The Nations of Ezekiel 38 - 39
Who Will Participate in the Battle?
copyright 1985, Fred G. Zaspel
Word of Life Baptist Church
PURPOSE OF PAPER
The purpose of this paper is to identify the nations who will be participants in the end-time battle described in Ezekiel 38. The terms which will be considered are Gog, Magog, Rosh, Meshech, Tubal, Persia, Ethiopia, Libya, Gomer and Togarmah (KJV). A discussion of the time of this battle does not fall within the scope of this paper; however, it will be easily seen that the position taken in this regard is that the battle will be sometime after the tribulation.
When interpreting Ezekiel 38 it has become popular to identify Gomer as Germany and the terms Rosh, Gog, Magog, Meshech, and Tubal as being Russia. Among dispensational authors there is almost complete unanimity on this point. This paper will analyze the arguments used in support of this position and attempt to demonstrate that these terms refer instead to a near-eastern coalition of nations which will seek to destroy Israel.
PRESUPPOSITIONS AND PRELIMINARY REMARKS
Linguistics and Interpretation
The interpretation of these place names in Ezekiel 38 must be based upon sound historical research and methodology and that in keeping with the established laws of historical and comparative linguistics. Reading modern English place names into the original Semitic terminology, for example, must be avoided. The similarity in sound of an ancient Hebrew word with a modern English word is more than likely only superficial. The Hebrew prophets were not writing to an English audience, and their terminology should not be interpreted as such but rather from their own historical standpoint.
One linguistic principle to bear in mind is that as a language evolves out of another or as a word migrates from one language to another, the vowels may all change, but the consonants will generally remain the same. A Biblical example of this is found in Nehemiah chapter 6. Verse 1 mentions a man named Gesham the Arabian; verse 6 names him Gashmu. Notice that the vowels all change, but the consonants remain the same: GŠM. The difference here in Nehemiah may have been caused by a translation from two different languages in the two verses. The point is that it is the consonants which are important.
Closely associated with this is the fact that the consonants remain in the same order, as in the example cited above. To reverse the order of the letters (consonants) in order to arrive at a desired conclusion is merely presumptuous. A consonant may change to another consonant with similar sound, but their order and place in the word remain.
Method of Interpretation
Care must also be taken to avoid personal and/or political bias. It is natural to seek to discover any great modern power or nation somewhere within the pages of Biblical prophecy. An example of this is seen in the desire to find the United States, China, or Japan in the prophetic Word. This temptation is only heightened when the nation or power in question is also an evil empire, as with the Soviet Union. Unger makes this mistake when he says "It is unthinkable that this vast God-defying power [USSR] would not be included in the scope of things to come as set forth in the Bible." Walvoord does virtually the same when he says "The godlessness of the invading army attacking Israel also points the finger to the nation Russia."
The weakness of this type of argument is obvious: that a political regime is evil and powerful today is no indication that it will be a part of international crises tomorrow. When interpreting Scripture, personal and political bias must be set aside. The priority of the written Word demands that Scripture be allowed to speak for itself and interpreted by itself.
Imminence and Interpretation
Another observation worthy of mention involves a popular teaching of the imminent return of Christ. Those who emphasize the teaching that Christ may return at any moment often fall into error by assuming that His return must therefore be soon. However, the hidden time-table of Christ's second coming necessarily assumes that His return may not be soon at all. No one can say whether He will come sooner or later, however current events may seem to coincide with prophetic events. This should evoke considerable pause on the part of the interpreter before he becomes willing to specifically identify any nation as a part of Biblical prophecy unless there is clear, specified warrant to do so. This mistake has been made over and again in church history only to see Christ's delayed return disprove the interpretation. With the elapsed time the identified powers have waned.
