SHABBAT HOL HAMOED SUKKOT
“On that day, when Gog sets foot on the soil of Israel, declares the Lord God, My raging anger will flare up.” (Ezekiel 38:18)
The haftarah (prophetic portion) read on the intermediate Sabbath of Sukkot, speaks of an attack by a cruel nation from the north, Gog of Magog. This attack would set God against the forces of evil. Later Rabbinic sources would change the name from Gog of Magog to Gog and Magog, two nations working together. In the Rabbinic imagination, this became the great apocalypse, the war of the forces of evil against the forces of good. To quote what was said about World War I, it would be “the war to end all wars.” (From history we know this was untrue.)
Christian tradition, as taught in the New Testament book of Revelation, took this war much further. It was no longer a war against a nation or two nations, but a war against the demonic forces of evil. The war became known as Armageddon, the final war before God conquers evil and the world enters a Messianic age. The word Armageddon comes from the Hebrew har Megiddo, the hill of Megiddo. Megiddo is a real place; you can visit it on a trip to Israel. It is closer to a plain than a hill, but it does contain a tell, or hill of archaeological remains of various civilizations. It is the place where this great battle between the forces of good and evil will take place.
This idea has deep roots in the Western psyche. There are two great forces at work in the universe, a force of good and a force of evil. Of course, the force of good is God, Creator of heaven and earth. The force of evil is a demonic force, set to do battle with the force of good. In the end God will win this ultimate battle and good will triumph, but not before a massive war of destruction.
We often use the phrase cosmological dualism to apply to this idea of two forces at work in the universe. Zoroastrianism is based on the notion of two gods, one of good and one of evil. (If you drive a Mazda, know that your car was named after the good god of Zoroastrianism.) Manichaeism, the belief in a force of good and a force of evil at work in the universe, was prevalent in the ancient Near East. The great Catholic scholar and saint Augustine believed in Manichaeism before he became a Christian. It is easy to see the influence of these beliefs in Augustine’s writings, which depict the material world as tainted with evil. Another Christian heretical movement, Gnosticism, also saw spirit as good and matter as evil.
Today, many people speak of God and Satan, two forces at work in the world. Satan was originally one of God’s angels or messengers who took the role of prosecuting attorney when dealing with humanity. (See the book of Job.) But to the believers in Satan, he became a fallen angel. This idea is also reflected in another Biblical verse which speaks of Lucifer who fell to earth. “How are you fallen from heaven, O Shining One, son of Dawn” (Isaiah 14:12). Lucifer is a Latin translation of “Shining One.”
This idea of two forces at work in the universe, one beneficent and one maleficent, became part of our popular culture. In the Star Wars series, there is the Force and the Dark Side. Obviously, this kind of dualism meets a deep human need to explain why the universe often appears evil. But it is rejected by mainstream Judaism, who sees one God responsible for everything, both good and evil.
Why therefore, is there evil in the universe? It is a complex question. But one answer is that evil is not some demonic force, but rather in the heart of human beings. In the past few weeks, Vladimir Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons in his war against Ukraine. Such a use of weapons would be an apocalypse now, a great battle of good against evil. But it is a manmade battle. We can only pray that saner heads will rule in Russia and Putin will not unleash a nuclear terror.
There is evil in the world, but it does not dwell in some sinister demonic force. It dwells in the hearts of human beings, who go by the name of Gog, Hitler, and Putin. May goodness triumph over evil on this festival of Sukkot.