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Russia in the Bible?


Our attention is centered upon Eze 38. This chapter, which is often linked with Dan 11, has been a particular focus for Bible students in all ages. And no wonder, for it is one of the most dramatic chapters in the Bible. It portrays God's people of Israel gathered back to their own land in the latter days, and then being attacked by a large confederate army led by Gog of the land of Magog. The main invading force comes from the north. The AV says they come from "the north parts", but more recent translations render this as "far north" or "the recesses of the north" or "uttermost parts of the north". This undoubtedly encouraged Dr John Thomas in his conclusion, stated in Elpis Israel, that this power could be identified with the "King of the North" in Dan 11: 40-45, since both are to meet their doom in Israel in the end time, with other nations in support.

Over the last 400 years, as printed Bibles became more readily available in many languages, there has been enormous speculation as to the identity of Gog, and the nations he would lead into this conflict, and the other nations that would be aligned with him. The level of Bible interest was perhaps at its highest in the western world in the 18th and 19th centuries; this coincided with the time of the powerful czars that ruled Russia from the time of Peter the Great, who came to power in 1689. From then on Russia was a country to be reckoned with. It is natural that Bible scholars of the period should consider Russia as a prime candidate for the "King of the North." Historical and Scriptural evidence was adduced and a lively debate followed. Bible commentaries in the 19th century reflect this debate and the differing conclusions.

The aim of this article is to revisit this debate. We are particularly interested in the evidence on which the conclusions were based. It may also be that there is clearer evidence today, at least historically, than early brethren had available to them. They were understandably very keen to arrive at a conclusion about such a key chapter on prophecy, especially since they thought it was likely to be fulfilled in their lifetimes. It is natural that, in efforts to reach their conclusions, they would have assessed and taken into account the most current political situations and policies of the nations, giving very considerable weight to those immediate circumstances. We might not like to admit that this was (and is) done, but rather that the Bible only is the basis for prophetic interpretations; however, the evidence is compelling. In the case of the return of Israel to their homeland, by contrast, the scripture testimony was plenteous and unambiguous, and so, despite the lack of outward signs of such a return, our brethren of 150 years ago were confident in their expectations. But the identification of the King of the North was and is a different matter!

Gog of the land of Magog

Eze 38 reveals the final time when the prophet is to set his face against a power and to utter words which signal Yahweh's pending judgement. Gog is the object of that judgement, he is "of the land of Magog", and he is a prince. This is the first reference to Gog and Magog in the Bible. There is only one other reference, Rev 20:8, describing the nations that rebel against Christ at the end of the Millennium. In Eze 38 and 39 there are 8 refs to Gog, making it clear he is an individual, the leader of the Host. Magog probably should be seen as a collective term to describe the enemy lands from which the host comes, which is its probable meaning in Revelation although it also carries the implication of being a person. The fact that Magog is one of the sons of Japheth (Gen 10:2) adds an odd note and causes speculation. It may be there was a land named after him as with others from the beginning of history, but the Bible makes no reference to it, so it is wisest to discount it as a factor in our research. However, we should note that Josephus (Ant 1, 123, vi. 1) refers to the land of Magog as the land of the Scythians. But where is that? Scythian appears to be a term covering a multitude of different nomadic peoples of no fixed abode. I have not seen a Bible Atlas that attempts to place Magog on a map, although I found it in the back of one 19th century Bible!

The key factor is that Gog is a prince, captain or ruler! But the Bible versions differ. Some say he is a "chief prince of Meshech and Tubal", others that he is "prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal." This difference in translation arises from the fact that the LXX (Septuagint translation, from Hebrew into Greek in the 1st/2nd century BC) translated the word "rosh" as a proper name -- as though there were a country by that name. In every other place (nearly 600) in the Old Testament it is indisputably a common noun meaning "chief, head, etc." The Hebrew text (called the Masoretic) has vowel accents which indicate it is a common noun. Some argue that the sentence structure in the Hebrew is different, and that that justifies making rosh a proper noun. However, rosh occurs within similar sentence structures elsewhere in the Bible, eg, Isa 7:8-9, where it is obviously just a common noun. Today we have some English versions which render it as chief (ie, New Jerusalem) and some as Rosh (i.e. NIV, mg only). Jerome lived in Bethlehem, in the third century, in order to make a new translation of the Bible into Latin from the oldest manuscripts available; he refused to follow the LXX translation of Rosh as a proper noun because there was no existing nation by that name. Jerome's translation, which became known as the Latin Vulgate, influenced the early English translations, including the AV, to all render rosh as "chief."

Can Rosh be identified?

