The great Arab victory in the battle of Yarmuk (August, 634) did not immediately give them possession of western Palestine.
The remnants of the Byzantine army withdrew west, across the Jordan to the ancient city of Beth-Shan, known as Scythopolis under Roman rule. Beth-Shan occupies a strong defensive position on the crest of basalt flows at the foot of the Gilboa range. The east side, overlooking the Jordan, forms a three hundred-foot basalt cliff cut by narrow ravines. The Byzantines fortified the cliff and the north face of the city, and they diverted water flowing from Ain Jalud into the marshy lowlands of the Jordan valley north of Beth-Shan at the east end of the Vale of Esdraelon.
The Arab army settled down on the east bank of the Jordan to wait for summer to dry out the marshes. The Byzantines, however, chose not to wait for summer but to surprise the Arabs on their own ground. Their impatience got the better of them, and the Arabs inflicted a second defeat on the Byzantines outside the fortress of Pella in February, 635. The Byzantines abandoned Pella and Beth-Shan, leaving their inhabitants to surrender. The Moslem calendar commemorates the surrender as the Day of Beisan because it secured their control of the roads to Damascus and western Palestine.
Damascus fell to the Arabs in August or September 635. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius raised a new army in 636 and sent it to reclaim Syria. The Arab forces annihilated it in a second battle at Yarmuk. They then completed their occupation of the Judean highlands in 638 by negotiating the surrender of Jerusalem. The Day of Beisan thus entered Moslem history as the equivalent of the Day of Armageddon.
The Byzantine Empire inherited the province of Palestine after the division of the Roman Empire in 330AD. Eastern Christianity flourished there and the ancient battlefield of Armageddon lay quiet until the Seventh Century. Thirty years of warfare between the Byzantine and Persian Empires weakened both, allowing a new force, Islam, to emerge in Arabia, consolidate itself, and challenge both empires.
Persian forces under King Chosroes II invaded Syria early in the Seventh Century, bent on avenging recent defeats. Jews in Palestine and Syria rallied to the Persians, and a strong contingent joined the Persian division that marched south across the Plain of Esdraelon to attack the Byzantine stronghold at Jerusalem. Joined by Arabs and more Jews from southern Palestine, the combined force stormed Jerusalem amid great slaughter in July 614. Persians and Jews then ravaged Christian cities and buildings throughout the rest of Palestine, including Esdraelon.
The Jews hoped that the Persians would allow them to form a new commonwealth, but Chosroes merely raised their taxes until the return of the Byzantines after fourteen years. They did not stay long.
The year 570 saw the birth of Mohammed, the future Prophet of Islam, at Mecca. The house of his birth lay within half a mile of the Kaaba, an ancient shrine. Mohammed’s revered grandfather successfully defended the Kaaba from an Abyssinian attempt to destroy it in 570. Mohammed had a vision of the archangel Gabriel in 610 that changed his life. He began preaching three years later, but made slow progress until 620, when he began preaching to pilgrims to the Kaaba. By 622, seventy pilgrim converts pledged their support. From their refuge in Medina, the new Muslims began raiding the countryside, at first to support themselves, and then to make converts. They consolidated their control of the Arabian peninsula by in 630 by occupying Mecca and making the Kaaba the destination of annual pilgrimages.
Mohammed next turned his attention to the Byzantine Empire and led a bloodless expedition to Tebook that resulted in neighboring rulers making peace and paying tribute. He gave orders for a second expedition in 632, but died that June. A year of turbulence followed until Mohammed’s elected successor Abu Bekr reunited Arabia under his rule and resumed Mohammed’s policy of expansion. Within fifty years, the Arab Empire and Islam extended from the Atlas Mountains of North Africa to the Indus River of India.
Jerusalem surrendered to the Arabs during the winter of 637-638, following their victory over the Byzantines at Yarmouk in 636. This great victory won access to the Jordan Valley, the great Vale of Esdraelon, and control of all the routes south to Jerusalem. For the Byzantines, the Arab victory at Yarmouk was a disaster that led to the loss of their empire—an “Armageddon.”
What is the connection between Handel and Armageddon?
George Frederick Handel never went near that ancient battleground. He did, however compose an oratorio about Judas Maccabeus (1748), the hero of the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid kings of Syria, heirs to a portion of Alexander the Great’s empire. The Seleucids murdered Judas near Beth Shan, at the southeastern end of the ancient battleground.
The most famous chorus from Judas Maccabaeus is “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!” It’s a grand tune and still beloved in England. It’s such a grand tune that “The Conqu’ring Hero” fits it as well as a wagon hitched to a racehorse.
The Swiss hymn writer Edmond Louis Budry (1854-1932) noticed the disparity long before me and borrowed Handel’s chorus for his Easter hymn, “À toi la gloire, O Ressuscité!” Richard Birch Hoyle (1875–19390 translated the hymn into English in 1923 as “Thine is the Glory.”
Thine is the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son;
Endless is the victory, Thou o’er death hast won;
Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away,
Kept the folded grave clothes where Thy body lay.
Thine is the glory, risen conqu’ring Son,
Endless is the vict’ry, Thou o’er death hast won.
Lo! Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb;
Lovingly He greets us, scatters fear and gloom;
Let the church with gladness, hymns of triumph sing;
For her Lord now liveth, death hath lost its sting.
No more we doubt Thee, glorious Prince of life;
Life is naught without Thee; aid us in our strife;
Make us more than conqu’rors, through Thy deathless love:
Bring us safe through Jordan to Thy home above.
It’s safe to say that “Thine is the Glory” fits Handel’s chorus better than the original words. After all, did not Jesus Christ win a greater victory at Gologotha than Judas Maccabeus ever did. And is he not the ultimate victor in the apocalyptic battle against evil at Armageddon?
