Visit the valley of Armageddon and be blown away

Valley of Armageddon  (photo credit: DAVID SMITH)
Valley of Armageddon
(photo credit: DAVID SMITH)

Armageddon. The word itself is awesome, ominous. The Apocalypse erupts, the forces of Good and Evil collide, and unbelievers are doomed. A battleground where the international highway between Mesopotamia and Egypt widened enough to accomodate armies, the list of warriors who fought in the Valley of Megiddo reads like a Who’s Who of warfare: Pharaohs Tutmose and Neco, Barak, Gideon, Sennacherib, Josiah, Saul, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Saladin, Turks, Brits and Israelis.

In contrast, the Jezreel Valley is comforting. Its name in Hebrew, "God sows,‘ promises full storehouses during the otherwise lean months. Understandably the scripture prophesies of Issachar, to whom most of the valley was given: ’Issachar is a raw-boned donkey lying down between two saddlebags. When he sees how good is his resting place and how pleasant is his land, he will bend his shoulder to the burden and submit to forced labor" (Genesis 49).

Given the contrasting connotations, newcomers are invariably shocked to find that the Valley of Armageddon and the Jezreel Valley are the same place.

SET IN A wide valley, the junction of several ancient routes, the tribe of Issachar wasn’t able to possess this coveted land, and was relegated to the hills while Canaanites occupied the fertile plain.

Such was the situation in the 12th century BCE, as Deborah, a judge and prophetess, called Barak to war against the Canaanites who had effectively cut off the Galilee tribes. Having better weaponry and being adept at the use of chariots, Canaan’s army had monopolized the valley.

Cyndi Parker, an expert on the physical settings of the Bible at Jerusalem University College, explains: "The northern tribes are being dominated by the King of Hazor; they’re being oppressed so that they’ve got to stay up in the hills, off the main highways. The Israelites have got be hurting economically and even politically, since they’re being cut off from the more powerful House of Joseph" [the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe].

Parker stresses that according to Deborah’s prophecy, the battle was to take place "at the River Kishon" (Judges 4). She explains that the Jezreel is a flat valley surrounded by the Carmel and Gilboa mountain ranges, as well as Mounts Tabor, Moreh and the Nazareth ridge — all of which force water into it.

"So the water of the Jezreel is drained only by the Kishon. With a flat valley and only one river draining it, in rainy season the Jezreel can get very swampy."

The winter muck of the Jezreel is aptly described by British archeologist and adventurer Gertrude Bell, who crossed the valley in the rainy season of 1905. "The mud was incredible. We traveled almost hours at a time knee deep in clinging mud. The mules fell down; the donkey almost disappeared; you could see nothing but his ears."

Camped at Haroshet HaGoiim ("plantations of the gentiles" — another reference to the land’s fertility), the Canaanite forces prepared to engage the Israelites at the base of Mt. Tabor.

According to Judges 5, the Kishon flooded suddenly, likely due to an abrupt storm. Consequently the chariots, previously considered a strategic advantage, became a hindrance. The mountain warriors descended from Mt. Tabor, an elevation they used to their advantage, rushing the bogged-down Cannanites and subduing them with the superior hand-to-hand skills they had honed in the mountains.

While the Israelites then had peace for 40 years, such lush property on a vital intersection was hard to secure. Judges 6 describes the Midianites "coming in as numerous as locusts‘ to take the land’s bounty and ’leave no sustenance for Israel." The Midianites, residing in (present-day) southern Israel, Jordan and western Saudi Arabia, would enter the Jezreel from the Beit Shean pass and scour the land as far as Gaza.

The judge Gideon mustered his men at the foot of Mt. Gilboa — a strategic place since Gilboa rises sharply from the valley, making it easily defended. It also gave Gideon a good view of the Midianites and their allies across the flatland at Mt. Moreh. Thirdly, Gilboa provided the only spring in the area not exposed to the enemy ranks.

Tens of thousands of soldiers reported to Gideon, who first released the fearful. About 10,000 soldiers remained, but God told Gideon this was still too many, "lest Israel claim glory against me, saying, ’My own hand has saved me’" (Judges 7).

Gideon was given instructions to further cull his ranks. The army was brought to the Harod Spring at the bottom of Gilboa so Gideon could observe how his soldiers drank.

Those who drank from their hand numbered 300, while the vast majority, who got on their knees to drink directly from the stream, were dismissed.

George Adam Smith, pastor, professor and 19th century historical geographer of the Holy Land, explains:

"Those Israelites, therefore, who bowed themselves down on their knees, drinking headlong, could not appreciate their position or that of their foe; whereas those who merely crouched, scooping up water with one hand while holding their weapons in the other and keeping their face to the enemy the whole time were ready against surprise.... What Gideon had in view was a night march and the sudden surprise of a host — tactics that might be spoiled by a few careless men."

The night march over the two miles to the Midian camp culminated when the Israelite army divided into three groups of 100, panicking the enemy by flashing torches, trumpeting and shouting "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!" But the sword was unnecessary, as hysteria spread among the easterners, causing them to draw swords on each other.*

The military positions were much the same a century later, when King Saul camped at the "spring of the Jezreel" (likely the Harod Spring) and the Philistines held Mt. Moreh. According to Parker, this was a continuation of Saul’s lifelong campaign against the Philistines who held the main roads and flat lands while he and his army occupied the mountains.

"Having Philistines in the Jezreel Valley means they’re powerful, controlling. They occupy the Harod Valley, Jezreel, MegiddoÉ this proves their strength. Again, the northern tribes are cut off from the southern tribes. Saul needed to break this stronghold. This is why a battle took place."

Parker speculates, "Saul probably already knew that God’s favor had gone from him to David. I think he knew was in an impossible position, and perhaps some of the resultant fear drove him to consult a witch."

Saul moved his doomed army to Mt. Gilboa, where the elevation and forest should have worked to the disadvantage of the flatlanders. But according to 2 Samuel 1, the Philistines used chariots, indicating they approached Saul from the gentle southern slopes rather than the stark northern cliffs. The tactic was successful; Israel’s king was mortally wounded and three of his sons killed.

MORE FOR ITS military than its agricultural usefulness, the Egyptians had valued the intersection on the international highway since at least 1450 BCE. Pharaoh Tutmose III, after marching up the Wadi Ara passage from the west to conquer a Canaanite coalition and take the valley, inspired his army by saying the capture of Megiddo "is like the capture of 1,000 cities."

In the seventh century BCE Pharaoh Neco marched his troops past Megiddo, where he was encountered by Judean King Josiah. Josiah, of whom the Scripture says, "Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord will all his heart, and with all his might É" (2 Kings 23), inexplicably refused to give Neco passage through the crossroads so essential to the Pharaoh’s drive to aid the crumbling Assyrian empire in its war against the Babylonians.

It is Neco who seems to speak for the Lord, according to the narrative in 2 Chronicles. Neco warns the Judean king not to interfere, as "God has commanded me to make haste."

Josiah, so mightily used by the Lord to tear down pagan altars and extend the kingdom of Judah through the former northern kingdom of Israel, was fatally wounded at Jezreel, like Saul before him.

Armageddon, Jezreel. So many kings have marched though it. Many came to the fertile terrain for harvest, others for conquest — all came to judgment. The Bible presents the valley as a litmus test of mankind: Judges Barak and Gideon, divinely guided, prosper; but self-willed kings Saul and Josiah perish.

Accordingly, regarding the "kings of the earth and of the whole world,‘ John reminds readers in Revelation 16 that on ’the battle of that great day of God AlmightyÉ he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue armageddon."