Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Whenever I bring a group here to Israel, we always visit Masada. Masada has little Biblical significance. However, I love seeing the fabulous hanging palace that Herod the Great built there (and only stayed in twice). The palace "hangs" on the edge of a cliff, and it gives us more insight into the megalomaniacal mind of the ruler who tried to kill the infant Jesus (and did kill several of his sons and his favorite wife!).
To me, Masada is a must-see site for anyone who wants to also understand the modern issue of Israeli/Palestinian relations. Another advantage of visiting Masada is that it allows our groups to enjoy the unique experience of floating in the Dead Sea. You can’t drown there because the Dead Sea is 10x more salty than any other body of water on the planet. The consistency of the water is more like thin jello than water – you float on top and can cross your legs, fold your arms behind your head and read a newspaper while floating. You can even take a can of coke and enjoy it …. That gives new meaning to a “coke-float!" (Plus those who haven’t ventured into the ocean since they saw the movie "Jaws" can enjoy the water with full assurance that there are no sharks, crabs, or fish because nothing lives in it).
Masada stands as a powerful sentinel overlooking the Dead Sea. Centuries before Herod transformed the top of the rock plateau into a city with lush gardens and a extravagant surplus of water, it served as a perfect fort. It was protected by sheer cliffs on all four sides – and could only be climbed by a snake trail that was easily defendable.
The story of Masada really isn’t about Herod’s palace, but what happened in 73AD. This was toward the end of the Jewish rebellion against Rome that had resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
A group of almost 1,000 Jewish rebels fled to the desert to escape the Romans. They established themselves on the top of Masada. The Roman army surrounded Masada and decided to just wait until the Jews ran out of food and water. But Herod had stockpiled so much food and water that the Jews would mock the Roman soldiers by pouring gallons of water over the sides of Masada each day. This infuriated the Romans because water was scarce and each solider received only a small ration.
The Romans finally decided to build a ramp on the western side of Masada from which they could attack the mountaintop fortress. When they started the ramp, the Jews tossed huge boulders from the sides of Masada killing and injuring the Roman soldiers. So the Romans countered by using Jewish slaves to build the ramp. The rebels stopped throwing boulders because they recognized the slaves as their own friends and family members.
Finally the massive ramp was completed and a huge wooden war machine complete with a battering ram was raised in front of the wooden gate of Masada. The Jews then packed layers of rocks between layers of successive wooden gates, so the battering ram only packed the rubble tighter. The battering ram pounded away until it was shattered. Then the Romans set fire to the wooden gates. For a moment, it seemed as if a miracle of Biblical proportions was happening because the wind shifted and ignited the Roman war machine! However, the wind then shifted again and the gates of Masada were burned and breached.
By this time, it was late in the afternoon, so the Romans retired to their camp confident that early the next morning they would enter Masada and slaughter the Jewish rebels. After all, they weren’t going to escape.
What happened that evening is based upon the writings of Flavias Josephus. Faced with certain death in the morning, the rebels faced a harrowing choice. Their leader was Elazar ben Yair, and Josephus has recorded the impassioned speech that Eliazer made that night. Here’s an excerpt of Eliazer’s speech:

“Noble Jews, you who decided long ago not to submit to the domination of the Romans or to that of any other nation and to obey only God, Who alone has the right to command men, now the time has come to demonstrate by your acts that your heart truly nourishes these feelings.
The enemy desires nothing more than to hang us alive. As great as our resistance will be, we will not be able to avoid an onslaught. Nevertheless, the Romans cannot prevent us from denying them our lives by giving ourselves a noble death, ending our days together with the people who are the dearest to us...
If up until now, we have been sustained by the hope of being able to take revenge in some manner on our enemies by courageously resisting, this hope has vanished. Why delay running to our own deaths while we still have the possibility and of granting it to our wives and to our children since this is the greatest kindness we can do them? We were born to die: it is an inexorable law of nature to which all men, however happy and healthy they may be, are subject. But our nature does not at all oblige us to suffer the outrage of servitude, to see, in our cowardice, the honor of our wives and the freedom of our children ravished when it is within our power to spare them through death.
After having heroically taken up arms against the Romans and scorned the offer they made us to spare our lives if we would accept it from them, what kind of treatment could we expect from their resentment if we fall into their hands alive? The strength and the vigor of the healthy would only prolong their agony and the oldest would not be pitied less because they would have greater difficulty enduring their agony. We would see our wives carried away into captivity and would hear our children, irons at their feet, imploring us in vain for help. Who is preventing us from saving ourselves from servitude while we can freely use our arms and our swords? Then let us die with the people who are dearest to us rather than live as slaves.”
Contrary to popular opinion, what happened that night wasn’t mass suicide. Jewish law strongly forbids suicide. When you understand how this act was carried out, only one man committed suicide. First, families were gathered together, then ten men were chosen by lot. The father in each family used his sword to slay his children and wife, then one of the ten men came and killed the father and laid him beside his family. Then the ten men drew lots and one was chosen to kill the other nine men. And then that last man fell on his own sword – the only one to actually commit suicide.
The next morning, the Roman army marched onto Masada expecting a final bloody battle, only to be met with the sound of the wind and the sight of the bodies of 960 Jewish men, women and children who chose death before dishonor.
By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with the story of Masada, rent the DVD “Masada.” It’s pretty accurate. If Hollywood gave an Academy Award for “facial expression without speaking” then the look on Peter O’Toole’s face, (who played the Roman general) when he arrived on Masada, would easily win the Oscar!
You may wonder, if they all died, how do we know about these events – and especially the speech of Eliazer? It’s because two elderly women and several very young children were found by the Romans hiding in an enormous cistern. One of the women was educated and spoke five languages. She might have been chosen to record and report the speech and the events. Josephus’ record is supposedly based upon her eyewitness account.
To understand Masada is to understand Israel. The events of Masada are fully woven into the fabric of modern Israel. For the first 50 years of modern Israel’s history, they have almost been suicidal in their protection of their country. If they had lost any of their wars, Israel would have ceased to exist. Israel is still surrounded by enemies. That’s why all teenage Israelis, both male and female, are required to serve in the military (which may be one reason Israel doesn’t have some of the same teenage rebellion issues we have here in America!)
For many years, new recruits have participated in a ceremony at Masada when they finish basic training. They hike 15 miles in full gear and then run up the snake trail to the top of Masada. After camping out, they are sworn in as Israeli soldiers just after sunrise. Afterwards, they march to the southern end of Masada and shout three times in Hebrew: “MASADA SHALL NEVER FALL AGAIN! MASADA SHALL NEVER FALL AGAIN! MASADA SHALL NEVER FALL AGAIN!” That Masada mindset has been the rallying cry for years.
My friend and tour guide, Rueven, has wisely pointed out that while this “die before dishonor” mindset served Israel well through the last half of the 20th Century, many Israeli leaders have been reconsidering the value of the Masada Soulution for this reason: MASADA HAD NO SURVIVORS … and Israel must survive.
Is there any way for there to be peace in Israel before Jesus returns? Only God knows, but more and more Jewish leaders are embracing the thought that the MASADA SOLUTION is not the answer.