The bearing this has upon this present study is clear. For example, if the Lord were to return today it is difficult to imagine how Russia (or the U.S.A.!) could not be somehow involved in the end-time battles. But this does not mean that Christ's return is very near, and it does not require that Russia be a part of the prophecy. That a nation is likely to be involved if events were to occur soon is not proof that the nation is specified in the original prophecy. Seventy years ago the possibility of Russia's being an end-time power was almost unthinkable. Should the Lord tarry another seventy years the same may be true of Russia then; no one can say.
Walvoord falls prey to this error when he says,
"Today, to the north of the nation Israel is the armed might of Russia. Never before has it seemed more likely that the prediction will be fulfilled given by Ezekiel (chapter 38-39) of an invasion from the north. To the east is the rising might of Red China, with the growing force of nationalism in India as well as the revival of Japan. Never before has it seemed more likely that there should be a tremendous military host coming from Asia, crossing the Euphrates river, and moving down on the scene of battle in the Middle East as predicted in Revelation 9:16."
Notice that the time-table of prophetic Scripture is interpreted by current events rather than allowing Scripture to speak for itself. Neither Russia, China, India, or Japan are mentioned in Scripture, but they are assumed to be a part of the prophetic Word because they are, today, the powers that be.
It is interesting that Berkhof, an avowed Amillennialist, made this same mistake of judging Scripture by the modern political scene when, while arguing against premillennialism in 1938, he asserted that the thought of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon again rising to power is nothing short of an "absurdity." Needless to say, the thought is none too absurd today, a mere five decades later.
These two examples, from opposing standpoints, demonstrate the importance of specifically identifying nations only when there is ample Scriptural warrant to do so.
Two principles of hermeneutics have direct bearing upon this study. First is the importance of literalism. It is a bit ironic that this should need to be asserted in argument against dispensational authors, but, as it will be shown, the need is real. Terms must be interpreted in their primary, ordinary, usual meaning. The temptation to apply them to something far removed from the author, without explicit exegetical warrant, must be carefully resisted.
This leads to the second principle to be emphasized: historical interpretation. This simply means that the passage must be considered within the frame of reference of the author and recipients of the writing. To carry it beyond requires, again, explicit warrant.
AN EXAMINATION OF EZEKIEL'S TERMINOLOGY
The terms found in Ezekiel 38 that must be considered are (as in KJV) Gog, Magog, Rosh, Meshech, Tubal (verse 1), Persia, Ethiopia, Libya (verse 5), Gomer, and Togarmah (verse 6). Of these, some are easily identifiable. The more obvious nations will be treated first then proceeding to the more difficult.
Libya, Persia, Ethiopia
Libya (Put) remains today, bearing the same name, lying just west of Egypt. Persia, also remaining to the present, is now known as Iran. Biblical Ethiopia (Cush, KŠ) is not the Ethiopia of today but rather the land just to the south of Egypt, Northern Sudan.
Togarmah (TGRM) presents only a little more difficulty. Togarmah was a descendant of Noah through Japheth then Gomer (Gen.10:1-3). He is know to Assyrian records as Tilgarimmu (TLGRM). The inserted "L" is not uncommon and, more than likely, was silent. Tilgarimmu was a city state in Eastern Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern Turkey), more specifically, as Ryrie states, "the southeastern part of Turkey near the Syrian border." This identification is generally acknowledged by all.
Gomer (GMR) has often been mistaken to refer to Germany because of a supposed similarity of linguistic construction. This position has two serious errors. One is that the "R" and "M" are reversed. Ezekiel wrote of GMR not GRM. The reversal is unwarranted linguistically. Furthermore, this similarity and inversion is based upon a comparison of Ezekiel's GMR with a modern English (from Latin) designation for Deutschland. Clearly, the similarity is only superficial. These two errors rule out, absolutely, any possible identification of Gomer with Germany.
However, GMR is well known to the ancient world as Gimarrai (GMR) of north central Asia Minor (Cappadocia). These people are also known as the Cimmerians (KMR, note the change in gutturals from "G" to "C"). This seems to be the simplest, most obvious interpretation.
The identification of Rosh (RŠ) presents some difficulty. Some understand it to be a proper noun referring to Russia rather than as a simple noun or adjective, "head" or "chief" (KJV), which is its normal meaning.
