The story of Masada is one of the most fascinating extra-Biblical Jewish/Roman accounts of all of the history of the Bible lands. Masada means fortress and this old fortress is located on a very steep hill, overlooking the Dead Sea, in the Judean desert. Thankfully, today there’s a cable car that carries groups of tourists from a visitor’s center up to the top of the mesa. But once we arrived on the fortress, it was easy to forget that we were visitors from another century, The events of 74 A.D.preserved for us in the writings of Josephus Flavius, became fully accessible to our imaginations.
Herod the Great built the fortress (or at least re-made it for his purposes) during the third decade B.C.; in other words, around the time of the death of Jesus. Herod was a lot of things, but, above all, he was taken with himself and wrapped up in His own quest for power, often even to the point of psychotic narcissism. One can easily see this self-aggrandizement when looking at the remains of his two palaces here at Masada. They were large and luxurious.
We could see three connected terraces, his personal bath and remains of his large personal bedroom in the Northern palace. There was another very large bath, nearby, probably used for the senior Masada officials in the days of Herod. It’s hard to imagine the opulence of the tile Mosaics and the spectacular views if you’ve not witnessed them personally.
The wall of Herod’s Masada was 1400 meters long and 4 meters wide with rooms built in between the two parallel walls. The water supply in this dry wilderness was secured by large cisterns on the northwestern side of the hill. We were told that one large rain, which generally occurred twice a year, could supply enough water for Masada’s residents for three years. A snaking path/staircase provided an arduous way for inhabitants to go up and down when supplies were needed. Very hardy visitors (who have ninety minutes to ascend) can still go up and down that pathway.
Being in that spot and hearing the story created questions in my mind that will never be answered, but to say that it was stirring, doesn’t adequately describe it. Of course, we know that the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., killing tens of thousands (perhaps even a million) Jews. Shortly before this destruction and well after the death of Herod the Great, some Jewish rebels overtook the Roman garrison at Masada. When the temple was destroyed they were joined by Jewish zealots fleeing Jerusalem. These outnumbered, but resourceful Jews held out against the Romans for three years high up on this hill in the desert. It is said that they actually had enough supplies to have lasted them ten years. But the Tenth Legion of the Roman army, led by Flavius Silva, was at last, by building a circumvolution wall, then erecting a ramp of mud and stone, and finally transporting a battering ram up the ramp, able to breach the mighty walls on the western side of the great Masada.
Imagine being one of those Jewish women inhabiting one of the former Roman homes while the Roman Legion inched closer each day as they slowly built their ramp up the side of the hill. Imagine savoring the days with your children, knowing that they were likely coming to an abrupt end, and very soon. Perhaps you had fled three years earlier from the home in which you were raised in Jerusalem, during the time when Titus conquered and bathed your home city in the blood of your kinsmen. Now, for three months you watch from the highest point in the desert, as the Romans, with a steely determination to extinguish the last of the rebels, construct the rams which will eventually crash through the walls of the fortress behind which you have spent the last three years. You know that their plan is to come into Masada to kill every last one of the Jews who have become a close-knit community of about 960 people. As they get closer to the top of the hill, you can see that, as you suspected, most of the work is being done by your own kinsmen; Jews who were taken captive in the destruction. Perhaps you even recognize some of the ramp builders.
When it becomes evident that the western wall will be breached and your life will be taken, you hear the decision that’s been made by the leader of your party of Zealots. His name is Elazar ben Yair and here are his words:
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.
So you prepare to die.
According to Josephus, all the lives of all of the inhabitants were taken before the wall was breached. Fires were ignited and the Jews killed one another. Husbands bade their wives and children goodbye and then cut their throats. Lots were cast to determine ten men to kill the remaining patriarchs of families. Then they chose one man to kill the other nine of those who were charged with the mass killing. Finally, that lone man committed suicide, as he had agreed before the killing began.
When the Romans finally and exultantly entered the mighty fortress to kill and plunder, they found no living people, save two women and five children who had hid in an underground cave.
