Sunday, August 09, 2009

Gog and Magog again

The dog days of August are upon us again. Our military is still not out of Iraq (maybe it will be by 2015, though I doubt it), and our government is escalating its commitment in Afghanistan. I see no change I can believe in.

The blogosphere is now currently in an uproar, rightly so, as information trickles in about a revealing conversation George W. Bush had with Jacques Chirac in 2003. As you will recall from my own blog piece two months ago, Bush advanced a bizarre rationale for launching a war against Iraq. Seeking to enlist the support of his French counterpart, Bush made it all perfectly clear. He explained that the sinister biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East; they must be defeated at all costs.

Astonished, Chirac asked his advisers to consult a Swiss theologian about the matter; the scholar spilled the beans in a magazine article of 2007, which was little noticed at the time. After a long passage across the Atlantic, the news has now made its way into the American blogosphere--though not much I think in the mainstream media, lagging behind as always. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, who kindly noted my earlier piece in his superb blog, The Daily Dish.)

Assuming that it has been correctly reported, this oracular utterance is a rare instance of Bush’s playing this particular card. He must have realized that it would be controversial. Just out of curiosity, has anyone ever confronted George Bush with the evidence of his 2003 conversation with Chirac? Well no, because the mainstream media still has its head in the sand.

At all events, the mythology about Gog and Magog is a subset of a vast realm of apocalyptic and eschatological thought, Jewish and Christian. As we shall see shortly, there is are significant Islamic parallels as well.

Let us step back for a moment. The notion of the identity of Israeli and US interests can be argued on two grounds. The first is secularist, asserting that these are two democracies who share a common enemy in Islam--while ignoring the fact that the geopolitical situations of the two countries are entirely different. Other arguments rely on biblical prophecy, which reveals, so it is said, that the End Times are coming very soon. In this cosmic drama, the Holy Land will play a special role as Christ returns to Jerusalem to reign for one-thousand years. The formation and survival of the state of Israel constitute a necessary prelude to this desirable outcome.

In the ruling circles of Israel, overtures from Christian evangelicals have elicited a welcoming response. After all, millions of these folks vote in American elections. Some bring money. By contrast, American Jews, aware that some Christian apocalyptic scenarios require the conversion or death of the Jews, tend to be much more circumspect.

Given that several significant texts regarding Gog and Magog appear in the Hebrew Bible, it might be expected that the motif would serve to cement the linkage of evangelical Christians and tradition-minded Jews, at least with those who are open to the alliance. Yet that presumed foundation may not be there, for the traditional Jewish approach to these portentous figures has been generally cautious. Commenting on Ezekiel 38, the Jewish Study Bible puts the matter well: “[t]he original identity of Gog matters little as later [Jewish[ ingterpreters have understood hi to be a transnational symbol of evil, much like Edom and Egypt . . . or Chaos monsters such as Leviathan or Behemoth.”

In fact there are very serious obstacles that stand in the way of a full alliance of evangelical Christians and Jews. For example, in 1999 Jerry Falwell opined that the Antichrist must be a Jew, who will appear in ten years’ time. Falwell has not been alone. On March 16, 2003, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, the Texas pastor John Hagee took up the theme. In his sermon, "The Final Dictator," Hagee limned the Antichrist as a seductive figure with "fierce features." He will be "a blasphemer and a homosexual," the pastor announced. Then Hagee ominously intoned, "[t]here's a phrase in Scripture used solely to identify the Jewish people. It suggests that this man [the Antichrist] is at least going to be partially Jewish, as was Adolph Hitler [sic], as was Karl Marx."

According to Hagee, this "fierce" gay Jew would "slaughter one-third of the Earth's population.” No particular candidates for the position were named. Apart from everything else, Hagee's comments identifying the Antichrist as a partly Jewish homosexual were poorly timed. They came in the wake of a furor the pastor had provoked by characterizing the Holocaust as an act of God. This outrageous view did not prevent Senator Joe Lieberman from praising Hagee as a loyal ally of the state of Israel.

