The Disastrous History of Masada
The Jews in Christ’s time who accepted Jesus as the Messiah could look to the future with confidence, knowing that they had Jehovah’s approval. In contrast, the immutable prophecies in the Bible gave the remainder of the people good reason to look to their grim future with anxiety.
Centuries earlier the prophet Daniel had foretold that sometime after the Messiah was cut off in death there would be war and desolation. (Dan. 9:26) John the Baptist pointed forward to “the coming wrath” of fiery destruction. (Matt. 3:7, 11, 12) The “days for meting out justice” were soon to come, Jesus even telling the daughters of Jerusalem to “weep for yourselves and for your children” on account of what was to befall them. (Luke 21:22; 23:28) Those warnings dealt particularly with the fiery destruction that came upon Jerusalem in 70 C.E., when it was ravaged by a flood of Romans under the leadership of the Roman general Titus.
While Jerusalem is thus often considered the focal point of Jewish history during the turbulent years following their revolt in 66 C.E., another location in Judea had tragic importance in that woeful period. That location was the massive rock fortress named Masada. For there, in the year 66 C.E., a band of fanatical patriots seized and massacred the Roman garrison. The historian Flavius Josephus called the slaughter “the true beginning of our war with the Romans.” That band of Zealots, called the Sicarii because of the short daggers (sicae) they carried, defied the powerful Romans until they met disaster in 73 C.E.
THE SPLENDOR OF MASADA
Recent archaeological expeditions are wresting from the dust and stones many of the secrets of the history and splendor of Masada, which name means “stronghold.” Of particular interest to Bible students is the fact that scrolls of Psalms, Genesis and Leviticus have been found there, obviously written before Masada’s fall.
Traveling south of Jerusalem to the desolate western shore of the Dead Sea, one can see the flat-topped hill or mesa rising over 1,000 feet above the surrounding ravines. It differs little from the description Josephus penned over 1,800 years ago:
“There was a rock, not small in circumference, and very high. It was encompassed with valleys of such vast depth downward, that the eye could not reach their bottoms; they were abrupt, and such as no animal could walk upon, excepting at two places of the rock, . . . though not without difficulty. . . . One of these ways is called the Serpent, as resembling that animal in its narrowness and its perpetual windings; . . . on each side there is a vastly deep chasm and precipice, sufficient to quell the courage of every body by the terror it infuses into the mind. . . . Upon this top of the hill, Jonathan the high priest first of all built a fortress, and called it Masada.”—Wars of the Jews, Book VII, Chap. VIII, ¶3.
This Jonathan has been understood to refer to the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus, but modern research suggests that Alexander Janneus, who ruled from 104 to 78 B.C.E., may actually have been the one who first fortified the hill, thus laying the groundwork for the tragedy that was to come.
Herod the Great appreciated the safety of this almost impregnable fortress, confidently leaving his family there when he was forced to flee the country. After he returned from Rome and gained control of the land, Herod began a building program to improve the natural defenses of Masada.
Of chief importance among Herod’s works on Masada was an ingenious system of at least a dozen huge cisterns. These vast caverns, cut out of solid rock, could contain an estimated 8,000,000 gallons of water, sufficient for a thousand men to endure a year’s siege. Some of the cisterns were filled by damming up a nearby wadi or riverbed. When one of the infrequent rains occurred, the water was directed through an aqueduct into the lower cisterns, and later it was carried by hand up to the higher water reservoirs.
The summit of the flat, roughly boat-shaped hill was cultivated so as to provide extra food in times of siege. Around the perimeter of the top ran two stone walls, between which rooms were built for living quarters. Other buildings on the summit included barracks for troops, a complex of storehouses and even a synagogue, though this may have been built later by the Zealots.
However, Herod did not restrict his building to military installations. On the cliff of the northern point of Masada he built an elegant three-tiered hanging palace. It consisted of a nine-room house with terrace or patio, bathing pools, and a luxurious pavilion or “pleasure dome.” The palace was in almost constant shade and was decorated with colorful mosaics, paintings and intricately carved stone pillars. Easy passage from one level to another was possible through a staircase hidden in the rock.
Another building of note is what is called the “western palace.” Situated on the summit, it was nearly as elaborate as the main palace. Probably Herod housed his guests there. Excavation of it has revealed the largest Roman bathhouse yet discovered in Israel. It contained hot rooms with heating pipes in the walls, resembling modern Turkish baths, cold rooms and dressing rooms. It even had a sit-down lavatory with a flushing system, the oldest one known.
THE DISASTROUS END
This splendor was short-lived, though, for two years after the fall of Jerusalem, the Roman governor Flavius Silva marched with his Tenth Legion to lay siege to Masada. It was the last pocket of resistance among the Jews. With 9,000 Jewish slaves carrying food and water to the camp, 6,000 legionnaires cut off all means of escape from the hill from December of 72 C.E. until late in the spring of 73 C.E. Against the western face of the hill they built a 300-foot siege mound on top of already existing rocks. This was then surmounted by a 75-foot-high stone platform and a 90-foot-high siege tower with which to attack the walls.
When the Romans battered down the stone walls, they faced a hastily built wall made from two rows of wooden beams with earth in between. Since battering just increased the strength of this wall, the Romans set fire to it. Aware that the next day the fortress would be taken, the Roman soldiers retired for the night. Inside, the Jews saw that their plight was hopeless. Their commander, Eleazar, convinced the men that death was better than slavery. Each married man went off to his family, said a tearful good-bye to his wife and children and then killed them. Ten men picked by lot proceeded to slaughter the rest and were, in turn, killed until just one man remained. After setting fire to the fortress, he ran himself through with his sword, climaxing the disaster of Masada.
The Romans returned in the morning expecting to face a stiff fight, but they found alive only two women and five children who had hid in a cave and thus survived to describe the suicidal massacre of 960 men, women and children. The disastrous history of Masada tragically underscores the truthfulness of Jesus’ words about the “days for meting out justice” that were to come upon the Jews who refused to heed his prophetic warning.
[Map on page 253]
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