To quote from another oratorio by Handel, “The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth!”
Where is He, born in a stable,
Laid in a manger cut from rock?
Grown in grace, He walked among us,
Preaching a kingdom built on rock.
Where is He who walked among us,
Preaching a kingdom built on rock?
They took Him, tried Him, and flogged Him,
Nailed Him to a cross set high on rock.
Where is He whom they took from us,
Nailed Him to a cross set high on rock?
We took Him down before nightfall,
Borrowed a tomb dug deep in rock.
Where is He who suffered for us?
Lying in a tomb hewn from rock?
Death could not keep Him from us:
Risen, He lives and reigns: our Rock!
* * *
Jesus and the Widow of Nain
We don’t habitually associate the life of Jesus with Armageddon, the Greek name given to the Plain of Esdraelon that is the scene of the apocalyptic battle and final overthrow of evil in Revelation. 16:16.
Nazareth actually sits in a range of hills bounding the north side of Esdraelon, which is not a single plain but several separated by low ridges. Jezreel occupied one, and Nain and Shunem lay two miles away (as the crow flies) on the north and south flanks of another, the Hill of Moreh, which is separated by a four-mile wide valley from Mt. Tabor. Part of the Philistine army camped there when they came to fight King Saul at Mt. Gilboa, on the south side of the valley of Jezreel. Shunem was the home of Elisha’s patroness, whose son he brought back to life (2 Kings 4:8-37).
The hills of Lower Galilee bound the northeast side of Esdraelon, and Nazareth lies about six miles northwest (as the crow flies) on the north face of one of these hills. To approach Lake Galilee ( about 15 miles east of Nazareth, Jesus would normally follow the trail down the Turan Valley. His visit to Nain (Luke 7:11-17) follows his first circuit of the west side of the lake, ending at Capernaum (Luke 7:1-10).
Luke does not explain Jesus’ itinerary or reasons for visiting Nain during a funeral procession. Luke says, simply,
As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry” (verses 12-13).
As we near the end of this Holy Week, Jesus’ concern for the widow appears prophetic. He did not wait to be asked to intervene. He immediately comforted the widow and revived her son with a command.
We can imagine that Jesus thought of his own mother, now widowed and soon to lose him. He knew about the plight of widows in those days—destitution threatened them if they lacked sons. Jesus did not always do as his mother wished, but he did not disappoint her at the wedding in Cana or in the hour of his own death. Just as he provided wine for the wedding, so he appointed a guardian for his mother.
Luke’s brief account of Jesus’ skirmish with death in a corner of the historic battlefield of Armageddon bears a lesson for the end of this solemn Holy Week. His Kingdom, which is not of this world, will disappoint our worldly expectations. Nevertheless, he is the steadfast hope who will not disappoint us, leave us, or forsake us.
Great is the mystery of faith:
Christ has died;
Christ has risen;
Christ will come again!
The First Jewish War, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 AD, began as a case of civil unrest–nothing new during Roman rule. This time turbulence got so out of hand that all Judea fell into a state of lawlessness that threatened to spread to Egypt. When the Roman governor Florus left Jerusalem in 66 AD, a mob captured the Antonia fortress. Other rebels stormed Roman outposts, including a garrison at Mt. Tabor and Herod the Great’s fortress at Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea. The Roman governor of Syria, Cestius had to intervene in order to protect Roman interests and collect taxes.
Cestius himself was ineffective and his troops were more trained for war than peace-keeping and police duties. The 12th Legion’s tactics, moreover, were ill-adapted for guerilla warfare. Cestius botched his assault on Jerusalem and Jewish guerillas mauled his legion to pieces during their retreat.
Cestius’s failure gave the Jews time to organize their resistance, and they set up military districts thoughout Judea. They consolidated their defenses by the time Nero appointed his best general, Vespasian, to take command. Vespasian took his time to assemble three legions at Ptolemais before marching inland. He deployed screeens of lightly armed auxiliaries to clean out ambushes ahead of his advance guard and the legions. A rear guard of cavalry and infantry prevented guarilla attacks from the rear. Vespasian proceeded systematically across Galilee.
While laying siege to Gamala on the east side of Lake Kinnereth (Galilee), Vespasian dispatched a cavalry detachment of 600 up the Vale of Esdraelon to scout the situation at Mt. Tabor, which rises above the southeast end of the ancient battleground of Armageddon. It’s plainly visible across the valley of Esdraelon from Mount Carmel. A larger force of Jewish rebels occupying the Roman fort on Mt. Tabor prepared for battle. Placidus, the Roman commander, invited the rebels to meet him and make a truce that would spare their lives.
The rebels answered by pouring downhill to attack the Romans. Placidus feigned a retreat and drew the rebels out into the open plain, where his counter-attack cut off the rebels’ retreat and slaughtered those who did not surrender. The rebels had forgotten the example of Deborah and Barak when they defended Mt. Tabor from Sisera’s army and waited for Sisera’s vaunted charioteers to get mired in the muddy valley before attacking.
Jewish rebels did not give up elsewhere in Judea. The Romans needed another three years to subdue Jerusalem and three more to capture Masada. The defeat of the Jewish rebels at Mt. Tabor was therefore by no means their #Armageddon, but it was a part of the beginning of the beginning of the fall of Jerusalem. Secure in their control of the valleys of Jezreel and Esdraelon, the Roman war machine advanced on Jerusalem from the north by the highland route.
The existence of the Roman fort on Mt. Tabor, confirmed by archeology, makes it unlikely that it was the Mount of Transfiguration, as claimed by some traditions. The geographic background details in Mark’s gospel make it much more likely that the Transfiguration of Jesus occured on Mount Hermon.