We return to the theme of Gog and Magog, this time in the Islamic context. The theme has excited particular interest among popular interpreters and agitators in the wake of the disastrous sectarian occupation of the holy places in Mecca in 1979, followed by other turmoil in the Islamic world.

First let us look at the Koran, which incorporates two relevant passages--in suras 18 and 21. In the first, a mysterious figure called Zul-Qarnain erects a great dam between two palisades to block the incursion of the destructive forces of Gog and Magog. Ultimately, however, Allah will cause the dam to crumble, and humanity will have to deal with the consequences. In sura 21 the text goes as follows: “It is forbidden for any community we had annihilated to return. Not until Gog and Magog reappear will they return--they will come from every direction. That is when the inevitable prophecy will come to pass, and the disbelievers will stare in horror: ‘Woe to us; we have been oblivious. Indeed, we have been wicked.’”

As with the Christian scriptures, the Last Judgment has a prominent place in the Koran. This culminating event of the End Time will be preceded by an epic struggle, a series of episodes inaugurated by the coming of the Mahdi, a kind of apocalyptic redeemer figure, who will be a direct descendent of the Prophet. Not mentioned in the Koran, but cited in the hadiths (oral sayings attributed to Muhammad), is the Antichrist (al-Dajjal), who will be defeated by the intervention of Jesus Christ himself. Gog and Magog will also be prominently arrayed among the forces of evil. In the end all will be well, however, and order will be restored in the Last Judgment.

Through most of Islam’s history, mainstream thinkers and theologians tended to treat these events as belonging to the future, and as almost theoretical. During the 1980s, however, a mass of pamphlets and books began to appear that told a different story. These writings stemmed mainly from journalists and amateur scholars, and have not received official sanction, though they were (and are) widely read. These authors hold that the apocalyptic sequence is already cascading down upon us. The warning signs range from too many tall buildings and women's equality to UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. In this light, the Believers must not be discouraged by Western incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq, for these are indicators that the cosmic machinery has begun to operate. Gog and Magog are of course identified with the West, both Christian and Jewish. As with Falwell (who is sometimes cited) and Hagee, the Antichrist has specifically Jewish features, grossly caricatured on the covers of the books. The strand of anti-Semitism that is now prominent in the Islamic world found reinforcement in the wide circulation of an extra-Islamic text, the odious forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This groundswell of apocalyptic writings has been thoroughly documented in Jean-Pierre Filiu, “L’Apocalypse dans l’Islam,” Paris: Fayard, 2008.

In many ways, then, the current Muslim apocalyptic literature parallels the similar upsurge in the Christian West. Here too we find a series of fictionalized best-sellers produced by such writers as Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and Joel Rosenberg.

Let us look at these matters in a broader perspective. All these currents, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic, belong to the general realm of eschatology. Eschatology (from the Greek eschatos meaning "last" and -logy meaning "the study of") is a part of theology and philosophy addressing what is believed to be the final events in world history, or the ultimate destiny of humanity, commonly referred to as the end of the world. As a rule, the Abrahamic religions regard this culmination as an actual future event prophesied in sacred texts (enhanced by later interpretations and by folklore) More broadly, the umbrella term eschatology encompasses related concepts such as apocalypticism, the Messiah or Messianic Age, the Millennium, the End Time, and the end of days.

Much modern eschatology and apocalypticism, both religious and secular, emphasize the violent disruption or destruction of the world, whereas Christian and Islamic (as well as to some extent Jewish) eschatologies view the end times as the consummation or perfection of God's creation of the world. That the yearning for knowledge of the future, specifically in the form of a final cataclysm, is not limited to these contexts transpires from the current popularity of the supposed Maya prophecy that the world will end in the year 2012.

Some of these ideas require further elaboration.

The term apocalypse originally referred to a revelation of God's will, and by extension to sacred books (such as Revelation, the last book of the Christian bible) that purport to represent this, often in the form of a kind of time table permitting one to access future events. The term apocalypticism now usually references the belief that the world will enter the End Time (or Aeon) very soon, possibly within one's own lifetime. This esoteric notion is usually accompanied by the idea that civilization as we know it will soon come to a disastrous end with some sort of global event such as war. Apocalypticism typically bonds with a scenario that will play itself out in a major confrontation between good and evil forces, destined to change the course of history.

