Sunday, March 27, 2011

All Agog: A Response to Chris Quintana's Prophecy Challenge


"[T]he whole business is childish and nonsensical. Interpreters of prophecy during the last few centuries have been most of them in the same position; one of them sees in the sublimities of the Revelation the form of Louis Napoleon where two hundred years ago half Christendom saw the Pope, and the other half Martin Luther. The other day one of the seers saw Sebastopol in the prophecies, and now another detects the Suez Canal, and we feel pretty sure that the Council at Rome will soon be spied out in Daniel or Ezekiel. The fact is, when fancy is their guide men wander as in a maze. Spiritualistic interpreters see, like children gazing into the fire, not what is really before them, but what is in their own heads." ~ Charles H. Spurgeon (British Particular Baptist Preacher), 1834-1892 [1].

Rapture Ready Radio,” a lively radio show which broadcasts multiple times each week, is a cult sensation among right-wing doomsday-predicting fundamentalist Christians and a potential source of great entertainment and laughs by its secular listeners such as myself (my masochistic tastes being what it is, I enjoy Rapture Ready Radio almost as much as I enjoy the likes of Ray Comfort and Kent Hovind). A typical show features long tirades denouncing as a false believer any Christian who does not stand with them on every issue and enthusiastic commentary on various natural and political disasters around the globe, which in their mind is supposed to signal the soon arrival of their god-king to whisk them away to paradise.

But on a January 4, 2011 broadcast, Chris Quintana, one of the show’s hosts, presented a challenge to Brian "Box" Brown, an atheist cartoonist who appeared as a guest on the program after featuring hosts Quintana and Matt Buff in a satirical comic. Brown, who held his own well enough during the discussion, understandably had no comment to make on this challenge, being unprepared. But Quintana’s challenge struck me as one that was worth making a serious and substantial response to, given the overly-confident manner in which he presented it:
I'd like to get your take on something here for us. One of the wars that the Bible predicts is found in the Book of Ezekiel, okay? It's in chapters 38 and 39. Here's the interesting thing: For somebody like yourself as a total skeptic, if you're to go ahead and look at the countries that are mentioned there, what you would find is that they are modern-day Turkey, everything that is pretty much south of Russia, all the way down to Iraq as far over as Pakistan, most of the northern portion of Africa with the exception of Egypt. Now, looking at that part of the world, that the time that Ezekiel wrote it, there was nothing whatsoever that galvanized that group of people, their different cultures, ethnicities, continents, everything.

Here's the deal: As Ezekiel writes all of that, there was nothing that galvanized that whole group of people. Now here's where it gets interesting. What Ezekiel saw, and the only thing that those countries now and those groups of people now have in common is Islam. And if you look at the things that those people say, their desire is to see the elimination of the nation of Israel. So here's what I have to ask for anybody who wants to be objective about this: How is it that Ezekiel could talk about a coalition of countries coming after Israel, especially in the last century when, for a good portion of it, Israel didn't even exist. And what else could galvanize that group of people in the modern day, aside from Islam?

You say that everything that we're telling you is ridiculous and that the Bible is self-fulfilling. I'm giving you an example of something that was written long before the event, and you can't give me a good reason to explain how he could have known this. Nostradamus spoke in generalities and very vague things, but there's no way that you can actually say [it's] like what Ezekiel did. He told us what is modern-day Islam, and all the people that have arrayed themselves against Israel. And I just find it fascinating that you say it's self-fulfilling. How is Israel going ahead lining up all of its enemies under a religion that didn't exist when Ezekiel talked about it? How's that work?

Please, prove me wrong! I'm serious . . . This would be great! You can go ahead and look, and you can prove it through history who he's talking about, okay? This is your great opportunity to take a Christian guy like myself and show me that I'm totally all wet and prove to me where I'm wrong. This is great! Look at the opportunity that's now before you. What I'm giving you is the opportunity to shoot guys like me completely through, you know, as far as our theory, and maybe you can enlighten me through this. How about I give you the places to look, and you can find out who they are historically. And please tell me what they now have in common aside from Islam. I'd love to know it. If I'm wrong, which you think that I am, I'd love to hear an alternate theory.

