William Paul Griffin

March 15, 1991

Mahanaim was a city in Gilead1 on the E side of the Jordan. Its first mention in the Bible is in the story of Jacob's departure from Laban. Mahanaim is next mentioned in Josh 13:26-30 as being on the border of Gad and Manasseh, and is called one of the Levitical cities of Gad in Josh 21:38.2 Mahanaim's prominence is mainly early in the monarchy, as recorded in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. Abner established Ishbosheth (Eshbaal) on the throne at Mahanaim (2 Sam 2:8f); David set up his headquarters there when he fled from his son Absalom (2 Sam 17:24f); and Mahanaim was the chief city of Solomon's seventh district. The only known ancient extra-biblical iron age reference to Mahanaim also provides the final information concerning the city. In the late 10th century BCE Karnak Relief, Pharaoh Shishak (Shoshenq) is credited with conquering the city, apparently in the same campaign which is mentioned in 2Kgs 14:25-28. After this point the historical references are mute.3



The site of ancient Mahanaim has not yet been positively identified, but three primary proposals have been offered:4 Khirbet Mahneh, Tell ed-Dahab el-Gharbi, and Tell Hajjaj.5 Robert Coughenour, who recently offered a detailed treatment of the subject, lists a few criteria which he considers a site identification should satisfy. It should:

1. be a double encampment or a twin- mound.

2. be in Gilead (in the area of Ajlun or Es-Salt).

3. "have architectural evidence of a substantial Iron Age city";

4. "have ceramic evidence dating at least to Iron I and possibly also as early as MB IIA;"

5. "be in a strategic location with a commanding view of the plain to the west;"

6. and be within a "12-hour trek" from Gibeon.6

When critiquing Tell Hajjaj he adds a seventh:

7. preserving the ancient name (which Tell ed-Dahab el- Gharbi, his choice, does not).7

Other criteria which have been suggested include:

8. close proximity to Penuel and the Jabbok;8 and

9. geographical agreement with Shishak's list.

Khirbet Mahneh

First, Khirbet Mahneh, just N of Ajlun, has been considered because of the correspondence between mhnym (Mahanaim) and the Arabic name Mahneh, which squares with the view that the Genesis account places Jacob N of the Jabbok when he was at Mahanaim.9 Khirbet Mahneh was first proposed in the 13th century CE,10 and often in the 19th and early 20th centuries,11 but by and large has been abandoned.12

Tell ed-Dahab el Gharbi


Early in this century Dalman proposed Tell ed- Dahab, located on the Jabbok, for Mahanaim,13 but his view was problematic and received much criticism until its dual nature was considered: Tell ed-Dahab is actually a dual site which flanks the Jabbok at a N-S crook, Tell ed-Dahab el- Gharbi to the W on the N bank, and Tell ed-Dahab esh- Sherqiyeh to the E on the S bank.14 The twin tells are seen to be representative of the dual form for Mahanaim, usually with Tell ed-Dahab el- Gharbi being Mahanaim15 and Tell ed-Dahab esh-Sherqiyeh being identified as Penuel.16 The dual site is also seen to explain Mahanaim's association with Penuel and the Jabbok in Genesis, while still being on the N side. Aharoni also says the site fits the David account in 2 Sam 19:

"The location of Mahanaim, in the deep canyon of the Jabbok, serves to explain how Ahimaaz the son of Zadok outran the Cushite [in bringing news to David concerning Absalom's death]: The Cushite took the more direct, but up-hill- and-down-dale route of the `forest of Ephraim,' whereas Ahimaaz ran by a longer, though much easier route passing through the Jordan Valley, and thus arrived first." (Aharoni, The Macmillan Bible Atlas 70).

Coughenour, who supports the proposal of Tell ed-Dahab el- Gharbi, sums up the evidence as follows:

"With its twin mound, Tell edh-Dhahab esh-Sherqiyeh, it is a `double' site. It is in Gilead at the southernmost end of the Ajlun area. It is adjacent to the Zerqa, and is accessible from both the east and west and from the north and south. Further, the site contains Iron Age sherds, and commands an excellent view of the Jordan valley and the plain leading up from the Jordan valley (Gordon, 1981: 4, 5; Gordon and Villiers 1983: 283- 84).