There have been many efforts to identify this country in ancient history. None are particularly convincing. The tendency is to quote authorities, selecting the ones who support our line of thinking. A favourite is the historian Bochart; Dr Thomas referred to him as "celebrated" but the Encyclopaedia Brittanica devotes just a few lines to Bochart. He wrote about 350 years ago and viewed Rosh as being Russia. Cook's voluminous Commentary notes, "Traces of the name (rosh) have been found by Bochart and Frahn in 'Ar-ras,' the Arabian name for the river Araxes, and the people who inhabit its shores ... from which the Russians are thought to have derived their name." Is this really appropriate and sufficient evidence to prove such a major point? Even if there might be some connection between Ar-ras and rosh, this river, later called Araxes and now Arak or Aras, flows into the Caspian Sea and forms the northern border of Iran. It rises in the mountains of eastern Turkey after forming the southern boundary of Azerbaijan and Armenia. How would the name of such a river contribute to the name of a people that would be centred on Moscow 2,000 km north and emerge from the 10th century AD onwards?

So much has happened since Dr Thomas wrote his original work over 150 years ago. Archeology was in its infancy then; all the major finds of Layard and others were still in the future. Dr Thomas had to base his investigations on the comments of historians who were forming opinions on very sketchy evidence. With a better knowledge of the times, the evidence is still far from concrete when we go back into prehistory, for there was no real history of the land, the land which is now occupied by Russia, in the era before Christ. We need to realise that this type of historical research leads to very tentative evidence. But some people just have to be dogmatic! The classic case in recent history is Germany. A Cambridge University Professor of History observed that the Germans "harnessed prehistory to their racial mad chariot and did so because they felt somehow that history must be, or must be made to be, on their side.... 'The one and only thing that matters to us,' Himmler is supposed to have said, 'and the thing these people (the State-employed historians) are paid for by the state, is to have ideas of history that strengthen our people in their national pride.' " The writer concludes by observing, "And here of course, pre-history, where we really know so little and guess so much, came into its Germanic own." (Prof Glyn Daniels: The idea of pre-history, p 115)

If Rosh is the name of a country, it is more likely to be the people known as Rash or Rasu. "The land of Rash, on the western border of Elam, is mentioned in the cuneiform inscription (see Delitzsch, Paradies 322)," says Hastings Bible Dictionary (vol 4, page 314), commenting that this is an area further east than the prophecy seems to require. It adds, "Gesenius actually thought of the Russians, but this is impossible." The recent IVP Illustrated Bible Dictionary (vol 3) refers to the same thing in its entry on Rosh, saying, "Most follow Delitzsch in identifying Rosh with Assyria. Rasu on the NW border of Elam (ie, Media)." Is it too far east? We will look at that later when we consider what is "north"!

Some confidently assert that Rosh is identifiable with Russia; others, like the dictionaries just referred to, equally confidently deny this, saying it is "impossible" or "unlikely," and the New Bible Commentary Revised (p 682) declares it is "unsupportable." What is the background to this drastic difference of judgement? We have come to the conclusion that expositors are looking for evidence to support an emotional conviction that Russia must be Rosh, and the result is not dissimilar to the search for scriptural evidence by some who are convinced they have an immortal soul. There is little doubt that the people of Russia in the Moscow region were first called Rus, and this led to the land being called Russia and the people Russians. But where did the term Rus come from? A chronicle of the history of Russia, written in the 12th century AD, says that "Varangians were known as Rus... on account of these Varangians, the Russian land received its name." The Varangians were Scandinavian migrants from the north. The word, it is suggested, is derived from Rousti, the Finnish name for Sweden, in particular the people of today's Roslagen area, roosmen, rowers who travelled south down the large Russian rivers. It is said that "north central Russia is full of place names derived from Finno-Ugrian." (Cultural Atlas of Russia and Soviet Union, p 37) This development occurred in the 8th to 10th centuries AD. There is one source that suggests the name could have been in use as early as the 6th century. But some suggest that earlier the Greeks called the people "Rhos". It is true Greek colonists before the time of Ezekiel established trading posts on the shores of the Black Sea. We know this because the historian Herodotus has left a record of a visit to the area. But the origins of the evidence that shows the name Rhos or Ros was in use then are never quoted. And even if Ros were so used, it would need to be demonstrated how that led to the name of Russia 1,400 years later. In books like the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Russia and the Cultural Atlas of Russia, both of which have lengthy sections on the earliest history of the area, there is not the slightest hint of how this might have come about. A number of ancient history sites on the internet offer no answer either.