For one thing, Quintana's argument relies completely on a shaky underlying premise which, when dismantled, undermines his entire case. This premise is the assigning of modern-day countries to countries mentioned in ancient religious texts. Prophecy enthusiasts like Quintana have adopted a slapdash etymology that attempts to say that names read in the original Hebrew correspond to somewhat similar-sounding names of modern geographical locations. But this lacks any linguistic basis or sense.

In the particular case of Ezekiel 38 & 39, identifying Lud and Put in 38:5 to be Persia, Ethiopia and Libya (as the King James Version does) is in fact not far-fetched. There is good reason to think that the text corresponds to those three countries, based on other ancient references. But the traditional prophecy buffs are mistaken when they equate Meshech and Tubal in 38:2-3 to the Russian cities of Moscow and Tobolsk respectively in the U.S.S.R. Russia as a whole also finds its way into these etymological word games based on the word "Rosh" in 38:2-3, which translates to "head," implying a chief (as in the head man of a tribe). "Rosh" is thus said to be Russia, the head of its domains of Moscow and Tobolsk [2].

This is patently incorrect. The name "Russia" derives from the Rus', a tribe of East Slavic horsemen who inundated the steppelands of central Russia and Ukraine from the north in the ninth century C.E. The Rus' have no connection whatsoever to "Rosh" or the "head." Instead, Ezekiel 38:2-3 is describing the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal and does not indicate a third name. Meshech is not Moscow, and Tubal is not Tobolsk. These were two ancient territories located adjacent to the Black Sea. One can find them on just about any old "World of the Bible" atlas. Tubal was the place that the character Tubal-Cain is made an eponymous ancestor of in Genesis 4:22. Being the mythic culture hero that he was, Tubal-Cain is here said to be the inventor of metallurgy, an "instructor of every artificer of brass and iron." Tubal is mentioned in Ezekiel 38 because their people were on the map at the time the text was written, and they were metal workers. They continued the fashioning of weapons in the tradition of their father Tubal-Cain, their eponymous ancestor. Meshech is not much different; the people of this land were known as the Mushki. Neither they nor the people of Tubal have any connection with modern-day Moscow and Tobolsk. Those who claim otherwise commit an error similar to (but even more egregious than) the error of trying to trace the Turks back to the ancient Ionians. While the Turks and the Ionians lived at different times in the same territory, they are completely different ethnic groups descended from different lines. The Turks came in from central Asia much later, during the early Middle Ages.

Now to move on to Gog (the most interesting of the points to be made): The best scholarship we have on this subject strongly suggests that there is only a mythical or semi-mythical association with this name. “Magog” is not a parallel name; it simply means “land of Gog,” to denote the land which Gog rules. In Greek, “Gog” is translated Gugeis (or Gyges if one prefers to Latinize it). Gugeis was a mythical character in Meshech (ancient Lydia), or in the surrounding borders. The king of this territory was Midas. Gog (or Gugeis or Gyges, take your pick) shows up in Middle Eastern mythology as a kind of monster reminiscent of the Leviathan traditions, sometimes associated with Iskandar Dhul-Qarnayn (literally “The Two-Horned One”).

This name, which some scholars conjecture is a reference to Alexander the Great, is found in the Qur’an (Surah XVIII:83-99). According to this passage, Dhul-Qarnayn is said to have imprisoned both Gog and Magog inside a mountain from which they are to eventually escape in the end of days. Gog and Magog are also mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible (20:8: “And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog & Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea”).

In the Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel, Gog and Magog are pictured collectively as a single Leviathan-like creature: “And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws ...” (38:4a). The picture is one of God fishing the great primordial serpent out of the ocean, thereby defeating him as he did Leviathan and Rahab.

Of course, biblical prophecy enthusiasts could argue that this interpretation of the Ezekiel passage is simply mythic allusion intended by the writer himself to metaphorically describe a real state that is monstrous and dangerous in nature and which God will defeat. This may in fact be true, but this argument does not avail the prophecy apologist in any way. For one thing, mythic allusion was used to describe almost all major villains, whether whole nations or individual leaders. Even the mythical Azdahak in ancient Iran, the very first Antichrist figure to be conceived, was intended to symbolize the invading Assyrians. The vast majority of characters in ancient mythologies had political dimensions that were relevant to the times in which they were created and written about.

