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Not Russia

We are jumping ahead quite a bit to correct a false narrative that is common in Christianity, and very common today we will be in Ezekiel 38 & Ezekiel 9 today


these chapters are among the most familiar in the entire book of Ezekiel. This first of two episodes on these chapters focuses on the terminology: Gog, Magog, Meshech, Tubal, and Togarmah. It also addresses the fallacies of translating Hebrew nesiʾ roʾsh as “prince of Rosh” and interpreting the phrase as modern-day Russia, and the difficulties ancient translators had with the term. An alternative understanding of Gog is offered, one that is consistent with the supernaturalistic worldview of the “foe from the north” motif in Old Testament thought
Ezekiel 38:1–6 ESV
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him and say, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. And I will turn you about and put hooks into your jaws, and I will bring you out, and all your army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed in full armor, a great host, all of them with buckler and shield, wielding swords. Persia, Cush, and Put are with them, all of them with shield and helmet; Gomer and all his hordes; Beth-togarmah from the uttermost parts of the north with all his hordes—many peoples are with you.
Ezekiel 39:1–6 ESV
“And you, son of man, prophesy against Gog and say, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. And I will turn you about and drive you forward, and bring you up from the uttermost parts of the north, and lead you against the mountains of Israel. Then I will strike your bow from your left hand, and will make your arrows drop out of your right hand. You shall fall on the mountains of Israel, you and all your hordes and the peoples who are with you. I will give you to birds of prey of every sort and to the beasts of the field to be devoured. You shall fall in the open field, for I have spoken, declares the Lord God. I will send fire on Magog and on those who dwell securely in the coastlands, and they shall know that I am the Lord.
We are skipping a lot but these are geographical terms for the most part and
This is the same geographical location. You can just look it up on a map. By the way, the Hittite empire was focused in Anatolia—Asia Minor, the same place. It's all very consistent. You're probably getting a little bored with this now, but there's a point to all this. The point is that this ain't a mystery. These terms are not mysterious. These terms have nothing to do with Russia as we know it.

But Rosh?

Some are likely to wonder at this point, "What about Rosh? My translation has 'Gog the prince of Rosh.' You skipped Rosh in all that list countries and lands. What about Rosh? You're cheating." Actually, no I'm not. Gog is not the prince of Rosh. That is a mistranslation and we'll comment on it in a few minutes. There are a number of reasons that it's a mistranslation. Among them is the fact that there is no such place name in any ancient text. There is no place name Roshknown in the ancient world. Period. It's not a place name.
Rosh is not a place. As Michael Astour has noted, the closest geographical correlation that could be argued is Ra'shi or Ara'shi in Neo-Assyrian records—a district on the border of Babylonia and Elam. But as Astour comments, this has nothing in common with Meschech and Tubal. He's correct—it doesn't. It's in a different geographical region to the southeast. It doesn't point to Russia—that would be far north, north of the Black Sea. Again, the point being made is that nobody in the ancient world knew of a place named Rosh. It is not a Rosh. That's contrary, I know, to what a lot of listeners may have heard. Listeners may have heard that Gog is the prince of Rosh and the Rosh is Russia. A great article is by Paul Tanner. He talks about the invader from the north. The subtitle of his article is, "Do We Owe Russia An Apology?" And it's like, yeah—we do. But that article is kind of nice because it takes you through how the Russia idea was popularized by evangelical dispensational interpreters. He points out some of the problems with it. He doesn't point out all of them. Other scholarly sources will beat that dead horse, despite the fact that it's dead.