This account, recorded by Josephus, has recently been the subject of much scrutiny. Many believe the account was embellished and that not nearly 960 Jews perished at Masada. But, since his account is the only written account of the events of 74 A.D. at Masada, and since he was a successful historian, captured by the Romans and detailing history in the service of Rome (as well as being governor of Galilee), credibility is due his account. There’s much evidence to point to the fires and the suicides of at least some inhabitants prior to the Romans’ entry into the fortress. Of course, the massive ramp, the remains of which still exist, attests to the method of Roman entry.
Sitting in the lavish synagogue, built there by Herod (not that he was by any means a devout Jew, but, rather, he built the synagogue for political purposes), I mused on so many facets of the tragic events that unfolded as the Jews’ last hold-out against the Romans lay under siege and finally was destroyed, as the enemy breached the wall and found the bodies of the self-slain Jews. I thought about the three skeletons that were found in the bathhouse—those of a man, a woman and a child. I walked through that bathhouse as I heard about the woman’s still beautifully-braided hair and the preserved sandals next to her. I listened as we were told about the bits and pieces of the man’s armor, probably taken from the Romans in an earlier skirmish by the rebel Jews. I pondered the ornately decorated room, in the Western palace, a palace that covered an entire acre…decorated with beautiful mosaics…the room that was likely the Masada throne room of the Herod. This was the same Herod who found it in his heart to kill the baby boys at the time of the birth of the Savior (along with the killings of several members of his own royal household, including his wife.) He vacationed and found refuge (at least physical refuge) here, at Masada. I contemplated the contrast between the lavish lifestyle flaunted by Herod in those two sumptuous palaces and the stench of death that greeted the Roman legion as they forced their way through the breach in the double wall. How much can change and how quickly in the fulfillment of the will of God!
As I heard about the events of 74 A.D. from the state of Israel in this Jewish national park, I naturally felt compassion for the Jews in this last hold-out atop this steep hill. The signs, literature and guides’ messages were all geared to elicit compassion and sympathy for the Jews of the mass suicide. Anytime there’s death and suffering, of course, it’s grievous.
But there’s one important aspect about what occurred at Masada that all Christians should remember. God had planned, since the inception of Israel, for the nation to be a vehicle through which Christ could come and through which Christianity could be born. The sweet redemption that we have in Christ, of necessity, called for the fulfillment of Judaism and the end of the law of Moses. The destruction of Jerusalem (and other outposts of organized Jewish nationalism) was the fulfillment of both Old and New Testament prophecies and signaled the end of the Mosaic era, ushering in the age of Christianity.
Further, what happened at Masada was the punishment of God on a nation that rejected Him, over and over again. Israel was a nation that had enjoyed God’s favor and then committed spiritual adultery on numerous occasions. The ultimate slap in the face of God was the rejection of God in the flesh, the Messiah, by the very people God honored to bear the seed of the Holy Spirit to the world.
John the Baptist had prophesied of the destruction of the Jewish nation only a few years prior, calling it the “wrath to come” and saying that even then (as he spoke), the “axe was laid at the root of the tree” (Matthew 3:7-10). Matthew 24: 21 contains the Lord’s warning about the impending destruction of the Jews, saying that the upcoming tribulation would be greater than anything that had ever been or that ever would be. Masada was, though immediately a Roman conquest of a rebellious people, more importantly, the promised judgment of God on a people that had rejected Him over and over, most recently putting to death the very Son of God!
Masada was, as it were, the period at the bottom of the exclamation point regarding the final end of Judaism. There could be no remaining Jewish strongholds; no acceptable religion clinging to the Mosaic law. God absolutely worked through the tragedy of Masada in 74 A.D. to finalize the end of Judaism and administer promised judgment on the Jews. That finalization at Masada simply had to occur, for our salvation. God worked through a powerful Roman army, a battering ram that could breach a fortress wall, and the mass suicide that occurred inside the walls to accomplish His purpose. I’m thankful that His overriding purposes always come to fruition.
Masada’s lesson: The judgment of God on those who fail to submit to His authority is sure. What was prophesied in the first half of Matthew 24 happened to the Jews in vivid and tragic reality in A.D. 66-74. But what was prophesied in the last half of the chapter for those who reject today is just as sure:
…the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 24: 50-51).