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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The Garden: Why It Stands Out in a Week Filled With Meaning and Connection

Matthew 26:36 “Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here in the garden while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

When people know that I just got back from Israel, they always ask, “What was your favorite place?” And because we experienced so much in such a short time, that is really a tough question to answer. We saw a synagogue in Magdala where Jesus may have preached; we sailed upon the Sea of Galilee. We explored Masada, with its grim legacy of freedom. We floated on the Dead Sea. We visited the Holocaust Museum. We saw Oskar Schindler’s gravesite, and sat on the hillside where Jesus may have preached the Beatitudes. We were at the Syrian border, standing in trenches just down from the UN observers. We saw the lush water garden at Dan, and dipped our toes in the Oasis of Ein-Gedi, where David hid from Saul…

We visited the Israel Museum, went to a laser light show one night at the Tower of David, and we prayed at the wailing wall. We got baptized in the Jordan River, and we went inside the empty Garden Tomb. As I recounted in an earlier blog, we had life-changing encounters at the Holocaust Museum and at Rachel Bluwstein’s grave. We saw Holy sites within ornate churches and walked the Via Dolorosa. We even saw Prince William from a distance of about 15 feet!

We saw all of those things and more, and experienced everything from tourist fare to Holy ground. But my favorite place was perhaps one of the quietest and least ornate. We went into the Hermitage next to the Garden of Gethsemane and spent an hour reflecting on the betrayal of Jesus, and on his garden prayer. As we looked out from the Mount of Olives to the Old City, we wondered how his best friends could not pray with him for even one hour. How could they have DONE that on such a night?! Peter, James and John swore to be loyal to Jesus and yet they left him alone in his most difficult trial. They could have been connected to Jesus, but they lost their focus and did their own thing. They allowed something merely physical to disrupt a unique opportunity to be spiritual there in the garden…

Guess what? We all do that every day. Before we judge the disciples too harshly, try to pray for an hour before you fall asleep on any normal day. Try to live spiritually when you are tired or hungry or impatient. Try to put Jesus first.

Two things: don’t forget that when he was all alone in the Garden, Jesus prayed for you and me. He thought about us, and in John 17:20 He asked His Father to give us unity and security in Him. Tonight before you fall asleep, claim that.

Second, take a moment and reflect on how often we forsake Jesus for something physical. To me, the amazing thing about the garden was that even on the night he was betrayed, he: Never. Betrayed. Us. Spend a moment to read his prayer in John 17 and see if it doesn’t inspire you to want to pray like he did. As I sat there overlooking the Old City, I rediscovered how far I fall short, how selfish and unspiritual I am, and how grateful I am for a Savior who completed his mission no matter what.

Where, Lord, in Gethsemane did you lay down and pray?
Where did Judas lead the guards to come take you away?
We know that in 2000 years no man has found it yet,
The place you prayed in agony, with tears and blood and sweat…
I’m sitting on the Mt of Olives, looking at the Dome,
Feeling like a pilgrim who will soon be going home.                                                     Just like John and Peter in the garden, I regret
The many times I fail to pray with you, or just forget–
Knowing that you sat near here the night you were betrayed,
Alone because not even one of your disciples stayed…
Jesus help me in my weakness pray the way you prayed.

To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread
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The Guide Who Was More Than a Guide, On the Tour that Was More Than a Tour

If you are going to travel in another country, it helps to have an interpreter or guide to help you find your way. When you travel in Israel you are challenged by the diversity of cultures, by the multiple layers of history dating back to ancient times, by the influence and juxtaposition of three major world religions and by the volatile political climate. In order to navigate such a complex set of conditions, you’d need a guide who understands the land, its people, its religions, and its history. You would require a guide who could work in several languages and who could move seamlessly through the multiple layers of culture and tradition.

This guide would need to understand the Biblical perspective of both the Jews and Christians, and have the ability to relate events in the Bible to geography and archaeology without being overbearing or condescending. Such a guide, were he or she to exist, would need to be practical, aware of logistics and trip details; they would need to be scholarly, aware of the Bible and what it says; they would need passion to relate to the depth of feeling such a trip incurs; and it would help if they were artistic, able to discuss Hebrew poetry and music in such a way that it brings the Old Testament alive to Western pilgrims. They would need to convey Israel’s journey, from the early Zionist movement to the latest political events, with an intimacy and familiarity that invites the Pilgrim to step inside the experience and connect to it in ways they had not anticipated.

