Revenge Fantasy?   (from Chapter Four)

Another biblical prophet with a foot well inside the door of apocalyptic eschatology is Ezekiel. From his exile in Babylon, Ezekiel foresaw a glorious future restoration of Israel.6 Nature itself would be transformed for the benefit of the returning Israelites7 ...Especially memorable is Ezekiel’s description of a river that would flow from the threshold of the Temple to the Dead Sea, which, newly freshened, will teem with life (47:1-12).8 (Anyone who has seen–and smelled–the Dead Sea knows what a miracle that would be.) Of particular importance for later writers9 is the oracle concerning the defeat of the pagan leader Gog, from the land of Magog (Ezek. 38-39).10 Almost certainly, Ezekiel here is building on Isaiah’s promise that God would protect Zion against its enemies11 and on Jeremiah’s numerous references to an enemy from "the north" (Ezek. 38:15)12 ("Meshech and Tubal," mentioned in 38:2, were nations in northeastern Asia Minor.) Note the statement in 38:17:

Thus says the Lord God: Are you he of whom I spoke in former days by my servants the prophets of Israel, who in those days prophesied for years that I would bring you against them?

Ezekiel weaves together two separate and essentially opposite prophetic traditions– that God would protect Zion against a great enemy (Isaiah) and that a devastatingly powerful adversary would come from the north (Jeremiah)–and sees in the combination a yet unfulfilled prophecy of national rescue. Thus, Gog personifies the longstanding military threat against Israel that must finally and decisively be eliminated. Gog will lead a vast international army in an attack on God’s people, recently returned from exile and defenseless (38:8, 11). As a sign to the nations of God’s faithfulness to Israel (39:21-29), Gog and all his forces will be miraculously destroyed (38:17-23). The eschatological framing of this rescue is evident in 38:8, "after many the latter years," and 38:16, "the latter days".

To be perfectly frank, the lot of the returning exiles was neither so glorious as "Second Isaiah" imagined, nor so perilous as Ezekiel envisaged. The point of such visions is to be found on the level of theological affirmation. Once again, the issue is theodicy, the justice of God. As Israel had been humiliated in defeat, so Israel will be vindicated in triumph. In the latter case, the victory will be God’s alone, proving to all the world God’s continued election of and care for Israel:

My holy name I will make known among my people Israel; and I will not let my holy name be profaned any more; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel. It has come! It has happened, says the Lord God. This is the day of which I have spoken. (Ezek. 39:7-8)

At worst, one could characterize these chapters–and a good deal of later apocalyptic literature with them–as revenge fantasy, a popular genre in our own day, typified by the Hollywood action movie. Anyone who has seen one such film knows the plot: the first half of the movie catalogues the inhumanities of the evildoers, thereby justifying the terrible vengeance that is to be wreaked upon them in the second half. In apocalyptic literature generally, evil is an abstraction, not unlike the one-dimensional villainy of the typical cinema bad guy. A not insignificant difference is that in the movie version the hero is allowed to execute his own brand of "justice" on his adversaries, matching cruelty with cruelty. In these chapters, however, judgment is in the hands of God. Ezekiel 38-39 is not a call to arms but to faith. One is encouraged to trust in God’s righteousness, not in human might (Isa. 31:1). Nevertheless, the violent imagery of such oracles is easily twisted, as the sorry history of the interpretation of apocalyptic texts so amply demonstrates. Words meant to give comfort to the powerless become weapons in the hands of the powerful. Make no mistake, Ezekiel 38-39 is a dangerous text, easily abused.

The idea that the restoration of Israel would be preceded by a great battle in which God would intervene is of great importance for subsequent Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought. The books of Joel (e.g., 2:20), Zechariah (e.g., 12:1-9; 14:1-5) and Daniel (e.g., 11:13, 40-45) all demonstrate its influence. In the New Testament, we find its Christian equivalent in the famous battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:16). Behind all of these passages lurks the old Jewish question "What about the neighbors?" How will the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel affect the Gentile world? As we have already seen, there was no single answer. Perhaps the Gentiles would be destroyed, perhaps they would be converted, perhaps some mixture of the two. Practically, the expectation of an eternally safe and secure Israel moved the prophets to imagine a corresponding transformation of international political realities. If the situation of Israel is to change, the surrounding world must change with it. By one means or another, the threat to Israel must be removed. Perhaps, then, the imagined defeat of the great alien hordes was less motivated by a desire for vengeance than by a longing for peace. One can only hope that it was so.