Russia: Looking for Spoil
By Dr. Steve Elwart
This message from the LORD came to me:
“Son of Man, turn your attention toward Gog, from the land of Magog, the chief noble of Meshech, and Tubal. Prophesy this against him: ‘This is what the Lord GOD says: “Watch out! I’m coming after you, Gog, chief ruler of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal. I’m going to turn you around, put hooks into your jaws, and bring you out—you and your whole army—along with your horses and cavalry riders, all of them richly attired, a magnificent company replete with buckler and shield, and all of them wielding battle swords. Persia, Cush, and Libya will be accompanying them, all of them equipped with shields and helmets. Gomer with all its troops, and the household of Togarmah from the remotest parts of the north with all its troops—many people will accompany you.” – Ezekiel 38:1–6, ISV
World events have made many people turn to this passage and see if current events mark the beginning of the fulfillment of this prophecy. As events unfold, these verses take on more meaning than at any other time in history.
The meaning of the name “Gog” is uncertain. The name appears only here and in 1 Chronicles 5:4 in the Old Testament where it identifies one of the sons of Reuben. In the New Testament it appears only once in Revelation 20:8. The associated place name, Magog, appears in the table of nations in Genesis 10:2 with Gomer, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras, all sons of Japheth. It also is found in Revelation 20:8.
Modern Day Players
The above passage describes an invasion of Israel from the north. Later verses describe its destruction once they reach the area of the mountains of Israel. To fully understand the prophecy, one needs to identify the major players in this divine drama.
In verses 1–4, Gog is first mentioned. He is described as the leader of the land of Magog. He is the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal. This leader was as unknown to Ezekiel as he is to us today. We do know “Gog” is not a proper name but a title for the ruler of Magog, just as the terms “pharaoh,” “kaiser,” and “czar” were titles for rulers and not proper names.
The tribes identified as Magog, Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal can be identified by Scripture and other ancient writings as peoples who once occupied the areas of modern-day Russia. Magog, Meshech, and Tubal were between the Black and Caspian Seas, which today include parts of Iran, Turkey and southern Russia. Some historians believe the tribes of Meshech and Tubal later gave their names to cities that today bear the names of Moscow, Russia’s capital and Tobolsk, a major city in the Urals in Siberia. Rosh was in what is now northern Russia. The name Rosh is the basis for the modern name Russia. These names, then, cover the modern territories of northern and southern Russia in Europe and Siberia to the east in Asia. The modern nation of Russia encompasses all these areas mentioned in Ezekiel. To highlight the point, verses 38:15 and 39:2 state these areas lay in the farthest parts of the north. If one would head due north from Israel, a traveler would find themselves in Russia, with Moscow being almost a straight line due north from Jerusalem. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume modern-day Russia is the country that leads this northern confederacy, with Gog as its leader. This has also been the rabbinic view. The Artscroll Commentary on Ezekiel states:
“The Gaonim had a tradition that these controls were indeed located in Russia… One tradition passed down from the Vilna Gaon states: When the Russian Navy passes through the Bospores [Bosporus Strait] (that is, on the way to Dardanelles), it will be time to put on Sabbath clothes (in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah).”
In the rabbinic view, during the Magog war, Messiah, the son of Joseph will be killed which will then bring the coming of the Messiah, the son of David.
In this scenario Russia is not alone in the invasion of Israel. She is the leader of a confederation. The other nations involved are listed in verses 5–6. Iran (ancient Persia) is also part of that confederacy. Once a pro-West, pro-Israel bulwark against the Arab States, Iran made a 180-degree turn in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Iranian Revolution. Iran drew closer to the atheistic Soviet Union and its successor, Russia. Make no mistake. This is only a marriage of convenience as far as Iran is concerned. Jihadists may chant “Death to America, Death to Israel,” but they hate the Russians just as much. Iran allies with Russia only because it serves their immediate purpose. Iran, along with Sudan and Syria, has been classified as state sponsors of terrorism according to the U.S. Department of State.
Cush & Phut
Another one of the players is the land of Cush. The term is used both for a person (son of Ham) and a place (Gen. 2:13; Psa. 68:31; Isa. 18:1.) Phut is mentioned next. This nation is also descended from a son of Ham, but as a nation is commonly identified as Libya, although it has been argued it was the Punt of Egyptian records, somewhere along the northeast coast of Africa, perhaps Somalia. Its association with Egypt, Cush, and Canaan and the usage of the name in the Old Testament makes the Libyan location probable.
Gomer and Togarmah
Next comes Gomer. Gomer was a Son of Japheth (Gen. 10:2, 3; 1 Chr. 1:5, 6) The Midrash calls Gomer Germania as does the Talmud. Last in the list is Togarmah, which is present-day Armenia. Verse six adds the phrase, with all its troops—many people will accompany you. This trope may simply define the numbers of the nations already mentioned, or it may include other nations not previously mentioned. In all probability, it is the former that is implied.
