Herod the Great built and impressive fortress at Masada to showcase his own power, but it is remembered today as a symbol of the Jewish desire for freedom.
The mountain of Masada stands tall in Israel's Judea Wilderness. On top of this spectacular rock, one can see the Dead Sea to the east and the mountains of Moab beyond. About fifteen miles to the west of Masada are the Judea Mountains, and the barren Negev Wilderness lies a short distance to the south.
Archaeologists have uncovered impressive remains from the fortress-palace built on Masada. Elaborate mosaics, huge cisterns, and a variety of buildings have been discovered there.
Though Herod built the fortress as a testimony to his own power, it is remembered today as a symbol of the Jewish desire for freedom. Hundreds of years ago, Jewish Zealots seeking freedom from Rome made their last stand at Masada.
The echoes of Masada's past continue to influence Israel today. For many years, army recruits swore their oath of allegiance at Masada, remembering the ancient defeat of the Zealots. They are given a gun and a Hebrew Bible, and they swear to never let Masada fall again.
While hiding from King Saul in the wilderness, David's Masada was God - an unshakeable source of protection and strength.
When David defeated Goliath and gained popularity, King Saul became extremely jealous and tried to kill him. Fleeing Saul's attacks, David went to the Judea Wilderness for refuge.
The Text does not tell us whether David ever stayed at Masada, but we know that he hid in strongholds like it. The writer of 1 Samuel recorded, "David stayed in the desert strongholds. Day after day Saul searched for him, but God did not give David into his hands" (23:14).
During his wilderness hiding, David wrote beautiful psalms about his trust in God. He used the picture of a desert fortress to describe God's protection: "The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock in whom I take refuge" (Ps. 18:2).
In this psalm, David used the Hebrew word that literally means "masada." Even if he never stayed at Masada, David had surely seen or heard of its huge size and steep cliffs. And in the midst of his troubles, David's Masada was God—an unshakeable source of protection and strength.
Though Herod's Masada was the largest fortress in the world at the time, there is no record that he ever stayed there.
During his reign over Israel, Herod became paranoid about potential invaders. He especially feared Cleopatra of Egypt, and believed his life would be endangered if she ever gained control of the area.
In the event that he would have to flee Jerusalem, he built a line of palace fortresses along his escape route to Moab. Herod built the Masada fortress as one of these retreats.
On the northern end of Masada, Herod built a three-level palace, complete with hot and cold baths. The rest of the fortress was filled with living quarters, swimming pools, and storehouses for the soldiers stationed there. According to the historian Josephus, Herod had enough resources to supply thousands of men for up to ten years.
Herod's engineers also built a water storage system so that Herod and his troops could survive in the dry wilderness. They dammed up a nearby wadi and diverted water to cisterns at Masada. Servants then bucketed, carried, and poured this water into cisterns located near the top of Masada.
Though Herod's Masada was the largest fortress in the world at the time, there is no record that he ever stayed there. The Romans maintained power over Israel, and Herod was never forced to flee Jerusalem.
After seeing Jerusalem and the temple destroyed by the Romans, a small group of zealots fled to the wilderness refuge of Masada.
After Herod's death, Jewish nationalism began to rise. During Jesus' ministry, the Jewish people continued to hope for a nationalisitic Messiah, someone to defeat and remove the Romans. Although many Jews put their faith in Jesus, some could not accept that he would only bring spiritual freedom.
One group in particular, the Zealots, was very devoted to removing Roman influence, even when it required violence. The Zealots were completely devoted to God and did not want to give their allegiance to any other power, including Rome.
Shortly after Jesus' death and resurrection, the Zealots revolted. Rome responded by sending her army to crush Israel. They successfully defeated the revolt, destroying Jerusalem and the temple in the process. One small group of Zealots fled to Masada to take refuge from the Roman army.
When the Zealots' occupation of Masada became known, Rome's army marched there and built eight camps around it. Determined to defeat the Zealots, they used Jewish slaves to build a two-mile wall around the massive mountain and then built an enormous siege ramp against its western side.
Once the ramp was completed, the Romans used a battering ram to break through Masada's wall. They discovered that the Zealots had built an inner wall of timbers and dirt to absorb the battering ram?s force. So the Romans set the timber on fire and waited while it burned.
An Empty Masada
Wanting to be totally devoted to God, the Zealots put themselves to death rather than turn themselves over to the advancing Romans.
As their wall burned, the Zealots faced a terrible choice. They could either end their lives or face a life of slavery under Rome.
The historian Josephus recorded the tragic events that took place next. The Zealots' commander, Eleazer, made a speech reaffirming their belief that God created people to be free. He said, in effect, "It would be better for us to die at our own hands than to hand our own flesh over to the pagans."
Having spent years fighting the Romans and seeing their culture and temple destroyed, the freedom fighters agreed with Eleazer. They burned everything of value from the fortress, leaving only their food and weapons; they wanted the Romans to know they had not died of starvation or lack of weapons.
The men killed their wives and children and chose ten men to kill those who remained. One last man killed the nine others and then himself. Only two women and five children lived to tell the gruesome story.
The Zealots proved that their beliefs were not idle words. Wanting to be totally devoted to God, they put themselves to death rather than turn themselves over to the Romans.
If we try to find security in the "Masadas" we build for ourselves, we will ultimately fail. Only God gives true freedom from the world's troubles.
The story of Masada holds many challenges for today's Christians. As we confront evil around us, we will probably find ourselves with enemies who try to break us down. But in the midst of these trials, we can say with David, "My soul finds rest in God alone. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken" (Ps. 62:1-2).
If we, like Herod, try to find security in the "masadas" we build for ourselves, we will ultimately fail. But if we put our faith in God's strength, we will never be disappointed. Only God can offer true freedom from the troubles of this world.
Unfortunately, the Zealots focused more on earthly than spiritual freedom, and they committed the sinful act of suicide. Though their beliefs were mistaken, they proved that they would put those beliefs into action, even when it cost them their lives.
The Zealots' passionate beliefs challenge Christians today: Do we live out our own faith with such active devotion to God? If God really is our "Masada," we should not live in fear or compromise, even when evil surrounds us.
Does your life reflect faith in "masadas" of your own building, or do you trust in God—the only solid "rock"?