In the days of Ezekiel, and for more than 1,000 years afterwards, nearly all the land known today as Russia was open steppe country and, further north, forests, roamed by nomadic tribes generally referred to as Scythians. The Scythians themselves left no written records, they were not settled people, their language was not committed to writing, and the historians' attempts to understand something about them is based almost entirely on the contents of tombs that date from the period. One interesting insight is their apparent appearance in Assyrian records and inscriptions. Kings Sargon and Esarhaddon had battles with these northern neighbours in the times of Judah and Israel. But the area in question in Bible times was that of northern Iran and Azerbaijan, not Russia. Later the Medes and Persians had to contend with the Scythians. (Ency Brit; the World Atlas of Archaeology, p 216) The Assyrians called them the Saka and, because the cuneiform inscriptions refer to "Sariti and Pariza, sons of Gaagi, chief of the Saka," (History of Assurbanipal from cuneiform inscriptions, p 94, Cook's Comm); some speculate whether Gaagi was a prototype of Gog! Indeed there are a number of speculations about this name, but they all seem so vague that we have not considered them.

The Nations of Ezekiel 38

If we accept, for the sake of argument, that Rosh might be a proper noun, then there is something particularly odd about the nations listed in Ezekiel 38. The names given, not only Meshech and Tubal, but also Gomer, Togarmah, Cush (Ethiopia) and Phut (Libya), are all grandsons or great grandsons of Noah. They existed from ancient times as peoples mentioned in the early chapters of Genesis –- and peoples live in lands and give their names to their lands. But Rosh is the odd one out. There is no other mention of this Rosh in Scripture and no mention in secular history. Seeing that Ezekiel spent much of his life in Babylon where examples of ancient writing have survived in great abundance, the absence of any inscriptions referring to Rosh raises extreme doubt. The one possible piece of evidence is Rash or Rasu, a people lost in ancient history, who may have lived near the border of Elam.

If we accept the argument, against all the evidence, that Rosh refers to Russia, then we have another hurdle to get over. Although the other names are ancient peoples widely known as much as 1,500 years prior to Ezekiel, Russia was not to come into existence for another 1,400 years beyond Ezekiel's day. There is no other example of God's prophets anticipating a modern name long before it came into being. Such an approach is without parallel elsewhere in Scripture.

Those who link Rosh with Meshech and Tubal cannot explain why these two countries already warrant a mention twice in Ezekiel (Eze 27:13; 32:26) as nations that traded with Tyre and are later destroyed for their sins. Some see Meshech as being the same as Moscow. As proof they offer the word "Moschi," but where did this word originate? Nobody has advanced any evidence. How the descendants of a grandson of Noah developed into a people about 4,500 years ago is not difficult to believe, but how they then eventually became the people of a far-distant city four millennia later, defies all but the most elastic imagination. Meshech, Tubal and Togarmah exist in Bible Atlases. But I suspect there is a lot of guesswork involved, as there is so much variation in their placement by different publishers. It may also be noted that none of the major publishers of non-Biblical history atlases place these names in their maps, although they have maps covering the same period of history, ie, the Assyrian/ Babylonian and Greek Empires.

The Russian name for Moscow is Moskva, which is one of the words of Finnish-Ugrian origin referred to earlier. Similarly, Tubal, a people which Nebuchadnezzar destroyed along with Meshech (Eze 32:11,26), surely cannot now mean the inhabitants of Tobolsk! We need more evidence than widely-separated names with similar sounds, which is the most common of occurrences across languages and time. The atlases just referred to always place these names in some part of Turkey. We also have to be consistent in our interpretations. With the ancient people of Moab, Edom, Elam etc, about which there are latter-day prophecies, we look at the areas in which they existed and understand the prophecies concerning these peoples as referring to the same areas today and the nations occupying them. We do not speculate as to where the peoples may have possibly migrated over the many centuries since the prophecies were given.

How far north?

The one remaining point to be considered is the question of "north." On the surface the geographical evidence looks powerful. Gog will come from the "far north" (Eze 38:15), says the NKJ version. Certainly, as we look at a map, Moscow is just about due north of Jerusalem. But is this proof conclusive? Does it stand close investigation? The Hebrew for "north" has the sense of northward, as when God told Abraham to look northward, southward, eastward and westward, signifying a directional arc; northward (same word) doesn't just mean due north. In Eze 26:7 we read, "For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will bring upon Tyrus, Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon, a king of kings from the north." But Babylon is almost due east of Tyre! We find several passages that speak of Babylon as being north of Israel, when strictly speaking it is east! (At any rate, the issue might well be as much the direction from which Gog and its allies attack, as their physical location in relation to the land of Israel. It is well known that those who traveled from even the far northeast on their way westward and southward -- such as from Persia or Babylon to Egypt -- would have entered the land of Israel from the north, due to the prevailing trade routes and best available roads of the times.)

