Friday, May 2, 2014

Masada ~ A Tragic Mystery

I've dreamed of visiting Israel for a long time. If I could get beyond my fear of flying commercial and had the extra finances I'd pack my bags and zoom over there this very moment. My mom has voiced her thoughts about my sanity or lack there of for wanting to visit a country known for terrorist attacks. Okay, to give my mom credit, I want to move there.

Yeah, so I should probably visit first. You know, just in case the place scares me. There are many places on my list of must sees, most of them in the area around the Dead Sea, especially Masada.

The ancient fortress, supposedly fortified by Alexander Jannaeus during the 1st century AD and later taken over by King Herod around 31 AD where a palace was built, sits overlooking the Dead Sea. Now, I say supposedly because I can't imagine this naturally fortified mesa sitting nearly 1300 feet high on its east side and 300 feet on the west would go unused by any military man with any kind of smarts. As it turns out I'm not the only one who thinks this.

Although Masada is never mentioned in the Bible, scripture just may back up this theory.

2 Samuel 23:14 And David was then in an hold, and the garrison of the Philistines was then in Bethlehem.

If you look at the original Hebrew word for hold you'll find matsud or matsuda. Masada, matsuda. They sound pretty close to me. Of course, Masada could have been named exactly that because matsuda means stronghold. Either way, as intelligent as David was, I'm sure he could see the wisdom of hiding at Masada. I anxiously wait for the day when archaeological evidence is found to support this theory.

Masada by Ppja GNU Free Documentation License
Anyway, back to what historians do know. Herod built a fortress on top of Masada. It was contained a synagogue and thermal bath chambers.

Having never been there, I can only imagine the enormity of the fortress. I'm in awe at the architecture, especially given the era it was built in. Not only was structurally sound having lasted all these years but just imagine the intricate details and the beauty of the stone work. Absolutely amazing!

Okay, back to the story. Sometime in 66 AD a group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii (dagger-men) ***I'm getting excited about all the stories that could be told*** took over the fortress. After the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD by Titus many more Jews joined the rebels at Masada.

The fortress had been well supplied with food, oil, wine, and weapons. Weapons enough for thousands of men. Man-made channels drew water from the valley below, filling cisterns. If there was any place in the known world to successfully stand against the Romans, this was it.

Masada Roman Ramp by David Shankbone
It wasn't until three years later in 73 AD that Lucius Flavius Silva  decided to siege to the fortress. He had his men build a ramp, which still stands to this day. When I say a ramp, I don't mean a wooden ramp like what we think of in today's terms, but a ramp made of earth.

The picture to your left is looking down from Masada. The massive ramp just shows the intense determination of Silva to capture the last of the Jewish rebels.

I wonder how the people inside Masada felt when they saw the Roman troops marching toward their fortress. I wonder what they thought when the realized the Romans were raising the ground to them. Were they confident the Romans would be stopped by the sheer mountain protecting them, or were they scared?

It seems the Sicarii fought against the Romans for a time. They threw stones at the workers building the ramp, at least until the Romans started using Jewish prisoners. What a dilemma; protect themselves by killing their fellow Jews or allow their fortress to be taken knowing the punishment they'd receive for rebelling against the Romans would not be anything good. Imagine the hearts of the Jewish captives who were forced to help against their own people.

What happened inside the walls of Masada is anyone's guess, but according to Josephus the Jewish historian who lived during this era, a man by the name of Eleazar led the Sicarii and when he saw that they were soon to be taken captive he rallied some of his strongest men and gave a speech.

  Since we, long ago, my generous friends, resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice. And let us not at this time bring a reproach upon ourselves for self-contradiction, while we formerly would not undergo slavery, though it were then without danger, but must now, together with slavery, choose such punishments also as are intolerable; I mean this, upon the supposition that the Romans once reduce us under their power while we are alive. We were the very first that revolted from them, and we are the last that fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God hath granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom, which hath not been the case of others, who were conquered unexpectedly.

He goes on to say,

Let our wives die before they are abused, and our children before they have tasted of slavery; and after we have slain them, let us bestow that glorious benefit upon one another mutually, and preserve ourselves in freedom, as an excellent funeral monument for us. But first let us destroy our money and the fortress by fire; for I am well assured that this will be a great grief to the Romans, that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies, and shall fall of our wealth also; and let us spare nothing but our provisions; for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for want of necessaries, but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery.
After these men killed their children and wives they cast lots among them. Ten men were chosen to kill the rest as they laid down beside their families. Among those ten, lots were cast again leaving one man to complete the task before killing himself. According to Josephus, a woman, long in age, along with five children, hid deep in the caverns, keeping them safe from the slaughter.

Some say it was a mass suicide, others say it was mass murder carried out by one man; Eleazar . Now matter the case it was a horrible tragedy, the motivation understandable given the circumstances.

So why, you might ask, would I want to visit this place? Why is it near the top of my must see list? I honestly don't know. Perhaps it's because I want to see with my own eyes how magnificent this place is that God created. Perhaps it's because, even though the end was tragic for the Sicarri, the beginning was courageous. These people wanted to serve God and Rome sought to demolish every bit of God from them. I pray I will always have the freedom to worship God without consequence. I pray I never have to make tough choices as these people had to make. In fact, I've been thanking God for the freedom to worship Him. Many of our fellow Christians throughout the world do not have that ability without dire consequences.

If you are interested here is Josephus' entire story on Masada.  Starting with Chapter Eight.

I leave you with this short video of Masada. I hope you can see the beauty in the ruggedness.


  1. Been to Masada twice and it is breathtaking! So well preserved in some of the sites atop the high plateau. You must go now that you've done all that research. sharon wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Oh, Sharon, I want to go so bad it's not even funny. I want to visit many places over there, but especially this place.

  2. Wonderful bit of history, Christina. Thank you. I, too, would love to visit some day.

  3. This was very interesting Christina. I wish it were safe over there for the Jews who are always in danger from their neighbor peoples. I fear that there will be consequences in our future from choosing to stay true to GOD.
    Maxie mac262(at)me(dot)com

  4. Very interesting Christina... Now I want to know more... off to do some reading. Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece of history.