Ezekiel blog: My version of the end of the world Part II

PhoenixFireEzekiel 39.  In this chapter, Ezekiel, the Prophet of a subjected people,  brings us full circle back to the primary thought of his entire 25 years of prophetic experience.  This is the chapter that is supposed to describe the final battle of Gog and Magog.  A battle that is supposedly referenced in other apocalyptic works such as Revelations.  However, reading this chapter reveals that Ezekiel’s primary focus was on a completely different goal, something other than a triumphant play-by-play of a sensational battle.  In fact, the true goal of the chapter, and the previous chapter 38, is clearly stated in Verse 7 where Ezekiel writes, “I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned.”  Interesting that it is verse 7 no less – more on that later on.

“How can you say that?!”, you protest.  After all, the very first verse of the chapter 39 is directing Ezekiel to prophesy against Gog, saying that God was against him….whoever he was, chief prince of this land and that. That must mean that an actual literal person was being described. Which also means that a literal actual battle is being described, right?

Um, no. Not quite. Looking at verse 17, Ezekiel is also directed to prophesy to all the birds of the air and wild beasts, calling them to a feast.  In fact, Ezekiel uses the key word of ‘assemble together’ which was discussed in my last blog entry as being the functional opposite of the word Gog.   This is a poetic analog to let the people of Israel, who were currently in bondage in Babylon, that they would be free to gather, coming together in a sacred way, to ‘assemble’, which is the key to the word ‘synagogue’.   In other words, the call was to go out to all the people both free and bond that it was time to come back to the faith. That resurgence of faith, the return to the practice of the true religion, would have very prominent sacred demarcations.

Firstly thought, lets deal with Ezekiel Chapter 39, verse 2.  This verse corresponds to verse 4 in chapter 38.  Both of these verses refer to a very brutal, old world way of steering horses by use of a primitive bridal.  Hooks in the mouth are effective and unmerciful ways of controlling an animal such as a horse.  The imagery here is that there was no choice about the matter on the part of the ‘hordes of nations’ that were being gathered.  Everything that had happened and was about to happen were at the discretion, permission, and direction of God.

Now this flies in the face of the prominent theories today about these chapters of Ezekiel where is it considered a description of the final battle for mankind.  Embedded in that theory is the idea that this bad and awful army will assemble of their own accord, out of the hatred I their hearts and come for the sacred people who will be surrounded.  These people will be outnumbered, but react (be reactive) to the impending threat. This motivates them to a righteous battle (whatever that is supposed to be) where God comes swooping in and makes them all invincible mega-warriors that end up dominating the scene resulting in an almost total annihilation of consummate bloodshed. Somehow this slaughter is looked up with glee and joy by God as a validation of holiness.

At this point you should be scratching your head and wondering how any of that could possibly make any sense as it is completely inconsistent with anything written in the gospels, the writings of the apostles, the Psalms, the Proverbs, Jeremiah, or the Torah.  A Christian reader should immediately spot the contradiction of the supposed necessity of a great sacrifice of blood on the mountain of Israel, a sacrifice by God, to be made after the advent of a risen Christ, who was to be the ultimate sacrifice of blood for the whole world. It does not make sense. Sorry, this entire book is not a foretelling of an impending zombie apocalypse.

No.  Quite the contrary, God is allowing the nations to come with their religions, just like they did the first time when the temple was polluted with idolatry.  He’s drawing them all to a first row seat where his holiness will be validated by a return to faith by his people. They will abstain from their unfaithful practices of the past even though the nations have come to lure them, and the religions of these nations will fall in defeat on the mountain of Israel (otherwise known as places of sacrifice within the temple).   In Ezekiel’s message, God wants to confront the false religions of the world, the ones that lead his people away with idol worship, so that He can make his name Holy in the eyes of Israel, and before the world as well.    It is a message that is much more consistent with the message of all these other sacred and prophetic writings.

What sacred demarkations would herald such an movement then?   Where do we find these clues in Ezekiel’s writings?