How far north is "far north"? What does the Hebrew mean by the words which the AV renders as "north parts" and "north quarters" in Eze 38:6,15? The Hebrew word basically means border or coast and is usually rendered "side" in the AV. It first occurs in Gen 49:13 concerning "Zebulun... his border shall be unto Zidon." So the word has the sense of outer boundary. What is the boundary of the north? The ultimate boundary is the North Pole! But surely the prophet means the boundaries of the known north. Zidon and Damascus were cities north of God's land, but the nations over which Gog was prince were beyond these, and the indications of ancient history concerning the location of Meshech, Tubal and Togarmah fit the picture. It may be that the reason we cannot identify the areas of these nations today with absolute confidence is the outworking of the purpose of God. In the days of the prophet the vast areas of Russia were peopled by wandering nomads who rode horses and herded cattle, who left no written records, and only touched upon known history when they briefly came in contact with ancient civilisations. On the other hand, Ezekiel was writing of known peoples, some of whom were nations that traded with Tyre, even though they were nations remote from Israel.

Gog's hidden identity in the other prophets

In conclusion, there are no genuine grounds for believing that Russia is mentioned in Bible prophecy. Yet undoubtedly there will be an end time attack on God's people, and it will come principally from the north. It may well be that Russia will support and aid the attackers, but we cannot believe on Scriptural grounds, that Russia is the leader Gog. There is additional proof of this point in Eze 38 itself. After stating that Yahweh "will be sanctified in thee O Gog, before their eyes." The prophet continues, "Thus saith the Lord GOD: Art thou he of whom I have spoken in old time by my servants the prophets of Israel, which prophesied in those days many years that I would bring thee against them?" (vv16,17 -- a rhetorical question with an affirmative answer). So we can surely find in former prophets more passages that speak of Gog's attack upon Israel. And we find many of them, and while the name "Gog" is not used, the message of warning is the same. We have Dan 11 of course, but may also consider Jeremiah, Joel, Obadiah, Zephaniah and Zechariah. Ezekiel is blessed with being able to give more detail of the course of events.

Finally there is Isa 14 which, when seen in its proper light, has a compelling impact. Many know this chapter because of its reference to Lucifer. V 4 tells us it is a proverb against the King of Babylon, and we might presume it refers to Nebuchadnezzar or his predecessor -- or perhaps to the king of Assyria, which bore rule over Babylon in Isaiah's day. But while this chapter certainly had an initial application close to Isaiah's time (whatever that was, exactly), the first 4 vv make it plain that the most important application of this prophecy is to the time when Israel finally rules over its oppressors. This strongly suggests that, in a last days context, Lucifer is Gog!

The apparently never-ending feud between Jews and the Moslem Arabs, could easily see the Moslem nations of the former USSR join the fray in the near future. Turkey is the odd one out, but how quickly things can change -- let us remember Iran when the Shah was in power!

We strongly suspect that if Dr Thomas were alive today, he would revise his prophetic anticipations considerably. In his preface to the 4th edition of Elpis Israel, written 17 years after the first, he acknowledges that in the third part, which deals with prophecy, he found it necessary to make the most alterations. And now, 134 years later, the scene is so totally different. His vision was wonderful for the age, but as the age changes, there is a sense in which each generation needs fresh pioneers, and a fresh look at the old interpretations. In saying this, we also most readily acknowledge the fundamental fact that Truth never changes, that there is "one hope, one Lord, one faith..." But in revisiting the question of Russia we have not been talking of fundamental truth. For 30 years the writer lectured following the traditional understanding, but then became uneasy as he saw more and more weaknesses in the evidence -- compelling a complete reappraisal. This article shares the substance of that reappraisal.

Let me finish with a very telling example. The brotherhood was faced with a particular crisis of understanding the signs of the times in 1940. England stood alone against the might of Germany, which had made a pact with Russia. The U.S.A. refused to officially enter the war. France fell. (In Elpis Israel, Dr. Thomas had written about Ezekiel's prophecy and its application of Gog and Magog to Russia and Germany.) But then Germany turned on Russia. There was confusion in the minds of many, a confusion that demonstrates the unwisdom of being dogmatic about the details of prophecy when those details are based on interpretations and not clear-cut statements. The Editor of 'The Christadelphian' Magazine made some very pertinent comments; after surveying the course of war as against prophetic expectations, he said, "What conclusion can we reach from these seeming contradictions? Only at present there is no conclusion: we must let events interpret prophecy. The words of the prophets are given not to make us clever but to make us humble: to reveal God's working, not our superiority." (May 1941)

It seems to the writer that we need to reflect on these wise thoughts again. It has been said that those who will not learn from history are destined to repeat it. Let that not be said of Christadelphians.

David Caudery
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