Coughenour adds more arguments based on a hypothesis that Mahanaim was the regional center of the iron industry from the time of Solomon to Jeroboam I. Tell ed- Dahab el-Gharbi is strategically located in relation to mines and other sites which contain iron remains in the area.17

Tell Hajjaj


R. de Vaux's proposal of Tell Hajjaj (a couple of miles S of Tell ed-Dahab)18 has won much support in recent years.19 De Vaux, criticizing the N-S Jacob theory, argues Jacob was moving from S to N at the time he passed Mahanaim, and that while Mahanaim must be near the Jabbok and Penuel (identified with Tulul ed- Dahab, it is also S (which eliminates Khirbet Mahneh and Tell ed-Dahab el- Gharbi).20 Coughenour lists Tell Hajjaj as "the strongest alternative...." to Tell ed-Dahab el-Gharbi.21


There are three main types of ancient evidence which have been used to identify the site of Mahanaim, usually in conjunction with each other: the Bible; Shishak's list; and the modern Arabic name. Before considering the above proposals I would like to reexamine the nature of some of the evidence brought to bear thus far, focusing on the Biblical texts. To put it bluntly, For what exactly are we looking?

First, Jacob's itinerary of his trip from Laban to Esau is seen by many to provide some details of Mahanaim's location.22 The details given are that Mahanaim appears to be S of an unidentified "Mizpah," (the boundary between Jacob and Laban [Gen 32:2]); presumably in the hill country of Gilead (31:21); and N of "Seir, the country of Edom" (Gen 32:3). It also appears to be N of the Jabbok (contra de Vaux), for chronologically speaking, Jacob crossed the Jabbok after naming Mahanaim (Gen 32:2,22). The dual form of the name is explained by the presence of a second camp of angels in the vicinity (Gen 32:2). The details, then, are fairly general. One final point from Genesis: it is possible that, while mentioning real places, the writer was not personally familiar with the territory and/or was not interested with geographical precision.23

The second set of texts are from Joshua. Josh 13:26-30 places Mahanaim on the border of Gad and Manasseh, E of the Jordan (i.e. somewhere in Gilead). Josh 21:38 (Heb 21:36) describes it as a Levitical city in Gad (along with Ramoth- Gilead) with pasture lands. Note that the two accounts in Joshua present Mahanaim's geo- political situation differently.24 The main details which can be seen are that Mahanaim was a Levitical city in Gilead,25 probably S of Ramoth- Gilead and N of Heshbon, since it is listed between the two.

Next we turn to the account of Ishbosheth in 2 Sam 2-4. Mahanaim was across the Jordan (2:29), presumably in Gilead (2:9); and within a day's walking distance from Gibeon (2Sam 2:29). No mention is made of its previous significance, either Levitical or otherwise. However, we may surmise some practical reasons for its choice by Abner for Ishbosheth. It was a fortified city in Israelite territory but safe a distance from Hebron; Saul's house had ties with Jabesh-Gilead, which would have meant that Ishbosheth was on friendly soil (especially if Mahanaim was N of the Jabbok and closer to Jabesh- Gilead than Tell ed-Dahab el- Gharbi [e.g. Khirbet Mahneh]).26

2 Samuel 17-19, David's flight from Absalom, provides the clearest description of the city itself-- although once again the details are sketchy. It was across the Jordan (17:22; 19:31-33), was fortified (18:24,33), and probably more easily accessed from the plain than by other routes (18:19-27). As in Ishbosheth's case, Mahanaim was apparently seen to be a fortified city which was at a safe distance from Hebron (and Jerusalem). 1Kgs 2:8 provides no details except to reiterate David's presence there when he fled from Absalom.

1Kgs 4:14 lists Mahanaim as the capital of Solomon's seventh district,27 which from the context places it across the Jordan in the region of Gilead.

The final passage is 1Chr 6:80 [Heb 6:65], which is a restatement of Josh 21:38- 39 and provides no new information: Mahanaim was a Levitical city in Gad (along with Ramoth- Gilead).

To sum up the Biblical data: Mahanaim was a city in Gilead, E of the Jordan, S of Ramoth-Gilead, N of Heshbon, and probably N of the Jabbok. It seems to have had two basic types of significance: as a Levitical city, and as a political capital. While its beginning is unknown (Jacob's naming does not necessarily signify the establishment of the city), it was inhabited at least until the times of Solomon, and from Shishak's list we may presume it was inhabited in Rehoboam's day.28 Little else is known.


I shall now compare the summary of the Biblical data with the criteria proposed by others (as outlined at the beginning of the essay).

