For many hundreds of years, the balance of power in the Ancient Near East pivoted on a few square miles of the rugged Carmel Range. Practically speaking, anyone traveling from Egypt in the south, to Anatolia, Assyria and Babylonia in the north and northeast, had to skirt Mount Carmel or negotiate one of the three passes through the range. Of these, the most direct route went through the narrow middle valley, which opened at its northeastern end on the town of Megiddo and the fertile Jezreel Valley.
Megiddo’s exceptional location made it a site of conflict for the major and minor powers of the region. While Canaanite culture dominated Megiddo from the twentieth through twelfth centuries B.C., Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians and others had their turn at occupation. About sixteen historical battles were fought in or near the city over a period of 2,500 years before Christ. A hill rose from the plain as new cities built on the remains of the old. It is no wonder that the book of Revelation uses the hill of Megiddo (harmagedon, incorrectly transliterated “Armageddon” in some versions) to symbolize the spiritual war between forces of good and evil.
MAJOR EVENTS AT MEGIDDO
Archaeologists have dated one of the earliest recorded conflicts to 1469 B.C., based on a fascinating inscription from the Temple of Amun at Karnak. The record describes how Pharaoh Thutmose III (1490-1436 B.C.) marched his army up the middle valley, thus outguessing the Canaanite forces, which were waiting in the northern and southern passes. Enemy chariotry rushed to meet the emerging Egyptians, but Thutmose defeated them near Megiddo. However, he delayed his attack on the city, and had to lay siege for seven months before finally capturing Megiddo and putting it under Egyptian control. Campaign records repeatedly state: “The capture of Megiddo is the capture of a thousand towns.”
The first biblical reference to Megiddo comes around seventy years later. Joshua 12:21 lists the city’s king among those whom “Joshua and the children of Israel smote on this side Jordan on the west” (12:7). Yet the victory was incomplete. A few chapters later we read that the tribe of Manasseh, whose allotment included Megiddo, “could not drive out the inhabitants of those cities” (17:12). When the Israelites held the advantage, however, they exacted tribute from their beleaguered neighbors (17:13; see also Judges 1:27-28). Another two hundred years passed before Israel, led by Barak and Deborah, scored a definitive military victory in the Megiddo area (Judges 5:19). By the middle of the ninth century B.C., Megiddo had become an important administrative center in Solomon’s kingdom (e.g., I Kings 4:12; 9:15).
Israel’s glory soon dissipated with the dividing of his kingdom. Around 925 B.C.—barely five years after Solomon’s death—Pharaoh Shishak I reestablished Egyptian rule over Palestine. He looted the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 14:25-26) and then, according to an inscription at Karnak, turned north to conquer several cities, including Megiddo. This renewed a great tug of war between the superpowers. Assyria annexed Megiddo and the surrounding areas in the late eighth century, and deported many of its people to distant lands (2 Kings 17:1-6). But Assyrian power gradually declined, and in 609 B.C. Pharaoh Necho II marched northward to aid them against the rising Babylonians. Despite a warning from God, via Necho, to stay out of the fray (2 Chronicles 35:22), King Josiah of Judah attacked the Egyptians near Megiddo. The ill-advised attempt ended in failure and Josiah’s death (2 Chronicles 25:23-24). Sadly, this brought an end to his religious reforms, and the beginning of the end for Judah.
RECONCILING STONES AND SCRIPTURES
Despite the rich record of Megiddo in the Bible and in other ancient records, almost every aspect of the archaeological evidence is open to debate. Finkelstein and Ussishkin (1994), who are beginning a new exploration of Megiddo, hope to shed light on these issues. For example, they believe that a six-chambered “Solomonic gate” did not appear in Solomon’s time, although they see plenty of other evidence for Solomon’s building program (1 Kings 9:15). They hope also to investigate structures named “Solomon’s stables,” which some workers say were neither Solomon’s nor stables (see discussion by Currid, 1992). Others suspect that a fresh sifting of the rubble will reveal stables from Solomon’s era (Davies, 1994). While their existence would suggest that Megiddo was one of the king’s “cities for chariots, and cities for horseman” (1 Kings 9:19), the Bible nowhere states that Solomon built stables at this site.
Other questions are more serious. For example, in speaking of a mysterious destruction level in the late thirteenth century, Finkelstein and Ussishkin dismiss the idea that this had anything to do with the Israelites (1994, 20:40). “Incidentally,” they add, “the Bible gives no indication that Megiddo was conquered by the Israelites at this early period.” What they have in mind, of course, is the now-popular idea that the events of Joshua occurred much later than 1406 B.C. (contrary to the view of most conservative scholars). Hence, because the Bible admits that the Israelites failed to occupy Megiddo, and because the city experienced a major conflict in the late thirteenth century, then the invading Israelites cannot be responsible. However, if we begin with an earlier date for the conquest, then this destruction layer falls around the time of Barak and Deborah’s campaign. Although Scripture says nothing about their razing of the city, archaeological evidence is not inconsistent with conservative chronology.
What is interesting in this analysis is that seemingly trustworthy extrabiblical records also challenge the conclusions of archaeology. For example, Finkelstein and Ussishkin state that the Karnak account of Thutmose III’s campaign possesses “a dramatic reality” (20:31). However, Megiddo shows no signs of destruction in 1469 B.C., and no signs of a city wall to resist the pharaoh’s seven-month siege. Similarly, the signs of destruction are minimal or nonexistent around 925 B.C. when, according to another Karnak inscription, Shishak should have conquered Megiddo. In this case, however, archaeologists have found a stele at Megiddo honoring Shishak, which prompts Finkelstein and Ussishkin to suggest that the pharaoh conquered the city without destroying it (20:43).
With a basic trust in written records and archaeological data, we can learn an important lesson: destruction does not always follow a victorious military campaign. If that is true for Egyptian war stories, then it should hold true for accounts of conquest in Joshua and Judges. Indeed, there is ample reason to believe that the Bible is a reliable source of information on this period. It is unfair to expect a perfect overlap: archaeology may uncover some events unknown to Scripture, or Scripture may relate some events unknown to archaeology. Further, an apparent discrepancy between the two should not immediately bring suspicion upon the Bible. While stones and potsherds are valuable, the Bible always will provide the most accurate account of its own people.
Currid, John D. (1992), “Puzzling Public Buildings,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 18:52-61, January/February.
Davies, Graham I. (1994), “King Solomon’s Stables,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 20:44-49, January/February.
Finkelstein, Israel, and David Ussishkin (1994), “Megiddo,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 20:26-33,36-43, January/February.