Ezekiel 38 and 39 form the Gog Oracle: a final dramatic conflict between God and the hordes who dare to disturb His land and people. Much commentary on this exciting passage opines on its application to contemporary geopolitics, a practise that can quickly exchange study of the text for wild speculation.
This article makes seven propositions focused on revisiting the text, genre, and context of the oracle in order to better understand its meaning to an ancient audience. Such a foundation can then serve as a robust framework for evaluating our expectations of future events.
1: The Gog Oracle follows Ezekiel’s message of future restoration
The book of Ezekiel isn’t an arbitrary collection of texts. It has an overarching narrative arc, and chapters 38 and 39 form an important part of its trajectory.
While the first half of Ezekiel sketches a dark picture of Israel’s broken covenant, from chapter 25 onwards the second half of the book paints a more hopeful vision of restoration. This theme comes to the fore after Ezekiel receives news of Jerusalem’s fall in chapter 33, and the subsequent chapters can be seen to address three subjects:
- The King (34)
- The Land (35:1-36:15)
- The People (36:16-37:28)
Restoration of these three vital elements of covenanted kingdom might seem a fitting way to close the book; especially as a bookend to the theme of loss and renewal. But the restored kingdom doesn’t form the conclusion of the book. Instead, it is only a unit, a stepping stone into the next major section of the book: the Gog oracle.
Ezekiel doesn’t end with Israel’s resurrection from dry bones in chapter 37: simply restoring Israel’s former glory was insufficient. After all, Israel had had this all before. There had been a King over the people and land already! Yet that kingdom’s long history of decline had been documented and then unceremoniously terminated by the brutal invasion of the Assyrians.
This renders the covenant restoration theme a potentially unsatisfying conclusion to the book. Assuming God was to restore Israel… what was to stop the restored Kingdom from being lost again? The Gog oracle sets out God’s answer to this question.
2: Chapters 38 and 39 continue Ezekiel’s “Oracle” genre and themes
While the book of Ezekiel can be understood as a book of two halves, the same literary device of “halving” is found repeatedly on a smaller-scale as part of the oracle genre. The technique is similar to Hebrew poetry where an initial statement is made, and a second statement serves to contrast, emphasise, or repeat the original.1
Such “halves”, or “panels”, may be framed by textual motifs called formulae. These formulae provide structure to the oracles and make it much easier to recognise each panel. Some examples include:
- Citation formula: “Thus says the Lord…”
- Recognition formula: “Then they will know that I am the Lord”
- Challenge formula: “I am against you, O….”
- Oath formula: “As I live….”
- Word-event formula: “The word of the Lord came to me…set your face against…”
These may be accompanied by other repeated literary structures, such as “because…. therefore…” which are particularly easy to see in Ezekiel’s oracle against Ammon (25:1-7). Unfortunately, the technique is not without its difficulties. As Taylor explains in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series:
[The book of Ezekiel] is fond of repetition and delights to revert to previous statements and enlarge on them, even though the result is to destroy all sense of consecutive arrangement.2
The Gog oracle utilises the same formulaic language and halving technique, chapter 38 forming the first panel, and chapter 39 forming the second panel.3 It also continues recognisable thematic elements of the oracle genre, particularly a sense of irony and poetic justice found in previous oracles.4
- The spoilers are spoiled (38:12 c.f. 39:10)
- The “cloud” and “storm” of invaders is rained upon (38:9 c.f. 38:22)
- Safe land is oppressed, the “safe” oppressors are attacked (38:8 c.f. 39:6)
- Weapons of death are used to sustain life (38:4 c.f. 39:10)
- The plunderer is consumed (38:12 c.f. 39:17)
- Rather than invading the mountains, Gog is buried in valleys (38:8 c.f. 39:15)
- People are sacrificed, animals eat (39:17-20)
Recognising these parallels helps to frame the interpretive challenge of the Gog oracle: it must be read in the context of a wider prophetic tradition, whilst also respecting its unique position and exceptional characteristics. These factors are complimentary, as the exceptional characteristics are more easily perceived against the consistent backdrop of the prophetic tradition.
3: Gog is a caricature of the forces of evil
Gog is presented as the ultimate bad guy, an ancient and unstoppable evil. In the oracle he embodies the maximum conceivable threat to a restored Israel, a picture painted by a range of rhetorical devices.
First, Gog is described as the leader of Meshech and Tubal. Readers of Ezekiel will recognise these names from chapter 32:
Meshech, Tubal and all their hordes are [in Sheol]; their graves surround them. All of them were slain by the sword uncircumcised, though they instilled their terror in the land of the living.
Describing the invading force as these feared, distant, and ancient5 peoples invokes a sense of dread; not only by virtue of these recognisable foes, but by revealing Gog as their leader.
Second, the name “Gog” has echoes of Israel’s most ancient enemy: Agag. While the similarity of the names “Gog” and “Agag” is less obvious in English, in Hebrew the equivalence is clearer. In the Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint, references to Agag in Numbers 24 are rendered “Gog”.
