Masada – Israel

Named for the Hebrew word meaning “fortress” or “stronghold”, Masada is an impressive isolated mesa rising 1,424 feet up from the Dead Sea. After the fall of Jerusalem three years earlier, this mountaintop fortress was the site of the Jews’ last stand against the Roman Army in 73 AD.

Scriptural Significance

We believe for good reason that Masada is the stronghold where David hid from Saul: “And David abode in the wilderness in strongholds, and remained in a mountain in the Wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God delivered him not into his hand.” 1 Samuel 23: 14

The word used for “stronghold” in the above text is the Hebrew word ‘Masada’. Additionally, the ‘Wilderness of Ziph’ is adjacent with Masada.

Historical Significance

The top of Masada is roughly 18 acres and is for the most part a plateau.  Not withstanding David’s use of this location, it appears to have first been fortified @ 142 BC during the time of the Maccabees.  However, it is Herod the Great who is responsible for most of Masada’s development. 

Ruler of Judea from 37 – 4 BC, Herod undertook incredible building projects throughout the Land. During this time, Masada was made into a royal citadel and a vacation spot for the despot. Atop the mesa were constructed two palaces; one of which goes down three levels into the mountain. Heavy walls were engineered along with defensive towers and an elaborate aqueduct system, which brought water from the Wilderness of Ziph into a 200,000-gallon cistern.

In 66 AD, a Jewish sect known as the ‘Zealots’ took the barely defended stronghold by surprise. They opposed Roman rule and were part of a large-scale rebellion through much of Israel. Masada was an ideal location as its steep slopes made it virtually impregnable. The leader of this band was Eleazar ben Ya’ir.

By 72 AD, Rome had squelched the rebellion and had brought on the Diaspora.  Those Jews held up in Masada comprised the last vestiges of the rebellion. It fell to Rome’s 10th Legion (i.e., Legio X Fretensis, named for the straits between Sicily and Italy) to besiege the mountain fortress.

Inside Masada were 960 Jews – only 200 or so of these were fighting age men, the rest were women and children. The 10th Legion had at least 8,000 infantry and artillery personnel who were supported by another 7,000 or so logistics troops.  This is to say nothing of the thousands of slaves (Jewish and otherwise) that were at the Roman commander’s disposal. Flavius Silva was in command of the 10th Legion. 

Even with great numerical superiority, the fortress kept Rome at bay for close to two years. Silva’s engineers devised a plan to take Masada by building one of the largest siege ramps in history. While ascent on the eastern side was over 1,300 feet; to the west it was only 300 feet. Using Jewish slave labor, a ramp was constructed of rocks, dirt and lumber. While this construction was occurring, a circumvallation wall was erected to ensure that supplies/reinforcements could not get in to the defenders. 

After months of construction, the Romans finally were able to bring their battering rams to bear on the siege. The Zealots preferred suicide to enslavement. After setting fire to the fortress, the Zealots cast lots to choose 10 men to kill all of the others. Each of the families laid down together as their throats were slit. The date was April 15th, 73 AD. The 10 then casts lost to determine who would kill the other 9 – finally, the last man killed himself.

Much of what we know about Masada comes from the Jewish historian Josephus who traveled with the Roman Army at the time. Two women and five children hid themselves in the cistern and had their lives spared. The information we have today about the Zealots of Masada comes from their eyewitness testimony. 

Among the many interesting discoveries inside the stronghold, are a group of potsherds inscribed with Hebrew names. These may be the lots cast by the last 10 defenders to determine who would die last.

Did You Know?

For a number of years, some Israeli Defense Force (IDF) units held swearing in ceremonies at the top of Masada and would shout, “Masada shall not fall again!”

Archeological Significance

a most ironic archeological discovery was found here. The remains of a synagogue have been found. Within it, fragments of two small scrolls were found buried under a floor. One fragment contains portions of Deuteronomy. The other contains a portion of Ezekiel 37 and the vision of the ‘Valley of Dry Bones that Come to Life’.  For those of you who know your Bibles, this is a classic Old Testament prophecy!  Namely, at the time of the end God would restore the Nation of Israel to the Promised Land.

It is amazing that at the very place where the Nation of Israel appeared to have died in 73 AD, we have found a scroll promising its return to the Land – and this, during a time when the modern Nation of Israel exists and is back in the Land!