1. Coughenour's article stresses the need for a double-site. However, the double-site theory is severely weakened by the etiology in Genesis, for a question remains: Why was it necessary to explain the dual name, Mahanaim?29 The answer must be that the passage focuses on a second site which was unseen at the time of the readers, the camp of God. I would propose that the reason an explanation was given is precisely because the nature of the dual name was not obvious, i.e. Mahanaim occupied a single site, not a dual one. If the site had been a dual site then the etiology would be neither necessary nor plausible.30

2. The requirement of Gilead stands.

3-4. Coughenour's argument that Iron I evidence is a necessity and that there should be fortifications from the same era is reasonable. However, it is possible that neither will be found except by the excavation of numerous sites-- and this is yet to happen.31

5. There is no evidence that Mahanaim had a "commanding view of the west," but just that people could be seen at a distance (2Sam 18:24f).

6. Being within a 12-hour trek of Gibeon is more problematic. First, the term btrwn, which has been translated ravine or forenoon, is a hapax legomenon. Second, his suggestion, Tell ed-Dahab el- Gharbi, could be seen to be out of range of another chronological criteria, if taken quite literally: its proximity to Hebron within an all night journey (2 Sam 4:7). Finally, the chronological requirement is vague at best and not much more specific than "in Gilead"; the difference between a 12 or 14 hour trek, especially depending on the fitness of the footsoldiers, could be by miles.

7. Preserving the ancient name works in the case of Khirbet Mahneh alone. If this is held then Tell Hajjaj and Tell ed-Dahab el-Gharbi are eliminated.

8. The close association of Mahanaim with Penuel and the Jabbok is not as apparent as is often supposed; only Genesis indicates any association with Penuel or the Jabbok, and even then the site could be miles N of both. While, literarily at least, Jacob's prayer, the sending of his family across the Jabbok, his wrestling with the angel, and the naming of Penuel occur within a 24-hour period, it is not clear that the "there" in Gen 32:13-- even literarily-- refers to Mahanaim; it could easily refer to a place further in his continuing journey.32 Jacob, the Jabbok, and his encounter with the angel are connected with Penuel, not Mahanaim. In addition, the fact that Penuel is named without any reference to Mahanaim weakens the close connection.

8-9. Aharoni makes use of Shishak's list in order to substantiate his identification of Mahanaim with Tell ed-Dahab el-Gharbi.33 His argument rests on at least three assumptions: (a) that the list presents an accurate historical picture; (b) that the list presents an itinerary, rather than a non-chronological summary of towns that were captured (or which surrendered); (c) that the grouping of Mahanaim with Penuel places the two extremely close together. However, even if the first assumptions are granted, the third does not necessarily follow. The attack on Mahanaim could have occurred miles N of Penuel. In other words, the itinerary theory could work as well with Khirbet Mahneh as with Tell ed-Dahab el- Gharbi.34 Second, while most consider the list to be an accurate historical record from the tenth century BCE, the anachronistic mention of Mittani indicates that the inscription contains an element of historical inaccuracy.35 Shishak's list, then, does little to support Aharoni's claims and provides little information except to confirm the existence of such a city, and probably during the late tenth century BCE.

10. While Coughenour's hypothesis of Mahanaim's relationship to the iron industry is possible, there is no indication of such in the Biblical text and thus the hypothesis is pure speculation. It could just as easily be argued that Solomon's choice of Mahanaim as a district capital was for similar reasons as those of David and Ishbosheth: its strategic situation, not its economic one.



I will conclude with a brief summary of the relationship of the proposed sites to the above analysis. In my view, the Jacob account, rather than being the most supporting of Tell ed-Dahab el-Gharbi, is actually the most damaging-- the etiology rules out a double site. If the Jacob story presents an accurate geographical picture, then the case for Tell Hajjaj is weakened, for it is S of the Jabbok. However, in contrast to the two sites just mentioned, Khirbet Mahneh once again becomes a serious contender for Mahanaim: the name Mahneh connects it with Mahanaim, it is in the proper area geographically, and it is a single site. In addition, if the supposed close connection between Mahanaim and both Penuel and the Jabbok is dropped, the case for Khirbet Mahneh is strengthened. However, it is quite possible that none of the three main sites under consideration are Mahanaim.

