Christian Living

Spiritual Life

Masada: The Heroic Jewish Stand

For years now, Masada has been a destination for pilgrims – both Jews and Christians alike – in Israel. The name “Masada” does not appear in the Bible. There have been, however, some discussions as to whether or not Masada is one of the strongholds David writes about and wrote from (see 1 Samuel 22-24) during his “on the run” years.

Masada is a plateau located “across the street” from the place where the Dead Sea forks and dies in the Judean Desert. Its summit rises 1,500 feet above the sea’s glassy, deep blue water. Masada is 1,950 feet long, 650 feet wide, 4,250 feet in circumference and covers 23 acres. While archeological history dates it to the Hasmonean Period, the focus on this article will be on the Herodian, and the post-Herodian period – or, the period of the Great Revolt.

Masada’s History

Most American Christians know little about Masada. You’d likely have to be a history buff or someone who has studied Jewish history extensively to find it familiar. But to Jewish Israeli’s, Masada is as important as the battlefields of the Civil War to Americans.

Masada as a “winter home” would have been a sight to behold. Herod the Great, the madman who ruled Israel under its Roman period, was rich enough to have it built and smart enough to see the advantages of the location as a fortress against his enemies. As a winter home, it was luxurious. As a fortress, it was well-stocked in its storehouses and cisterns and well-protected by a casemate wall.

What we know about Masada during the Great Revolt we glean from the recordings of Josephus Flavius, who commanded the Galilee during the revolt and from modern excavation.

The Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans began in 66 AD, about 36 years after the life of Jesus. Josephus records that one of the first events of this historical period was the conquest of Masada by the Sicarii, a group whose name was born out of the sica, or curved dagger, they carried. After Menahem – their leader –was murdered in Jerusalem that year, a man named Eleazar Ben Yair fled to Masada where the rebels had taken up “housekeeping” both as families and as a community. To stay true to their faith, they built a synagogue and ritual baths, called mikvehs.  

The Great Revolt was originally instigated by the Zealots* who held as a core belief that any means was acceptable to gain political and religious freedom. And, from Rome, these rebels would do anything to gain liberty.

And who could blame them? The Romans had not only kept them political prisoners, they had often defiled the Temple by exposing themselves within its hallowed walls and by setting the Torah to flames. The final straw came when a large amount of silver was stolen by Florus, the last Roman procurator. The Jews fought back and won the battle.

But only the battle.

Rome was far from done. They returned to the Holy Land a highly-skilled army of 60,000. In the Galilee, an estimated 100,000 Jews were either killed or made slaves. The Jews who managed to escape fled to Jerusalem where they massacred those in leadership who they felt had done nothing to help during their dark hour. Sadly, the revolt now saw brother fighting against brother.

Enter again the Romans. While inside the walls of Jerusalem the family feud continued, outside Rome prepared to destroy the Holy City and, with it, the Second Temple.

And then onward to Masada.

According to Josephus, once the 8,000 troops arrived at Masada, they built eight camps around the base of the plateau, a siege wall, and then a ramp – the remains of which can still be seen today.

After much battling back and forth, the Jews lost all hope. Ben Yair, according to Josephus, gave two impressive speeches to the community, telling them that it would be better to die than to be a slave of Rome. When the Romans finally laid siege to Masada, they were met by the bodies of nearly 960 Jews, dead by mass murder/suicide.

Two women and five children, however, survived, because they’d hidden in the cisterns. Their testimony gave the Romans the chain of events which had occurred, remarkably, on the 15th day of Nissan, the first day of Passover.

Fifth Gospel Teaching

So what then can we learn from the harsh beauty of Masada?

Masada begs us to answer two questions.

  1. What do you hold so fervently dear to your heart, you’d be willing to die for it?
  2. What have you put spiritually to death that you refuse to become enslaved to it ever again?

A Fifth Gospel Word for You

American Christians don’t suffer at the hands of others for the right to worship God in the way they have chosen. Most of us are unaware of the martyrdom experienced around the world daily by those who refuse to denounce the name of Jesus. But allow me to stretch you a little.

Imagine that America no longer allowed religious freedom. Or, imagine that we were allowed to worship God in our churches but under guards who mocked us, exposed themselves in our sanctuaries, stole our offerings, and burnt our Holy Scriptures, lying on our polished altars.


Would you fight back?

Even unto death, not only yours but of your family members?

By God’s grace, we’re not faced with that right now. But every day we are faced with those things that kept us enslaved before we “died to Christ” (Col. 3:3).

In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul writes:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (vss. 3-5).

Think about that for a moment. What enslaved you before you found a new life in Christ? A bad attitude? A hot temper? Lying? Cheating? Alcohol, drug, and/or sexual addictions?

If you could see sin’s fast approach – llike the Sicarii of the Great Revolt witnessed Rome – would you be willing to put it to death? Of course I’m not talking about mass suicide here. I’m not suggesting that we draw real daggers across our throats. But I am asking how hard you fight back.

Before the Romans arrived, the Sicarii laid claim to a glorious vista. Even today, the plateau and ruins of Masada are incredible to behold. Quite frankly, I could drop myself in this entire region and live happily ever after, drawing only on her sensory beauty. Eventually, however, I’d be forced to return to real life. And real life – the Fifth Gospel says to me – demands that I ask myself these two questions.

And, with God, find the answers.

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