No Merit

You should know as a listener that the idea that Ezekiel 38 and 39 is about Russia or a Russian invasion has literally no merit in terms of exegesis and it has no precedent in terms of a place name in the entire ancient world. It's a fabrication. It's a Cold War hermeneutic. The Russia idea became popular in the 70's. I remember reading it in prophecy books as a teenager, a new Christian. The bad guys for the end of the world in the Cold War era... they were Russians. And the "prophecy experts," the prophecy pundits of the 70's and 80's that wanted the end-times to be imminent (right around the corner)... Well, who's the enemy? Who's the logical enemy? Well, it's the Russians. "Ah, Russia... Rosh! There we go." That's about all the thought that went into it. It is not a view that is based in primary source material or even coherent.
Let's say a little bit more about it, though. Despite the fact that you've heard that there's no ancient place named Rosh, there are other problems. Yamauchi, who actually has a good book for this subject matter... His book is entitled Foes from the Northern Frontier: Invading Hordes from the Russian Steppes. His book isn't about Ezekiel 38 and 39, it's about just what it says: ancient peoples of the northern frontier. Yamauchi is a historian. I think he's still teaching. He's an evangelical and he does a lot of work on Persia in the Bible and Africa in the Bible. Here he's doing these northern countries (Asia Minor and further north). In this book, he does tackle the Russia interpretation and basically slays it because it's not very hard to do. Again, he's a historian at the University of Miami at Ohio.
It might be a familiar name to you because he's been around for quite a while. But Yamauchi points out in his study of the geography that the place name Rosh would have had no meaning to an ancient Hebrew audience since "The name Rus was first brought to the region of the Kiev [that's right around the Black Sea there] by the Vikings in the Middle Ages." In other words, you don't even find Rus earlier than the Vikings. So for an ancient person of the biblical period, talking about a place name Ros or Rosh would have been utterly meaningless to them.
Going even further, Yamauchi notes that Rus and the longer Russia are Indo-European words, while Hebrew is from the Semitic language family.
Consequently, a Rosh/Russia equation is a linguistic fallacy. It's a false etymology. Additionally, aside from Genesis 10's placement of Meschech and Tubal in Anatolia, Ezekiel's own description of these same places in Ezekiel 27:12-15 have them located among the nations adjacent to Anatolia. The place names are thus not the Russian cities but ancient ethnic groups firmly situated in the ancient Near Eastern geographical reality of the Hebrew Bible.

Common Fallacy

I want to talk about this fallacy a little bit. This shouldn't be earth-shaking, but I know a lot of people are exposed to well-meaning but really poor Bible teaching in this section, and just teaching about biblical languages in general that's really poor. The same set of sounds in one language that form a word do not equate to either the same word in another language or a word that sounds the same that has the same meaning as the first word. That's a little convoluted, so let me illustrate the point. Chin and chin in English and Chinese, respectively, don't mean the same thing. Even though they sound the same, they don't mean the same thing. So Rosh and Russia (even though they sound the same, or very similar) don't mean the same thing. Chin in English, of course, is (according to Webster) "the lower portion of the face underneath the lower lip and including the prominence of the lower jaw. In Chinese, chin means gold or metal or money— something bright. Completely different because they're different languages. The human mouth and tongue and lips and palate... You can only make so many sounds. Linguists will tell you there's thirty or so that you can make. Since every human being speaks, they have their own language and they're going to use the same set of sounds. But what they mean by the sounds that they articulate is not transferrable from one language to the next. You think, "Mike, who in the world would think that?" Trust me. Trust me. A lot of "Bible teachers" are making arguments like that in this passage. It's just absurd. It's absurd.
A couple of other ones. Kol in Hebrew and coal in English... guess what? They don't mean the same thing! Kol in Hebrew is a word that means all or every or whole. Coal, of course, in English is a black lump of rock. Bar in Aramaic is not the same as bar in English. Bar in Aramaic means “son.” Simon bar Jonah means "Simon, son of Jonah." Bar in English could be like an iron rod or a place where you drink alcohol. It just doesn't mean the same. I know it sounds ridiculous that I have to spend time explaining something that is so obvious, but what I'm telling is stuff you'll actually find—not just on the internet, in the wacky world of internet Bible study, but you'll find it in books. You'll find arguments in things that have been published—not just self-published stuff, but published by actual real publishers (not academic places, but they exist to publish books...
You'll find this kind of stuff in them. It's utterly absurd. It's nonsense. They're just linguistic fallacies. I think I've been blunt to this point, but I'll be even more blunt, okay? And those of you who are out there listening, yes you can quote me. Show me someone who does exegesis by matching sounds between languages and then saying the words mean the same thing, and I'll show you someone who doesn't understand either exegesis or languages at all. There's just no merit to this approach.
You'll find this kind of stuff in them. It's utterly absurd. It's nonsense. They're just linguistic fallacies. I think I've been blunt to this point, but I'll be even more blunt, okay? And those of you who are out there listening, yes you can quote me. Show me someone who does exegesis by matching sounds between languages and then saying the words mean the same thing, and I'll show you someone who doesn't understand either exegesis or languages at all. There's just no merit to this approach.

So What is it?

