Few words evoke such strong feelings of terror, dread, and pain as Armageddon. We envision asteroids colliding with Earth, sea levels rising to Lady Liberty’s chin, machines exterminating us, and aliens nuking our cities. In our vernacular it means Doomsday. Dystopia. End of the world. Fire and brimstone. Apocalypse Now. (Thanks, Hollywood.)

But for all that notoriety, the word Armageddon only appears one time in one primary source. It is in the last book of the New Testament, called the Revelation of Jesus Christ: “And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon” (16:16, NKJV). Every other instance of its use is derivative.

For many hundreds of years, readers of the Revelation have longed to know more about the prophecies within John’s letter. This single verse contains many unknowns: Who are “they,” and who (or what) are being gathered together? Are “kings” gathering their “forces”? Are “evil spirits” gathering the “kings”? (The Greek itself is unclear because the pronouns have no clear antecedent.) And where is this otherwise-unmentioned Armageddon?

Although the location of Armageddon was debated by some Early Church Fathers, most people agree today that Armageddon corresponds to the Old Testament city of Megiddo. John’s spelling of Armageddon in the letter agrees with the Greek spelling of the word Megiddo in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible from c. 300 BCE that is quoted by Jesus Himself in the Gospels and was used by John and other Jews and early Christians in the first century).

In the Old Testament, we read about Megiddo as a Canaanite city eventually conquered by Joshua (Joshua 12:7, 21), as one of Solomon’s great military cities (1 Kings 9:15), and as the place where kings Ahaziah and Josiah were killed in battle (2 Kings 9:27; 23:29). It is later mentioned in a prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction (Zechariah 12:11). All of these references and stories describe a well-fortified city that was often involved in wars.

Archaeology agrees that Megiddo was an important city in the ancient world. It was located at one of the few passes through the Carmel mountains, and it was part of Via Maris trade route connecting Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. It sat 60m above the surrounding valley, so inhabitants could easily see approaching armies or traders. For these reasons, everyone wanted Megiddo. The city’s name appears in the records of all of Israel’s neighbors’ war annals, and excavations have found many destruction layers that correspond to written descriptions of the city’s invasions. Megiddo was famously war torn.

Eventually the name of the place called Armageddon became conflated with the world-ending battle that will happen there (much as the word Waterloo now means a “decisive defeat” because of Napoleon’s famous loss near that Belgian city). Armageddon means “world annihilation” to most of us today, thanks to popular culture and centuries of widespread misuse by arm-chair apocalypse enthusiasts. But that definition isn’t accurate; it is simply the name of a place. We do well to remember that what we say about the Bible is not and never will be Scripture.

Armageddon will be the place where the final battle occurs, as it was the location of so many critical battles in the past. That is all the Bible tells us!

Esau’s Lost “Death-right”

Today’s Western Christian culture has a habit of using Bible stories to justify rules and traditions humans have created. This is ironic, as Scripture describes how God Himself habitually violates societies’ expectations in the advancement of His Kingdom. One tradition He frequently ignores (especially in the Old Testament), is our law of primogeniture (the idea that the firstborn inherits all or most of his father’s estate). God has a habit of exalting and favoring younger brothers (whether or not we think they deserved such special treatment!).

The Cenotaph of Jacob at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

In Genesis 25, twin brothers Esau and Jacob are born to Rebekah. Esau enters the world first, but under the prophecy that “the older shall serve the younger” (v. 23). What follows are stories of how Esau sells his inheritance to Jacob for a bowl of lentils (v. 29-34) and then misses his father’s deathbed blessing when Jacob and his mother conspire to steal it (Gen. 27).

We can’t help but feel sorry for the twice-duped Esau, the firstborn who was the favorite of his father, Isaac. He wasn’t perfectly innocent–he had married two Canaanite wives (which would have mortified his dead grandfather, Abraham)–but the way he is outwitted by his mother and “weaker” brother feels unfair, mostly because it is easy to miss that he and Isaac had conspired to do the exact same thing to Jacob.

In the Old Testament, fathers on their deathbeds called all of their sons to their sides for blessings, but Isaac only called Esau (27:1-4). Isaac seems to be playing favorites, attempting to circumvent the prophecy, and cutting Jacob out of any blessing. Esau goes along with Isaac’s plan enthusiastically! It is only because Rebekah overheard Isaac’s plan (27:5) and outwitted him that Esau was left with nothing.

A deep exegetical study of these stories reveals that not one of these four family members is perfect or heroic, and no one escapes the negative effects of his or her actions. It also shows how God–once again–overturned human convention to exalt Jacob no matter where he came from or when he was born. The stories aren’t in Genesis to exemplify justice but to explain why the prophecy of 25:23 was necessary.

Esau did okay for himself. He married a third woman (a daughter of Ishmael of whom Abraham would have approved), and he made peace with Jacob (Gen. 33). He became the father of the Edomites (Gen 36), a sometimes-friend sometimes-foe of Israel. Then he disappeared from Scripture–but not tradition.

The cenotaph honoring either Joseph or Esau.