In Verse 3, Ezekiel states that God, not God’s army, will strike the bow and the arrow from the right and left hands of Gog – who has become God’s horse temporarily. In other words, God had turned Gog into a tool to be used and the impressive instruments of intimidation have been knocked to the ground. Why? Because true faith can not be spread by oppression and intimidation.  Following this, there is a reference to fire in Verse 6. Fire is an analogue of prayer and sacrifice as sacrifices are burned.  This is confirmed in verses 18 and 19 where the defeated hosts of the oppressive false religions are consumed as sacrifices. Incidentally, this is also a confirmation of a non-literal aspect of this entire chapter for no true Prophet of God would condone or encourage cannibalism as this does not glorify God. Yet that is what these verses would indicate. Clearly, these are again poetic analogies, images used to convey a spiritual overtone to the conflict.

It is a well documented historical fact that Hebrew culture embraced elements of numerology – the practice of ascribing significance and meaning to various key numbers. In other words, numbers were used to convey shades of color about places, people, points in time.  It is a vast topic beyond the scope of this paper. However, at the risk of over-simplification, two very prominent numbers are well known in Prophetic writing: the number 6 and the number 7.  The number 6 is meant to represent that which is the opposite of perfect, what western culture describes as evil. The number 7 is used to describe perfection or holiness, western culture calls this good. Terms such as “Seventh Heaven” are derived from ancient beliefs of an ascendancy to greater levels of perfection defined as heavens until the 7th level of ultimate perfection is reached.

“Seven” is all over the 39th Chapter of Ezekiel, starting with Verse 7, as mentioned above, where Ezekiel declares the purpose of the chapter, which is to make known God’s holy name. The number seven is used to indicate that knowledge of God’s name is a sign of perfection.

Verse 9 continues with a statement that it will take Seven years to burn up all of the weapons that are gathered from the defeated conglomeration of Gog and Magog.  And, once again the reference to fire, things being burned in the fire, is a reference to sacrifices being burned on the alter.  Seven years of ridding the land of every tool that was used to advance the false religions which had overrun the land of the Hebrews.  Not so unimaginable as all that since by the time the Israelites returned from their captivity in Babylon, it would have been 70 years absence.  Nevertheless, seven years of purification of the land, another sign of perfection – that God’s redemption of the people and the land is perfect.

Ezekiel continues this theme in Verse 12 by saying it will take Seven Months to bury all the bodies of the fallen.  He indicates they will do this ‘to make the land clean again’.   So the number seven (months) used to indicate a process of cleansing, for according to the books of the Torah, it was unclean to leave bodies laying about. Are these real human remains, possibly. In some cases, very likely. But everything else has been symbolic, why should not the reference of human remains be symbolic as well, just as the story of the Valley of the Bones was also symbolic?

To me, God’s battle has always been against false religions that steal away truth, that pervert justice, that enslave hearts and souls, and lead his cherished people to dark areas of idolatry. That is the wolf he warns of encircling his flock. God has never cared about this general or that. God never advised that a King be appointed in Israel in the first place, much less anywhere else.  Ezekiel speaks to this in Verse 11 with a single eloquent sentence, “ Gog, at that time I will bury you in a grave in Israel.” It is one of the more remarkable times that God is characterized as speaking directly to something or someone other than the prophet. God wants to bury unbelief in a grave in the newly consecrated ground of Israel, a place made holy, as Holy as His name.

It’s easy, when reading this chapter to think that these verses are about retribution, or even vengeance. But that has not been the way of God, nor the intent of His wishes during this message.  Ezekiel reveals a truer look into the mind of God  in verse 22 and 23. To summarize, (My) People of Israel will know me AND the Nations will know.  Verse 23 & 24 answers WHY this was all done: They (Israel) were not faithful to God. They were unclean. They did many things which were wrong. So God turned his face away.   This is key.  The message embedded in all this imagery is directed FIRST at the Hebrew people so that they can understand their choices had consequences that were being played out. Those consequences were designed to bring them back to a remembrance of their true faith, so that they would know God and keep His name Holy.  It was directed at them. This is the core of Ezekiel’s mission, which is why these two chapters are so intensively tied to Ezekiel’s core message and not to some trendy and fashionable super-army-takes-on-the-world fantasy.  Ezekiel could care less about that.

