A Stronghold For Today? The Lesson of Masada
On the edge of the Judean desert and near the Dead Sea stands a 1,300 foot-high mountainous shrine called Masada.
There are two ways to ascend this mesa; one is by a fifteen-minute cable car ride, and the other is by an arduous forty-five-minute walk up the steep slope on a windy trail on its eastern cliff that, since ancient times, has been called the snake path.” The first-century historian, Josephus, wrote much about this desert stronghold including a description of this route up the mountain:
This path is broken off at prominent precipices of the rock and returns frequently into itself, and lengthening again by little and little has much A.D.o to proceed forward…for on each side is a vast, deep chasm and precipice, sufficient to quell the courage of everybody by the terror it infuses into the mind.1
Climbing Masada is not a nature hike. The barrenness of the Judean Desert is not at all inviting, and the excursion is a sweltering ordeal and a test of endurance. Perhaps this is most fitting inasmuch as Masada has a harsh message for the Jewish people of all ages. It is a warning of the difficulty that faces us as a people and the unsettling reminder that our history is punctuated with tragic episodes.
The Lost Cause “Masada” is from the Aramaic mazed, meaning “stronghold” or “redoubt.” Josephus indicated that the first to use Masada as a fortress was Jonathan the High Priest (the brother of Judah the Macabee, 2 B.C.).
But the one who made it into an impregnable refuge was Herod, the self-imposed king of Israel and vassal of Rome. In A.D. 36, Herod built this personal royal fortification complete with a casement wall around the top, defense towers, battlements, barracks, arsenals and reservoirs large enough to hold 14 million cubic feet of water.
Masada was not only a stronghold. Herod built two royal abodes including a three-tiered northern palace complete with a heated bath. Excavations at Masada by Israeli archaeologist, Yigael Yadin have uncovered finely detailed floor mosaics, magnificent frescoes, intricate wall paintings and stone pillars with their capitals covered with the original gold paint. These remnants of Herodian extravagance were well preserved by the arid climate and the remoteness of the site.
Masada is enduring evidence of Herod’s work as a formidable builder. Yet it is difficult for one to walk through these remains and not recognize that it was built with a workforce of tens of thousands of slaves and Jewish forced laborers. It was at the cost of their lives that Masada’s tiered terraces were carved into the side of the rock mountain. Even as the magnificent archaeological remains are admired, the cries of the Jewish workers echo in the canyons and are carried by the winds.
This fortification is no monument to Herod, the demented puppet king of Rome. Rather, it marks the last stand of a band of embattled Jewish freedom fighters and is a national monument to the courage and determination of those who fought Roman oppression.
To this day, units of the Israel Defense Forces go to Masada and cry out the words, “Masada shall not fall again” as part of their pledge to defend the modern nation. Implied in this vow is a commitment to fight to the death if necessary.
The first century Masada event was more than a military matter. It was religious as well. Submission to the rule of the Roman emperor was one of the most serious sins for a Jew, for it involved concession to idol worshippers. The Jewish Zealots could no longer tolerate the iron hand of Roman rule that held Israel in bondage. The soul of their nation was being threatened and they were its defenders.
Yet from the first raised fist of defiance until the last drawn sword in A.D. 73, their cause was hopeless. The legions of Roman soldiers stationed in Israel were determined not to yield. The Roman Empire was at its pinnacle of strength.
To suffer defeat at the hands of untrained, unskilled and undersupplied Jewish fighters would be too humiliating. Many Israelis thought the Jewish Zealots’ rebellion was untimely and would only worsen the situation. This sentiment proved painfully true.
The Lost Hope
A remnant of one of the bands of Zealots, under the leadership of Eleazer Ben Yair, the son of Judah the Galilean,2 fled to the mountain fortress of Masada in 66 B.C. They remained in the desert citadel until their final defeat.
They were joined by others until approximately one thousand men, woman and children had made their home atop Masada. While this site was ideal for the needs of a royal family, it was not as accommodating to the Jewish rebels and their families and the other Jews who sought refuge there. Only a few families could dwell in the palaces of the fortress. Therefore the large storerooms were converted into billeting. In addition, the Zealots found housing in the casement walls that surrounded the fortress. The walls were 1,400 yards long and four-and-a-half yards wide.3
Over three long years, the Romans increased their efforts to rout these Jewish insurgents. Yet the Zealots held off the mighty Roman army. It was a remarkable and unexpected display of courage and cunning. A siege line was set up around the fortress intending to prevent food and water from entering the redoubt.