Broadly speaking, Messianism may be defined as the belief in a messiah, a savior or redeemer. Many religions have a messiah concept, including the Zoroastrian Saoshyant, the Jewish Messiah, the Christian Christ, the Buddhist Maitreya, and the Hindu Kalki. The world is seen as so hopelessly flawed --beyond normal human powers of correction--that divine intervention working through specially selected human agency becomes imperative.

Some scholars hold that seemingly secular political movements, such as Marxism and Zionism, also incorporate elements of messianic provenance. In these belief systems religious motifs are replaced with "scientific" or "historical" claims.

The term Messiah [Hebrew: משיח‎; mashiah, moshiah, mashiach, or moshiach, ("anointed [one]"] originally served in the Hebrew Bible to describe priests and kings, who were traditionally anointed. For example, Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia, is referred to as "God's anointed" (Messiah) in the Bible.

In Jewish messianic tradition and eschatology, the term came to refer to a future Jewish King from the Davidic line, who will be "anointed" with holy anointing oil and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age.

Today, the various Jewish denominations have sharp disagreements about the nature of the Messiah and the Messianic Age, with some groups holding that the Messiah will be a person and other groups maintaining that the Messiah is simply a stand-in for the Messianic Age itself.

Traditional Jewish opinion and current Orthodox thought has mainly taken the view that the Messiah will be an anointed one (messiah), descended from his father through the Davidic line of King David, a leader who will gather the Jews back into the Land of Israel and usher in an era of peace.

In Christianity, the Second Coming (or Parousia) is the anticipated return of Jesus from the heavens to the earth, an event that will trigger the fulfillment of other components of Messianic prophecy, such as the general resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment of the living and the dead, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth (also called the "Reign of God"), including the Messianic Age. Today this thinking flourishes most abundantly among evangelical Christian groups.

In Islamic eschatology the Mahdi (مهدي Mahdī, also Mehdi; "Guided One") is the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will stay on earth seven, nine, or nineteen years (depending on the interpretation) before the coming of Yaum al-Qiyamah (literally "Day of the Resurrection" or "Day of the Standing"). Muslims believe the Mahdi will rid the world of error, injustice, and tyranny inn concert with Jesus. Since the concept of Mahdi is not mentioned in the Koran or in the hadiths, many orthodox Sunnī theologians question Mahdist beliefs. Yet such beliefs now seem deeply rooted in Shīʿī doctrine.

The Arabic word Masih literally means "The anointed one," and in Islam, Issa son of Mariam, al-Masih (the Messiah Jesus son of Virgin Mary) is believed to have been anointed from birth by Allah with the specific task of being a prophet and a king. Orthodox Muslim thought holds that Issa has the task of slaying the false messiah al-Dajjal, the Antichrist. After he has destroyed al-Dajjal, he will assume the leadership of the Muslims. Adhering to his true character, Issa will unify the Muslim faithful under the common purpose of worshipping Allah alone, thereby ending divisions and deviations among the adherents. Mainstream Muslims believe that at that time Issa will dispel erroneous Christian and Jewish claims about him.

Typically Christian is the concept of millennialism (from millennium, Latin for "thousand years"), or chiliasm in Greek. This is the belief held by some Christian denominations that there will be a Golden Age or Paradise on Earth in which "Christ will reign" prior to the final judgment and future eternal state (the New Heavens and New Earth). This belief stems primarily from the book of Revelation 20:1-6.

Among Christians who hold this view, the Millennium is not specifically part of the "end of the world", but rather constitutes the penultimate age, the era just prior to the end of the world when the present heavens and earth will flee away (Rev. 21:1). Some believe that between the Millennium proper and the end of the world there will be a period of strife and tribulation in which a final battle with Satan will take place. After this follows the Last Judgment.

