Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.
During the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 66 AD, a group of Jews fled to Masada. They were later joined by other Jews until nearly 1000 were living in the mountain top fortress. The Roman Legion eventually surrounded the fortress and began a prolonged siege. The Jews held out for three years before the Romans managed to break through the front gate with a battering ram. In a twist of fate, the Romans then withdrew with the intention of sweeping in the next day and taking over the entire fortress. The Jews realized that there was no way they could prevail, so the leaders of the Jewish rebels chose instead to commit mass suicide. Because it was against Jewish law to commit suicide, the men faced the grim task of killing their own wives and children. The men then drew lots for who would kill each other until only one man was left, who then had to kill himself. The result being that only one man actually committed suicide. The Jews felt it was better to die by their own hands than it was to be killed by others and have their children sold into slavery.
It is interesting to note that only one Jewish historian recorded the entire event and since he was not particularly popular with other Jews at the time, the entire episode became a vague cultural memory for more than 1500 years. It was not until the 1920’s that the story began to re-emerge in the Jewish cultural mindset. Since then, Masada has become a symbol of freedom to the Jews.
Though we spent nearly 3 hours on the tour and heard the tour guide make numerous mini-speeches and read countless historical plaques, I am still a bit baffled by the entire account. As I have reflected on what I saw and heard about what happened there, I am just not sure their sacrifice accomplished anything. In the end, the Romans not only took the fortress, but they destroyed the entire nation, including the Second Temple. The Jewish nation was completely devastated and ceased to exist as a national entity for nearly 1900 years. When the nation of Israel was finally reformed as an independent nation, it was the horror of the Holocaust that motivated the United Nations to act, not the memory of Masada. In light of those realities, what exactly did the mass suicide at Masada accomplish? What makes it such a powerful symbol of Jewish freedom?
I am not saying that we should not be willing to sacrifice. We are often called upon to sacrifice in the present so that we can have a better future. But as I have reflected on my visit to that important site, I just cannot see what their suicide accomplished. I have to wonder if they let their emotions control them. I have to wonder if they let their nationalism overcome their judgment. I have heard the Jewish version of the history of Masada. I have also read other accounts that gave different perspectives. I remain unconvinced that it is the symbol the Jews want it to be. Though I agree that there are some hills worth dying on, I am not sure this was one of them.
What can we learn from Masada? Perhaps we can learn about the need to sacrifice. But I think it is more likely that we learn about the need to know which hills are worth dying on. Lord, give us wisdom to know when to take a stand for things that will make a difference in the world and when we are simply letting our own emotions influence us.