The Biblical data presents picture which is inconclusive in relation to the available external evidence. Unless more evidence is forthcoming, and until a number of sites within the 200 square mile area can be excavated, the best designation for Mahanaim will have to remain: somewhere in the territory which comprised the hill country of ancient Gilead, N of the Jabbok, S of Ramoth-Gilead, E of the Jordan, fortified, and settled during the proper era-- which only narrows down the choices to Scud accuracy.


1 Not to be confused with modern Mahanaim in N Israel.

2 So also 1Chr 6:80 [Heb 6:65], apparently a quote of Joshua 21, where it is referred to as a Levitical city.

3. Josephus translates the name for his Greek speaking audience and says it was E of the Jordan, but provides no new information.

4. Each with numerous spellings by different authors. The main detailed arguments for site identifications are by C. Hauser, "Notes on the Geography of Palestine," PEQ (1907) 284-5; R. de Vaux, "Notes d'histoire et de Topographie Transjordaniennes," Vivre et Penser [=RB] i (1941) 30-31; de Vaux, "Exploration de la Region de Salt," RB (1938) 411-413; G. Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways (1934) 238; Y. Aharoni, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (1968), and The Land of the Bible (1967); J. Simons, The Geographical and Topical Texts of the Old Testament (1959) 230-232; and R. Coughenour, "A search for Mahanaim," BASOR 273 (1989) 57-66.

5 D. Baly (Geography of the Bible [1974] 219-225) mentions Tell ar-Reheil as a site which has been proposed (without mentioning any arguments that have been offered), but I was unable to find anyone who specifically proposed this location. See also Coughenour "Mahanaim" 59.

6. Coughenour "Mahanaim" 58-59.

7 Coughenour "Mahanaim"59.

8 De Vaux "Notes" 30-31.

9 For Jacob N of the Jabbok, see Hauser 284-5; G. A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (1894) 586.

10 According to de Vaux "Notes" 30; and Coughenour "Mahanaim" 59.

11 Hauser 284-285, J. Gray, I & II Kings (1963) 134; according to Coughenour "Mahanaim" (59), Robinson (1865).

12 Reasons for its rejection are usually not too detailed. Without elaboration, de Vaux ("Notes" 30) states that "The identification with Khirbet Mahneh ... appears to me to be impossible." Coughenour says that "The ruin is not strategically located, nor has it yielded evidence from the appropriate periods."

13 Dalman 238. B. Mazar ("The Campaign of Pharaoh Shishak to Palestine," VTSupp 4 [1957] 61), who favors Tell el-Hamma for Penuel, also holds to Tell ed-Dahab without differentiating between the eastern and western sites.

14. Coughenour "Mahanaim" 60. For a description of the sites, see N. Glueck, AASOR 18/19 (1939) 232-235 (who on 234 criticizes Dalman's choice of the site for Mahanaim); and more recently R. Gordon and L. Villiers, "Tulul edh-Dhahab and Its Environs, Surveys of 1980 and 1983. A Preliminary Report," ADAJ 27 (1983) 275-289.

15 M. Noth, Das Buch Josua (1938); Aharoni Atlas, Land; M. Gichon, "The Defences [sic] of the Salomonic [sic] Kingdom," PEQ 95 (1963) 124.

16 De Vaux "Notes" 31.

17 For a report of Coughenour's exploration of the region (which focused on the ancient iron industry), see Coughenour, "Preliminary Report on the Exploration and Excavation of Mugharat el Wardeh and Abu Thawab," Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 21 (1976) 71-78, 186-189.

18 De Vaux "Notes" 30-31; "Exploration" 411-413.

19 M. Ottoson, Gilead: Tradition and History (1969) 127; M. Noth, Das Buch Josua (1953), and The History of Israel (1960) 183; J. Gray, I & II Kings (1970) 139; Baly; Simons 230-232, J. Soggin, "The Davidic-Solomonic Kingdom," Israelite and Judaean History (eds. J. Hayes and J. Miller; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977) 346; C. Houtman, "Jacob at Mahanaim: some remarks on Genesis 32:2-3," VT 28 (Jan 1978) 40.

20 De Vaux, "Notes" 29-33. For a description of the site, see de Vaux "Exploration" 411.

21. Coughenour "Mahanaim" 59.

22. It should be noted that whether one views the events in the narrative as historical or not is irrelevant for site identification; the plausibility of the story seems to rest on the factuality of the places mentioned.

23. The passage is laden with etiological folklore: the naming of Mizpah (Gen 31:49), Mahanaim (32:2), Israel (32:28), and Peniel/Penuel (32:30); and an explanation of why the Israelites "do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh" (32:32).