According to Jewish tradition, Esau’s frustration with Jacob did not end in Genesis 33. In a midrash (which is ancient, revered Jewish rabbis’ commentary about Scripture), Esau challenged the sale of his birthright as Jacob’s body was being interred in the Cave of Machpelah with his parents’. Read the story in Sotah 13a:7-10:

Once [Jacob's sons] reached the Cave of Machpelah, Esau came and was preventing them from burying Jacob there. He said to them, "It says: 'And Jacob came unto Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiryat Arba, the same is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned.'" . . . Esau said, "Jacob buried Leah in his spot, and the spot that is remaining is mine."
     The children of Jacob said to Esau, "You sold your rights to Jacob."
     Esau said to them, "Though I sold the birthright, did I also sell my rights to the burial site as an ordinary brother?" 
     The brothers said to him, "Yes, you also sold to Jacob those rights, as it is written that Joseph stated: 'My father made me swear, saying: "Behold, I die; in my grave that I have dug for me in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.”'"
     Esau said to them, "Bring the bill of sale to me" [i.e., you can’t prove your claims]. 
     They said to him, "The bill of sale is in the land of Egypt, and who will go to bring it? Naphtali will go, for he is as fast as a doe, as it is written: 'Naphtali is a doe let loose, he gives goodly words.'”
     Hushim, the son of Dan, was there and his ears were heavy [i.e., he was hard of hearing]. He said to them, "What is this that is delaying the burial?"
     And they said to him, "This one, Esau, is preventing us from burying Jacob until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt with the bill of sale."
     He said to them, "And until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt will our father’s father lie in degradation?" He took a club and hit Esau on the head, and Esau’s eyes fell out, and they fell on the legs of Jacob. 
     Jacob opened his eyes and smiled. And this is that which is written: “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.”

This gruesome story (and subsequent slightly different versions of it) began the legend that Esau’s head–and only his head–rests in the Cave of Machpelah with his brother and ancestors. It is honored with a cenotaph on the synagogue-side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

However, the very Muslims who constructed that cenotaph in the late 14th century disagree about whom it memorializes. Islamic traditions hold that Joseph’s body was removed from Shechem and reburied in Hebron’s Cave of Machpelah.

Learn more about the Tomb of the Patriarchs by listening to S2E9 of my podcast!

When Truth and Tradition Collide

Since my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow. There are some questions everyone asks me, such as, “How did you come up with that title?” Around Christmas time, everyone wanted to talk about the not-a-barn where Jesus was born, and a particularly fun interviewer wondered what kind of music I choose when David isn’t in the car.

At some point in every interview–often after some levity and laughter–the host gets serious and asks me, “Why did you write this book?” That should be an easy question, but I break into a sweat every time I start to answer because it is impossible to edit my life into a five-second sound bite. (Or an entire blog post, as it turns out!)

I was a “good kid.” I grew up in the Bible Belt and experienced Believer’s Baptism twiceat ages 8 and 9–because my family switched denominations. From the fourth grade, I attended church Sundays and Wednesdays, did my “quiet time” every night before bed, and followed every rule every day. Such societal structures reinforced my Type-A personality, set me up for academic success, and gave me a constant awareness of and connection to God.

My spiritual foundation was first shaken in my late teens. I took religious studies courses at Rhodes College, and for the first time I was learning from people who did not believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God–but who knew more about it than any Sunday School teacher I’d ever met. In my first semester, my eyes were opened to everything that is “wrong” with my beloved Bible, all the contradictions, textual errors, and historical inaccuracies.

For the next several years, I described my faith as schizophrenic. In class I was learning and regurgitating biblical facts that threatened to undermine my biblical faith. Many of my classmates abandoned Christianity as they learned there was no apple in Eden, Moses parted a reed sea, Jericho was destroyed long before Joshua got there, Goliath (probably) wasn’t nine feet tall, there is no whale in the Book of Jonah, and Jesus was three years old when the Wise Men showed up. But I still had my quiet time every night in my dorm room. My faith in God never wavered, although my understanding of Him did.

After four years of keeping my academic side separate from my spiritual side, a conservative Jew put me back together. While studying Exodus 19 (where Moses goes up and down Mt. Sinai umpteen times with the speed of The Flash), Dr. Schultz highlighted all the places the Hebrew text repeats itself. The class already knew he would say the copied lines are evidence of multiple authors being involved in the creation of the text, but we didn’t expect him to then use those so-called errors as evidence in favor of God’s presence in the creation of the chapter.

His logic was simple: no writer or editor would ever “make the mistake” of including contradictions, errors, or inaccuracies in the final version of any text, let alone a divine one. There’s no way the thousands of scribes who followed them would then leave the “mistakes” uncorrected. God must be responsible.

This is a bold stand for a PhD to make because the first question anyone would ask him is, “Why did God do that?” No matter how many theories anyone ever proposes, the answer will always be, “I don’t know.” And that’s an uncomfortable statement for any human.

Maybe there’s a little Type-A in all of us. We like to know what is true and what is false. How things work, and why things happen. To that end, we humans might prefer that God have an annual conference call with all of us where He answers questions, gives instructions, and maybe chastises those who disagree with our personal opinions.

But that isn’t how God has chosen to interact with us. He is a God of relationships. He wanted to walk with us in the Garden of Eden forever; He did walk with us for awhile two millennia ago. He wants us to know Him, and that means reading His words, spending time on the hard parts, discussing them with Him in prayer, and debating them with others in fellowship.

Sadly this very quest for truth and the heart of God can lead to dissension in the churches. We must hold lightly to our own revelations because the stubborn adoption of one human’s idea over another’s causes denominations to divide. These Christians  insist those Christians aren’t Christians. A nine-year-old girl wonders why a dunk is better than a sprinkle when she knows her God hasn’t changed.

God wants us to study His word for ourselves, but remember that the mystery is in the text by His design. It helps us to keep coming back to discover more about Him, and as we know Him better, we want to share Him more. So that is why I wrote my book(s): I love God and His Words, and I want to share that with everyone. I want people to know they are as empowered to study the word of God as any theologian, and that it is okay to ask questions of His text and our traditions. (He can take it, and the church needs to be more self-reflective anyway!)

In time we will all be right and wrong about nonessentials, but disagreement must not divide us. As Jesus said, we are to

“Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes. (Matthew 22:37-40)