We know this was unsuccessful because ample supplies of both were found at Masada after the fortress was overrun by the Romans.
The Romans built a massive siege ramp in a final attempt to breach the walls that surrounded the city. In A.D. 72, the Roman governor, Flavius Silva, marched against this last remaining Zealot stronghold in Israel.
The situation of the Zealots was hopeless from the beginning. All the Zealots ever hoped to do was humiliate the Romans and to demonstrate to the rest of the Jewish people that Rome could be resisted. No one thought for a moment that the Romans would grow tired of assaulting the fortress and leave. Rome had far too much pride and too many resources at her disposal to back away.
As the final assault of the Romans against Masada was being planned, Eleazer Ben Yair, according to Josephus, persuaded his followers to commit mass suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans.
The account reads that each man took the lives of his wife and children. Lots were then drawn and ten men selected to slay all the others. Then finally the ten remaining men drew lots to pick one who would slay the other nine. Then the final survivor went around the ranks of the dead and made sure that none were alive. He then, according to Josephus, thrust his sword through his own body. The historian’s account reports that when the Roman soldiers stormed the fortress they found alive only two women and five children who had hidden in the underground caverns.
Masada was a hopeless struggle at the wrong time, by the wrong people, against the wrong enemy. The consequence of the Jewish revolts of the first and second century were catastrophic. They resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people, the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the eventual expulsion of Jews from Israel.
The well-intentioned yet misguided rebels lacked the support of the rest of the nation. And even more importantly, they acted outside the will of God. The prophet Zechariah clearly stated the eternal truth:
This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty.
The Living Israel
The lost hope of Israel was not the last hope of Israel. Despite the dreadful defeat the nation suffered then, the rule of the Almighty over Israel continues today. Masada is a reminder that the nation of Israel is willing to fight for its survival! The hope of the nation depends on the Holy One of Israel.
This was most poignantly demonstrated by an event that occurred while the first-century revolt was just beginning to gain momentum. The symbol of brave Jewish fighters ascending a mountaintop to preserve their freedom draws attention to another mount in Israel.
Forty years before Masada, a solemn Jewish man was led by Roman captors up a hill in Jerusalem. Though in the custody of oppressors, his brave stand was a story to the Living God. He was an innocent man, yet he offered no defense to his Roman inquisitors. He was a man with heavenly resources at his disposal, yet he summoned up no military might to aid him. Instead, he allowed the Romans to lead him up to a mountain called Golgatha, and there he was crucified.
The death of this Jewish Liberator from Galilee was unlike the thousands of others who died at the hand of the Romans. He was not another crucified Zealot or one more martyr whose blood watered the fields of Israel. The freedom he offered was not found in military or political triumphs. And his death was no defeat, for no one would take his life. He freely gave it! The man was Yeshua the Nazarene, the prophet from Galilee.
His enemy was not the Romans tyrants, but rather a force more insidious and oppressive. His enemy was sin and eternal death. To be victorious over this noncorporeal foe required neither weapons forged by the hands of men nor tactics developed by generals. Instead his methods were those prescribed by the prophet Isaiah:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3-5)
Yeshua came as the Messiah of Israel to bring peace to a beleaguered people—not just deliverance from an earthly foe, but something deeper and enduring: peace with God.
Not long before he was arrested, Yeshua spoke to his disciples as they huddled together in the upper room of a Jerusalem home. He intended to give them the courage to endure the difficult times ahead. The near future held persecution for their faith in Yeshua and the Roman destruction of the Temple. Yeshua knew too well the adversity that was waiting around the corner for these faithful ones, and to them he spoke these words of hope and comfort:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
- Edward M. Blaiklock and R.K. Harrison, gen. eds., Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), p.302.
- Keter Press Jerusalem, Encyclopedia Judaica (1972) 6:590.
- Ibid., p.141.