Gog and Magog are the peoples who, it is believed, will wage war against the Jews before the advent of the Messiah. These two names appear in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 38, 39) where Gog is the ruler of the country of Magog. Gog will lead his people in war against the land of Israel but will be defeated and God alone will reign supreme.
Since Ezekiel prophesied in exile about the return of the Jewish people to its land, it is possible that he was thinking of contemporary events. Attempts have been made to identify Gog and Magog with nations whom the prophet may have thought to pose a threat in the immediate future to the Jews who were to return to the land. On the other hand, as a number of biblical scholars understand it, the prophet himself may have had in mind events in the remote future as part of his apocalyptic vision.
In subsequent Jewish eschatology, both Gog and Magog are understood to be persons and the “wars of Gog and Magog” become part of the whole eschatological scheme. As with regard to Jewish eschatology as a whole, there is a considerable degree of uncertainty about what is said to happen at the “end of days,” the picture is really an amalgam of various folk-beliefs, some of them contradictory.
In the eschatological account given by Saadiah Gaon (Belief and Opinions, viii. 6) an attempt is made to accommodate the wars of Gog and Magog into the scheme. Interestingly enough, however, in Maimonides’ scheme at the end of his great code, the Mishneh Torah, in which messianism is interpreted in largely rationalistic terms, there is no reference to the wars of Gog and Magog only to the Messiah fighting “the battles of the Lord” in order to reconquer the land of Israel, rebuild the Temple, and establish God’s reign on earth.
Even in Orthodox Judaism, the details of these terrible events are vague and wars of Gog and Magog do not feature at all prominently in Orthodox theology. Yet, at the time, World Wars I and II did tend to be seen as the wars of Gog and Magog, as the essential prelude to the coming of the Messiah. Some of the Hasidic masters saw the struggle between Napoleon and Russia as the wars of Gog and Magog.
Martin Buber’s novel For the Sake of Heaven, based on historical fact, is constructed around the conflict between the Hasidic masters on whether Napoleon was to be identified with Gog. Reform Judaism, in any event, has substituted belief in a Messianic age for belief in the coming of a personal Messiah and has given up entirely all such notions as the wars of Gog and Magog, viewing these as fevered responses in the past to severe calamities, rather than as any kind of revelation about what is to happen in the future.
Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
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Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.