George Bush and the Code of Ezekiel
When he evokes the political situation in the the Middle East, the president of the United States sees Gog and Magog at work--two creatures who appear in an apocalyptic vision of the Old Testament. Thomas Römer, an expert at UNIL (the University of Lausanne), explains. He was contacted by the Elysée [the French President's residence] in 2003, when Jacques Chirac was trying to shed light on troubling references by George W. Bush.
"The telephone rang. It was the head of the Biblical Service of the Protestant Federation of France [Service biblique de la Federation protestante de France]. She asked me if I could write a page on Gog and Magog for the French President." Thomas Römer, a theology professor at the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and specialist in the Old Testament, had just been plunged into the midst of international politics. This seemingly banal theological inquiry had unsuspected ramifications, for it was set into motion by George W. Bush.
"The prophecies are being accomplished."
"I also learned during this phone call that the President of the United States had brought up Gog and Magog in a conversation with Jacques Chirac. The discussion was about current events in the Middle East. After having explained that he saw Gog and Magog at work, George W. Bush added that the Biblical prophecies were coming to pass," Thomas Römer continues.
This conversation, which also included the Axis of Evil, took place at the beginning of 2003, a few weeks before the American intervention in Iraq. George W. Bush was then trying yet again to convince Jacques Chirac to follow him in his Operation Just Cause, which the Frenchman obstinately refused to do.
As neither Jacques Chirac nor his advisers had understood the American President's reference, the administration got to work. Since George W. Bush belongs to the evangelical Christian movement, the Elysée turned to French Protestants, who transmitted the request to Thomas Römer. "There is nothing unusual about that," the UNIL researcher continues. "We often collaborate on scientific matters with our neighbors."
So the Lausanne theologian was now given the task of enlightening the French President on Gog and Magog, a work which this specialist in the Old Testament was happy to do, and about which he speaks for the first time today, now that Jacques Chirac has retired and this episode belongs to history.
An uncertain and unclear text
"I wrote a one-page paper which explained the theological foundations of Gog and Magog, two creatures who appear in Genesis and especially in two very obscure chapters of the Book of Ezekiel, in the Old Testament," the UNIL theologian remembers, before adding that for more than one reason, Ezekiel is a disconcerting book.
"The transcription which has come down to us is not certain, the names that are cited pose a problem, and the text is difficult," Thomas Römer adds. If that were not enough to confuse the 21st-century reader, this book "also contains a message that is a bit hidden. It is part of a kind of writing that speculates on the future, in a cryptic language, and is destined for initiates," the UNIL researcher explains.
However, it is not necessary to be an expert in esoteric studies to understand the outline of this apocalyptic prophecy. In chapters 38 and 39, the authors of the Book of Ezekiel added a vision according to which a great world army will form, and that this coalition of peoples will bring a final battle upon Israel. "This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to take advantage of this conflict to wipe out the enemies of his people before a new age begins," Thomas Römer goes on.
Gog, ally or Prince of Magog?
In his coalition, the author of this text places peoples known to archeologists, like the Persians, the Nubians, the Assyrians, and the Kushites. He adds other names which perplex historians, but which leave no doubt as to the sense of the prophecy. The army that is on the march is huge, and assembles peoples come from all over, but mainly from north of Israel.
According to this text, Ezekiel also announces that this great coalition will be brought together by a certain Gog, perhaps supported by Magog. In different translations of the Bible, one can read "Gog and Magog," "Gog from Magog," "Gog, in the land of Magog," or even "Gog, prince of Magog."
"These names are difficult to decode," Thomas Römer emphasizes, "like the names of Meshek and Toubal, which are also associated with the coalition, and which are also enigmatic."
This enigmatic Gog has aroused speculation for more than twenty centuries. Today, George W. Bush is probably looking for him in the direction of Iran, which covets atomic weapons, after having tracked him down to Iraq. Before him, another American president [also] believed in the imminent realization of Ezekiel's prophecy.
