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The Armies of Gog, the Merchants of Tarshish, and the British Empire

January 14, 2013

You and your students are cordially invited to a lecture by British Hebrew Bible scholar Andrew Mein, Westcott House, Cambridge, on Wednesday, January 23 at 5:00 pm. The lecture will be held in Beasley 206. Andrew is a close colleague of mine and is a leader in the new area of biblical studies that we call reception history, that is, the study the popular use and influence of the Bible in different cultural contexts after the ancient period. He is currently writing a commentary on the book of Ezekiel for a Wiley Blackwell series, The Bible Through the Centuries.




Here’s a warm-up on the lecture:




The Armies of Gog, the Merchants of Tarshish, and the British Empire




The mysterious and terrifying figure of Gog in Ezekiel 38-39 has long offered a rich resource for millenarian speculation. Successive generations of Christian interpreters have identified Gog with the most pressing enemy of the moment, from fifth-century Goths to sixteenth- century Turks to twentieth-century Soviets. In the contemporary world such identifications are more often associated with American fundamentalism than with British imperialism, yet at the height of the British Empire, Gog and his armies were often pressed into service by British preachers and pamphleteers. As the various political crises of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries progressed, Gog might represent Napoleon, or the Russian Empire, or the Kaiser. While these millenarian readings were never official (or even very mainstream), many of their writers and readers belonged to the Church or military establishments, and their pamphlets were often popular enough to be printed in their thousands. Moreover, a fascinating thread within this work is a process of interpretation by which increasingly the hero of the piece is not the all-powerful God of Ezekiel, but God’s proxy, the British Empire. The lecture will include discussion of the culture of apocalyptic writing in mid-century with reference to George Eliot (who wrote a scathing article about one of the pamphleteers) and some reflection on the consumption of this kind of writing.


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