Although this interpretation may be allowable on grammatical grounds, it suffers from several problems. The first is that there is absolutely no place on earth known by this name, Rosh. Of all the occurrences of Meshech and Tubal (MŠK and TBL) in Biblical and non-Biblical writings, they are never associated with a place called Rosh, as the translation "prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal" would suggest.
There are linguistic problems here as well. As Unger admits, "Linguistic evidence for the equation [of Rosh with Russia] is confessedly only presumptive." The first problem is that the similarity is in sound only, not in consonantal configuration. Notice it is Rosh (RŠ) not Rus (RS). Furthermore, the problem encountered earlier, the supposed similarity is based on a comparison with a much more modern word. The term "Russia" comes from a late eleventh-century A.D. Viking word "Rus" (RS; again notice the difference in consonants). Reading modern words and spellings into ancient Semitic terminology is to ignore all known linguistic norms.
Since there is no place named Rosh associated with Meshech or Tubal, and since the attempted equation of it with modern Russia is obviously fallacious, it is easiest to understand both "chief" (rosh) and "prince" as related appositionally and used in reference to Meshech and Tubal: "chief prince of Meshech and Tubal" (KJV). This is also the reading of the Targum, Aquila, and the Vulgate.
Meshech (MŠK) is often mistaken for the Modern Russian city of Moscow, capitol and largest city of the Soviet Union. Again, this identification, as even Ryrie admits, is unfounded also. The problems are similar to those associated with the identification of Gomer with Germany. First of all, the Š is changed to S. This again is unwarranted linguistically. Furthermore, the similarity is based upon a comparison of MŠK with the English designation Moscow; the Russian word is Moskva (MSKV) and is less similar still.
However, Mushki (MŠK) of central and western Asia Minor, known in the classics (Homer, etc.) as Phrygia, fits very well. These people were well known to Ezekiel, and this seems clearly the easier interpretation.
Tubal (TBL) is commonly identified with the Russian city of Tobol'sk. Although this is allowable linguistically, it is not the best hermeneutically. Ezekiel knew nothing of Tobol'sk (or Moscow or Germany, for that matter); it did not exist. He was, however, well acquainted with Tabal (TBL) of Eastern Asia Minor (and Gimarrai and Mushki) of central and western Asia Minor). Granted, God could have revealed Tobol'sk (and Moscow and Germany) to the ancient prophet, but to assume so when Tabal was well known to him is unjustified apart from Biblical warrant. If a man in New York, for example, speaks of Manhattan, he would not want anyone to assume that he is speaking of a Manhattan, Kansas; much less would he want anyone to interpret his words as referring to a Manhattan somewhere else in the world of which he is unaware! Similarly, to assume a place unknown to the prophet (Tobol'sk) when clear options are available is both hermeneutically and exegetically untenable. Tabal is clearly to be preferred.
Gog is extremely difficult to identify. Some have identified him with Gyges (seventh century B.C.), king of Lydia (extreme western Asia Minor), who is called Gugu in the Ashurbanipal texts. Some have suggested the place name Gagai, referred to in the Tell el Amarna letters as a land of Barbarians. A god named Gaga found in the Ras Shamra writings; Gagu, a ruler of the land of Sakhi, North of Assyria; and Gaga, a mountainous region north of Meletene, have all been offered as alternatives. Some have understood Gog to be a historical figure such as Alexander the Great. One plausible explanation is that Gog is merely an official title or general designation for any enemy of God's people. This interpretation is based on the Septuagint rendering of several Kingly names in the Old Testament. Perhaps Gog is only a derivative of the related word Magog. None of the above suggestions has sufficient evidence for certain identification. It is most probable that Gog is a person, but geographical identification is not given.