"As Ronald Reagan knew the Bible well, he believed that the Cold War and the existence of the atomic bomb made it possible for the prophecy of Ezekiel to come to pass, therefore that the moment had come," Thomas Römer continues.
"Because Gog is an enemy who comes from north of Israel, and because Meshek can easily be connected to Moscow, people who read Ezekiel 20 or 25 years ago often associated Gog with communist Russia. They also noticed that the Biblical text says that Gog is said to be 'at the head' of this coalition. Now, in Hebrew, 'head' is 'rosh.' From 'rosh,' it's easy to get 'Russia,' therefore communist Russia," says the UNIL theologian, smiling.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall swept away this hypothesis, the imminence of the apocalypse seemed to fade. For rationalist readers like Thomas Römer, the "threat" disappeared more than 2000 years ago.
Gygos, Alexander, and Nero
For not everyone who reads Ezekiel dissects current affairs with the goal of finding signs of the arrival of Gog and his apocalyptic armies. Many historians and theologians seek his trace, rather, in the past. "Some researchers have identified Gog with a certain Gygos, who was a king of Anatolia in the seventh century BC. He could be at the origin of this apocalyptic text. I think it is the same process as in the case of the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel, which concern the great enemy of the time, Antiochus IV."
If one adds to this that many researchers believe that the [Roman] emperor Nero is the famous 666 evoked in the Apocalypse of John, that the Great Whore is Rome, and that the fall announced is that of the Roman Empire, it is noticeable that the past can explain all the apocalyptic Biblical prophecies, a historical analysis that Thomas Römer tends to favor.
In that case, if one believes the UNIL researcher, the prophecy of Ezekiel would be linked to the travels of Alexander the Great. "The arrival of Hellenism [Greek culture] in the Middle East constituted a major culture shock," Thomas Römer explains, "to the point that the Bible has kept many traces of the passage of the Macedonian king, notably the oracles on the capture of [the city of] Tyre. This episode doubtlessly led people to develop a chronology, to reflect on the succession of reigns, to evoke the advent of [new] forces, and to speculate on the end of times and the irruption of a new time."
No Apocalypse Without Reconstruction of the Temple
The fact remains that not everyone reads the Old Testament as rationally as Thomas Römer. We must therefore state to our most nervous readers that it is not enough for a coalition of countries to attack Israel for the End Times to come. "There is a long section about the reconstruction of the Temple, and this reconstruction is, for certain currents of Judaism, the necessary condition for the return of the Messiah."
This reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem is detailed at length in Ezekiel, which consecrates interminable chapters to it, before specifying that the Temple must be rebuilt at its initial location, that is, the famous Temple Mount, in Jerusalem, where today there stands one of the most sacred spots in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
In other words, it would require a truly apocalyptic train of circumstances for the conditions evoked in the prophecy to be reunited.
Ezekiel smoothes the way for American support to Israel
More widely, this text of Ezekiel explains the strong ties that have been woven between the United States and the state of Israel. "For George W. Bush, this text has political consequences," Thomas Römer goes on. "Like many American Christians, he believes that God will be on the side of Israel during the final confrontation, so, therefore, the enemies of that country will be on the side of the Antichrist. He will therefore support Israel without weakening, because he is deeply convinced that when the end time arrives, it is necessary to be on the side of Israel."
This may surprise Europeans, more used to analyses based on geopolitics, power ratios, and oil pipeline maps than they are to religiousness when the foreign policy of the United States is in question.
"This American interpretation is effectively overlooked by Europeans, who have lost that relationship to Biblical texts," the UNIL theologian continues. "Germans understand George W. Bush more easily than the French or the Swiss. For an American, these questions are central. To forget religiousness in analysis of the U.S. support for Israel is to be wrong."
Did these political reflections figure in the one-page report that Thomas Römer sent to the French President at the beginning of 2003? "No. I sent a Biblical note. One one page, I explained the context, I explained that it was an apocalyptic prophecy, with a cosmic battle of peoples. I spoke of Gygos and I said when it was written. And I have not heard back either from Jacques Chirac or his advisers."
