Why Are the Biblical Gog and Magog Considered Sinister?

By: Dave Roos  | 
14th-century French manuscript shows Gog and Magog
This 14th-century French manuscript shows Gog and Magog consuming humans. Mandragore/Wikipedia

In February 2022, the 91-year-old televangelist Pat Robertson came out of retirement to share an urgent message about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. According to Roberston, the Russian President Vladimir Putin was "compelled by God" to start a war that was predicted thousands of years ago by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel.

Specifically, Robertson identified Putin as "Gog of Magog," a leader of barbarian armies that Ezekial prophesied would attack Israel in the final days and ultimately be crushed by God.


Gog and Magog are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Quran and may refer to two individuals, an individual and his land, or even two nations. Magog appears twice in the Old Testament where he is described as a son of Japheth or a grandson of the biblical character Noah (the one with the ark). Gog is described in 1 Chron. 5:4 as a descendant of the prophet Joel. Despite their lineages, they are usually associated with ushering in the end of the world and destruction.

Over the centuries, there have been countless historical contenders for Gog and his "northern" invaders from the nation of Magog. Ancient Christian writers were certain that Ezekiel was talking about uncivilized hordes of Goths, Huns, Mongols, Picts and Turks, while modern watchers for the "end times" have preferred enemies like Russia, Iraq, China or even the United States.

"The candidates for Gog range from Ronald Reagan to Mikhail Gorbachev to Donald Trump," says Stephen Cook, an expert in apocalyptic literature at the Virginia Theological Seminary. "Apocalyptic writing is difficult, because there's always the temptation to try to treat it as a kind of code or cipher for contemporary geopolitical events, and that's been done across time."

Belief in biblical prophecies goes all the way up to the White House. Ronald Reagan was convinced that the former Soviet Union was Gog of Magog and that nuclear war between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. would be the biblical battle of Armageddon prophesied in the Book of Revelation. George W. Bush, when preparing to invade Iraq in 2003, reportedly told the French president Jacques Chirac that "biblical prophecies were being fulfilled" and identified Gog as Saddam Hussein.

So where exactly did these apocalyptic prophecies come from and why have the literal words gripped the imagination of believers from all three major monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam? Let's dive in.


The Bible as a 'Map' of the End Times

Both the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament contain writings that purport to map out the "end times." The details differ, but the big-picture idea is that before God establishes his reign of peace on Earth, there will be a tumultuous period of war and chaos. Ultimately, the forces of God will defeat the forces of Satan, but things will get a little messy first.

The Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament is one of the earliest apocalyptic texts. An "apocalypse," explains Cook, is different from regular prophecy. Prophets receive revelation about future events, but apocalyptic visionaries like Ezekiel are shown a "window into the beyond" and claim to literally see those future events unfold.


In chapters 38 and 39, Ezekiel records a vision in which God commands him to prophesy against "Gog, of the land of Magog," and inform this Gog character that the Lord God was going to "put hooks in your jaws and bring you out with your whole army" to go to war. God continues, saying:

"You will come from your place in the far north, you and many nations with you, all of them riding on horses, a great horde, a mighty army. You will advance against my people Israel like a cloud that covers the land. In days to come, Gog, I will bring you against my land, so that the nations may know me when I am proved holy through you before their eyes."

In other words, Gog will invade Israel and God will display his glory by utterly destroying the armies of Gog and leaving their corpses strewn across the land as "food to all kinds of carrion birds and to the wild animals."

For Jewish readers, Ezekiel's prophecy was a promise that God would one day deliver his people from the forces of oppression, whether it was Babylonian captors, Roman emperors or Nazi murderers — all good candidates for Gog of Magog.


Gog of Magog Becomes Gog and Magog

17th-century Russian manuscript shows Satan, Gog and Magog
This 17th-century Russian manuscript shows Satan, Gog and Magog attacking the city of Jerusalem in ancient Israel.
Public Domain/Wikipedia

For Christians, Gog of Magog underwent a transformation in another apocalyptic text, the New Testament Book of Revelation. In the final chapter of Revelation, an angel binds Satan in hell and heralds a thousand-year reign of peace known as the millennium. The text continues:

"When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth — Gog and Magog — and to gather them for battle."

In place of Ezekiel's vision of a single individual, "Gog of Magog," Revelation presents "Gog and Magog," a collection of all the nations tricked by Satan into fighting the forces of God. According to Revelation, the war with Gog and Magog is the last great battle before God defeats Satan and begins the final judgment.


The precise identity of Gog of Magog is different in Ezekiel and Revelation, but for both ancient and modern Christian readers of the Bible, the overarching Gog prophecy is the same.

"It's clear that there will be an eruption of chaos that will occur before this final battle against evil where all the forces of death, chaos, disruption and violence are finally put down," says Cook. "That defeat will usher in what Jesus and other prophets refer to as the Kingdom of God."


The Ancient Game of Identifying Gog

For more than 2,000 years, people living in radically different places and times have believed that they were witnessing the visions of Ezekiel and Revelation coming to pass. And just like Pat Robertson, they were convinced that they had uncovered the true identity of Gog and/or Magog.

The Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, writing in the first century C.E., was confident that Magog referred to those "who are by the Greeks called Scythians." According to Andrew Mein, a biblical scholar at the University of St. Andrews, the term "Scythians" refers to a band of "barbarian tribes" from Central Europe to the Caucuses, which fits Ezekiel's description of Gog's army attacking from the north.


In the fourth century C.E., the Christian writer Ambrose was 100 percent sure that Gog was the Goths. Not only did the two names sound alike, but the Goths fit the bill as violent, marauding hordes that attacked the Roman Empire from the north. During the Crusades, Christian leaders like Pope Urban and St. Bernhard equated the "Saracens" (a Middle Ages term for Muslims and Arabs) with the forces of Gog and Magog.

Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, also got in on the act. He identified the Turks — who he called "a wild, rapacious people ... always ready to rob and wage war" — as the true nation of Magog.

The "Gog game" has endured for centuries and isn't confined to Christians. In 1991, the Chassidic Jewish leader Menachem Schneerson declared that the first Gulf War was "the final battle against the heathen King Gog from the land of Magog," and that the Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt following the battle.

In the Quran, Gog and Magog are represented by Yajuj and Majuj, and they play the same apocalyptic role for Muslims. Centuries ago, Muslims identified the Mongols as the forces of Yajuj and Majuj, since a 13th-century Mongol invasion destroyed in Muslim Abbasid Empire. In modern times, some Islamic clerics have shot back at "Western imperialists" like the United States, says Mein, and accused Christian nations of being the true Yajuj and Majuj.

For Cook, who has spent decades studying apocalyptic texts, and recently published a new translation and commentary on Ezekiel, folks like Robertson and his predecessors are missing the point.

"To come out and say that 'this is THE Gog and Magog event, and it was foreseen like a crystal ball at the time of Ezekiel,' that's just not reading this literature right," says Cook. He believes that prophets like Ezekiel and John of Revelation were tapping into an "archetypal reality" that exists beyond the realm of current events, but nonetheless signals that God will one day make things right in the world.