This means that Ezekiel 38 and 39 is not an example of prophetic writing at all. Scholars are unanimously agreed on this point. If these chapters were written as predictions of the far future, they would be completely irrelevant to the people the prophets were trying to address at the time. Gog and the land that Gog rules (Magog) have come to mean something completely different than what it was originally intended to mean in modern apocalyptic thought. At the time the author of these Ezekiel passages was writing, they were simply meant to describe (through the metaphoric picture of the great sea monsters that God had defeated in primordial times) nations that were believed to be harassing Israel at the time. They were describing current events. Both literary and historical analysis supports this understanding.

This leaves open Quintana’s question of who the armies described in these Ezekiel chapters are supposed to be if not modern Islamic countries. Remember, Quintana says he would “love to hear an alternate theory.” Many scholars say that Gog and Magog represented the historical Scythians, who swept down as mounted horsemen from the northern kingdoms, though they never did get as far as ancient Israel and Judah. However, it was anticipated that they would successfully make it that far, and that is what Ezekiel 38 and 39 are about. I would strongly advise non-scholars like Quintana not to trust the likes of Hal Lindsey and the tradition he represents in his famous 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth of spinning etymology and history in order to make Ezekiel 38 and 39 all about Russia.

To wrap up, we must address Quintana’s claim that these chapters in Ezekiel must be prophetic of modern Islamist countries and that this is borne out by his claim that nothing galvanized the countries he thinks are mentioned together in any coherent way, until Islam gave them something in common.

For one thing (as I have already mentioned above) if these writings were about the far distant future, they could not have possibly been relevant to the original readers, Ezekiel’s intended audience. For another thing, it is highly doubtful that there exists any evidence for what Quintana is saying, whatever the nature of Ezekiel’s writings. Yes, the countries and geographical regions Quintana mentions were somewhat diverse, but he seems to overlook the fact that they were cheek-by-jowl on the map! They could not have been so different that they had nothing to unite over.

It may be technically improbable that these people would band together for a common purpose, but then again, this is exactly what people are often heard saying today concerning the Shiite and Sunni terrorists. The popular but flawed reasoning has been that there is nothing to fear, because Iraq could never join forces Iran to retaliate against us since one is predominantly Shiite and the other predominantly Sunni. Similarly, we have been told by many that al-Qaeda could never receive any support from the Mullahs of Iran, due to the same Sunni and Shiite differences. This is exactly the naïve, faulty reasoning Quintana is applying in his argument.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Common causes are made on the basis of this truism alone all the time, and throughout recorded history. Eventually, once victory is achieved, they may turn on each other. But this is certainly not evidence of any kind that they had not once united as a group for pragmatic purposes.

Then again, all this assumes that Quintana and other prophecy spin doctors are correct in their identification of the countries attacking Israel in these Ezekiel chapters. But, as I think I have shown, he is very likely wrong in his attributions. Again, the scholarly evidence suggests that the armies of Ezekiel 38 and 39 were the Scythians. Even the ancient writer himself may have gotten the identification of the armies wrong. But more importantly, I have shown that Quintana does not have a valid argument or evidence to lean on even if he is correct in his identification of the countries.


Notes

1. Quoted in James Comper Gray (1871). The Biblical Museum: A Collection of Notes Explanatory, Homiletic, and Illustrative, on the Holy Scriptures, Especially Designed for the Use of Ministers, Bible-Students, and Sunday-School Teachers. Vol. II. Containing the Gospels According to St. Luke and St. John. London: Elliot Stock, 62, Paternoster Row, p. 179.

2. While Quintana does not in my quotes explicitly claim that Gog and Magog correspond to Russia both he and other hosts of the show have made it clear in other broadcasts that they are strong adherents of this idea. I suspect he carefully avoided mentioning this here, since Russia’s population is made up of slightly more Christians (17-22%) than Muslims (10-15%). This figure upsets Quintana’s “non-galvanized” foothold, so he instead starts with “south of Russia.”