Now let's go back to the actual phrase, though, in Ezekiel 38 and 39 that some want to translate "prince of Rosh." The phrase is nesiʾ rōʾsh. Nesi’ is the word for "prince" and rōʾsh is another noun that can mean "head" or "chief" or something like that—some high status.
There are two options grammatically that can be defended according to the rules of Hebrew grammar for this phrase. Option number one is "Gog the prince, the chief." In other words, nesi’ and rōʾsh are functioning appositionally. They're two ways of talking about the same person: Gog, the prince, the chief of Meshech and Tubal. That's the one that people like Dan Block prefer. It has a lot of merit to it. I think it's the most straightforward way to go. It has a nice actual parallel (at least the parallel for the idea) in 1 Chronicles 7:40. In English it says:
1 Chronicles 7:40 ESV
All of these were men of Asher, heads of fathers’ houses, approved, mighty warriors, chiefs of the princes. Their number enrolled by genealogies, for service in war, was 26,000 men.
So this idea of chiefs and princes are rank terms that have some relationship to each other. That might be the best way to understand this. Who is Gog? He's the chief, the prince. He's the prince and the chief of Meschech and Tubal. Rōʾsh there is not a place name in that option.
Rōʾsh is not a place name in option number two, either, because there was no place rōʾsh in the ancient world. You could translate it this way: "Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal." They're both nouns, but you would take one as functioning adjectivally. In this case, the word rōʾsh is chief prince. Rō’sh functions adjectivally in other places. There are places that refer to the high priest as kohen ha ha ro’sh. So rōʾsh, even though it's a noun, can function adjectivally very easily and very well and does so in the Hebrew Bible. So this is another good option: “Gog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.” And, of course, your first option was "Gog, the prince, the chief of Meshech and Tubal." Either one of those works according to the rules of Hebrew grammar. Rōʾsh is not a place name. Russia has nothing to do with this.

Septuagint no help

the Septuagint really is no help with any of this. I hesitated to even bring this into the episode because it may or may not translate well to audio. I don't want anybody listening to this episode thinking, "Well, the answer here is the Septuagint! In the Septuagint, Russia is a place name... Gog is a giant,” and all this sort of stuff. Well, that isn't true. Even if you get Reversing Hermon and you read chapter 11 about the connections of the book of Revelation back to the Watchers story and back to the giants, there is a conceptual connection between the eschatological enemies (including the antichrist) to Gog and also to giants. That's valid, at least in terms that there were ancient Jews who thought in those terms. I give you all the data for that in the book. But it's not true to base that on the words of Ezekiel 38. I'm just going to read this, and you're going to see how confused the Septuagint translators were when it came to these names. I'm not blaming them and I'm not picking on them. Some of them might deserve a little criticism because they basically just change the text, but others are just confused and they make mistakes—they're human. That just happens. So here's in part of that chapter of Reversing Hermon:
The Septuagint (LXX) translator of Ezekiel also misunderstood the grammatical limitations of nesiʾ rōʾsh, leading to several mistakes in translation.
So in one passage Og becomes Gog and in another passage Gog becomes Og in the Septuagint. This is the kind of thing I'm referring to that you look at it and you go, "You know what? They just didn't know what to do with this." It's just confusion.
One certainty arises out of this messiness: at least some Second Temple Jews were comfortable associating Gog with the giant of Bashan/Hermon and the great eschatological enemy. The question is why?
So at least a handful of Jewish people were writers. And, of course, their readers are going to be influenced by what they write. But some of them were comfortable mixing all that stuff. The question is, why? Why did they feel that was okay, or why did they feel that made sense? I address this in Unseen Realm a little bit, but I'm going to continue reading in Reversing Hermon as to why this is.

