Gog is one of the more mysterious figures in scripture. There is no consensus about the identity of Gog. Even ancient sources found him as much a conundrum as we do today. Thus, the leading guesses are Gâgi [mentioned in the annals of Ashurbanipal, a powerful ruler of a belligerent mountain people to the north of Assyria] and Gyges [or Gûgu in the Rassam-Cylinder, king of Lydia]. However, both have been rejected by most scholars, mainly because of the details we find in Ezekiel. Furthermore, the word “Magog” is the name of a people [Genesis 10:2; 1 Chronicles 1:5], identified as the 2nd son of Japheth [the Greek tribes], alongside other Indo-European ethnic groups like Gomer, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.
In fact, the word “Magog” is often interpreted as a contraction of an original Akkadian māt Gūgu [or the “land of Gog”], and as referring to the territory of Lydia in western Anatolia. Possibly we have an eponym here. If the two are related, we have a sort of chicken-and-egg question of priority. In other words, scholars see in the consonants m-g-g a sort of cryptography comparable to the Jewish scribal ath-bash found in Jeremiah’s sh-sh-k = b-b-l = Babel / Babylon [Jeremiah 25:26; 51:41], where the 1st letter of the alphabet is replaced with the last, the 2nd with the second last, and so on, continuing throughout the alphabet. The name ath-bash derives from this cryptography method where the 1st Hebrew letter א [a], is replaced by the last letter ת [th], yielding ath. Then the 2nd Hebrew letter ב [b], is replaced by the second last letter שׁ [sh], yielding bash.
Thus, instead of b-b-l, Ezekiel here has used the corresponding next letters in the Hebrew alphabet g-g-m [where b is followed by g, and l by m]. When each of the letters in g-g-m is reversed using the ath-bash cryptography, they become m-g-g [or Magog]. In other words, write Magog backwards in Hebrew [m-g-g becomes g-g-m] and substitute for each letter the one preceding it in the Hebrew alphabet, and it becomes Babel / Babylon [g-g-m = b-b-l]. The use of such cryptography is well documented in Mesopotamian texts. Thus, the technique of cryptography would provide a prophetic invective against Babylon. Ezekiel is announcing the doom over the Babylonians and other enemies of Judah, who destroyed Jerusalem and plundered the remaining population.
However, the lack of a secure historical reference point for Gog has led to the fatuous attempt of some Christians to have modern Russia in view, mostly because of assonantal similarity. The association is hopelessly anachronistic because all evidence indicates that Russia is of northern Viking derivation and was first used in the Middle Ages of the Ukraine, today an independent state south of Russia. Gog is identified in Ezekiel 38 as “the chief noble of Meshech, and Tubal” [v. 2] who comes from “the remotest parts of the north” [v. 15]. Thus, it is argued by these ignorant Christians that “Meshech” and “Tubal” sound similar to Moscow and Tobolsk. Furthermore, the Hebrew words for “chief noble” is nāśîʾ rōʾš, and was rendered in the LXX as archonta Rōs [commander of Ros]. This translation understands the Hebrew word rōʾš to be the name of the place Gog ruled, and Rōs sounds like the name Russia. But identifying Gog as Russia is exegetically indefensible. Just because two words sound similar in two different languages doesn’t mean those words have the same meaning. For example, the Hebrew word yam looks and sounds the same as the English word yam, but the former refers to a body of water while the latter describes an edible plant. Thus, the Hebrew rōʾš and English Russia have no relationship to each other.
In summary, Genesis 10:2 locates “Meshech” and “Tubal” in Anatolia [modern Turkey], not Russia [compare Ezekiel 27:12–15]. So how are we able to identify Gog? Notice another clue, that Gog is described as an invader from the north [tsaphon]. This is an important detail; after all, when Assyria and Babylon destroyed the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, they both invaded from the north. As a result, Israelites feared northern invaders. They also feared the north because it was considered the domain of Baal. Thus, it is no wonder that the “king” of the north emerges in the book of Daniel as the antichrist figure [the “insignificant horn” in Daniel 8]. Most scholars agree on the king’s identity at this point, since the exploits of the “king” of the north in Daniel 11 closely mirror those of the awful tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Greek ruler whose kingdom was in Syria and who considered himself an exalted deity.
In the 2nd century b.c., Antiochus forced Jewish priests to sacrifice unclean animals on the temple altar [Daniel 11:36–37], and tried to convert Jerusalem into a Greek city. In order to achieve his goal, he no longer allowed the people of Jerusalem to worship their God, but ordered them to worship Zeus. This led to the Maccabean Revolt, instigated by a conservative group of Jewish priests [today celebrated as Hanukkah]. Because of the “king” of the north, many scholars believe Gog might be another way of describing either Antiochus or the future antichrist who was prefigured by Antiochus. This fits well with the Baal association, since baal-zebul [or “prince Baal” in Canaanite] served as a title for Satan [Matthew 10:25]. Thus, some scholars believe that Gog comes from the ancient Sumerian word gûg [to mean “darkness”]. It may well be that Ezekiel wasn’t thinking about a historical person when he prophesied about Gog. Instead, he might have envisioned a satanic figure from the dark, supernatural north.