From the text, it would appear the nations involved in an attack against Israel include, but may not be limited to, an alliance involving Iran, Ethiopia, Somalia, Germany and Armenia, with Russia as their leader.
One thing that should stand out to the reader is not a single Arab nation participates in this invasion. While some of the nations listed here are Moslem, they are not Arab. Another observation is these nations are geographically located both north and south of Israel, but it is Russia that is the controlling nation and allied with Moslem, but non-Arab, states.
Before 1991, this passage of Ezekiel had been interpreted as being a communist invasion. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, many have had to rethink this passage. One can find many works on the bargain book table that became passé in view of modern events. While there is no longer an “Evil Empire,” as President Reagan termed it does not mean the “Russian” interpretation of the passage has to be completely abandoned. One needs to remember a system of government was never mentioned in Scripture, merely geographic areas. Place names may change, but geography does not.
The Orthodox Jewish commentary Artscroll on Ezekiel 38:2 make this observation:
“Yerushalayim Megillah 3:7, which renders Magog as Gutiya (or Gutya, …) the Goths, a group of nomadic tribes who destroyed the Scythians and made their home in Scythian territory.
Considering that the Goths were a Germanic people, the identification of Magog’s descendants as the Goths in accord with Targum Yonasan to Genesis 10:2, which renders Magog as Geramemia, which in Bereshit Rabbah 37:1 is given as Germanya.”
The Nature of the Attack
The next section of this passage, Ezekiel 38:7–9, answers the question as to where the invasion takes place:
“Be prepared. Yes, prepare yourself—you and all of your many battalions that have gathered together around you to protect you. “Many days from now—in the latter years—you will be summoned to a land that has been restored from violence. You will be gathered from many nations to the mountains of Israel, which formerly had been a continual waste, but which will be populated with people who have been brought back from the nations. All of them will be living there securely. You’ll arise suddenly, like a tornado, coming like a windstorm to cover the land, you and all your soldiers with you, along with many nations.” – Ezekiel 38:7–9, ISV
Verse 7 continues to name Gog as the leader of this confederacy and verse 8 names the specific location of where the invasion takes place: the Land of Israel, more specifically in the mountains of Israel. Verse nine goes on to describe the size of the invasion. It is absolutely massive, painting a picture of a storm cloud that covers the entire land. These verses introduce a concept that was not true until recent times: a modern Jewish state.
Later on is another passage that shows the necessity of the establishment of the Jewish State and a regathering in unbelief. Israel has to be a state before this invasion can occur. Regardless of one’s viewpoint as to when this invasion occurs, each viewpoint does require the preexistence of the Jewish State. Verse eight describes this Jewish State as:
1. A land that has been restored from violence.
2. A land that will be populated with people who have been brought back from the nations.
3. A land with mountains that have been a continual waste. and
4. A land that is brought forth out of the peoples.
Ezekiel is not describing an Israel that ever existed in ancient times, but all these statements are true of present-day Israel. This began occurring toward the end of the nineteenth century, culminating with statehood in 1948. It was a nation as Isaiah described being born in a single day.
Before the formation of the State of Israel, what was known by many as Palestine was indeed a wasteland. As Mark Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad:
“Nazareth is forlorn … Jericho the accursed lies a moldering ruin today, even as Joshua’s miracle left it more than three thousand years ago: Bethlehem and Bethany… have nothing about them now to remind one that they once knew the high honor of the Savior’s presence;… Bethsaida and Chorzin have vanished from the earth, and the “desert places” round about them, where thousands of men once listened to the Savior’s voice and ate the miraculous bread, sleep in the hush of a solitude that is inhabited only by birds of prey and skulking foxes.”
Since then, the waste places have been rebuilt and resettled on a more massive scale.
Furthermore, Israel in this passage is regathered in unbelief, for only after the invasion do many in Israel turn to the Lord. So yet another passage demands a restored Jewish State in unbelief.
The Purpose of the Attack
Ezekiel 38:10–13, answers the question as to why this invasion takes place on the part of Russia:
“This is what the Lord GOD says: ‘This is what’s going to happen on the very day that you begin your invasion: You’ll be thinking, making evil plans and boasting, “I’m going to invade a land comprised of open country that is at rest, its people living confidently, all of whose inhabitants will be living securely, with neither fortification nor bars on their doors. I’m going to confiscate anything I can put my hands on. I’ll attack the restored ruins and the people who have been gathered together from the nations, who are acquiring livestock and other goods, and who live at the center of the world’s attention. Businessmen based in Sheba, Dedan, Tarshish, and all of its growling lions will ask you, “Are you coming for war spoils? Have you assembled your armies to carry off silver and gold, and to gather lots of war booty?”’ – Ezekiel 38:10–13, ISV
The Spoils of War
The reason for the Russian-led invasion is to take spoil (booty). What Russia is exactly looking for is not stated in the text. The text mentions livestock, goods, silver and gold. However, these are general Old Testament references for the spoils of war. Much speculation has been involved in what it is Israel has that Russia would want. Given what a traveler would find in the land before the formation of the State of Israel, one would think Russia was in dire need of sand and rocks.
