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UW Religion Today: The Christian Memory of “Armageddon”

May 31, 2017
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By Paul V.M. Flesher

A T-shirt spotted on the street in Jerusalem said it all. On the back it read, “I survived Armageddon 2010.” 2010? Wasn’t Armageddon supposed to be the end of the world? It is now 2017; apparently, we all survived.

A glance at the T-shirt’s front clarified matters. It read, “Tel Megiddo Excavations.”

You see, the word “Armageddon” is a Greek attempt to render the Hebrew place name “Har Megiddo” which, in English, means “Mount Megiddo.” Ancient Greek manuscripts did not indicate the “H” sound, so the “H” was lost.

Megiddo is an ancient city located on the western edge of Israel’s Jezreel Valley. It was first occupied in the Chalcolithic period and, by the time the Israelites arrived in Canaan around 1200 B.C., the Canaanites had already lived there for more than two millennia. That is roughly 10 times the length of time the USA has been a country.

During that time, Megiddo became a “tell”: a human-built mountain created from centuries of building and rebuilding in the same spot, with new houses and buildings being placed directly on the ruins of older ones.

Megiddo was abandoned in the early sixth century B.C. By the time of Jesus, the first century, Megiddo and its surrounding territory had been without significant populations for more than half a millennium. This large hill overlooked a large valley and key nearby roads, but no nearby settlements.

This was the “Mount Megiddo” that found its way into the New Testament. In Revelation 16, it is designated as the site for the “battle on the great day of God the Almighty,” the final battle in this book’s highly symbolic narrative of God’s triumph over his spiritual and earthly enemies.

The passage recalls Megiddo as a place through which the world’s travelers passed and where armies frequently fought. Even though the city of Megiddo had been long abandoned, Revelation’s author identified these two characteristics with Megiddo. And, historically speaking, this is generally accurate.

Located on the Jezreel Valley’s west side, Megiddo guarded two passes that brought trade from the Mediterranean coast into the Jordan Valley and beyond. This was a west-east route that began in Dor (on the coast), crossed the mountains north and south of Megiddo, then traversed the Jezreel Valley to the ancient city of Beth Shean in the Jordan Valley.

This important trade route was heavily guarded by the Canaanites. When the Israelites settled the land, they were not able to conquer this route even though they controlled the territory to the south and to the north. At least that is what the books of Judges and Joshua state.

And, this failure caused the area of the Jezreel Valley in front of Megiddo to become such a battleground. Judges 4 and 5 relate two stories of a massive battle during which the Israelites seem to have finally conquered Megiddo, perhaps 150 or 200 years after their arrival. This timeframe roughly corresponds to the archaeological evidence indicating an Israelite presence on Megiddo’s tell.

Megiddo also was on an important north-south land route along the Mediterranean’s east coast. The northern end of the Carmel mountain range stretches down to the sea north of Megiddo where it makes travel difficult. Caravans and armies moving along the coast avoided it by cutting inland through the passes near Megiddo.

That is what happened when Pharaoh Necco brought his army north during the reign of King Josiah, whom the books of Kings present as a greater, more God-fearing king than either King David or King Solomon. As Necco’s army passed through the Jezreel Valley in front of Megiddo, King Josiah met him with the Israelite army to fight him.

Unfortunately, Josiah was killed during the battle, weakening Israel’s ruling class. Within two decades, his kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians who deported the royal family and the court.

So, the sense given by the New Testament’s book of Revelation that Megiddo is a crossroad of the world and place echoes the reality of the previous 1,200 years. This echo persisted despite Megiddo’s centuries-long neglect to resurface in Revelation’s spiritual symbolism of Christianity’s ultimate triumph delivered by God.

Flesher is a professor in UW’s Department of Religious Studies. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.


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