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The Magog Identity

The Roots of War, Part 2:

And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him. . .And I will turn thee back, and put hooks into thy jaws, and I will bring thee forth, and all thine army, horses and horse-men, all of them clothed with all sorts of armour, even a great company with bucklers and shields, all of them handling swords: - Ezekiel 38:1-4

So begins this classic passage in which Gog and Magog, with their allies, are drawn into an invasion of Israel only to have the God of Israel use the occasion to show Himself strong by intervening on behalf of His people and destroying the invading forces. The apparent use of nuclear weapons1 has made this passage appear timely and perhaps on our near horizon.

To understand this passage, it is essential to first determine who the players are. Despite the many controversies, these participants are surprisingly well identified. Just who are the people represented here by these ancient tribal names?

Why Such Weird Names?

Have you ever wondered why the Biblical prophets always seem to refer to various peoples by such strange names?  It's actually our fault!  We keep changing the names of things. There once was a city known as Petrograd. For many years it was known as St. Petersburg. Then it was changed to Leningrad. Now it's St. Petersburg again. What will it be named a few years from now? (My friends in Russia say that in Russia, even the past is uncertain!) The capital of the old world, Byzantium, was renamed Constantinople. Now that city is known as Istanbul. This occurs even in our own country.  How many of you remember when "Cape Canaveral" was renamed "Cape Kennedy"? Ten years later it became "Cape Canaveral" again.

But we do not change the names of our ancestors! So, if you were the prophet Isaiah and were called upon to speak of the Persians over a century before they emerged as an empire, how could you refer to them?  You would speak of them as the descendants of Elam, the forebears of the Persians.2

The Table of Nations

Did you realize that you and I are related?  All of us are descendants, not only from Adam, but from Noah. Noah and his three sons repopulated the entire Earth after the flood. Thus, we are all descendants of Noah's three sons: Ham, Shem, and Japheth. We are all relatives.  (Perhaps that's why we don't get along any better!) The genealogical records of Noah and his three sons are listed in Genesis 10, and the 70 original tribal groups described there are often called by Biblical scholars, The Table of Nations. Specifically, to understand the prophecies of Ezekiel 38 - 39, we need some background on Magog and his allies.

Magog was one of the sons of Japheth3  and his descendants are often referred to by their Greek name, the Scythians. 4  One of the earliest references to Magog was by Hesiod, "the father of Greek didactic poetry," who identified Magog with the Scythians and southern Russia in the 7th century B.C.5  Hesiod was, in effect, almost a contemporary of Ezekiel. Another of the major sources on the ancient history of the Middle East is, of course, Josephus Flavius, who clearly identified Magog:

Magog founded the Magogians, thus named after him, but who were by the Greeks called Scythians .6  

Another first century writer was Philo,7  who also identified Magog with southern Russia. But most of our information comes to us from Herodotus, who wrote extensively in the 5th century B.C.

The "Father of History"

Herodotus of Halicarnassus is known as the "Father of History."  He wrote the earliest important historical narrative, in which he described the background and the course of the great war between the Greeks and the Persians in the 5th century B.C. Numerous archeological discoveries have clearly confirmed Herodotus' reports in general, and his Scythian accounts in particular.8 

The tortuous path from the horseback archery of the early Scyths to the nuclear missiles of the Russian Federation includes many centuries of turbulent history. The various descendants of Magog terrorized the southern steppes of Russia from the Ukraine to the Great Wall of China. 

The "Steppes of History"

The earliest origins of the area settled by the descendants of Magog, the extreme north and east, are clouded by the passage of time and war. Only faint traces remain, but enough to establish the critical identities. Our indebtedness extends from writers predating Ezekiel to the energies of the Russian archaeologists in more recent years. In the 9th century B.C. a number of nomadic tribes created a new state in the region of Lake Van in present-day Turkey, which immediately became a competitor of Assyria. The Assyrians called this state Urartu. The Urartean state quickly became powerful, and in the first half of the 8th century B.C. extended its rule over a wide area.

Assyria could not stand by indifferently as Urartu expanded and grew more powerful. During the reign of Argishti's son, Sarduri II (764-735 B.C.), the Assyrians undertook two campaigns against Urartu, in 743 and 735 B.C. In the second, they reached and besieged the Urartean capital of Tushpa. Two groups are frequently referred to in Urartean and Assyrian texts: the Cimmerians and the Scythians. Both will figure prominently in subsequent identifications.