Closer investigation of the region led to the realization that the answer could have been found in the Dead Sea. The waters of the Dead Sea contain over 45 billion tons of sodium, chlorine, sulfur, potassium, calcium, magnesium and bromide. These chemicals have their uses; indeed, magnesium has been called “The King of Minerals” because of its varied medical uses. Going to war, however for a bunch of salt is unlikely.
After the 1967 Six-Day War another explanation was offered for a Russian invasion of the Promised Land. Scientists searching the Sinai Peninsula in the five years after Israel captured it from Egypt found signs of copper, tungsten, and feldspar deposits under the shifting sands of the desert. Tungsten is an expensive, rare metal used for hardening steel and other high-grade metals. Some believed these ores could be part of the spoils the Magog alliance would try to wrench from the Israel.
The year 2009, however, brought further clarity of the passage, for it was in January of that year the Tamar gas field was discovered. The Tamar gas field was a major gas find in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel. The field is located in Israel’s exclusive economic zone, roughly 50 miles (80 km) west of Haifa in waters over one mile (1,700 meters) deep. People’s interest was really piqued the following year when in December 2010 another gas field was discovered. The Leviathan gas field is a large natural gas formation in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel, 30 miles (47 km) southwest of the Tamar.
What could be the final piece of the puzzle may have been supplied in October 2014 when oil was discovered in the Golan Heights.
Because of these three discoveries Israel has become a much more attractive target for supplying the spoils of war. Together, the Tamar and Leviathan fields are estimated to contain 1 trillion (1,000 billion) cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply Israel’s energy needs for the next 50 years. (Though those of us who take the Bible seriously doubt it will need natural gas for that long.)
The oil field in the Golan Heights is also looking to be a major energy find. Israeli business website Globes quotes Yuval Bartov, chief geologist of Afek Oil and Gas as saying:
“We are talking about a strata [sic] which is 350 meters thick and what is important is the thickness and the porosity. On average in the world strata are 20–30 meters thick, so this is ten times as large as that, so we are talking about significant quantities. The important thing is to know the oil is in the rock and that’s what we now know.”
The estimated size of the field, if found to be true, would make Israel a world player in the oil market.
This is where things get interesting.
Assuming Israel can get around its own bureaucratic morass and develop these fields, it has a few export markets it can service. If they decide to export some of their production, the only viable markets available to them are in Egypt, Jordan and possibly Turkey. Given those countries current energy needs and the price they would pay, those markets do not look very attractive.
There is one other place, however, that could prove lucrative – Europe.
Europe is starving for hydrocarbons. That continent was on a program of going nuclear, but after the nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan, the EU has cooled to using atomic power for its energy needs. In fact, several countries, Germany in particular, is shutting down their nuclear power plants. The EU is trying to replace nuclear power with alternative energy sources, but they cannot bring these sources on-line fast enough to make up the energy deficit. That leaves hydrocarbons to fill in the breech.
Much of the EU’s oil needs came from Libya, but since the Arab Spring, much of that oil has dried up. That has left the three largest oil suppliers to Europe being the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. (Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are largely under Russian influence.) As for gas, Russia has supplied Europe with the lion’s share of its needs, which has left Europe beholden to Russian interests. This became painfully clear in January 2009 when Russia shut off natural gas supplies to Europe in the wake of the Ukrainian Civil War. Europe imports about half its natural gas from Russia (about 15% of its total imports) through the Ukraine pipelines. When Russia expressed its displeasure at the European sanctions against it by closing the gas valves to the EU capitals, the only thing Europe could do was shiver in the dark.
Russia likes having this giant energy stick to use against the Europeans and will try mightily hard to keep it.
That is one reason Russia is in Syria.
The Syrian Card
Even before the Ukrainian gas embargo, Europe had been looking at alternative gas pipeline routes bypassing Russia. There were two routes proposed, one through Iran and Iraq, the other through the more pro-western Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Both pipelines however pass through Syria. President Assad, wanting to curry favor with his Russian patron (and realizing there was a major Russian naval station sitting in his backyard in the port of Tartus,) would not approve either pipeline, hence keeping Russia the dominant player in Europe’s natural gas mix.
Many believe that refusal bred the start of the Syrian Civil War. The natural gas exporting countries, both Sunni and Shia, decided they needed Assad out of the way to open an avenue for their gas to enter European markets.
Vladimir Putin jumped into Syria with both feet to assure Assad stayed in power and Russia’s dominance in the EU remained in place.
