Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

No, The Bible Does Not Predict A Russian Invasion

Everyone hold onto your hats and calm down. Christadelphians have been lecturing about Russia for much longer than I can remember and no doubt they will continue to preach fear and alarmism long into the future. I know I won't convince most of them that they have been misled, but for the few who are curious about why most scholars disagree with them, please read on.

The Bible is an ancient book and sometimes difficult to understand. It is therefore not surprising to find that there are often multiple interpretations held by various scholars and that modern research sometimes overturns widely-held ideas. This topic is one such example.

What the Christadelphians teach about Russia in the Bible

It is not difficult to find information about Christadelphian teachings regarding Russia. Here is a quote from

In the book of Ezekiel, chapter 38 there is a description of the emergence of the nation of Russia and it leading a confederacy of nations to invade the land of Israel.  Russia is named as Rosh in the Hebrew text of Ezekiel 38:2

The site goes on to state that they got this reference from Gesenius (A Hebrew lexicon from the 19th century). We will return to this later.

Another Christadelphian website has the following:

The leader of this invasion is named as Gog, who is described as “the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal” (verse 2 RV). Unlike other names in this chapter at which we have looked, these ancient names have been superseded by more modern ones. Experts confidently assert that “Ros (or Rosh) is the most ancient form under which history makes mention of the name Russia”, and Russian historians themselves confirm this by stating that “the Russians derive their name from Ros”. 
Ezekiel 38 adds its own confirmation to this interpretation by pin-pointing the geographical location of this prince of Rosh. This is described as “the north parts” or, as the Revised Version gives it, “the uttermost parts of the north” (verse 15). A glance at a world map will reveal that, in relation to the land of Israel, the territory of Russia lies in “the uttermost parts of the north”. It is particularly noticeable that Moscow (Meshech) is almost due north of Jerusalem. There can be no doubt that the Gog of this chapter represents the person in control of the affairs of Russia and is the leader of the forces that will invade Israel.

Note the association of Meshech with Moscow. It is also interesting to read "Experts confidently assert that..." without any attempt to tell us which experts say this. It is followed by a quoted sentence which, when typed into Google, just returns more copies of this same article. Where are these so-called "experts"? Who were they quoting?

As for the uttermost parts of the north, there are at least half a dozen other countries north of Israel as well, so it seems like a stretch to use this as evidence that the Bible is somehow referring to Russia.

What modern scholars teach

Modern scholars give us a rather more benign interpretation of Ezekiel 38, and they provide some pretty compelling evidence to back it up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we once again find that the ancient biblical authors were actually not writing about future nations they had never heard of.

Ros and Rosh are not Russia

Firstly, the NET Bible has this comment in the footnote:

Heb “the prince, the chief of Meshech and Tubal.” Some translate “the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal,” but it is more likely that the Hebrew noun in question is a common noun in apposition to “prince,” rather than a proper name. See D. I. Block, Ezekiel (NICOT), 2:434-35. As Block demonstrates, attempts by some popular writers to identify these proper names with later geographical sites in Russia are anachronistic.
NET Bible - Ezekiel 38, footnote 4

Further, here is a comment from a book by two prominent scholars:
The attempt of politicians and religionists to equate ros with Russia is briefly described and debunked by Block, p434-435.
Ezekiel's Hope: A Commentary on Ezekiel 38-48, by Jacob Milgrom and Daniel I. Block, 2012. p9 Footnote 26

Also in the commentary in the same book on the next page.

Gog's title remains a puzzle. Was he not a king? Ros, "chief", is best perceived as a lower case noun, defining the preceding nasi, "prince".

"The Book of Ezekiel", a commentary by scholar Daniel I. Block, is possibly the leading commentary on Ezekiel these days and widely recommended. Here is a brief excerpt from that book regarding the identification of Rosh:

The issue revolves around whether ros is the name of an ethnic group or a common noun. Both the LXX and the construct pointing of the Masoretes argue for the former. But who then is this Rosh? The popular identification of Rosh with Russia is impossibly anachronistic and based on a faulty etymology, the assonantal similarities between Russia and Rosh being purely accidental. In the 19th century some scholars associated Rosh with Rus, a Scythian tribe inhabiting the northern Taurus Mountains, according to Byzantine and Arabic writings. Recent attempts to equate Rosh with Rashu/Reshu/Arashi in neo-Assyrian annals are more credible, except that the place so named was located far to the east on the border between Babylon and Elam, and would have had nothing to do with Meshech and Tubal. This interpretation is also difficult (though not impossible) from a grammatical point of view. If Rosh is to be read as the first in a series of names, the conjunction should precede "Meschech." Ros is therefore best understood as a common noun, appositional to and offering a closer definition of nasi. Accordingly, the prince, chief of Meshech and Tubal, combines Ezekiel's preferred title for kings with a hierarchical designation, the addition serving to clarify the preceding archaic term. Ezekiel's point is that Gog is not just one of many Anatolian princely figures, but the leader among princes and over several tribal/national groups.
The Book of Ezekiel, Daniel I. Block, 1997. pp 434-435

A publication by J. Paul Tanner, a research professor in the field of Old Testament studies, also gives the following summary:

Thus the name "Russia" has a rather late association with the modern-day state and would certainly not have been the intention of Ezekiel writing in the sixth century BC.
The more plausible explanation is that the text should be translated "the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal"
Rethinking Ezekiel's Invasion by Gog, J. Paul Tanner, p31

Another noteworthy book, also referenced by the NET, is "Foes From the Northern Frontier" by Edwin Yamauchi. Here is a comment from its foreword, writing about Old Testament prophecies:

Some of these ancient peoples have caught the attention of modern readers who think their names can be identified with modern places. Building on that, some commentators have tried to interpret the prophecies as applying literally to Russia, Germany, and other states of the twentieth-century world. Although these views have spread widely and convinced many, Yamauchi shows why they are wrong and should be avoided by the careful Bible student.