This fact would not be lost on the ancient reader, who would recognise this early enemy of God’s people represented in the oracle:
Nevertheless, Agag the Amalekite becomes an archetype in Jewish traditional writings, a sort of “bogeyman” bent on the destruction of Jews. Esau the brother of Jacob married two Hittite wives as well as the daughter of Ishmael, his descendants formed the Edomites and the Amalekites (and other Semitic peoples through Ishmael’s daughter). All these people became implacable enemies of the Jews.6
Finally, Gog are set against a people at peace; Israel are not prepared for an invasion. Gog is fully equipped with both offensive and defensive weapons. Gog is also portrayed as impulsive and greedy, an irrational foe, accompanied by some of the greatest military peoples of the ancient world.
You couldn’t really come up with a worse enemy than Gog, and that’s rather the point: if God was willing and able to save Israel from Gog, then surely their restored Kingdom would stand forever!
4: In Ezekiel’s Gog oracle, what people represent is more important than who they are
Gog is confederate with seven allied peoples representing the extremes of the known world: Meshech, Tubal, Gomer, and Beth-togarmah to the north, and Persia, Cush, and Put to the east and south. Following the oracles against Israel’s nearer neighbours, the Gog oracle now describes the whole world involved in the attack on Israel.
The named countries are also not only fearsome collectively but also individually, and seem to correspond to the mercenary forces represented earlier in Tyre’s army:
Persia and Lud and Put were in [Tyre’s] army, your men of war. They hung shield and helmet in you; they set forth your splendor.Ezekiel 27:10 (NASB 1995)
Whether these peoples represent a southern contingent of forces, or a more general mercenary class is unclear7. However, the selection of these peoples is deliberate, and however we choose to categorise them we can see that they have already been introduced by Ezekiel as militaristic peoples8.
Our distance from the original audience of the oracle makes it difficult to resolve these issues. The specific term for these category groups is a merism: a literary technique in which constituent parts are listed in place of the whole. For example, “lock, stock, and two smoking barrels” is a merism of a shotgun9.
This language is “high context”: it expects the reader to be familiar with the group and referent, and we often have to work a little harder to understand the implied meaning behind a deceptively simple list of people groups. Along similar lines, “Sheba, Dedan, and the Merchants of Tarshish” serve as a tripartite merism for mercantile peoples, renowned as commercial giants of the ancient world.
Recognising the rhetorical nature of the people groups may go some way to understanding Gog and Magog’s appearance in Revelation 20:7-9. Traditional interpretation places this passage after the millennium, but Ezekiel 38-39 at the beginning. Realising that Gog is shorthand for the ultimate bogeyman makes sense of both passages.
Mapping Ezekiel’s ethnic groups to modern nations is not the purpose of the narrative. Instead, it is the character of the peoples and their role in the conflict that put weight behind the exegetical punch of the oracle.
5: It is unclear whether Sheba, Dedan, and the merchants of Tarshish oppose the invader
Parts of the Christadelphian community place a lot of expositional weight on the political alignment of nations identified in chapter 38 verse 13:
Sheba and Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish and all its young warriors will say to you, “Have you come to seize spoil? Have you assembled your horde to carry off plunder, to carry away silver and gold, to take away cattle and goods, to seize a great amount of booty?” (NRSV)
Some suggest this group are challenging the Gogian invader, an assertion typically evidenced by appealing to Daniel 11:40-45 and casting this merchant group as the defeated and powerless “king of the South”. Further modern geopolitical deductions often follow.10
This interpretation is based on attempts to harmonise a range of passages with eschatological characteristics, including Ezekiel 38 and later verses of Daniel 11. Though this process sounds conceptually simple, in practice it is fraught with complexity which is often overcome with imagination rather than sound exegesis.
However, within the context of Ezekiel’s Gog oracle it is far from certain that the merchant’s statement is in opposition to the invading force. The table below lists a selection of the top popular commentaries on Ezekiel, and notes whether they are for or against the idea that these merchant peoples oppose the invader:
|Henry||1706||–||Against||No reference to alternative|
|JFB||1871||–||Against||No reference to alternative|
|Lange’s||1865||–||Neutral||Traders believe there is no profit|
|NICOT||1997||1||Against||Discusses both, concludes “against”|
|NIVAC||1999||2||None||References alternative negatively|
|NAC||1994||4||Against||No reference to alternative|
|Poole||1700||–||Against||No reference to alternative|
|UBCS||2009||–||Against||No reference to alternative|
|Word Biblical||1994||3||Against||No reference to alternative|
The magnates of Tarshish are designated as fierce lions on account of the heartless cruelty which goes hand in hand with the spirit of trade14
As it is hard to make a definitive statement about this group’s political alignment, we should be cautious of placing too much interpretive weight on this passage.
6: The “Gog Oracle” portrays God as the supreme controller of events
No matter how terrible Gog is, it’s hard to read through the oracle and feel particularly frightened. This is because although Gog is described in imposing and threatening terms, it is clear that he is never really in control: God is the supreme controller of events throughout.