Here comes Israel
Imagine the Kremlin’s concern when huge gas and oil fields were found in Israel in an area where both gas and oil could be transported under the Mediterranean to Europe, bypassing Russia.
It doesn’t take a large stretch of the imagination to see Russia moving in to stabilize the situation in Syria and then moving further south into Israel.
Ezekiel’s prophecy does not lay out Magog’s entire battle plan and maybe Russia only would see a move on Israel as Act One of a bigger play of gaining a solid foothold on the entire Middle East hydrocarbon supplies. A Russian takeover of Israel would give Russia such a foothold without overly upsetting the Arabs since they would be in favor of the destruction of Israel even though they would be very nervous if it means a Russian army in the area.
Regardless of the publicly stated reasons for Russia’s interest in Syria, the main reason for their involvement is self-interest. It is stated in verse ten that the invasion is premeditated by the Russians, for they will be thinking, making evil plans and resolve to invade for the purpose of spoils (vv. 11–12). (And whether the others admit it or not, self-interest is the reason for the involvement of the other players, both East and West. If the main export of Syria were mangoes, no one would be there.)
In verse 13, a second group of merchant nations are listed as protesting this invasion, for they recognize it to be an invasion for spoil and for nothing else Businessmen based in Sheba, Dedan, Tarshish, and all of its growling lions will ask you, “Are you coming for war spoils? Have you assembled your armies to carry off silver and gold, and to gather lots of war booty?”(ISV) Sheba and Dedan are countries in northern Arabia, which shows that at least some of the Arab states will not favor the Russian presence in the Middle East. Another nation named is Tarshish, followed by the phrase with all the growling lions thereof. This phrase is a Hebrew idiom meaning nations that have come out of Tarshish. (The Revised Standard Version translates the idiom as all its villages).
So Where Is Tarshish?
While the idiom may be clear, the identity of Tarshish and those other “growling lions” are not. Some scholars place Tarshish as a place as distant from Israel. Many countries have been proposed as the site for Tarshish, from Sardinia to Great Britain. The most commonly accepted identification is Spain where the name Tartessus hints at Tarshish. If Spain is the Tarshish of Ezekiel, the nations spawned would include those of Central and South America, and possible even Brazil if one accepts the texts as describing geography rather than political systems. (Brazil was settled by Portugal, not Spain, but the two countries share the Iberian Peninsula.) Another proposed location was in England, and if this is what was meant by Tarshish, the growling lions could include the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other present-day western democracies. (This would answer the question some ask, “Where is the United States in End-Time Prophecy?”)
Regardless of the exact identity of Tarshish, it is this group that issues a protest. However, it does not go beyond the protest stage. Russia invades, and then the invading army is disposed of with no help from the protestors.
In Ezekiel 38:14–16, the invasion is seen as having begun and further answers the question why, but this time it is seen from God’s viewpoint:
“Therefore, Son of Man, prophesy to Gog and tell him, ‘This is what the Lord GOD says: “When the day comes when my people are living securely, won’t you be aware of it? You’ll come in from your home in the remotest parts of the north. You’ll come with many nations, all of them riding along on horses. You’ll be a huge, combined army. You’ll come up to invade my people Israel like a storm cloud to cover the land. In the last days, Gog, I’ll bring you up to invade my land so that the world will learn to know me when I show them how holy I am before their very eyes.”’ – Ezekiel 38:14–16, ISV
In verses 14–16a, the invasion begins and the confederate army covers the land like a storm cloud in massive swarms. Hence, there is initial success by Russia. In verse 16b, God’s reason is given for allowing this invasion to occur, as over against Russia’s reasons given in the preceding verses: that He might be sanctified in the eyes of the nations in light of what is about to occur.
The Final Act
In the final demonstration of God’s power in the prophecy, Ezekiel 38:17–23 describes how God moves out in judgment (vv. 17–18) to destroy the invading army. This is followed by the answer to the question of how the invading army is disposed of and destroyed. Several causes are listed: earthquake (vv. 19–20); civil war breaking out among the invading soldiers themselves (v. 21); pestilence, blood, flood, hailstones, fire and brimstone (v. 22). Since these things destroy the invading army without the aid of other nations, God’s purpose is seen as succeeding in its objective. God will show His holiness and make Himself known in the eyes of many people (v. 23).
Watching from the Mezzanine
However these events unfold, if the pre-Tribulation view is correct (and we believe it is), we will watch these events, the gathering, the final battle and the aftermath from the mezzanine. All of these events will have been preceded by the Harpazo, commonly called the Rapture.
In the meantime, we are undoubtedly living in exciting times, times in which prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes. If the events seem too trying all we need to do is look up and remember the last verses John wrote in Revelation:
“The one who is testifying to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon!” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” – Revelation 22:20–21, ISV