In Israel, we found such a Guide. His name is Shlomo Ben Asher. Shlomo is a modern derivative of the name Solomon, which is fitting because both men are known for their wisdom. Shlomo is a native Israeli, raised in the Kibbutz Ein Shemer, and he was our guide and tour manager for nine days in Israel. Shlomo served in the Israeli army, has a lovely family, and is by parts CEO, professor, archaeologist, linguist, vocalist, musician and story-teller. He is a published author (Legacy Interrupted, available on Amazon Books) and a gifted guide. Our group was both fortunate and blessed to enjoy his professionalism and his passion on our tour.

Shlomo read us the Beatitudes in Hebrew. He educated us about the difference between tradition and confirmed authenticity, without ever once denying or insulting traditional sites. He took us to places most Christian tours do not get to go. He played  Hebrew music on the recorder, and he sang and chanted to us in Hebrew, or led us in group songs, both Christian and Jewish. He took us to Oskar Schindler’s grave, the Holocaust Museum, and to the Kinneret Cemetery overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It is the burial place of Rachel (pronounced “Rakhel”, or Raquel) Bluwstein, a famous Israeli poet.

Shlomo read her poetry to us with depth and passion, enlarging our perspective on longing, on connecting, and on Israel. She spoke of the son she never had, and lamented that she had not borne him to be part of the Israel she loved. It was a feeling that seemed to surface over and over during our trip, the passionate connection of people to the land, and of the deep desire to be part of God’s promise to Abraham. I sensed that passion in our guide, and I feel indebted to him for introducing me to Israel the way he and Rachel Bluwstein saw it.

Our journey only scratched the surface of Israel, but it connected all of us to this Holy Land, this place where God confirmed His promise to bless all of the world. I will never know modern Israel as well as Shlomo Ben Asher, but I returned home with a deeper appreciation for God and for His people. My prayer is that He would be our ultimate guide, and would continue to lead us into His promises.

How does this American understand the fabric of this Holy, sacred Land?
Are secrets hiding in this tell? Is it the passion of (Racquel)                                          who longed to bear a son to join the legacy of Israel?
Do I see woven in this thread the contributions of the dead,                                            and is this legacy new and strong in Shlomo’s words and Shlomo’s song?
It is not in the things I know. So I will Be inquisitive,                                                           and hear my rabbi speak the words of Solomon, revisited.

 

To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread
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The Tour, the Guide, the Tell– and All I Learned in Israel

On our tour of Israel last week, we moved so fast and saw so many things that it was almost overwhelming. There’s an expression we use for new people at work who are trying to get assimilated into our company and are trying to learn and absorb too much information at once. We call it “drinking from a fire hose”. That phrase was used on our tour more than once because of all of the information and locations that came flying at us in a short time.

  

We went from the airport to Joppa to Tel Aviv to Caesarea Maritime to Capernaum to Magdala to the Dead Sea. We were on the Golan Heights, at the Syrian border, went into Palestine, and looked just across the border into Jordan. We stood in mountaintop trenches next to UN observers. Our tour took us to Mt. Carmel where we imagined Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal and looked out over Megiddo and the future site of Armageddon. We encountered diverse cultures and people. I even met a nice Palestinian guard!

We saw multiple levels of civilization stacked upon modern times, old times, medieval times, and ancient history. We visited museums and memorials, tells and tombs, boats and borders. Our tour took us from the Sea of Galilee to the City of David, and from Dan to the Dead Sea. We encountered religion and royalty, sometimes in the same place. (Y’ all, I was like FIFTEEN FEET from Prince William!)

 

It was a wonderful, bucket list tour. Our guide Shlomo Ben Asher was a teacher, a Rabbi and a fount of wisdom as he led us through the Holy Land (which is fitting, since the name Shlomo is a modern Hebrew derivative of Solomon). I’ll write more about him later, but for today I thought I’d share my poetic impression of the tour:

I once met a modern Rabbi from the kibbutz Ein-Shemer
Who took me through the Holy Land and showed me all the treasures there.
Shlomo son of Asher helped me look at Israel through his eyes,
Teaching our group of Baptist pilgrims just like Solomon the wise.
Ancient history came to life in Israel everywhere we went,
As we Moved faster than a nomad bedouin could unfold his tent!
We saw Israel’s treasures from the Syrian border to the South,                              Learning from the stream of wisdom as it came from Shlomo’s mouth!
From Joppa to the Dead Sea we were starting early, finishing late,
Learning more of history than Herod who was called the great!
Of Israel’s sumptuous banquet we could only get a little taste,
But led by Shlomo, Larry and Chad, we did not let a moment waste.

