Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Paul E. Fitzpatrick, S.M., The Disarmament of God: Ezekiel 38-39 in Its Mythic Context.  (The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series, 37; Washington: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2004).  Pp. xviii + 243.  Paper, US$11.50.  ISBN 0-915170-36-1.

The Gog pericope in Ezekiel 38-39 has long perplexed scholars and lay readers alike.  Among the many proposals regarding the identity of Gog, those of a historical nature have figured prominently: Gyges of Lydia, Alexander the Great, etc.  In this book, however, Fitzpatrick offers an alternative explanation of Gog as a mythological, rather than historical foe.  He is not the first to make such a suggestion, of course, but his reading goes further than others have in explicating not only the content but also the placement of this enigmatic passage. 

Fitzpatrick presents an intriguing reading of Ezekiel 38-39.  In his assessment of previous proposals, he convincingly problematizes the thesis that Gyges of Lydia forms the basis for the character of Gog, and suggests that one should look at a mythological, rather than historical referent.  In fact, he argues that this passage is mythopoeic in nature. In it Yhwh musters the forces of chaos that he battled at creation in order to destroy them once and for all, thus completing the act of cosmogony itself.  In doing this, he addresses certain thorny issues (e.g., why it is that Yhwh himself leads out Gog against Israel, and the seemingly odd placement of 39:21-29).  Fitzpatrick tackles these issues primarily in chapter four.

In chapter five, perhaps the strongest in the book, Fitzpatrick discusses the mythic elements in the rest of Ezekiel.  While his criteria for what features of the book qualify as myth seem at times overly generous, his assessment that Ezekiel is rife with mythic references is certainly convincing, even if it largely reiterates the work of others.  His treatment of these elements brings his larger reading into sharper focus, giving him the opportunity to explicate why the Gog passage was placed where it was in the book and to argue that its placement was quite purposeful, contrary to what others have alleged.  In Ezekiel 34, Yhwh establishes a covenant of peace with Israel.  In Ezekiel 36-37, this covenant begins to be actualized.  Israel will resettle the land and live securely without walls, Israel will be resurrected and reconstituted.  But in order to ensure that this occur, Yhwh must call forth the foe of foes and destroy it, so that Israel will never again be threatened.  Only after this momentous battle may the temple be rebuilt and the cult established once again.  Fitzpatrick thus offers a broad reading that addresses not only the myriad interpretive issues presented by the Gog pericope, but also much of the material in the latter half of the book of Ezekiel.

Though compelling, Fitzpatrick’s expansive reading is not unproblematic.  One major issue concerns his argument that the passages in the book of Ezekiel were very consciously arranged—an argument upon which his overall reading is to a large extent dependent.  This argument is not always convincing.  A place of particular weakness is his explanation concerning the seemingly disjunctive placement of chapter 35. 

In addition, the book has certain organizational flaws.  Rather than beginning the work with an introduction, he does so with a lengthy review of scholarship.  This review of scholarship is thorough and accurate, but one finds strewn throughout it various comments introducing Fitzpatrick’s own arguments.  Such asides interrupt the flow of the chapter. The lack of a proper introduction to the work proves to be problematic for the latter part of the book as well, for it necessitates that the actual argumentation in chapters three through five double, in some sense, as introductory material.  This fact makes these chapters at times difficult to follow.  The argumentation in chapter four, especially, is less focused than one might like. 

Fitzpatrick’s work also suffers at times from a certain lack of methodological sophistication.  In the second chapter, he discusses the nature of myth, both in ancient Israel and more generally, and addresses such concepts as the “mythopoetic” and the “mythopoeic,” both of which are important to arguments presented in later chapters.  The author does provide a good review of the scholarship on myth in ancient Israel here, but inadequately deals with certain highly contentious issues—for example, the relationship between myth and cult/ritual.  While he does refer to certain non-biblicists, his citations are limited to very general works, such as The Encyclopedia of Religion, or scholars such as Eliade, whose phenomenological approach is very unpopular among anthropologists and religious theorists today.  Fitzpatrick seems unaware that his approach is at odds with that of more current religious and ritual theory, as exemplified by the work of Catherine Bell and others.

Although such weaknesses lessen the force of Fizpatrick’s reading, the interpretation of the Gog pericope he presents here remains quite interesting.  At the very least, Fitzpatrick offers in this volume a worthy alternative reading of a passage that many had deemed a perpetual interpretive crux, and for that he must be commended. 

T. M. Lemos,
            Yale University