Josiah, king of Judah, died from injuries sustained at Megiddo as a result of an encounter with the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II. On this point, all of our sources agree. There is also general agreement among scholars that this encounter occurred in 609 B.C.

Beyond these basic details, however, there is plenty of room for speculation. For example, we read in 2 Chronicles 35 that Josiah was gravely wounded at Megiddo while leading a military strike against Necho, who ruled in Egypt from 610 to 595 B.C. Two other sources—the first-century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus and the apocryphal First Book of Esdras—also refer to the fatal consequences of a battle initiated by the king of Judah. But the account of Josiah’s death found in the Second Book of Kings makes no mention of a battle: “In his days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. King Josiah went to meet him; and Pharaoh Neco slew him at Megiddo, when he saw him” (2 Kings 23:29). This version of the story has led some scholars to question whether Josiah ever led his troops into battle against the forces of Necho II. Perhaps, these scholars suggest, Josiah approached his Egyptian counterpart on peaceful terms, whereupon (for reasons not disclosed in the text) he was seized and subsequently killed, either by Necho himself or by individuals acting on the pharaoh’s orders.

But beneath this puzzle lies an even more fundamental mystery—a mystery that all four sources leave unsolved, namely: Why did Josiah go up from Jerusalem to meet Necho in the first place? In each of the three narratives that feature a military engagement, the Egyptian ruler tries to avoid a confrontation with the Judahite king, who has drawn up his troops at Megiddo. Sending messengers to Josiah, Necho insists that he has no quarrel with Judah. His battle, he says, lies elsewhere—on the Euphrates, where he intends to join forces with Assyria to make war against the Babylonians (2 Chronicles 35:21; cf. 1 Esdras 1:26–27). But Josiah refuses to back down. He leads his army into an unprovoked battle and pays for the decision with his life.

Why was Josiah so eager for a fight? Could it be that this engagement with Necho was his bold attempt to help the Babylonians deliver a deathblow to the reeling Assyrian Empire? By heading off Necho at Megiddo, Josiah would have denied assistance to the Assyrians, thereby diminishing the possibility that the moribund empire would recover its lost hegemony in the region. After all, the reform-minded king of Judah had already taken advantage of his recently acquired independence from the deteriorating empire by extending his own influence into Samaria, a region previously under Assyrian control.

Then, too, Josiah might have been suspicious of the pharaoh’s designs on territories in Syria and Palestine. Egypt already had a foothold in western Palestine; perhaps Josiah feared that Necho would go even further in his bid to fill the power vacuum created by Assyria’s decline. If this was the case, then Josiah probably felt that the time was ripe for a preemptive strike against the pharaoh’s armies. Necho had only recently come to the Egyptian throne, so it is possible that Josiah saw in the contest at Megiddo an excellent opportunity to test the strength of the inexperienced pharaoh—and possibly to gain control over some of Egypt’s holdings in western Palestine.

But what about the suggestion that Josiah never actually met Necho II in battle? We have seen that the account in 2 Kings 23 makes no reference to hostile intentions on Josiah’s part. So perhaps he went up to Megiddo for a strategic audience with the pharaoh. Or perhaps he felt the need to enter into negotiations with Egypt now that a new leader had risen to the throne. In any event, the laconic nature of the account in 2 Kings leaves open the possibility that Josiah went to Megiddo peacefully and with diplomatic, rather than military, goals in mind.

Still, no matter how we choose to resolve the mystery of Josiah’s motivations, the outcome of his trip to Megiddo in 609 B.C. remains the same: Judah lost its reformist leader and for a time was forced to pay Egypt a heavy tribute. But only for a time, since the day was fast approaching when all the vying powers in Syria and Palestine would have to bow before the gathering strength of Babylon.