Masada: A Story of Desperation and Death Before Dishonor

One of the most fascinating places we went to in Israel is the Desert fortress Masada, located about 20 km east of Arad overlooking the Dead Sea. Statistically it is one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on its historical value. It is striking in both its location and its history.

Built by Herod the Great from 37-32 BCE, this remote palace and fortress seems like it would be impregnable. After visiting Israel, one of my most vivid impressions is connected to why the king known for his vindictive paranoia was called “the Great”. But when you take into account all that Herod built and accomplished, I’d have to say he may have been the third greatest King of Israel, after David and Solomon. Certainly his legacy as a builder was unrivaled except perhaps by Solomon. He is famous for the grand scale of the Second Temple, but he also built extensively in Jerusalem and in Judea. He built the port of Caesarea Maritima using huge innovative concrete blocks to create a harbor. He also built the pagan city of Sebaste and eleven remote fortresses such as Masada, Herodium, Alexandra, and Hyrcanium. Each fortress contained a palace where Herod and his family could escape if there was a revolt against him, and contained living quarters, storehouses, bath houses and all the amenities. He died in about 4 BCE, and some of his projects (like the Temple) were finished after his death.  His accomplishments as a builder were impressive, and Masada is still an impressive testimony to that.

During the Jewish rebellion against Roman occupation that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, a group of Jewish zealots took Masada in 66 AD and slaughtered the Roman garrison there. It was one of the earliest acts of rebellion by the zealots and  the beginning of several years of Judean revolt against Rome. The 900 some-odd defenders held Masada for six years, even as Jerusalem was besieged and laid waste. The rebels were able to live on Masada because of the huge cisterns used to catch rainwater during the infrequent storms. We had the opportunity to go down into one of the cisterns, and the sheer scale of it may give you some idea of how well Masada was built and how uniquely it was provisioned to support a group determined to stay in the fortress.

The Romans, busy destroying Jerusalem, were for awhile content to build a wall around the base of the mountain to keep any rebels from escaping. Remnants of their wall and encampments are still visible from above.

But Rome did not preserve its Empire by tolerating rebellion. In 72 AD they laid siege to Masada and over a few months built an earthwork ramp with a gradual grade to take a battering ram to the wall. In the Spring of 73 they completed the access and took as many as 15,000 men to go in against the 960 defenders. The ramp they built is still visible from atop Masada today:

I can’t imagine hating someone so much and being so ruthless that you would commit vast resources and troops to kill men, women and children you had already trapped and contained, but that’s how Rome did business. Imagine being in Masada with your families, watching the hated Romans get closer to your position every day. Imagine feeling hope slip away, and of coming to grips with the certainty that not only were your going to die (which may have at least provided some honor to the men), but you knew your wives and daughters would be brutalized and raped; your children, if spared, would know only a hard life of servitude and slavery. Imagine facing the inevitable, and having to make choices based on those incredibly limited options. When they breached the wall, the Romans found only two women and 5 children alive. Everyone else on the mountain was dead. The women then told how the men, led by Elazar, drew lots to see which of them would perform the ultimate service by killing the others and thus spare them the brutality of rape, torture, and enslavement to the Romans.

Elazar, in his final speech to his fellow zealots, said this: “Since we long ago 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… We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.” The men of Masada exercised their courage to protect their families in the only way they could imagine, and removed them from harm’s way by making the ultimate sacrifice.

Paul may have displayed a bit of that same spirit when he said in Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast, therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made you free, and be not entangled again with the yolk of bondage.” He was talking about being totally committed to freedom in Christ instead of walking in legalism, but his intensity of commitment is the same, and he is exhorting us to exercise Grace with the same sense of desperate devotion later shown by the rebels. When it comes to sin, don’t give in.

I will remember Masada, with its palace and its dusty walls and its deep cisterns; but I will also remember the rebels who died there, proud and free, honor intact.

 

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