A blog post by Jeff Crawford [“Vladimir Putin: The Rise of Gog and the Prophecy of Ezekiel 38-39"] has been gaining momentum over the past few days. He suggests that biblical prophecy from Ezekiel 38-39 might soon be fulfilled as Vladimir Putin is perhaps preparing for a Russian invasion of Israel. While Crawford’s claims are interesting, his evidence is less than compelling. Yet even more worrisome to me is the continuing trend for Christians to treat the Bible as a secret code that must be deciphered in order to understand current geo-political affairs.
Here’s a simplified version of his claims: the “land of Magog” in Ez. 38-39 is a futuristic reference to modern day Russia. The evidence: the text places Magog (a mysterious reference even in Ezekiel) to the north of Israel and … wait for it … Russia is also north of Israel. He also claims that the modern words Moscow (capital of Russia) and Tobolsk (important Russian City) are derived from the ancient Hebrew words Meshech and Tubal. On the basis of these connections, he suggests that Vladimir Putin may in fact be Ezekiel’s Gog, the one from Magog who rules Meshech and Tubal.
These are classic examples of underdetermined claims: assertions that lack the amount or type of evidence which would provide proof or certainty.
An example of an underdetermined claim: Barak Hussein Obama is a muslim because he has an Islamic name. That he has an Islamic name certainly is evidence that he might be a Muslim. But it is not logically necessary – there are people with Muslim names who are not Muslims. It is also not sufficient evidence – Obama’s lifestyle is clearly not that of a practicing Muslim and he has publicly and repeatedly confessed the Christian faith. Applied to Crawford’s claims, while Russia is north of Israel, so are many other ancient and modern lands. The amount and type of evidence given does not (or, should not) lead one to agree with Crawford that “it is chillingly clear that the ancient land of Magog is modern day Russia.”
Regardless, my interest in this post and its popularity lies less in the particular claims made than in the interpretive impulses behind them. There is a bizarre and disturbing tendency for Christians to interpret biblical prophecy as a secret code, pertaining to our current geo-political affairs, which we must decipher. I’ve written on this before (see “Has God Declared War on Syria?”), but would like to offer a more detailed response to this phenomenon.
Here are 2 reasons why biblical prophecy should NOT be used as a code to decipher current geo-political affairs:
1) The Nature of Prophetic/Apocalyptic Literature
While the Bible was written for us (God’s people), it was not written to us. That means we must be careful of abandoning the historical context of the Scriptures in an attempt to force them to speak directly to our current circumstances. Ezekiel is writing to the people of God after an ancient tragedy with very clear purposes (in Ezekiel 38-39): to teach that the exile was a result of sin, not a result of a lack of divine power and also to provide hope that God will not abandon them again but will instead work towards his purposes of pouring out his Spirit (Ezekiel 39:29 – which happened in the first century at Pentecost). Prophetic literature is not a secret code for events that will happen thousands of years later; it is theological witness to God’s salvific plan. Combined with apocalyptic elements (see Ezekiel 38:19-23), it is highly symbolic. Or as Michael Gorman describes it, prophetic/apocalyptic texts are “more of a political cartoon than a documentary.” To use these ancient texts as a sort of secret futurist code is to distort them into serving a purpose they were never meant to serve. (This is why “genre” is so important: you don’t go to a comedy movie to be scared. Likewise, you don’t read prophetic/apocalyptic texts to discern political events thousands of years in the future. That is simply not what they were meant to do.)
2) The Embarrassing History of These Sorts of Interpretations
Christians have been using the Bible to predict Jesus’ second-coming, the end of the world, and various other end-time scenarios for a very long time.
And they have all. been. wrong.
History is full of examples of Christians making prophetic connections like Crawford’s. Some have been more creative than others, some more convincing, but all have eventually been seen as foolish. This should at least make us humble when we try to connect the dots between biblical texts and current events. It’s actually not that hard to “prove” that the Bible predicts this or that nation is this or that character in an end-time scenario – the Bible is more flexible than most realize. Christians have done this for so long and yet we still haven’t learned our lesson.
The Deeper Problem of this Bible Code Prophecy Craze
The deeper problem of many of these claims of fulfilled prophecy lies in a theological-interpretive foundation called dispensationalism. This is the belief that God has two separate people (Israel and Christians) and that the Church (and Jesus’ cross) was Plan B. Thus, dispensationalists don’t move in the direction of the New Testament (that Israel’s story has climaxed in the story of Jesus and the church) and instead hold out for future, specific fulfillments of promises to the people of Israel. Dispensationalism is a remarkably new framework (arising in the 19th century) and a remarkably Western phenomenon. Clear political biases follow it closely: uncritical pro-Israel and pro-America stances, suspicion of peace efforts, seeing war in the Middle East as unavoidable and ultimately good (bringing about Jesus’ return). And interpretations of prophetic literature like the one offered by Crawford seem to be the fruit of dispensationalism’s theological system.
Let’s stop the madness of pretending that ancient prophetic texts are futuristic codes for us to decipher current political events.
Let’s read the biblical texts responsibly.
[Recommended Reading: Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael Gorman]