Further, if this supposed end-of-all-things battle was really the climax of the book of Ezekiel’s writings, then logically, the book should end right there. If this was the final message, there would be no need to continue on. But in the larger scheme of Ezekiel’s writings, the story of Gog and Magog are really only a small blip – two rather average chapters.  Ezekiel spent more time describing the relationship between Israel and Tyre. The book of Ezekiel continues on beyond this segment to his real climactic ending in the final 10 chapters. (that’s ten whole chapters) following this segment.  That’s where the fulfillment of his vision is described in exacting detail.

Just as wonderfully, the message of Ezekiel in this immediate chapter, 39, goes way beyond redemption of Israel. It goes beyond simple recovery of a piece of land.  Also included in the idealized statements of the state of holiness and perfection that has been worked upon the recovered people of Israel is a missional statement.  Verse 27 holds this additional value to the entire effort when God states, “And I will use them to prove to many nations how holy I am.”   Ah, the many nations. They have seen that their ways do not last and have no power. In Ezekiel’s mind, they will also see the truth and come to wonder.

As I said before, these chapters are about sacredness, purity of faith, redemption, and most of all Hope.

My version of the end of the world has no end. Just hearts trying to learn something new and giving up on stuff that just doesn’t do anybody any good.

 

 

 

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Ezekiel blog: My version of the end of the world, part I

OK, this section won’t be popular with many folks.  But hey, that’s what happens when we dismiss 1000 years of preconceived notions and assumptions, things that have been handed down that you and I are just supposed to accept.   The biggest assumption is that Chapters 38 and 39 are the climax of the book, and that the remaining chapters are just add on material – usually relegated to the category of “boring stuff”.  I have an alternative view of Ezekiel’s message through these chapters which challenges the established assumptions.

Alternative answers come from alternative questions. My questions are:  what was Ezekiel’s main reason for going through all the hassle of being a prophet to a people in bondage?  What was his raison d’etre? What did he think about night and day? What was his central mission?

You might say that it’s a little late in the run through of the Book of Ezekiel to consider these questions, particularly since we are sitting on the door step of Chapter 38 and 39, the description of the supposed final battle.  However, I believe this to be the essential key to the entire book, the entire mass of Ezekiel’s writings, which is why we’ve used this as a framework, the lens through which we’ve examined his work.  It certainly helps explain most of the book up to these two chapters, as well as the remaining 10 chapters that conclude the book, which chapters are the real climax of the story.  I think the question applies clarity to chapters 38 & 39 equally as much, the chapters the tell of Gog and Magog and the Battle of the Lord.

So to set up this discussion, we have a very strong set of NAMEs enter the writings of Ezekiel at chapter 38 and 39: Gog and Magog.  This is supposed to be the great leader of the far northern nations who builds a coalition of surrounding nations with the intent of attacking the newly re-established nation of Israel.  This new threat will succumb to the idea and intention of attacking a place without walls, and taking everything of value.  It is promised that the Lord will prevent their success, rain damaging attacks down on them, and ultimately preserve Israel in order to verify to the world the Holiness of His Name.

Sounds great, huh?!  You might be asking, “What is a Gog?” Excellent question and one the world has been speculating about for the last 1500 years…at least.  There are many, many interpretive theories ranging from practical to resoundingly absurd.  Most of these theories source from the preconceived theological or geo-political preferences of the authors.  A natural tendency, and very hard to overcome.

After reviewing many published viewpoints,  I have come to conclude that the majority of commentaries fall into the trap of believing that the Prophet Ezekiel was writing his oracles from a basis of seeking external validations. The assumption is that we can find some evidence of his prophecies “coming true” by looking at historical events as if the prophet was giving us a preview of upcoming events in news-ticker fashion.   It simply is not so and attempts to interpret from that standpoint fail every time.  It fails because that is not the true job of a prophet.

