Events over the last few weeks in Ukraine have triggered a renewed interest in the End Times. Christians should pay attention to what is happening in the Ukraine, due to concerns about a possible World War III, for many reasons. But while the End Times could be near, it probably has nothing to do with the reasons why many Christians think Russia is a key player in future events.
Evangelist Pat Robertson recently entered the fray by suggesting that the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel predicted centuries ago that Russia would ultimately fulfill prophetic events associated with the Second Coming of Jesus. In fact, according to Robertson, Vladimir Putin is being “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine:
Pretty impressive, right? Well, let us take a closer look.
The story about Russia and the End Times finds its connection from a reference in Revelation 20:8, in the last book of the Bible, where “Gog and Magog” are associated with a great battle, that some say is elsewhere described in Revelation as Armageddon. The “Gog and Magog” reference points back to Ezekiel 38, where Ezekiel gives a prophecy about Gog and Magog, and a future invasion of Israel, led by these foreign powers.
There is a lot to unpack here, but we can just focus on where “Russia” is said to come in, at verse 2, in Ezekiel 38. Here is how the New American Standard Bible (1977/1995) and the New King James Version (late 1970s) render this verse:
“Son of man, set your face toward Gog of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him…” (NASB 1997/1995)
“Son of man, set your face against Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal, and prophesy against him...” (NKJV)
Notice that the word “Rosh” is capitalized, which makes it a proper name, of a particular place. Many prophecy pundits will tell you that “Rosh” sounds like the word “Russia,” which would suggest Russia is somehow involved with this future invasion of Israel. Pat Robertson identifies “Rosh” with “Russia” on his map in the video. This gets a lot of attention: Is is possible that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is yet a prelude to a future invasion of Israel, that might signify the End Times?
Ah, but just compare the same verse with a few other translations, such as the ESV and the CSB:
“Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him…” (ESV)
“Son of man, face Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. Prophesy against him…” (CSB)
And finally, let us consider the venerable KJV:
Son of man, set thy face against Gog, the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him... (KJV)
Notice what is different. In these other translations, that word “Rosh” is instead translated as “chief.” In these other translations, “Rosh” is no longer a place name. In other words, “Rosh” is no longer “Russia.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
So, what is going on here?
Sorting Out the Whole “Russia” / Ezekiel / Revelation / End Times Quandary
Back in the 1970s, the United States and Russia (technically the U.S.S.R.) were involved in the height of the Cold War. Both the NASB and NKJV translations, as shown above, were developed in the 1970s, and these translations tended to reflect a lot of popular prophecy thinking of the time.
Interestingly, the venerable KJV, dating back to 1611, predated the Hal Lindsey craze of the “Late Great Planet Earth” by several centuries, and did not associate “rosh” with a place name, like Russia. That word “rosh” has an ancient Hebrew meaning of “chief” or “head,” and it appears over 500 times in the Old Testament. The KJV translators simply followed the traditional Hebrew “rosh” to mean “chief” in Ezekiel 38, following the example set by Jerome, in his translation of the Latin Vulgate, in the late 4th century.
So, what really drove the translators of the NASB and the NKJV to change the translation of the Hebrew “rosh” in Ezekiel 38 from “chief” to a place name, like “Rosh?” Well, they were not entirely crazy. It turns out that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, dating back to a couple of hundred years before Jesus, translated the word to what appears to be a place name, simply “rosh” (or “Rhos” in some English versions). Therefore, the NASB and NKJV were not making this up. The “rosh” name translation is a real possibility. But how plausible is this translation?
Now, it must be said that ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many scholars have come to the conclusion that the Septuagint might offer superior understandings of the original Hebrew text, thus suggesting that certain translated portions of the Greek Septuagint correspond to an earlier Hebrew text, that predates the Masoretic text, the Jewish Hebrew Bible that serves as the basis for most translations of the Old Testament today.
However, it is important to realize that this conclusion is complicated by the fact that there is no one, single Septuagint translation. There are actually multiple “Septuagints,” whereby various Jewish scribes over a good hundred of years, or more, put together different sets of Greek translations of the original Hebrew Scriptures. As a result, some Septuagint translations of certain texts work better than others.
The key to resolving this quandary is to try to locate where Ezekiel might have thought “Rosh,” as a geographical place, might have existed. This is where the massive stumbling block behind the “Rosh” as “Russia” argument really lies. To date, no one has been able to establish the location of “Rosh” anywhere in the ancient near east, or anywhere remotely near Russia, in any ancient record. Not a single reference. None.