Magog, a descendant of Noah through Japheth (Gen. 10:1-2), presents the most difficulty. Those who see it as Russia appeal to Josephus who said "Magog founded those that from him were named Magogites, but who are by the Greeks called Scythians," who lived north and northeast of the Black Sea. The fact of the matter, however, is that nothing is known about Magog--nothing. Josephus' guess may be as good as any, but the place is as yet unidentified. The appeal to Gesenius is impressive, but it must be remembered that Gesenius was a great lexicographer and grammarian, not an authority on ancient history. His statement was but a guess also; in fact, it is highly probable that Josephus was Gesenius' source for this information. Furthermore, though the Scythians are of the Japhetic line, they are believed by historians to be descendants of Gomer through Ashkenas; this is not true of Magog. To identify Magog as the Scythians is without support from historical anthropology.
Although Magog cannot be identified specifically, it seems that Scripture does give a clue at least to its general vicinity. First, "Gog" is known to be an Anatolian name. Further, if Meshech and Tubal have been identified correctly and are in Asia Minor, Magog must be a part of Asia minor as well since "they [Meshech and Tubal] lived in the neighborhood of Magog." Ezekiel 38:2 states that Gog, who is the "chief prince of Meshech and Tubal," is "of the land of Magog." If Gog is prince of Meshech and Tubal and lives in the land of Magog, it seems reasonable that Magog is in close proximity.
In summary, the Scythians were a people other than Magogites, and Magog is not able to be specifically identified, unless it is a general reference to the land of Asia Minor.
Another argument for seeing Russia in this prophecy of Ezekiel remains, namely, Ezekiel's statement that Gog will descend "from the north parts" (38:15). The word indicates "uttermost parts of the north" or "farthest north." This, it is assumed, points directly to Russia. The major objection to this is again based upon a commitment to consistent historical interpretation. Scriptural terminology must not be forced into a twentieth-century A.D. map. To Ezekiel the "farthest north" was Asia Minor (from there you jump off the edge!). To extend Ezekiel's frame of reference any further, without exegetical warrant, cannot be right.
Moreover, if Asia Minor is not the "farthest north," then why stop with Russia? Why not go on to the north pole? If this seems ridiculous, then why not Finland? Norway? Sweden? These all extend directly above Moscow. If these interpreters will not interpret within Ezekiel's geographical frame of reference, demanding a "more literal" understanding of "farthest north," then their own hermeneutic demands they go farther north than Moscow. Their own argument falls.
One more fact is worthy of observation here. In verse 6 this same geographical description ("farthest north") is also given of Togarmah, yet virtually all agree that this is eastern Asia Minor! If Asia Minor was far north enough for Togarmah, why not for Gog? The problem is obvious.
It has been shown on the basis of exegesis, hermeneutics, linguistics, and historical anthropology that, 1) Gomer cannot be Germany but rather Gimarrai, 2) Meshech cannot be Moscow but Mushki, 3) Tubal is not Tobol'sk but Tabal, 4) Gog is probably a personage, 5) Magog is unidentifiable except as a general reference ("land of Gog") to Asia Minor, 6) rosh is not a reference to a place but is to be translated "chief" or "head," and 7) the terms "north parts" and "north quarters" cannot mean Russia but, within Ezekiel's frame of reference, refer to modern Turkey.
What Ezekiel prophesied, then, is an end-time battle involving the following nations coming against Israel: 1) Turkey (Meshech, Tubal, Magog[?], Gomer, Togarmah; 2) Iran (Persia), 3) Sudan (Ethiopia or Cush), and 4) Libya.
Precisely why Turkey (Anatolia, Asia Minor) is set forth in Ezekiel's prophecy under four names (Meshech, Tubal, Gomer and Togarmah) cannot be determined. Perhaps it points to some future political break-up of that area. Perhaps it is simply to clearly specify that the entire nation or land will be involved: west (Meshech), Central (Gomer), and east (Tubal and Togarmah).
Concerning the Nations Involved--And Those Who are Not
With Turkey, Iran, Libya and Sudan, Gog leads an Islamic coalition of nations against Israel: Turkey from the north, Iran from the east, Libya from the west and Sudan from the south.