Take a closer look at  Ezekiel chapter 38 & 39.  Most people conclude that these are failed prophecies since they did not come true, or have not come to pass yet -thereby lending to the mythology that this relates to events far in the future.  In the face of these two accusations, some commentators grasp for the most obvious elements of the chapters in desperate efforts to identify which actual country fits the bill for MaGog based on an ever bewildering set of criteria. There are many, many interpretive theories ranging from practical to resoundingly absurd.  Most of these theories source from the preconceived theological or geo-political preferences of the authors.  A natural tendency, and very hard to overcome. One extreme example of this can be found here: http://trackingbibleprophecy.com/gog_magog.php .  Scary stuff indeed.  Yet, way off and full of bias.  The thinking goes that if the countries can be identified, then theoretically a political leader can be identified who most resembles Gog as described.  This approach will continue to fail and readers will continue to be disillusioned because that is not what Ezekiel is talking about.

But, what if Gog is not a person?  After all, the word Gog is a noun and a noun can be a person, place or thing.  So,what if we change the assumptions and we work from the framework that Ezekiel did not care what we (here in our time, ages beyond Ezekiel)  thought about his unspecific references?  It leads me back to my original hypothesis to use Ezekiel’s core mission as a guide, a compass pointing the way.

Simply put, Ezekiel was a Priest of the temple. His mission was the same as a Rabbi today, which is to strengthen the faith of his people – to bring them to a closer remembrance of their faith through an identification with the story of their past. To do so, and throughout his writings, Ezekiel made references to key components of Jewish history eg. the Exodus story, the commandments, the law, the practices at the temple.  And being a highly educated Priest of the Temple, Ezekiel also used  a typical Hebrew practices of word play within his text.  For detail on that practice, refer to the following link, among many other resources that agree.

http://jewishstudies.rutgers.edu/docman/rendsburg/216-word-play-in-bh/file

Keeping that in mind, lets look at the actual words being used here and then I’ll suggest some other words to add into the mix. Here is the word GOG as written in the original Greek, and below it is the same word written in the original Hebrew.  Both languages are represented here because there are two original versions of Ezekiel, the Masoretic Text of Ezekiel, and the Septuagint version of Ezekiel. Each somewhat different from each other.

γώγ :  Γωγ Γὼγ Gog Gōg Gṑg   – Strongs Greek

גוג – Hebrew

You can see it is a three character word in all of the languages.  Magog is just a derivation of that as shown below.  In one translation, it means belonging of or coming from Gog.

Μαγώγ : Magog

These two words have a murky history – the etymology is not very clear.  Scholars mostly speculate about the meanings/translation because there is no specific origin language.   However, at least one discussion chooses a very simple approach and states that GOG refers to the top or apex of a roof.  Magog is derived from this and refers to that which is not the top of the roof – that which is under the roof or below the apex.   We will come back to this in a moment, this symbology is important. Humans tend to use very basic references to get an idea across.   Here is a link to that discussion:

http://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Gog.html#.V0oyH4-cGM8

Let me now bring my two lines of thinking together, the word play component, the basic translation above, as well as some interesting points from chapter 38 verses 10-15.    Lets start with verse 11 where Gog is portrayed as saying, “…I will invade a land of unwalled villages; I will attack a peaceful and unsuspecting people—all of them living without walls and without gates and bars.”   This is a really strange verse.  It is strange because people, humans, always build walls – especially back then.  In fact, the very first thing the Hebrews did when they actually returned from exile was to start building the wall around Jerusalem.  We know this from reading the Book of Ezra and Book of Nehemiah.  So what was Ezekiel talking about?

To piece that together, we look at another word that originates from that time:

Synagogue : synagogue, also spelled synagog (pronounced /ˈsɪnəɡɒɡ/ from Greek συναγωγή

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synagogue

The translation of synagogue literally means ‘assembly’ or where the people gather, where people come and go freely.  Its a place where the true faith that Ezekiel envisioned would be practiced daily and where the entire community was invited on an equal basis (more on this later). Only a place without bars or gates to keep people out could be considered a place where Ezekiel’s people would be living in peace.

