suppose I showed you a Bible verse that predicts doom for Aston, and I turn it around and around: Aston….Osten…Esten…, wait, Estonia! “Aston” is really the Baltic nation of Estonia! This is about the level of investigation behind identifying Russia in Ezekiel 38.
But here are the facts: Magog, Meshech, and Tubal were not located in or near what is now called Russia, which nation did not exist as such. Moscow and Tobolsk were 1500 years in the future. Moscow (or Moskva) was not named after Meshech, but after the Moscow River on which it is situated, whose name probably means “Swampy River.” Tobolsk was never the eastern capital of Russia, but a small town that temporarily housed local administrators. None of these names in Ezekiel has anything to do with Russia, either then or now.
All the names mentioned in Ezek 38:1-6 were peoples and nations that were known to the Israelites at the time Ezekiel wrote his prophecy! Of whom was Ezekiel talking? About warlike peoples from Asia Minor (modern Turkey). They are pictured as attacking “from the north,” the direction Israel’s enemies almost always took because of the geography of the area, even if they were technically situated to the east or the west. In fact, Ezekiel had already referred to Meshech and Tubal as present-day trading partners with the city of Tyre (Ezek 27:13) – these were known nations in known locations, just as Canada or Mexico are today. In Ps 120:5 (“Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech, that I must live among the tents of Kedar”), the writer bemoans his captivity in Kedar, in the Syrian-Arabian Desert, and in Meshech, and he was nowhere near Moscow! If you have a Bible map from the 19th century, before the rise of the Soviet Union, the nations mentioned in Ezekiel are typically located right in Asia Minor.
To get your attention, I used the title “Gog of Magog is dead and I have seen his grave.” I meant this quite literally: Gog is thought by many or most reputable scholars to be the king Gyges, who ruled over Western Asia Minor in the early 600s BC, just a few years before Ezekiel wrote his book [my FB friend Carrie points out that according to legend, Gog had a magic ring that would make him invisible, see Plato, Republic 2]. “Magog” would be his land. The scholarly commentator Zimmerli (Hermeneia) says that while we cannot be certain, Ezekiel implies that Gog/Gyges was the leader of Magog, Tubal, Meshech, Gomer and Togarmah. Gyges was buried in that area, close to the city of Sardis (the city mentioned in Rev 3:1-6). A few years back, we went on a bus tour of the Seven Churches of Asia, and our guide pointed out the window and said, “Do you see that huge mound? That’s a tumulus or royal grave. It’s supposedly the burial place of a king named Gyges.” (See the photo, it’s the big hill on the far right side; amazingly, it’s man-made). That grave was actually visible to some of the Christians to whom John wrote his Revelation: Gog and Magog had existed in the same part of the earth as the Seven Churches of ages, centuries before.
Magog did not invade Israel at the time of Gyges; Ezekiel states that only after much time (38:8) these nations would attack. He seems to place this long after the regathering of God’s people and their renewal in the New Covenant. And Gyges was already dead before Ezekiel penned his prophecy. Yet according to scholars, Gog/Gyges was already being taken up and transmuted into a symbol of military might, as we might use the name Hitler or Napoleon today. Centuries later, the Jewish rabbis  used “Gog and Magog” as a symbol for end-time evil. For example, in 3 Enoch 45:5 (I am using the Charlesworth edition):
all the battles and wars which Gog and Magog will fight with Israel in the days of the Messiah, and all that the Holy One, blessed be he, will do to them in the time to come.
If you study prophecy over a period of time, you will notice that “Bible prophecy experts” blow to and fro with the prevailing winds. Some church fathers identified Gog and Magog with the marauding “Goths.” When the Muslims began their jihad in the 7th century, some thought they were Gog and Magog. And now with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a lot of experts have jumped the “Gog as Russia” bandwagon and “discovered” that after all, Islamists will invade Israel: first it was Iraq, now Iran, maybe it will be Syria. Lately, it has been “discovered” that Gog and Magog is ISIS! This is the danger of holding the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other: the newspaper usually wins out over careful Bible study. One man says that it is the Republic of Georgia (Gog = Georgia, get it??); none of these has firm evidence, and people will go on identifying Gog or the Antichrist with whomever is the Bad Boy of the moment.
It doesn’t matter if the prophecy teacher is popular or has published books or says “I feel it in my heart” or “God has shown me” or “Someone had a vision that backs it up!” Mistaken interpretation should be rejected. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that Russia and its allies or any specific modern nation will attack Israel, either just before or just after some secret “rapture.”
Does the New Testament say that Gog and Magog will attack God’s people? Indeed it does, but after the millennial kingdom, according to Rev 20:7-10 – a prophecy written to believers who lived in the vicinity of the tumulus of Gog/Gyges. Here again, John seems to be using Gog and Magog as symbols: it would be like us saying that, “In the end times, a man like Hitler will come with an army like the Nazis.”
And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Rev 20:7-10
The Greek of v. 8 gives the sense “the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth – that is, Gog and Magog.” The New Testament interprets the Old. The book of Revelation is telling us, if you want to know when Ezek 38-39 will be fulfilled, look here – (1) it will be in the distant future; (2) “Gog and Magog” will be more than a group of Turks – rather, they symbolize all of God’s enemies; (3) they will come from “the four corners” of the planet.