Note also the nations who are (surprisingly!) absent: Egypt and Syria. Why? The only plausible answer is that they both have somehow been relegated to an inferior position militarily. This fits nicely into Daniel chapter 11 with both the King of the North (Syria) and the King of the South (Egypt) being destroyed by Antichrist.
Endnotes -- Ezekiel
1See Richard W. DeHaan, Russia's Fatal Invasion (Grand Rapids: Radio Bible Class, 1980); David Egner, The Bear Goes South (Grand Rapids: Radio Bible Class, 1979); Arno C. Gaebelein, The Prophet Ezekiel (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1972); W. G. Heslop, Pearls From The Prophet Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1976); Carl G. Johnson, Prophecy Made Plain (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972); Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971); Thomas S. McCall & Zola Levitt, The Coming Russian Invasion of Israel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974); J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980); and Will Man Survive? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980); Merrill F. Unger, Beyond The Crystal Ball (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974); John F. Walvoord, Israel In Prophecy and The Nations in Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978); etc.
2Š = the linguistic designation for the "sh" sound.
3See Heslop, Pearls, pp.141-144; Walvoord, Israel, p.129; etc.
4Unger, Beyond, p.81. He continues: "It would be equally incredible, if scripture prophecy is reliable, not to expect this godless giant at least to be mentioned indirectly. On this point there is scarcely any disagreement among serious students of Bible prophecy." Note the implication that if he is not correct Scriptural prophecy is unreliable and that those who disagree are not serious students of the prophetic Word.
5 Nations, p.108.
6 Israel, p.129.
7Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1939; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), p.713.
8Numerous variations are found in other versions: for Persia, Peras (TLB) or Pharas (NEB); Ethiopia is often found as Cush (NIV, RSV, TLB, ASV, NEB); Libya, is often Put (NIV, RSV, TLB, ASV, NEB, NASB). Also "house of Togarmah" (KJV, ASV) is found untranslated, "Beth-Togarmah" (NIV, NASB, RSV, NEB).
9Charles C. Ryrie, The Best Is Yet To Come (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), p.56. This concession is interesting since Ryrie, as those listed above (note 1), does see Russia in this prophecy.
10Pentecost, however, in his attempt to include Russia, says, "How far this people [Togarmah] extends beyond Turkey or Armenia can not be positively determined, but it could include Asiatic peoples federated with Russia" ( Things To Come, p.330; emphasis added). This type of argument is not compelling.
11NASB, ASV, NEB.
13Ralph Alexander, Ezekiel (Chicago: Moody Press), p.122.
15John B. Taylor, Ezekiel (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1969), p.244.
16Num.24:7; Dt.3:1, 13; 4:47; Amos 7:1. See Alexander, Ezekiel, p.121.
17Antichrist and Satan (Rev.19-20).
18 Antiquities, I, VI, 1.
19Johnson, Prophecy, p.146; Lindsey, Planet Earth, p.64; Pentecost, Things, p.328.
21Charles Lee Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), p.220.
22NIV and RSV; the NEB translation is stronger: "Gog the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, in the land of Magog" (emphasis added).
23DeHaan, Russia's Final Invasion, p.2; Egner, The Bear, pp.77-78; Walvoord, Nations, p.106.
24For most of this information in linguistics and ancient history, grateful acknowledgement is given to Dr. Charles F. Aling, "Methods of Historical Research"; unpublished class notes, Valley Baptist Theological Seminary, Fall, 1984).
25Modern place names are given here. The possibility of further changes in the political map before that battle is acknowledged.
26Islamic but not necessarily (entirely) Arabian, for Iran is Japhetic not Semitic.
27This, of course, would not allow a pre-tribulational or mid-tribulational fulfillment of Ezekiel's battle. It must be post-tribulational. Ralph Alexander argues convincingly in support of this view. See Ezekiel, pp.118-129, and "A Fresh Look at Ezekiel 38 and 39" in JETS, Summer, 1974.