God is shown as the prime motivating force behind the events in the narrative, with phrases like:
I will be the one who brings you up against my land (38:8)15
Similarly, God’s control is demonstrated through foresight: He knows Gog’s movements before Gog does. In fact, so comprehensive is God’s control of events that He not only knows what Gog is thinking (38:10), He’s always known Gog’s plans (38:17), He has a plan for defeating him (38:21), and He even has a plan for clearing up afterwards (39:12)!
In many ways Gog’s defeat echoes that of Israel’s historic adversaries:
|Historic battle||Allusions in Gog’s defeat|
|Sennacherib’s Boast (Isa 10:5,7)||The evil thought (38:11,12)|
|Sodom & Gomorrah (Gen 19:24)||Fire on Gog (38:22), on isles (39:6)|
|Gideon’s victory (Judges 7:22)||Turn on each other (38:21)|
|Hail (Josh 10:11)||Hail (38:22)|
|10 plagues on Egypt (Exo 9:3)||Blood and plague (38:19)|
|Noah’s flood (Gen 7:12)||Flooding rain (38:22)|
|Earthquake (Exo 19:18)||Quaking in the land (38:19)|
The interaction between God and Gog is reminiscent of God and the pharaoh of the Exodus, as in both narratives God is shown as both the instigator and resolver of the conflict.
In the end, the final battle between good and evil sees the full might of God’s arsenal delivered in a Michael Bay-esque display of divine force that is so one-sided that it borders on comedy. This was never really a fight: God was always in control.
7: The purpose of the Gog Oracle is to inspire confidence rather than to outline future-history
By the time we’ve finished reading Ezekiel 38 and 39 we’ve seen the full extent of what God will do for His people. He will bring the combined forces of nature to bear to save them; invert the natural order; literally move mountains; restore the kingdom, land and people; and protect it all from any aggressor.
This final point is particularly significant because by the end of the book, Ezekiel has prophesied doom against every enemy of Israel, near or far. With every local enemy rhetorically vanquished, the Gog oracle shows God’s faithfulness even against the ultimate threat. The NIVAC summarises:
Many contemporary Christians treat these passages as checklists on the road to Armageddon, providing a countdown on the road to the end of the world … this is not how the passage was intended to be read. Rather, it is a dramatic statement of the central truth that no matter what the forces of evil may throw at God’s people, in the final analysis God’s purpose and victory stand secure. For all Gog’s bravado, ultimately it is God who says, “Go ahead; make my day!”16
This observation should serve as a powerful corrective to the temptation to interpolate future events through the construction of imaginative geopolitical narratives. Although God’s faithfulness will undoubtably be vindicated in future events, the clarity of any future application will only be fully perceived through the lens of hindsight.
This stands in contrast to the enduring message of hope that remains accessible to any audience in any time, independent of access to international news, global events, or political trends. God is faithful; His purpose will stand.
And that is Good News.
Photo by Tom Haymes.
- The Bible Project has neat illustrations of this in their “The Art of Biblical Poetry” video: https://youtu.be/q9yp1ZXbsEg
- Taylor, John B. Ezekiel: An Introduction and Survey. 22. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
- Chapter 38 describes the destruction of Gog, chapter 39 the disposal of Gog.
- Ammon’s sanctified cities are not respected (25:3-4). Edom seeks vengeance which is returned on their own heads (25:12, also Philistia in 25:15,17). Tyre, coastal fortress and maritime power, is submerged (26:3, 19, 27:33-34).
- Meshech and Tubal appear in the Genesis 10 table of nations; they are a known, if distant, threat.
- Christadelphian eJournal of Biblical Interpretation (pg. 26, vol. 10, no. 4, 2016)
- There is considerable debate as to the identity of some of these nations in Ezekiel 27:10. “Persia” may be “Paras”, representing “Pathros”, a traditional ally of Egypt. Likewise, Lud may be Lydia or the more southern Lud associated with Egypt. This either makes the triad a collective representation of southern Egyptian forces, or a more general representation of mercenary and militaristic peoples.
- Beth-togarmah trades in war horses (Ezek 27:14),
- Other modern examples might be “Harvard, Yale, and Princeton” (prestigious US universities), “Ford, GM, and Chrysler” (major US car manufacturers), “American, Delta, and United” (airlines).
- By identifying the mercantile group as the British commonwealth, and the Gogian horde as the European nations, it can be concluded that Brexit is inevitable.
- Taken from bestcommentaries.com
- The NRSV quote of Ezekiel 38:13 translates the literal Hebrew “young lions” as “young warriors”. The term may also be translated as an allusion to “villages” (as in Neh 6:2).
- See Ezekiel 19:5-7, where the lion is described as a predator.
- Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Schröder, W. J., Fairbairn, P., Findlay, W., Crerar, T., & Manson, S. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Ezekiel (p. 364).
- More examples of God as the motivating force can be found in Ezekiel 38:4,8; 39:2,17.
- Duguid, I. M. (1999). Ezekiel (p. 458). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.