Somehow, like a miracle, I’ve slept almost where David slept;
I’ve seen fields and hills where sheep by the future shepherd-King were kept.                 I saw the very stars that glistened, listened as he sang his song,
And I saw his city in Jerusalem, still alive and strong.
I have seen the evidence where men unearthed the temple wall,
Reflecting on the fact that men and walls, like David, also fall…
I have seen Mt Carmel, where Elijah called for holy fire,
Where he called for Baal and his unholy prophets to retire!
I have witnessed tells where ancient truth was excavated out,
Centuries of dirt obscuring what the truth might be about,
And churches built on holy sites or old traditions they would tout,
With Truth and legend intertwined so much that it could make you doubt.

Like Elijah, I could look upon the Valley of Jezreel,
Thinking of its storied past and all the things it made me feel:
Will this tranquil place become the Armageddon battlefield?
Mary Magdalena, did you ever know or could you see
That groups would come from Mexico, that someday archaeology
Would find your village’s synagogue near the shores of Galilee?                               Your hero and your exorcism have been so far-reaching
That they brought us to this place, this week, for Shlomo’s teaching.

I have seen so many things I want forever to recall:
The oasis of En Gedi, where David went when he was chased by Saul;
Herod’s grand and ancient hall, and desperate Masada’s fall…
Going in the Garden Tomb, or praying on the wailing wall;
So many things both big and small, and in this list not nearly all!
Ancient Scriptures, Dead Sea floating, doing Galilean boating!
Marketplaces. Children playing. Rabbis swaying as they’re praying.
The Dome of the Rock, so mean in spirit that they will not let you near it;
The loud intrusive call to prayer–you can’t ignore it if you hear it–
The Holocaust, so much regret; so much the world should not forget…
Modern life and ancient tels are my mosaic of Israel.

I’ve been near the place where Peter wept because a chicken squawked!
I have heard of politics, where threatening words like trash are talked;
I have seen the marketplace where goods were sold and wares were hawked;
But I have seen the Holy Land, and walked where Jesus walked.

Men may turn from ancient truths and follow after new;
Men may scoff at Scripture and debate its point of view,
And men may say there is no God by what they say and do;
But I have been to The Holy Land. And I know it’s true.

 

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The Holy Land is Just a Place: So Why Do They Call it “the Holy Land”?

In Genesis, God calls Abram to go to a specific land, and the world has never been the same since. “The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1, NIV) Abram went, and the evidence of his calling is still all over that land today.

I just got back from the Holy Land, and I’d have to say that on the one hand, it is merely a geographical region comprised of a Mediterranean coastline, some mountainous terrain, the Jordan Valley, and a fair amount of forbidding desert. In the ancient world, it did indeed sit strategically between Turkey, Mesopotamia and Egypt, and was thus situated directly in the path of every marauding force and conquering army that ever journeyed along that one and only route to success. Topography and the availability of water enhanced its unique position as the only way to travel through it to where people really wanted to go, so it had the dubious distinction of being in the crosshairs of every conquering general in the ancient world. It was occupied at one time or another by the Egyptians, Medes, the Persians, and Assyrians; and Babylonians, the Greeks, then the Romans; the Turks, the Muslims, and the Crusaders; then the Muslims again.

Its population is a volatile mix of passionate people, most of whom feel they have been wronged or displaced not just in the recent past, but for centuries. Depending on your point of view, all of them have a case. The early Canaanites gave way to the Children of Israel who reached their zenith under David and Solomon. Israel was conquered by Assyria and Babylon and disappeared for centuries, but enjoyed a tremendous resurgence under Herod the Great, a Roman protégé who flourished for three decades under Roman protection (c. 38 to 4 BC). His heirs were not nearly as effective, and had to contend with a Jewish revolt against oppression. That was ended by the Romans when they destroyed Jerusalem and killed as many as 1,000,000 Jews in 70 AD. Constantine emerged from Asia Minor, and the Holy Roman Empire possessed the land for awhile until the Muslims came along in the Seventh century CE and conquered it. The Crusaders came and attacked the Muslims, but only held it for awhile. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Ottoman Empire rose up out of Turkey and possessed it.

