These chapters in Ezekiel tell the story of a great foe from the North, Gog from the country of Magog, who attacks a peaceful Israel. God defends Israel by defeating Gog. Biblical scholarship on these chapters has focused primarily on three major issues. First, does the material in these chapters represent a unified whole? There are places in these chapters that appear to be contradictory, like the burning of the corpses followed by their burial, two mutually exclusive funerary practices. Second, do the chapters come from the same hand as the bulk of the book of Ezekiel? The book is relatively well organized and unified in terms of literary style. These chapters do not fit well within the overall scheme of the book, because they portray the Israelites as righteous (while the rest of the book portrays them an inherently sinful) and seems to contradict the view of the restoration of a city and temple found in chapters 40-48. Third, scholars do not agree about where these chapters fit within the book. In the Hebrew version of the book that forms that basis of English translations, these chapters appear right before the description of the restored temple in chapters 40-48. But in an earlier Hebrew version of the book, it comes after a series of oracles condemning other evil foreign nations.
The book of Ezekiel as a whole reflects the experience of those elite members of Israelite society who were exiled when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem. The book’s unsettling theological perspective reflects the ways in which horrific disaster causes people to question everything they hold dear. The book asserts that God was responsible for the disaster, and that Israel was wholly deserving of such a fate. Not once does the book assert that God loves Israel; Yahweh acts in Israel’s favor only to protect the divine reputation.
The book is divided into three relatively clear parts. Chapters 1-24 are texts about the sinfulness of Israel with descriptions of the disasters that serve as divine punishment. Chapters 25-32 contain condemnations of evil foreign nations, while chapters 33-48 have oracles predicting Israel’s restoration. Ezekiel 38-39 are found in this final section. These chapters contain a vision of a future attack on the restored nation by a mythic enemy. The enemy in this passage is an unidentified king, Gog, who hails from a mythic land, Magog. He gathers an army from every corner of the globe and marches against people living in unfortified villages. The text states that he does this simply to gather more plunder. While scholars have researched how this text was produced, few have discussed the literary features of the chapters.
While the book of Ezekiel is punctuated with a phrase that is repeated—“they will know that I am YHWH” (a line stressing that historical events reveal God’s power and authority)—this passage ends with the longest form of this phrase in the book. It not only states that this victory will occur so that “they will know that I am YHWH,” but also goes on to note that, with this battle, everyone will recognize that the Babylonian exile occurred because Israel had sinned. In other words, God’s defeat of the greatest human enemy anyone could imagine proves that Babylon’s defeat of Judah was not the result of God’s weakness but rather the result of God’s choice to let Babylon win.
In these chapters, Gog is defeated handily by God; in fact, the battle is not even described, insinuating that it was literally “no contest.” Instead, the bulk of the passage focuses on three post-battle scenes: the gathering of the spoils of war by the Israelites, the burial of the corpses, and the post-battle sacrifice of the enemy. In the first two of these scenes, the details stress the enormous size of this army. It takes seven years to burn all of the spoils, while the pile of bodies becomes a monument. In the third post-battle scene, God feeds the corpses to carrion birds and other beasts in what the text terms a “sacrifice,” thus inverting the usual offering made to God at the end of a battle. The details of the text convey the author’s purpose in composing these chapters.
My essay on the God that these chapters construct looks at how the specific images within these chapters interact to create an overall portrayal of God. While many scholars are bothered by the inconsistencies in the book, this hesitation assumes that the chapters are meant to tell one complete, linear story. Yet, when one looks at the broader ancient Near Eastern culture, the parallels to chapters 38-39 are not battle reports, but rather wall reliefs that depict epic battles. The best exemplars of this iconography are the neo-Assyrian reliefs depicting the spread of their empire throughout the Fertile Crescent. These large reliefs, many now housed in the British Museum, lined the throne rooms of Assyrian kings. They reminded any envoy to the Assyrian king of the impressive military machine that supported and advanced Assyrian interests. The reliefs depict individual vignettes of battle. Viewers are to see them as simultaneous events. While the battling rams strike the city walls in one frame, vultures fly over a battlefield with entrails in their claws. Assyrians peacefully lead women and children into captivity in one scene, while in a nearby tableau they behead male soldiers.
The stories of Gog’s attack on a resettled city of Israel follows the same schema. The passage contains eight interconnecting vignettes of battle scenes that follow the standard depiction of war in Israelite historical texts. Each scene teases out a different thread of the battle trope: preparations for war and mustering of troops (38:3-7), the advance on the opponent (38:8-9), an initial attack (38:10-17) followed by a counter-attack (38:18-23), defeat of the enemy (39:1-8), and the aftermath of battle which includes the gathering of plunder (39:9-10), the burial of bodies (39:11-16), and a dedicatory sacrifice eaten by carrion birds fed by God (39:17-20). Yet, even though it uses motifs associated with historical battles, the figure of Gog is a mythic figure, and the battle is projected into some indeterminate time in the future.
Ezekiel 38-39 uses metaphorical language to depict God as a warrior who is involved at every stage of holy war. This violent warrior is portrayed as dangerous, unbridled, and yet fighting for “the good guys.” The most startling portraits of God are achieved through the manipulation of space and nature, associations that further the text’s depiction of the LORD as a God of the whole cosmos. These images subvert the ideology of war prominent in their Near Eastern environment. A God who gives trees a rest by allowing humans to use that plunder in their homes (39:9-10) replaces the human king who exalts himself by bragging of his plunder. A God who views the corpses of the enemies as so defiling that their burial is necessary replaces the king who watches dispassionately as soldiers play with human heads. A divine king who is so in charge of the whole battle that he is the one who gathers these animals to feast on this food so that no element of the battle is collateral, accidental, or purposeless (39:17-20) replaces the king who seems unaffected by the vultures that feed on the carcasses he has created.
Ezekiel 38-39 creates powerful and disturbing images of God that negotiate the anxiety of the audience that knows defeat and yet hopes for restoration. This negotiation is seen in the ways that the text portrays contrasting images of YHWH. God drags Gog to battle with hooks (38:4) and then slaughters him on the battlefield. Although God makes the earthworms tremble (38:20), YHWH also calms all of nature. God tells Israel to bury the corpses, and then feeds them to carrion birds and wild animals. Ezekiel’s God is created through pictures of mighty enemies slashed to pieces and vultures fattened on their blood, but these pictures are accompanied by trees on vacation and quiet little earthworms. Gog creates a cosmic God whose arena is the whole cosmos.
Corrine Carvalho is a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of St. Thomas and has been on faculty since 1996.
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