O Gog the Eternal Fodder

Gog and Magog are two biblical figures with a long interpretative history. Like Adam, Abraham, Melchizedek, and others from the Hebrew biblical tradition, Gog and Magog’s mysterious character make them ripe for expanded interpretation. This essay reflects very briefly on some of these traditions. Though I remain agnostic about why these figures did not receive greater attention in early Mormonism, I suggest that traditions about them can help Mormons better understand our own traditions about other biblical figures. Such figures can be cast in particular narratives to tell some truth about the present.

Magog is listed as one of the sons of Japheth in Genesis 10:2. Gog is listed as a descendant of Reuben (eldest son of patriarch Jacob) in 1 Chronicles 5:3-4. Such names often reflected ancient names for tribes as early Israelite mythology attempted to trace the origins of different peoples. Other than appearing in lists of names, these figures are not elaborated on at all.

In somewhat later traditions, Ezekiel actually reflects quite a bit on these figures. He pronounces long oracles against Gog and Magog in chapters 38-39.

Son of man, set thy face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him. And you shall say; So said the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, Gog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal. Ezek 38:2-3

Here, Gog is a human being and Magog is a place. This eschatological battle describes a war between God and the people of God, resulting in a divine victory. At the end of this triumph of God, his people share in a divine feast (Ezek 39:17-20). The exile, battle, and victory are all demonstrations of God’s power to the nations (Ezek 39:28-29).

In Rev 20:7-10, this eschatological battle appears again. (Rev is working with Ezek frequently as a source for themes and imagery). Gog and Magog, perhaps two people, besiege the holy people and the holy city. Again, God miraculously rescues them in this battle.

The mythology of Gog and Magog identifies these figures with numerous historical people and places. That they are associated with a people or land from the “north” has led to several speculations. Orthodox Christians identified them with Arian Gothic tribes invading Roman territory. Later, the church identified the Mongol invasion as fulfilling these prophesies. In some 19th and 20th c. Islamic traditions, these figures are associated with European nations. In evangelical circles, especially during the Cold War, Gog and Magog were figured as various communist countries or leaders. Such a view was particularly influential on neo-orthodox Mormon approaches to the Bible, most notably Bruce R. McConkie.

While other biblically obscure but historically productive biblical figures, like Enoch and Melchizedek, receive extensive interpretation and elaboration in LDS texts and tradition, by contrast Gog and Magog do not, at least not in any distinctive way from Cold War conservative dispensationalist theologies. Neither name appears in LDS scripture.

Perhaps this absence is best explained historically, either through a early 19th c. lack of reflection on Gog and Magog in broader American religious circles. Or, perhaps I am unaware of early LDS engagement with these figures. I leave those questions to the historians. I am interested in an interpretative question.

It seems clear to contemporary observers when looking at various identification and engagement with the Gog and Magog biblical traditions that later interpreters saw in Gog and Magog an account of their own situation. Invariably, Gog and Magog were understood as outside invaders threatening the righteous people of God. The best way to approach this fact is not to determine who was right, that the Goths or Mongols or Russians really were or really weren’t Gog and Magog, but rather to reflect on the tendency to see the scriptures as our own story. These historical examples tell us more about the world views, pressures, and eschatological fears of the people invoking Gog and Magog to tell their story than they tell us any facts about these mythical figures.

Unfortunately, I believe that this interpretative framework is often ignored in LDS discussions of Adam, Abraham, Enoch, Melchizedek, etc. This is not only true of analysis of LDS canonical accounts of such figures, but especially of LDS analysis of non-canonical accounts (as the proliferation of LDS collections of these texts suggests). Such studies often proceed as if we will be able to validate some historical fact about these figures, rather than beginning from the supposition that such later interpretations, like the original, are not rooted in objective history, but in using these figures to say something about the times in which the texts were produced. Ironically, the reason that we are interested in these figures is precisely because we think they will tell us some truths about the present. We have nothing to fear from historicist accounts of ancient or modern retellings of stories about biblical figures. Instead, we can benefit greatly by better understanding what these stories meant, and how they continue to find meaning to modern readers.

13 Replies to “O Gog the Eternal Fodder”

  1. Best post title ever. Sorry, that’s all I got for you. Oh, that, and my Muslim friend at work was under the impression that Gog and Magog represent some east Asian power.

  2. Dan,
    Sorry to have taken so long. Anything in particular you are looking for with respect to Clarke? Is there some insight there that you see as valuable that you want comment on?

    Interesting suggestion. I’m not sure, but my gut says no, that they are working from different places, and that no symmetry is intended, but I am happy to be wrong about that. If you or anyone comes across a good argument for it, I’d be happy to consider it.

  3. TT,

    Yes, Most in the Christian world seem to think that Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38 is something related to our time. But Adam Clarke’s Commentary seems to imply something much closer to Ezekiel’s time. I was wondering what Adam Clarke was reading that other Christians are not.

  4. I think they throw in names like Gog and Magog just because you can insert your own meaning. Which serves the same purpose that Jesus’ parables did, to obscure something while revealing something.

    And why would Scripture contain such material? It’s meant for the people, who are enlightened by the same Spirit which inspired it. I know that from a purely analytical exegetical point, it’s a cop-out. And anyway I plead the First.

  5. okay, so my question was a sincere one. Why is there such a difference in interpretation over the meaning of Gog from someone like Adam Clarke to, well, the rest of the modern Christian right?

  6. Dan,
    Don’t know enough about this period of biblical scholarshp tonsay something profound about Clarke. I’d say that the “historical” sense of scripture was always an important approach to understanding scripture, and was seen side by side with alleolgorical and prophetic senses. So, I wouldn’t say that Clarke is totally out of character even for premodern critics.

  7. Dan – the reading of Ezekiel which takes chapter 38 as a prophecy that fits with other selections of scripture like Daniel and Revelation pertaining to the End Times, the period of tribulation and rapture before the Second Coming, is the product of modern dispensationalism, a way of organizing the content of the Bible that derives from late nineteenth century incipient fundamentalism, particularly the work of figures like John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield. I wouldn’t say it’s even dominant in Christianity today, but it’s strong among conservative evangelicals in the United States. Clarke’s writing long before that movement; his historicist reading is much more typical of eighteenth and nineteenth century evangelicalism, and is more influential in Methodism, while dispensationalism tends to be more popular among Baptists.

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