And then we have this comment from p20 of the book proper:

For one thing, even if one were to transliterate the Hebrew rosh as a proper name ... rather than translate it as "chief" ... it can have nothing to do with modern "Russia". This would be a gross anachronism, for the modern name is based upon the name Rus, which was brought into the region of Kiev, north of the Black Sea, by the Vikings only in the Middle Ages.
Foes From the Northern Frontier, by Edwin Yamauchi, 2003, p20

And one last quote, this time from the book "Ezekiel", by Joseph Blenkinsopp:

Gog is further described as "chief prince" of Meshech and Tubal. There are only two proper names here, since ro'sh ("chief, head") is nowhere attested as such. It has no more connection with Russia (a name of Norse extraction) than Meshech has with Moscow.
Ezekiel, by Joseph Blenkinsopp, 1990, p184

So it seems based on the best recent scholarship we can conclude that the word ros in the Hebrew was most likely intended as a common noun, not a place name. Not only that, but the ancient name of Russia (Rus) only came into that region in the Middle Ages, making any association of Ezekiel 38 with Russia clearly anachronistic.

So why do so many Christadelphians think Ezekiel was talking about Russia?

Where the Christadelphians got the idea from

Well, as we will see below, there are 3 main sources that heavily influenced the identification of Russia in Ezekiel 38:2. These are The Septuagint translation, Gesenius, and the Scofield Reference Bible. There were a few others but these appear to be the most influential.

The German Hebraicist Wilhelm Gesenius (1786 - 1842), professor of theology at the University of Halle in Prussia, played a key role in the process by which Gog came to be identified as Russia. Gesenius, whose Old Testament lexicon of 1828 long stood as a standard reference work, viewed "Rosh" not only as a proper name but as an early form of the word "Russia." In another step that would prove highly influential for prophecy interpretation, he also claimed that "Meshech" and "Tubal" were present-day Moscow and the Siberian city of Tobolsk.
When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, Paul Boyer, 1999, p154

Much has been written about this topic but it seems that the vast majority of writings can be traced back to Gesenius either directly or indirectly.

The Hebrew word for "chief" (ros) in Ezekiel 38:2 was transliterated by the Septuagint as a proper name (Ros), giving rise to a widespread impression that "Russia" was intended. According to Custance:

It may be observed that "rosh" ..., which in this passage is translated "chief prince," signified the inhabitants of Scythia. From it the Russians derive their name. Russia was known as Muskovi until the time of Ivan the Terrible, a name undoubtedly connected with Meshech (pp. 90 f.).

Much later in history we meet the word Meshech in the form Muskovy. It is possible that the two famous cities of Moscow and Tobolsk still preserve the elements of the names Meshech and Tubal (p. 97).

These groundless identifications have unfortunately gained widespread currency in the evangelical world through many channels: the first and the second editions of the Scofield Reference Bible; the phenomenally popular book by Hal Lindsey and C. C. Carlson, The Late Great Planet Earth; and the lectures of Campus Crusade evangelist Josh McDowell on numerous college campuses.
The perpetuation of such idenfications based on superficial similarities is completely untenable in the light of the clear evidence of cuneiform texts which locate Mushku (Biblical Meshech) and Tabal (Biblical Tubal) in central and eastern Anatolia.
Meshech, Tubal, and Company: A Review Article, E. Yamauchi, 1992

This last quotation is highly important in that it brings weighty evidence to bear on the identification and location of Meshech and Tubal.

Tubal or Tabal was the territorial designation of the interior Anatolian kingdom know to the Assyrians as Bit Buritash. This landlocked kingdom, between the Halys River and the Taurus River in Asia Minor, was bounded on the west by Meshech, on the south by Hilakku, on the east by Melidu and Til-garimmu (Beth-togarmah) and on the north by Kasku.
Meshech, to be identified with Mushku/Musku in neo-Assyrian sources, was also located in central Anatolia. Ancient records attest to contact with the Assyrians as early as the reign of Tiglath-Pileser I in the 12th-11th century.
The Book of Ezekiel, Daniel I. Block, 1997

What do we know?

While many religious people, including some scholars, still cling to the old writings of Gesenius and others from the 19th century, modern scholars increasingly interpret the word "rosh" in Ezekiel 38:2 as "chief". For examples, see the footnote in the NET Bible and also "The Book of Ezekiel" by Daniel I. Block.

Further, all of the other places mentioned in Ezekiel 38 also appear together in the table of nations from Genesis 10, but "Rosh" does not appear there at all. In fact, the word "rosh" is never translated as a proper noun, despite appearing many times in the Old Testament.

Lastly, the identification of the remaining nations such as Meshech and Tubal has been settled by the discovery of Assyrian cuneiform tablets bearing all of their names. They refer to several ancient places that were situated near each other in the region of Asia Minor. This rules out the identification of Meshech as Moscow, and Tubal as Tobolsk, both of which were based on flawed etymology (they sound a bit the same - go figure!). The same applies to the association of Gomer with Germany, and you can follow this theme with most of the other places listed in that chapter.

I'll leave you with this quote from Edwin Yamauchi, who has written extensively on this subject:

It is a reflection on evangelical scholarship when some of its spokesmen continue to adhere to the groundless identification of ros as Russia, and the association of Meshech with Moscow and of Tubal with Tobolsk, when we have had cuneiform texts and discussions of them that provided the true clarification of these names since the end of the 19th century
Meshech, Tubal, and Company: A Review Article, E. Yamauchi, 1992, pp 243-244