If the reader has continued this far, a little more detail will be helpful. Today, Protestants who are concerned about these matters distinguish amongst Post-tribulational Premillennialism, Pre-tribulational (dispensational) Premillennialism, Postmilennialism, Amillennialism. The first three refer to different views of the relationship between the "millennial Kingdom" and Christ's second coming. Premillennialism (which has two varieties) sees Christ's second advent as preceding the Millennium, thereby separating the second coming from the Last Judgment. In this view, "Christ's reign" will be physical. Postmillennialism regards Christ's second coming as subsequent to the Millennium, synchronizing with the Last Judgment. In this view "Christ's reign" (during the Millennium) will be spiritual in and through the church. Standing apart from the others, Amillennialism basically denies a future literal 1000-year Kingdom and sees the church age metaphorically described in Rev. 20:1-6. In this view, "Christ's reign" is current in and through the church (this view is sometimes termed “realized eschatology”). Thankfully it is not necessary to be well-versed in these distinctions to get a general sense of the doctrine.

Beliefs such as those just outlined are commonly ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed in the mainstream thought of our own time. Yet this was not the case during the formative stages of such major religions as Christianity and Islam. Nor should the power of such ideas be discounted today, when the bestsellers of such writers as Hal Lindsey; Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins; and Joel Rosenberg enjoy enormous resonance. Since its appearance in 1970, Lindsey’ “Late Great Planet Earth” has sold 18 million copies, not counting translations into at least 44 foreign languages. The apocalyptic series of books by LaHaye and Jenkins, “Left Behind,” has sold at least 65 million copies. In fact the "Left Behind" series may be the immediate source of Bush's simulation of biblical erudition, for if begins with a description of the fulfillment of the battle of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38–39. ("Frustrated at their inability to profit from Israel’s fortune and determined to dominate and occupy the Holy Land, the Russians had launched an attack against Israel in the middle of the night. The assault became known as the Russian Pearl Harbor . . . The number of aircraft and warheads made it clear their mission was annihilation. . . . Miraculously, not one casualty was reported in all of Israel . . . {W[itnesses reported that it had been a firestorm, along with rain and hail and an earthquake, that consumed the entire offensive effort. . . . Editors and readers had their own explanations for the phenomenon, but Buck admitted, if only to himself, that he became a believer in God that day. Jewish scholars pointed out passages from the Bible that talked about God destroying Israel’s enemies with a firestorm, earthquake, hail, and rain. Buck was stunned when he read Ezekiel 38 and 39 about a great enemy from the north invading Israel with the help of Persia, Libya, and Ethiopia.")

The consequences are inescapable. Stark realism compels one to accept that these trends rank also as a major political force, for the Republican base has become the domain of the apocalyptics. Serious conservative theorists--and there are quite a few--have long looked the other way when it comes to the millions of wackos they are allied with. It is time to wake up and smell the sulphur.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent essay, but one correction. You use "eschatology" meaning "parousia," which is literally the Second Coming and Judgment. Eschatology does study "last things," before and after the parousia.

When theologians discuss the Eschaton, they generally mean the "last things" that happen to the soul after death and before the parousia, such as purgatory, hell, and heaven.

Unfortunately, hell is not hell until the body is re-united to its soul -- a resurrected flesh, to be precise -- otherwise the fires of hell cannot burn spirits, it only burns material flesh. Thus the Nicene Creed is explicit, in the Resurrection of the Flesh, but that kind of grosses people out, so they modify it to "body." Sounds less icky. But it remains confusing, because it is.

Of course, all eschatology is quite speculative, and has been likened to a Wedding Banquet, which while denied on earth, can proceed in the "new Jerusalem." With the Twelve by the River of Life. I think it is meant figuratively, but what do I know? I am mere mortal.

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. The only reason I know any of this crap is the portal to Saint Mary's Cathederal (San Francisco) has a bronze relief of the Parousia.

Although, some people think it is of the Ascension, but I think it is of the Parousia, as does the archbishop (neither of us are sure).

So I asked his excellency: "Does this mean what goes up must come down?" He was not amused with my elevator analogy.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its interesting essay so nice thanks for sharing ,, thanks

Increase your brand popularity overnight

10:29 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home