Hal Lindsey states in that chapter that it is important to “check carefully the grounds upon which the historical case is built.” He himself does nothing of the sort. If someone is going to announce that Russia will attack Israel at any moment, they should do their homework. There are American politicians who believe that the US will fulfill Bible prophecy by nuking Russia if they should look at Israel the wrong way. For example, Pres. Reagan was advised by Jerry Falwell and according to some had even Hal Lindsey inform the Pentagon on Bible prophecies about Russia (see Sam Harris, The End of Faith – I can’t verify these data personally, although it is clear that the president believed that Ezekiel predicted the Soviet Union). When a man has his finger on the nuclear button, he needs to have better data at hand.
PS – Another Hal Lindsey myth has to do with Rev 9:16, where it says, “The number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred million; I heard their number.” On p. 86 of The Late, Great Planet Earth, Lindsey states:
We believe that China is the beginning of the formation of this great power called ‘the kings of the east’ by the apostle John. We live at a time in history when it is no longer incredible to think of the Orient with an army of 200 million soldiers. In fact, a recent television documentary on Red China, called ‘The Voice of a Dragon,’ quoted the boast of the Chinese themselves that they could field a ‘people’s army’ of 200 million militiamen. In their own boast they named the same number as the Biblical prediction. Coincidence?
First, I haven’t been able to locate this documentary “The Voice of a Dragon”; Lindsey says it was “recent,” but remember, he wrote this in the 60’s. Second, this figure – and I have no idea what Chinese official said it, if anyone did say it – is at least a half a century old and so ambiguous as to be worthless as evidence. Notice the careful wording at the end: Lindsey doesn’t say “the Chinese quoted the Bible” but “they named the same number” as the Bible does. Third, at any rate, China has never had anything like 200 million men in active or reserve duty. Its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) currently is the largest standing army in the world with 2.3 million, and with a reserve between 1.2-1.5 million. Fourth, it is not at all clear that the army is 200 million human soldiers from the Far East – many interpret them as from the Middle East, others think they are angelic warriors.
I am going to go out on a limb, given that Lindsey has passed on what appears to be total hearsay: first, if there really was such a documentary, that they really said 2 million, not 200 million; but second, I wonder if such a documentary really existed: it is titled “The Voice of a Dragon,” a phrase that seems to be taken from the Bible, Rev 13:11. These things need to be footnoted! Where is “Voice of a Dragon”?
When prophecy experts handle data so carelessly, they make all of us a target for ridicule.
NOTES: See a more recent exposition on the Gog and Magog as Russia teaching at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUYGwAbcuyY. It is clear where Hal Lindsey got his ideas: the Scofield Bible; Dallas Seminary, where he studied (see Dallas professor Dwight Pentecost’s text, Things to Come); and self-proclaimed Greek expert R. B. Thieme. Lindsey quoted Herodotus from the 5th century BC, misquoted the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the Jewish historian Josephus and the Hebrew scholar Gesenius, in order to “prove” that these tribes are the Soviet Union. (Gesenius was a leading Hebrew scholar but not a historian; his thoughts on Meshech are of marginal value). In fact, Herodotus says these tribes lived in the Pontus area (in modern Turkey). Josephus uses Herodotus as his source material, but apparently misreads him. Finally, Pliny, a contemporary of the apostles, says nothing about Russia. What Pliny said is that “Bambyx, the other name of which is Hierapolis, but by the Syrians called Mabog.” [not a typo, that’s Mabog]. In the 19th century someone twisted the Pliny quotation to mean that Magog was a city of the Scythians, and that later the Scythians migrated into Russia. Lindsey picked up on this and wrote “In this [Pliny] shows that the dreaded barbaric people called the Scythians were identified with their ancient tribal name [Magog].” This is all nonsense: Pliny was writing about Syria, not Asia Minor or Russia, and wrote that Hierapolis (not the one mentioned in Col 4:13), was a city in Syria. He mentions the Syrians and Mabog, but not the Scythians and Magog.
How can such an obvious mistake come about? When prophecy writers make their calculations, they typically depend on earlier works and do not take the trouble to look up the original sources. Lindsey quoted someone from the 19th century, and everyone since quotes Lindsey as their “scholarly authority” on the subject. (The same is true of Joel Rosenberg). Since I want to believe that he did not twist the evidence, I have to conclude that there is no way that Hal Lindsey looked up Herodotus or Pliny.
I have in front of me the Greek and English versions of Herodotus, in which I looked up his references. I also have the Latin original and the Bostock translation of Pliny’s Natural History 5.19. An older version has it “Bambeyeè, otherwise called Hieropolis; but of the Syrians, Magog.” (Holland edition, p. 74; Bostock points out that it isn’t Magog, but Mabog). That is to say that, the credible historical witnesses place the tribes of Ezekiel in Asia Minor, period, and make no connection with Russia.
If someone is a casual student of Bible prophecy, that kind of sloppiness is understandable. If, like Lindsey or Richardson, you pen books that will be read by millions, it is a major ethical lapse.
Addition: I have now come across the writings of Jeffrey “Debunking the Russia/War of Gog and Magog Myth,” http://www.newscientificevidenceforgod.com/2012/02/debunking-russiawar-of-gog-and-magog.html. He points out that the historical chronicles of Assyria mention the nations of Ezek 38 and place them squarely in Asia Minor. Among hundreds of examples, David Jeremiah, What In the World Is Going On?: 10 Prophetic Clues You Cannot Afford to Ignore.  See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0007_0_07466.html
Copyright Gary Shogren.
Gary has a PhD in New Testament Exegesis. He serves as Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica. Visit his Blog at Open Our Eyes Lord