Notice that the word GOG is embedded in the word SynaGOGue.  So in a theological sense (which is what was most important to Ezekiel) these two words are opposites of each other.  Ezekiel’s use of Gog refers to a condition of having a single person elevated above all others eg. the “chief ruler” or “chief prince”,  the other means to have everyone assembling together in faith.  Hierarchy vs. Community, Elite vs. Accessible (no gates or bars), Arbitrary Single Authority pushed down on the masses (Magog) vs.  a Holy People true to the last person to the Justice and Holiness of God.    Chapter 38 verse 16 backs this up this play of opposites when Ezekiel writes, “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.”  As a further reference, Chapter 39 verse 17, Ezekiel even uses the word ‘Assemble’ along with its definition ‘come together’ from the Greek ‘syn’ (in synagogue) when he states “Assemble and come together from all around to the sacrifice I am preparing for you…”

Now lets look at another portion of this chapter which begs the question about identifying Gog as a specific person.   In Verse 17 Ezekiel writes, “You are the one I spoke of in former days by my servants the prophets of Israel.”  Exactly who have the prophets been talking about throughout Israel’s history?  Ezekiel, being a fully trained and educated Priest of the Temple would be intimately familiar with every single prophet that was ever revered within their religion.  However, the evil doer Gog is first mentioned only in Ezekiel’s writings.  Other people have had that name, but they hardly fit the billing as advertised in apocryphal writings, so it would seem that Ezekiel is not describing a specific person in a specific place and time. Yet Ezekiel is clear, this has been spoken of before.

He explicitly returns to this in Chapter 39: 7-8, writing, “I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned, and the nations will know that I the Lord am the Holy One in Israel. It is coming! It will surely take place, declares the Sovereign Lord. This is the day I have spoken of.”

It seems there is another imbedded reference in the paring of Gog and Magog. it has long been established that the Idol worship religions of the entire region used the ‘High Places’ as places of sacrifice.  These are the very same high places that Ezekiel has railed against throughout this entire book.  Idolatry had invaded Hebrew way of life replacing their true religion. To speak of sacrifice in the afore mentioned verse (Chapter 39:17) is a direct reference to that. However, in this context, it is God declaring his victory over false religion and making their demise a sacrifice offering.  In case it isn’t clear, a high place, where the idol stands, where sacrifices are made, would be at the apex of a structure such as a Ziggurat which was a common structure through out the early Mesopotamian region for the Idol based religions – and thus Gog.  Ezekiel then defines Gog as the practice of Idol worship and sacrifice to false Gods, that being the chief ruler or chief prince, standing at the top of all the ruling dynasties of almost every nation surrounding Jersusalem (Magog – that which is not at the top but associated to it).   Ezekiel clearly defines God’s objective back in Chapter 38 vs 16, stating, ” 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.”  This is a religious objective, not a military or political objective.

To sum up what we have so far then, Ezekiel’s message is one of hope to his exiled people, a people who are in bondage, a people who are mocked because of their religion. They are a tiny religious minority in a vast dominant culture of idolatry.  Dominant culture seems to have prevailed over their faith.  Ezekiel has gone to great lengths to explain why. He will do yet more explaining in the rest of Chapter 39. But true to the nature of his calling – a Priest of the Temple, a teacher, a religious leader, and a true Prophet of God – he speaks a message of hope, that the true way of Jehovah will overcome, that God’s name will be Holy again, and that only a complete purging of all these other false religions (Idolatry) will open the door to a renewal of their people.

The battle of Gog and Magog isn’t about a political/military conflict at the end of the world.  That would assume that God plays favorites among men and picks this ruler over that ruler and having a person win somehow makes God’s name Holy.  No. That doesn’t even work in highschool football when people pray for victory, etc.   God is interested in faith, faith of the community, and the open and free assembly of His people – those who choose Him.  No bars or gates to keep His people out, no high place to raise one above the many to accumulate human glory.  There is no final world battle – according to Ezekiel – only an accumulation of fervor for the nurturing love of God who has endured centuries of the profaning of His name by His own people.

Part II of my version of the End of the World will focus on Chapter 39 a bit more, and also focus on the How and the Why of the fall of Gog and Magog and how this builds us up to the real climax of the book of Ezekiel.