24 So also Coughenour "Mahanaim" 58.

25 Its association with Manasseh and Ramoth-Gilead may favor a northern-oriented site, but this is unclear.

26 An additional reason might have been to undo David's attempted influence on Jabesh-Gilead after Saul's death (2Sam 2:4-7; cf. Soggin 346).

27 Which is either unnamed or has Mahanaim as its name; so de Vaux, The Early History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978) 736.

28 Shishak's list indicates that it was inhabited during Jeroboam I's reign.

29 The explanation itself would better support a name like mhnh 'l (the camp of God) from Jacob's response to seeing the camp of God, not mhnym (two camps), for he said it was the mhnh 'lhym (Gen 32:2 [Heb 32:3]).

30 Simons (232) holds that "The Hebrew name `Mahanaim' does not necessarily require a twin ruin...", but my argument is against a twin ruin.

31 Concerning Tell ed-Dahab, Gordon and Villiers (284) state that "The preserved evidence of fortifications cannot be dated without excavation...."

32. Presumably it would have taken some time to send messengers to Esau and have them return.

33 Macmillan Bible Atlas.

34 It should be noted, though, that Aharoni's boustrophodon reading of the inscription (Land 283f; following Mazar)-- which is necessary if one is to posit the list as an itinerary-- is debatable. However, R. Giveon (R. Giveon, "Remarks on some Egyptian toponym lists concerning Canaan," in Festschrift Elmar Edel [eds. M. Gorg and E. Pusch; 1979] 135-6), who deals with the list somewhat differently, offers some support for the boustrophodon reading.

35 The Ancient Near East I 187.


Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible (1967).

______, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (1968) 70.

D. Baly, Geography of the Bible (1974) 219-225.

J. Bartlett, "Moabites and Edomites," Peoples of Old Testament Times (Clarendon Press: Oxford University Press, for the Society for Old Testament Study, 1973) 226-258 (252 n. 47).

R. Coughenour, "A search for Mahanaim," BASOR 273 (1989) 57- 66.

_____, "Preliminary Report on the Exploration and Excavation of Mugharat el Wardeh and Abu Thawab," ADAJ 21 (1976) 71-78, 186-189.

G. Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways (1934).

R. Dornemann, "The Beginning of the Iron Age in Transjordan, Studies on the History and Archaeology of Jordan I (ed. A Hadadi; Amman: Department of Antiquities of Jordan, 1982) 135- 140.

M. Gichon, "The Defences [sic] of the Salomonic [sic] Kingdom," PEQ 95 (1963) 124.

R. Giveon, "Remarks on some Egyptian toponym lists concerning Canaan," in Festschrift Elmar Edel (eds. M. Gorg and E. Pusch; 1979) 135- 141.

N. Glueck, AASOR 18/19 (1939) 232-235.

_____, AASOR 25-28 (1951) 100f.

R. Gordon and L. Villiers, "Tulul edh-Dhahab and Its Environs, Surveys of 1980 and 1983. A Preliminary Report," ADAJ 27 (1983) 275-289.

J. Gray, I & II Kings (1963).

_____, I & II Kings (1970).

C. Hauser, "Notes on the Geography of Palestine," PEQ (1907) 284- 5.

C. Houtman, "Jacob at Mahanaim: some remarks on Genesis 32:2-3," VT 28 (Jan 1978) 37- 44.

B. Mazar, "The Campaign of Pharaoh Shishak to Palestine," VTSupp 4 (1957) 57- 66.

M. Noth, Das Buch Josua (1938).

_____, Das Buch Josua (1953).

_____, The History of Israel (1960) 183.

_____, ZDPV 61, p. 283.

M. Ottoson, Gilead: Tradition and History (1969) 127.

E. Robinson, Physical Geography of the Holy Land (Boston: Crocker and Brewer, 1865).

J. Simons, The Geographical and Topical Texts of the Old Testament (1959) 230-232.

G. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1894).

J. Soggin, "The Davidic-Solomonic Kingdom," Israelite and Judaean History (eds. J. Hayes and J. Miller; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977).

R. de Vaux, The Early History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978).

_____, "Exploration de la Region de Salt," RB (1938) 398- 413.

_____, "Notes d'histoire et de Topographie Transjordaniennes," Vivre et Penser [=RB] i (1941) 16- 47.