The Mythic North

The real answer here, I think… The reason why the Septuagint translators weren't bothered by how they were fiddling with the text was because Gog for them was an enemy of the mythological—the mythic north. They were taking north not just as a reference to geography—not just something "up there" geographically—but they associated the northern location in earthly geography with the dominion of Baal, with the dominion of darkness and with dark powers cosmically. So we leave literal geography and we go to cosmic geography. That's what we mean by "mythic geography," something that's supernatural in focus. If you think that way, then you are in the territory of Baal and Mount Hermon and the Watchers and the giants. So they were thinking on these terms and there were good reasons (not just contrived reasons) why they were thinking on these terms. They may have fiddled with the names Og and Gog in different passages or just not known what to do with them, but they were doing it because other things that are actually in the biblical text sort of legitimized it for them. Now, what am I talking about here?
In terms of physical geography, the region of Bashan constituted the northern limits of the Promised Land. Biblical people of course knew there were enemy cities and peoples beyond Hermon. It is of no small consequence that when enemies from these northern regions invaded the land of Israel they came “from the north.” The physical north, therefore, was associated with the terror of tyrants bent on Israel’s destruction. [Israel got invaded from the north all the time. It was a scary thing.]
The “tyrant from the north” factor is one of the reasons why Antiochus IV has become the prototype for the final end times antichrist. Antiochus IV, whose violent career tracks closely with events of Daniel 8-11, was ruler of Seleucid Syria, just north of Bashan. It was he who invaded Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, forced Jewish priests to sacrifice unclean animals on the temple altar, and saw himself as an exalted deity. It is therefore understandable that a figure like Gog, the invader from “the uttermost parts of the north” (Ezek. 38:6, 15; 39:2) is viewed by scholars as a foreshadowing of Antiochus.
Antiochus comes later than Ezekiel's time. Antiochus comes in the period between the testaments. So when Antiochus shows up and does what he does, it naturally would have made people think of Gog, because Antiochus came from the north and did all these awful things.
But these observations merely scratch the surface. There’s much more to see. Bashan was the land of the Rephaim, the region associated with gateways to the realm of the dead, and home to the city of Dan, the central cultic site for the worship of Baal, the lord of the Underworld. The foot of Mount Hermon overlapped the northern boundary of the region of Bashan.
The word “north” in Hebrew is tsaphon (or zaphon in some transliterations). It refers to one of the common directional points. But because of what Israelites believed lurked in the north, the word came to signify something otherworldly. The most obvious example is Bashan. We’ve devoted a good deal of attention to the connection of that place with the realm of the dead and with giant clan populations like the Rephaim, whose ancestry was considered to derive from enemy divine beings. Bashan was also associated with Mount Hermon, the place where, in Jewish theology, the rebellious sons of God of Genesis 6 infamy descended to commit their act of treason. But there was something beyond Bashan—farther north—that every Israelite associated with other gods hostile to Yahweh. Places like Sidon, Tyre, and Ugarit lay beyond Israel’s northern border. The worship of Baal was central in these places… Specifically, Baal’s home was a mountain, now known as Jebel al-Aqraʿ, situated to the north of Ugarit. In ancient times it was simply known as Tsaphon (“north”; Tsapanu in Ugaritic). It was a divine mountain, the place where Baal held council as he ruled the gods of the Canaanite pantheon. Baal’s palace was thought to be on “the heights of Tsapanu/Zaphon.” . . . In Ugaritic texts, Baal is “lord of Zaphon” (baʿal tsapanu). He is also called a “prince” (zblin Ugaritic). Another of Baal’s titles is “prince, lord of the underworld” (zbl baʿal ʾarts). . . . It is no surprise that zbl baʿal becomes Baal Zebul (Beelzebul) and Baal Zebub, titles associated with Satan in later Jewish literature and the New Testament.
An ancient reader would therefore not only have feared the north because of the threat of invading tyranny, but for supernatural-theological reasons. This is the conceptual grid through which Gog of Magog must be understood.
The failure to find any secure historical referent for Gog and the fact that the “far north” from which Gog hailed was so clearly associated with dark supernatural powers has led many scholars to consider Gog as a supernatural terror [MH: instead of a historical person]. This trajectory is in fact more coherent.
Several scholars have proposed that Gog could be viewed as a personification of darkness, based on the meaning of the Sumerian gûg (“darkness”). This view has found little acceptance, but its detractors have offered next to nothing in the way of evidence for rebuttal. A supernatural figure of darkness actually comports well with Rev 20:7-10, which mentions Gog and Magog along with Satan and human armies arrayed against Jerusalem (the “holy city”).
I'm just going to summarize this. So by way of summary for this episode, five points:

1. The geographical references in Ezekiel 38 and 39 are clear.

This is not modern Russia. The place names are all found in Anatolia—ancient Asia Minor. You can throw in the Greek Isles. It's the Greek Isles and modern Turkey, if you want a modern geographical referent for familiarity. It's all familiar.

2. Ro'sh is not a place name.

This passage is not about Russia. There was no place name Ro'sh in antiquity.

3. As all the place names are from the north, the invasion of Gog is best understood as a cosmic invasion.

That is, it would have been associated with dark powers or invaders who were a threat because supernatural forces of evil were empowering them.

4. As we'll see when we get there this is the way the passage was understood by John in the book of Revelation and other Second Temple writers.

Human forces from the "bad place"—the geographic north, which was under the dominion of supernatural powers because it was the cosmic north—these were the enemies. The place from which they came was under the dominion of Baal, the lord of the dead, who was the Satan figure.

5. This is why it's misguided to look for a specific modern political entity for Gog.

The idea is a Satan-empowered threat who seeks the inheritance of Yahweh (Jerusalem and Zion) for his own, and thus for his god, who is Satan—whether the figure in question recognizes that or not.
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