The Cimmerians

The Cimmerians are the oldest of the European tribes living north of the Black Sea and Danube, and whom we know by the name they used for themselves. The Cimmerian period in the history of southern Ukraine began in the late 11th century B.C. The Cimmerians were the first specialized horse-nomads to make their name in history.9  The earliest osteological evidence of the domestication of the horse occurs south of Kiev about 2500 B.C.10  Their nomadic lifestyle, including mounted warriors, fully developed between the 10th and 8th centuries. 11

They are first mentioned in secular literature in The Odyssey and The Iliad of Homer (8th century B.C.), and in Assyrian cuneiform texts from the 8th century B.C. (before Ezekiel), and of course, in Herodotus (5th century B.C.). Herodotus indicates that the whole North Pontic steppe region, occupied in his time by the Scythians, belonged earlier to the Cimmerians. 12  Homer13  associated the Cimmerians with a fog-bound land, perhaps the Crimean peninsula on the north shore of the Black Sea. Some scholars derive the name of "Crimea" from the Cimmerians.14  The Cimmerians surged into Asia Minor in the late 7th century B.C. They annihilated the Phrygian kingdom after destroying and looting its capital, Gordium. In 652 B.C. they captured Sardis and plundered the Greek cities of the Aegean coast and Asia Minor.  In the early 7th century, Cimmerian forces were checked and routed by the Assyrians who came to the aid of the Scythians. By the 6th century B.C. the name of the Cimmerians disappeared from the historical scene.

In the 5th century B.C., Herodotus15 related that the Cimmerians were driven south over the Caucasus, probably through the central Dariel Pass, by the Scythians in a domino-like effect as the Scythians themselves were pushed westward by other tribes. This can be correlated with Chinese records.16  The numerous references in the Talmud has left little doubt that these descendants of Gomer then moved northward and established themselves in the Rhine and Danube valleys 17

The Scythians

We know the descendants of Magog by their Greek designation as the Scythians (depicted in their legends as descending from Scythes , the youngest of the three sons of Heracles, from sleeping with a half viper and half woman). 18  The name Scythian designates a number of nomadic tribes from the Russian steppes, one group of which invaded the Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. After being repulsed from Media, many of the later Scyths settled in the fertile area of the Ukraine north of the Black Sea. Other related tribes occupied the area to the east of the Caspian Sea. 

Herodotus describes them living in Scythia (i.e., the territory north of the Black Sea). He describes Scythia as a square, 20 days journey (360 miles) on a side. It encompassed the lower reaches of the Dniester, Bug, Dnieper, and Don Rivers where they flow into the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. 19  

The Scythian language belonged to the Iranian family of the Indo-European languages.20  The Ossetian dialect of central Caucasus appears to be a survivor.21  The original area in which Iranian was spoken extended from the mid-Volga and the Don regions to the northern Urals and beyond. From here, Iranian-speaking tribes colonized Media, Parthia, Persia, Central Asia, and as far as the Chinese border.

In the 7th century B.C. the Scythians swept across the area, displacing the Cimmerians from the steppes of the Ukraine east of Dnieper River, who fled from them across the Caucasus.22  It is provocative that even the name "Caucasus" appears to have been derived from Gog-hasan, or "Gog's Fort."23

The hippomolgoi ("mare-milkers") mentioned in Homer's Iliad 24  were equestrian nomads of the northern steppes and several authorities also identified these with the Scythians. 25   [One of the delicacies I was presented with when I was being hosted by the Deputy Chairman of the Soviet Union was fermented horse milk!  These traditions may have a deep history, indeed.]

Tombs That Tell Tales

The fact that the Scythian culture extended more than 2,000 miles east from the Ukraine was demonstrated by the sensational discovery of tombs in the Chilikta Valley of East Kazakhstan, published in Russian in 1965:

...prove that Scythian material culture had spread to the Mongolian border as early as the 6th century B.C. 26