On the surface, it is an unforgiving land filled with unforgiving people. There are conflicts and border disputes, there are places taken by force in the name of peace. There is a holy Temple where they won’t let Westerners even peek in, and attendants give you dirty looks if you get too close. Traditions are built on top of traditions, reflecting a centuries-old tug of war between religious people who all claim to worship a loving God. There are armed guards at places of prayer and extremists on all sides who believe the only path to peace is to eliminate all dissention. Those radicals belie the average people there, who love and raise families, and who do compromise and live together peaceably in a powder keg of politics and emotion.

So why do they call it “the Holy Land”? It is because of the REST of God’s promise to Abram, and the covenant He made with him: (Genesis 12:2)“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” It is not the topography that makes the land holy; it is not the passionate, zealous inhabits; it is not even the religions. It is holy because it is where God proclaimed His intention to bless ALL men, and to stay in relationship with us in spite of our rebellion and independence.

 

The Holy Land's not special just because it's in that region; 
It's not because it offers us the birthplace of religion; 
It isn't ground made sacred by where holy men have trod, 
But it's made holy by the promise of a Holy God. 
He promised that through Abram, every person would be blessed; 
So concentrate on that, and you can leave out all the rest. 
The blessing's not found in religion or a political boss, 
But it resides in reconciliation on a cross. 
History proves that men will only lead us to our doom: 
God's promise in the Holy Land is in an empty tomb.

 

To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread
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Israel was Given a Mission, but the Temple didn’t Build Itself!

Solomon was given a Mission, ordained and blessed by the God of the universe. Since you’ve also been given a mission, perhaps it would be instructive to see what Solomon did!
“I intend, therefore, to build a temple for the Name of the Lord my God, as the Lord told my father David, when he said, ‘Your son whom I will put on the throne in your place will build the temple for my Name…’ When Hiram heard Solomon’s message, he was greatly pleased and said, “Praise be to the Lord today, for he has given David a wise son to rule over this great nation.” … The Lord gave Solomon wisdom, just as he had promised him. There were peaceful relations between Hiram and Solomon, and the two of them made a treaty. King Solomon conscripted laborers from all Israel—thirty thousand men. He sent them off to Lebanon in shifts of ten thousand a month, so that they spent one month in Lebanon and two months at home. Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. Solomon had seventy thousand carriers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hills, as well as thirty-three hundred foremen who supervised the project and directed the workers.” (1 Kings 5:5-16, NIV)

Wow, this was a pretty big construction project—as far as Israel was concerned, it was the biggest one of all time… God could have chosen David to build the temple, but he didn’t. Solomon was given a clear mission by God, and he went out committed vast amounts of resources, workers, and leaders to get it underway. He worked hard to fulfill his mission. It should be instructive to us that the Lord gave Solomon a job, and he then did everything he knew how to do to get it done. God could have just created a temple and set it right down in Jerusalem, but he gave that task to Solomon. The king could have waited for workers to appear miraculously, and for timber and stone to materialize, but he realized that God had put him where he was to have an impact on the world, and he applied himself to doing God’s work. He exercised his own wisdom and position in leveraging relationships and managing people, and he used all of his skill as king to serve God. He knew that he had been chosen by God to perform a task, and he believed that God had put him there to get it done. Here’s the point: Why are YOU where you are? What mission has God given you? How much have you committed your skill and resources to make it happen? We may not be building a temple, but we ARE a temple (I Corinthians 6:19-20), and we HAVE a mission (Matthew 28:19-20). There is something to be done that only you can do. The fabric of eternity is woven with millions of seemingly unrelated tasks that change the world for good, and not all of them get headlines. The small commissions matter just as much as the big ones in God’s economy, and He has chosen the weak things of this world to confound the mighty. Jesus told us to love each other, to love “the least of these”, and even to love our enemies. Who will you love today? God has a job for each of us to do. What will He do through you? It only remains for you, in Paul’s words (Philippians 2:12-13), to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to act to fulfill his good purpose.” Go. Fulfill.

 

God gave Solomon a mission: build a temple, fit for me;
Put it in the center of Jerusalem for all to see!
Solomon secured the workers, more than a hundred thousand men,
Working shifts in Lebanon to bring the cedars back again.
Everything was organized--the workers getting stone and wood,
And Solomon made certain they were doing everything they could.
See, God gave Solomon a mission, so he had to do his best;
He had lots to do, but this priority outstripped the rest.
No matter what transpired, he knew he had to get the Temple done:
God gave Solomon a mission--but he's not the only one.
Jesus gave us all a mission, there in Matthew twenty eight:
"Go and make disciples. I am with you. Don't procrastinate!"
God has given us the job of reaching out to every man;
I hope, like Solomon, that we are doing everything we can.

 

To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread
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