Defenders of the “Rosh” as “Russia” thesis often make a rather bizarre argument that the name “Russia” comes from the phrase, “The Rus,” which is said to be the same as the Hebrew “Rosh.” The problem with this argument is “The Rus” actually comes from the Vikings, in the Medieval Period, when they came down from Scandinavia, and settled around Kiev, in the Ukraine, and parts of modern Russia. There is absolutely no connection between the ancient Hebrew “rosh” and the medieval Swedish “rus.”
This is just a form of bad logic, and faulty use of evidence. Just because a word in one language sounds the same as another word in a different language does not definitively mean that the two words mean the same thing. For example, flat-earthers take a Hebrew word, transliterated into English as “nasha”, which means “to deceive,” to mean that “NASA” is deceiving us in thinking that the earth is a sphere, simply because “nasha” and “NASA” sound alike. Really???
To make matters worse, some then go ahead and claim that the word “Meschech” in Ezekiel 38:2 and the word “Moscow” mean the same thing, because the words sound the same. There you go, Russia still is in Ezekiel 38, right?
However, is there any ancient historical evidence to support the claim that “Meschech” and “Moscow” are referencing the same geographical place?
Nope. We strike out again here.
The word “Meschech” (or “Meshech“) actually comes from the Table of Nations in Genesis 10:2, and in 1 Chronicles 1:5, and refers to an area in Asia Minor, in what we today call Turkey, which is on the south side of the Black Sea. Moscow is way, way far away to the north, on the north side of the Black Sea. We do not have a single scrap of ancient evidence that associates the area of modern Moscow with the ancient Hebrew “Meschech.”
The same goes for identifying “Tubal” with “Tobolsk“, a town in Siberia. The words sound the same, but “Tubal” is often paired with “Meschech” in the Bible, and was located in Turkey as well. Likewise, we have zero ancient evidence for linking “Tubal” to “Tobolsk.” This lack of evidence pretty much changes the possibility of Russia being in view, specifically, in Ezekiel 38, to that of being improbable.
Other arguments associating the story of Gog and Magog specifically with Russia pretty much go downhill from there. Here is the point: I personally do not find this to be a hill that I am willing to die on. I would much rather rely on evidence that we already have instead of depending on supposed evidence that we do not have. However, if it turns out that new evidence surfaces that clearly has an ancient source identifying “rosh” with a particular geographical location, way up north from Israel, then I am perfectly willing to change my mind. Furthermore, it is still possible that a great battle at the end of the age might still feature Russia as a major player in it. You just can not clearly get this from Ezekiel 38. So until we get more clarity, we probably do not need to stock up yet on a 3-month emergency food supply.
Looking forward to the ultimate Second Coming of Jesus Christ is something that all historically orthodox Christians anticipate. However, it is probably best to regard this “Rosh=Russia” issue as a matter of wishful thinking among a certain group of Bible commentators and prophecy specialists. For decades now, Russia has always featured prominently in Bible prophecy speculations. Russia fits neatly in many End Times schemes. Certain commentators have a lot invested in defending their future prophecy fulfillment timelines by placing Russia squarely in the center of the action. But as even progressive Christian scholar John Barton says, the Bible can be “shape shifted” to make it mean whatever you want it to mean.
Simply wanting something to be true, does not make it true.
For more information on this topic, I would suggest that Veracity readers check out Dr. Michael Heiser on his Naked Bible Podcast, number 152, where Heiser goes into the various place names discussed in Ezekiel 38, in great detail. Regarding the Septuagint “rosh” translation in Ezekiel 38:2, Dr. Heiser concludes that the Septuagint translator simply did not know what to do with the Hebrew word “rosh” and therefore left it transliterated into Greek, without suggesting any particular meaning for the word. For a quick 8-minute summary on YouTube, you can listen here.
As an aside, it might be worth noting that the good folks at the Lockman Foundation, who produce the NASB translation, have since the 1970s made an update to the 2020 revision of the NASB. This change reflects the conclusion made by the KJV, ESV, and CSB translators, by rendering “rosh” as “chief” and not as a place name (In fairness to the earlier NASB translation, the “chief” translation is actually mentioned in a footnote. It just is not in the main text). If you go back and view that YouTube video with Pat Robertson, you will notice that they actually use this 2020 revision of NASB in that clip, where the place name “Rosh” is strangely absent, not even in a footnote! My guess is that my fellow Washington and Lee University graduate, Pat Robertson, and his crew at CBN, never picked up on that.
No matter what one thinks about the Ukranian/Russia crisis and its connection to the “End Times,” this utter tragedy in that part of the world is something that all of us as believers should be in prayer about, looking for ways to try to help people who have been bitterly impacted, and offer a ray of hope in a very dark time.