Jewish Theology on Gog & Magog

Ezekiel prophesied war between Israel and the army of Gog from the land of Magog.
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One of the most cryptic passages in the Bible is the prophecy of Gog and Magog. In Ezekiel 38-39, the prophet describes an army from the far north attacking Israel on horseback. The invading horde hails from a land called Magog. Gog, apparently, is the king of this strange country. Gog and Magog appear in Islam’s holy book, the Quran, as well as in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Yet no one is sure who Gog and Magog are, where they come from or what Ezekiel’s prophecy actually means.

1 Gog, Magog and the Coming of the Jewish Messiah

The Gog and Magog war, according to Jewish theology, accompanies the arrival of Moshiach, the messiah who leads the Jewish people back to Israel, rebuilds the temple and unites the world under the one true God. As great as this sounds, getting there is agonizingly difficult. Before the messiah arrives, a number of catastrophic events befall the Jewish people. The brutal Gog and Magog war is the most important of these conflagrations, according to Jewish tradition, because Israel’s stunning victory reveals the glory of God to the world. The Israelites kill Gog and bury him with his troops en masse in a special field, purifying their nation for Moshiach’s arrival.

2 What Are Gog and Magog?

In keeping with the puzzling nature of Ezekiel’s prophecy, no one is sure whether Gog and Magog are a person and a place, two places or two people. Was Ezekiel describing his own time or the distant future? None of these things are clear. God commands Ezekiel to “set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog.” He identifies Gog as “chief prince of Meshech and Tubal.” So Gog appears to be a leader. Later interpretations identify both Gog and Magog as individuals. On the other hand, some scholars, including Protestant reformer Martin Luther, believe “Gog” is simply a derivative of the name “Magog.” In the Bible, the name Magog first appears in Genesis 10:2 as the name of one of Noah’s grandsons.

3 Where Is Magog?

The Book of Revelation describes Gog and Magog as “nations” located in “the four corners of the Earth.” The first-century historian Josephus was more specific, identifying Magog as the Scythians, nomadic Persians who settled in southern Russia near the Crimea. Luther was convinced that Gog and Magog referred to Turkish Muslims. During the Gothic invasions of Europe, the Goths were commonly believed to be Gog and Magog, but a Christian tradition in the Middle Ages again placed Magog in Russia, this time in the Caucuses, where Alexander the Great imprisoned its people behind a great iron wall. The only thing certain is that if Magog was a real place, its location remains a complete mystery.

4 Gog and Magog in Jewish Tradition

While Reform Jews believe only in a “messianic age,” not an actual messiah, Orthodox Jews believe that not one but two Moshiachs emerge in the Gog and Magog war. Moshiach ben Yosef, messiah of the tribe of Joseph, dies in battle. That leaves Moshiach ben David, the true messiah who leads the Jewish people after their triumph over Gog and Magog. Otherwise, the events of the war are still vague, which perhaps is why Gog and Magog do not occupy a prominent place in Jewish theology. In his classic work "Mishneh Torah," a standard text in Judaism, the great sage Maimonides does not even afford Gog and Magog a mention.

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.