1375 – 1050 B. C.
After the death of Joshua, the Israelites were without one main leader like they had had for all the years with Moses and then Joshua. Instead of following God and the ways that he had set forth, they entered into a period of political chaos, religious confusion, and moral compromise. Judges 17:6; 21:25 says “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
The people of Israel were finally dwelling in the land that had been promised them. They could never enjoy the full blessings of God, though, because they failed to completely drive out all the original inhabitants of the land. These people ultimately led them back into pagan worship and they forsook the Lord for the idols of the pagans.
As a consequence of Israel’s disobedience, the Lord gave his people into the hands of oppressors and plunderers. This was something that was meant to turn them from sin back to God. Most of their oppressors were local enemies from the border areas. The major powers that we would think of in the Near East were not yet of sufficient strength to engage in active domination of Palestine. The foreign oppressors whom God used to discipline his people included the Mesopotamians, the Canaanites, the Midianites, the Ammonites, and greatest of all the Philistines.
Once the Israelites recognized that they had backslidden so badly, God raised up judges to give leadership to his chosen people and deliver them from their oppressors. There are 12 Judges that are identified. They served in various regions of the land of Israel as the demand for their leadership arose. One geographical region where at least two of the judges were active was the Valley of Jezreel. It was an important region of northern Israel that we will examine in depth and then consider its relationship to the history of Palestine at this time in history.
The Valley of Jezreel
This broad, fertile valley is the only major gap in the great upwarp of Cenomanian limestone that extends from the Negev to the Lebanon Mountains. This name means “God sows” and it was taken from the name of a royal city that flourished there during the rule of Ahab (I Kings). It was also known by the Greek name of Esdraelon. Josephus called it “The Great Plain”. It is also popularly referred to as the “Valley of Armageddon” where the nations will gather for an apocalyptic battle in Revelation 16:16.
The Valley of Jezreel angles through the Cenomanian upwarp in the same direction as the Carmel range, which serves as its southwestern boundary. It begins about 10 miles from the Mediterranean coasts, and extends southeasterly from the plain of Haifa to the Jordan Valley. The portion of the valley between the ancient site of Jezreel and the Jordan is usually referred to as the Harod Valley, after the well-known spring that waters the region, mentioned in Judges 7: 1. Since no major mountains or any other feature separates these two valleys, they will be considered as one. So the total of the valley extends about 25 miles from the post-Biblical city of Beth She’arim to Beth-shean at the junction of the Jordan Valley. At its widest point south of the hills of Nazareth, it is about 15 miles wide. After the descriptions, there is a map that will show you the towns and terrain of the valley.
Rivers of the Jezreel
The greater part of the Valley of Jezreel is nearly level and lies about 150 feet above sea level. It is drained to the west by the Kishon River and to the East by the Harod. During Bible days, the Kishon was inadequate to drain the valley, particularly during the rainy season, when the river would become a raging torrent. Runoff from the surrounding mountains would turn the rich soil into a marshy quagmire and make the valley almost impassable. Travelers caught in a heavy rain might find themselves knee-deep in clinging mud.
To the east, the Jezreel descends toward the Jordan and passes below sea level near En-Harod, and ultimately reaches 500 feet below sea level at Beth-shean. The Harod then flows another 4 miles, dropping 250 feet before emptying into the Jordan River.
Mountains of the Jezreel
There are three important mountains that rise from this valley and break its continuity. Mount Tabor (1,843 feet) is a cone-shaped hill north of the valley, and is about 5 miles west of Nazareth. This mountain is mentioned in the Bible several times in the Old Testament. Though it is not mentioned in the New Testament, it has been traditionally associated with the transfiguration of Christ.
Mount Moreh (1,815 feet) lies about 5 miles to the south of Mount Tabor and is of volcanic origin. The “hill of Moreh” is mentioned as the campsite of the Midianites when they were attacked by Gideon and his army. At the foot of the hill to the north is the village of Nain, where Christ raised the widow’s son. Just a mile and a half northeast of the hill is Endor, where Saul met with a medium and requested communication with the long-dead Samuel.
Mount Gilboa (1,696 feet) is in the southeast of the valley. It is actually a small mountain range 8 miles long and 3-5 miles wide. Gilboa is a geological continuation of the hill country of Ephraim and the mountain is composed of Eocene limestone. Nowhere in Israel is there such a concentration of springs as are found along the northeast base of Mount Gilboa. The springs provide abundant sources for irrigating this area. The once royal city of Jezreel was situated on a western spur of the mountain. At the foot of the mountain to the north is “the spring of Harod”, where Gideon camped before his night attack on the Midianites. It was on the slopes of Mount Gilboa that Saul and his three sons met their deaths while fighting against the Philistines.
There is one other mountain that must be considered in relationship to the Jezreel Valley. Paralleling the valley to the southwest is the Mount Carmel range. This range extends 35 miles from near Haifa to the Dothan valley, which separates Carmel from the hill country of Ephraim. Mount Carmel reaches 1,790 feet at its highest point, but the range is sliced into three sections by the mountain passes linking the Jezreel Valley with the coastal plain. Each of these passages was guarded in ancient times by a fortress city. The passes are spaced about 8 miles apart. The central and most important of the three is Megiddo pass, where Josiah met Pharaoh Neco. To the northeast is Jokneam pass, and to the southeast is the Dothan pass. Each of these narrow valley and the cities that guarded them were strategically important for the control of the Jezreel.
Climate of the Jezreel
This valley is well watered, and averages 20 to 25 inches of rainfall annually. Mount Carmel, which is higher in elevation and nearer to the sea, receives between 30 and 35 inches at its summit. The valley is relatively open to the sea from the northwest and receives the cooling benefit of the Mediterranean sea-to-land breeze. July and August temperatures are around 80° F., with temperatures in January and February averaging around 55°F.
Economy of the Jezreel
The Jezreel has long been recognized as a rich and fertile valley. It has been estimated that the alluvial soil in the valley reaches depths of 330 feet. It served as the granary for Palestine throughout the biblical period. It was only after the Arab conquest in A. D. 634 that the Jezreel, due to neglect, became a malaria-infested swamp. Recent conservation efforts have returned it to its former productivity.
The most important factor contributing to the culture and economy of the Jezreel was the numerous travel routes that passed through the region. The mighty Via Maris highway passed right through the Carmel range at Megiddo pass and then angled between Mount Tabor and the hill of Moreh toward Damascus. From Megiddo, another important road went east to Beth-shean. A coastal highway extended northwest to Acre, Tyre, and Sidon. Those living in the Valley of Jezreel benefited enormously from the resulting trade and travel opportunities.
Below is a map of the valley with the mountain ranges and towns that populated it.
Below is a picture of the Jezreel Valley with Mount Gilboa shown in the distance. This will give you an idea of the actual size of the valley itself. This picture itself was not very good, so the picture is grainy. It will give you an idea, though.