--Jocelyn Rochat (who by the way is a man; a woman would be named "Jocelyne"), editor-in-chief of Allez savoir, a university magazine of the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, in September 2007. The French-language original can be seen here.
This is my translation of the article.
Oddly, Gog and Magog are said to be protectors of Great Britain-- I wonder if George W. Bush knows this. (By the way, doesn't the name George look a lot like Gog?)
Top photo: Magog at Guildhall, London. Middle photo: Gog and Magog at the Royal National Hotel, Bedford Way, London. Below: Gog and Magog in the Lord Mayor's Parade, London.
Commentary sidebar in the article:
"Only a minority of believers see modern-day Iran as the Persia of which the Bible spoke."
Olivier Favre is a Ph.D in Social Sciences from the University of Lausanne and a pastor of the apostolic evangelical church. He is coauthor of the first empirical study on the evolution of the evangelical movement in Switzerland*. We asked him how the texts of Ezekiel were read by Swiss evangelicals.
Allez savoir! : Are Swiss evangelicals as interested as George W. Bush in the prophecies of Ezekiel?
Olivier Favre: In Switzerland, apocalyptic themes are much less present today than during the Cold War period. I see a distancing going on with respect to that kind of reading of history and belief in the future. The tendency in Swiss evangelical communities is rather to become more involved in politics again, to develop their message in the here-and-now. We see it notably in their recent involvement (certainly conservative) in politics. These believers have realized that they are not limited to fatalism.
Allez savoir!: Do evangelical communities read these apocalyptic texts the same way as George W. Bush?
Olivier Favre: The great majority remains very prudent about this. But at the extremes, we do in fact find a small minority of people who see modern Iran as the Persia of which the Bible spoke, therefore as an enemy of Israel. This minority believes that the Biblical prophecies are coming true. And at the other extreme, there are evangelicals who consider George W. Bush as the Antichrist, and who see in the terrorist attacks of September 11th the proof that God disapproves of American materialism.
Allez savoir!: These are two very different visions....
Olivier Favre: Yes, because the evangelicals have very different readings of these apocalyptic texts, of Ezekiel but also of Daniel. To simplify, you could say that there are two diametrically opposed positions on the End of Days. But they are very much in the minority. The majority simply waits for the return of Christ without making any pronouncement about the rest of it.
Allez savoir!: There are optimists and pessimists?
Olivier Favre: Those I call pre-millennials are effectively catastrophists. They think that the return of Christ must be preceded by the rise of the Antichrist, whose reign will mean a long period of catastrophes for us. Opposed to this vision, there are the post-millennials who believe that the Church will triumph, and that Christ will come back to a peaceful planet. Finally, very far from both these positions, there is the vision of traditional Protestants, but also of moderate evangelicals, who read these apocalyptic texts symbolically and think that the Bible announces the fall of an empire, probably that of Rome.
Allez savoir!: How representative is the President of the United States concerning evangelical ideas?
Olivier Favre: It's necessary to be prudent with the figure of George W. Bush. It is extremely difficult to know what, in his speeches and actions, comes from his personal convictions, and what comes from an instrumentalization of the evangelical faith. Note also that the American evangelical electorate is divided today regarding him. While some of them approve of him, others are now criticizing him, notably because of global warming.
Allez savoir!: What strikes you when you look for Gog and Magog in Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia, is the difference between the information contained in the French and English versions. There are five lines in French and five pages in English.
Olivier Favre: This shows pretty well that these re-readings of Ezekiel are a theme above all in America. The development of evangelicals in the southern hemisphere (South America, Africa) has marginalized these apocalyptic themes and brought in other priorities, because these communities are more concerned about social and ecological problems.
Allez savoir!: More broadly, what does this religious reading of international politics inspire in you?
Olivier Favre: On this side of the Atlantic, strongly in France, but also in French-speaking Switzerland, there is a tendency to believe that no one reasons in religious terms any more. Now, we have populations who are still believers in various ways. Prayer is still practiced, and people keep their faith in a life after death. We could therefore expect, in the future, that the religious component could also surge back into public life here.
--Interview by J.R.