Countless Scythian burials, ranging from the 6th - 2nd century B.C., have been uncovered in the areas to the north and east of the Black Sea, in many cases beyond the limits of what Herodotus demarcated in his day as "Scythia" proper. Soviet scholars have, of course, worked broadly in this region. 27  More than 1,200 graves were investigated by A. Leskov in the Crimean area between 1961 and 1972.  Aerial surveys also have been employed.28  Hundreds of Scythian graves from the 4th and 3rd centuries have been discovered since the 1930s by B. Grakow, A. Trenoschkin, and E. Tschernenko, in the Ukraine. One of the many implications of the Soviet finds is the authentication of the reliability of Herodotus as a source of knowledge of the Scythians. The leading authorities on the Scythians, T. Rice, T. Sulimirski, and others, all regard Herodotus as thoroughly vindicated.29

Remarkable circumstances led to the preservation of otherwise perishable materials. The frozen conditions marvelously preserved textiles, remains of horses, human skin and hair, entrails, undigested food, etc., for more than 2,300 years! In July 1995, Russian archaeologists found a 2,500 year old Scythian horseman under more than seven feet of ice in Siberia near the Chinese and Mongolian borders.  More than 6,500 feet above sea level, the Ukok Plateau is blanketed by a thick layer of rocks that keeps the ground frozen year round.  The horseman had been given his ceremonial burial in his fur coat and high leather boots, alongside his horse in a log-lined chamber in the Altai Mountains. He also had his ax, quiver, and dagger.30 

According to Herodotus and archaeological evidence, the Scythians occupied territory from the Danube to the Don. The northern boundary extended beyond the latitude of Kiev. Near Olbia lived the Callipidae and Graeco-Scythians, and farther north, the Alazones.

Defense in Depth

One reason Herodotus gave so much detailed information about the Scythians was that he wanted to describe the people who had succeeded in defeating the Persian king, Darius. This was a most important element in the history of Scythians, and the memory of it remained with them for many years. In resisting the Persians, a provocative strategic tradition was born: Defense in Depth.  This unique strategy also would characterize these descendants of Magog in more recent times against both Napoleon and Hitler.

Darius I crossed the Bosphorus and invaded Scythia. The Scythians, however, had devised an unusual tactic for conducting warfare. The Persians expected to crush the Scythians in a decisive engagement, but the Scythians avoided such a battle. They retreated deep into their own territory, laying waste the region and wearing down the enemy by means of small raids.  In pursuing the Scythians, Darius soon came to appreciate the cunning of these "partisan" tactics. Reaching the Volga, Darius, acknowledging defeat, had to retreat from Scythia in shame.

As every student of military history knows, Napoleon and Hitler, each, in more modern times, encountered the same tactics from the Scythian descendants and yielding similar results. When Napoleon entered Russia in 1812, Field Marshall Kutuzov's similar strategy, including the sacrifice of Moscow itself, resulted in reducing Napoleon's Grande Armée from 453,000 to less than 10,000, and yielding the ignomious defeat now commemorated in Tchaikovsky's Overture of 1812. In 1941, Hitler suffered a similar defeat from the same Scythian strategy: allowing a quick advance deep into the Russian interior only to have his Wehrmacht swallowed up in the harsh winter.


Greater Scythia disintegrated in the late 3rd century B.C., and the territory extended only from the Lower Dnieper to the Crimea.  There were several causes; the main one was apparently ecological.  Evidently the natural and climatic conditions of life on the steppe were changing. According to some experts there was a "desertification" of the steppe. 31  The population moved to more favorable areas, in particular southwards to the southern Dnieper. The Scythians finally succumbed to attacks from the Goths.

Scythians in the New Testament

The word Scythian occurs once in the New Testament. Paul stresses the fact that people from the most diverse backgrounds can be one in Christ:

Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. 
- Colossians 3:11

These unsavory associations mean nothing to readers today but would have aroused a strong emotional response from Paul's audience.  According to this passage, not only were all classes of society, civilized and uncivilized, one in Christ, but even those cruel, barbaric Scythians - the epitome of savagery in the ancient world 32 - were eligible for redemption through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Even as you and I are. No matter how barbaric or cruel our own history is, His redemption is available for the asking.]

More to Come

The background that has endowed these vibrant people with the beauty of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tchaikovsky has also given them the cruelty of Ivan IV,33  the intensity of Lenin, and the brutality of Stalin. In our next installment, we will review more of the stormy events from their colorful but violent past, from the invasion by the Huns into the European steppes, the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the appearance in Asia and Europe of the Turks, Avar and Khazar Khanates, and the invasion by the armies of Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde. See Roots of War: Profiling the Middle East.

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