The situation was desperate: a small group of Jewish soldiers were surrounded. The year was 72 AD, only two years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and eight years into a rebellion that pitted Jewish soldiers against the Romans. The Romans were winning, Jerusalem had been captured, and this may have been the last stand. The place was Masada, a fortress on a plateau on the edge of the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea.
This is the first in a short series I’m calling “Biblical Tourist”, pictures and commentary on a recent trip to Israel. This was my third trip so I didn’t see all of the typical things, but I took a lot of pictures. Each entry in this series will connect to bible passages in some way.
So, what happened? And where are the pictures? And how does a fort built more then thirty years after Jesus figure into the bible? Read on for more!
Allow me to set the scene. Masada is on a plateau that is three hundred feet above the surrounding terrain on the shortest side, thirteen hundred feet above the terrain on the other. It is not impassable: the defenders had to get there somehow, after all. But anyone attempting to climb up the “Snake Path” would have been easy targets for archers or anyone else.
Ironically, the fort itself was not built by the early Jews. It was constructed by Herod the Great in anticipation of future troubles with the native peoples. He wanted a good place to hide away if the going got rough in Israel. During the conflict, Jewish soldiers had taken the fort from its Roman garrison before using it as a base of operations for activities in the region. It was not located far from the oasis of Ein Gedi and fresh water.
The Romans had the plateau surrounded; they were under siege. But the soldiers at Masada were well-prepared: they had food and water, and even an early synagoge. Using Jewish slaves as human shields and laborers, the Romans constructed a ramp up the side of the mountain. The soldiers inside would not fire on their fellow Jews and so the ramp gradually crept higher and higher until it was tall enough that the Romans could launch a battering ram and other offensive weapons against the fort. In time, they pierced the walls and were able to get inside… only to discover that nearly all of the defenders had committed suicide rather than be taken in disgrace. Young soldiers of the Israeli army still end their basic training on the plateau and swear that “Masada shall never fall again.
So, what does all of this have to do with the bible? Perhaps nothing, but there are two key connections: Herod and David.
Masada was fortified in the 30s BC/BCE by Herod the Great. That’s well after the Hebrew Bible stories, but Herod makes a very important appearance in the Gospel of Matthew:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
Several wise men come from the east to visit the baby Jesus, except that they decide that Herod is the right person to go to for directions. This isn’t quite wrong: Herod consults the scribes of his kingdom and determines that Jesus will be born in Bethlehem, and send the wise men off on their way. God tells the wise men that Herod wasn’t the upstanding citizen that he appeared to be, so they sneak out of Israel by the back door and doesn’t tell Herod who the baby is. There is only one thing he can do:
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
You know the rest: Joseph and Mary had fled to Egypt with the baby Jesus and just missed the purge. They return to Israel only after Herod died. The bible doesn’t mention that Herod had built a “summer home” in the wilderness at Masada, but why would it?
Traditional sources ascribe another significant event in the history of Israel to Masada: David’s flight from Saul.
The story of David and Saul is a complex on, as told in the books of Samuel and Chronicles. Saul was the King of Israel and David was his loyal soldier. David was successful in feat after feat, including in battling and destroying the giant Goliath. But Saul grew jealous of David and David’s closer relationship with God. One thing led to another and Saul eventually attempted to murder David resulting in the young warrior fleeing to gather reinforcements.
From the Book of Chronicles:
Some left Gad to join David at the desert fortress, brave warriors trained for battle, armed with shield and spear, who looked like lions and who were swift as gazelles on the mountains: Ezer the leader, Obadiah second, Eliab third, Mishmannah fourth, Jeremiah fifth, Attai sixth, Eliel seventh, Johanan eighth, Elzabad ninth, Jeremiah tenth, Machbannai eleventh.
1 Chronicles 12:8-13
The Book of Chronicles is silent on where this desert fortress is. In the Judean desert, sure, but could it be the same place as the future Masada? There’s some evidence from the Hebrew (that I can’t comment on), but it could also be that the root of the name Masada was a generic term for fortress.
The Book of Samuel is less clear, except to say that David had multiple fortresses:
And David abode in the wilderness in strong holds, and remained in a mountain in the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God delivered him not into his hand.
1 Samuel 23:14
The wilderness of Ziph is in approximately the right location, but historically has been associated with a different mountain. Masada could have been but one place that David camped out after his flight from Saul.
Some scholars see hints of Masada in other parts of the bible. For example, Psalm 18, a psalm that traditionally has been written by David:
The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
The story of Masada is a complex one that asks a lot of questions. The Jewish soldiers are now known as “Zealots”, or extremists. Did they represent the common Jewish man of the day? What does their shared suicide say about the culture? Some traditions state that they killed each other so that only one of them would have to truly commit suicide– but wouldn’t that have violated “thou shall not kill” just as thoroughly?
Here are some sites with additional history and pictures:
Up next: The Dead Sea?