Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: My Rock and My Fortress (Masada)

masadaAfter Saul began searching for David to kill him, David hid in a mountain fortress in the wilderness. “Masada” and “fortress” have the same root in Hebrew. David often referred to God as his fortress in the Psalms, and Masada gives us an image of what David was referring to.

(Psa 18:2)  The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

Much later, about 37 BC, Herod became king of Israel by appointment of Augustus Caesar. Herod was concerned that during the ascendancy of Mark Antony, Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolymies in Egypt, would conquer Judea. And so he built Masada as a fortress.

His engineers built damns along nearby wadis and huge cisterns (holding 1,500,000 cubic feet of water!) so that buckets could be used to bring water up to the fort. Despite being on top of a mountain in a desert, Masada had boasted one of the world’s most luxurious bathing areas, with hot and cold water pools.

He built swimming pools and quarters for his soldiers. He had food stored sufficient for 10,000 men for 10 years, according to some ancient sources. The top of the mount is over 21 acres (our church sits on a 15-acre lot) and 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea, which it overlooks. Herod surrounded the summit with a wall and 30 defensive towers.

The fortress could only be reached by the Snake Path, twisting up the eastern side of the mountain, and a footpath on the western slope. Both entrances had strongly guarded gates. 

Masada, although in the wilderness, was close to Jerusalem, so Herod would have a place to flee to if the Jews rebelled or Cleopatra invaded. It was also close to his homeland of Idumaea (Edom).

Herod built a palace, known as the Hanging Palace, that descended the side of the cliff. The palace had beautiful mosaic floors and 37,000 square feet.

In AD 70, Judea rebelled against Rome and the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. 967 people,  Zealot Jews and their families, fled to Masada. The Romans built 8 camps at the base of mountain on which the fortress sat, preparing a siege.

The Zealots built a Midrash in which to study Torah and prepared to outlast the Roman siege.

The Romans built a siege ramp along the western side of the mount, using Jewish slave labor. When the ramp was finished, the Romans brought up a huge iron battering ram to tear down the wall. The Zealots had built a second, inner wall and filled the space with dirt, preventing the wall from being breached.

The Romans then set the timber wall on fire, making their victory inevitable. The Zealots chose to commit suicide rather than serve the pagans as slaves. And so after 9 years of war and the destruction of their nation and temple, they prepared to kill themselves, their wives, and their children.

They burned all they had of value, other than their food and weapons — so the Romans would know they chose to kill themselves as a matter of free choice, not necessity. They went to their homes and killed their wives and children and then committed suicide.

Today, Israeli soldiers take an oath: “While I live, Masada will not fall again.”

Vander Laan points out the passion of the people for freedom, although for the wrong kind of freedom. Can we develop the same kind of passion for serving God? even to point of giving our lives?

They gave up all luxuries to live a spare, simple life to serve God as they thought they should.

Modern Christians generally ignore the Jewish roots of Christianity. Most movies about Jesus don’t even allow him to be played by a Jewish actor. And yet Christianity’s roots are in Judaism, and God sent the gospel first to the Jews. We claim to be “New Testament Christians” as though the Old Testament is of little relevance to our faith — but God was not wasting his time with Israel and the “scriptures” the New Testament speaks of is the Old Testament.

(Rom 15:4)  For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(2 Tim 3:14-15)  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

(2 Tim 3:16-17)  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Because we so readily dismiss the Jewishness of Christianity, we often fail to appreciate the significance of history to our faith.

It is a measure of how far modern Western Christianity has forgotten its roots that most church people can read the psalms and the prophets and blithely spiritualize their meaning without feeling the resonances of geography and local culture throbbing through them.

N. T. Wright, Jerusalem in the New Testament, 1.

The Fall of Jerusalem, for example, is an event with enormous spiritual implications, and yet because the event is only prophesied in the Bible, we rarely consider its spiritual implications.

When God allowed Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem and take the Jews into Babylonian captivity, what was the spiritual lesson? Plainly, God wanted to purify the people, to get rid of Baal worship, and to preserve a people commited to the Law of Moses. But there was more.

Jeremiah was God’s prophet at this time, and he explains why God had Nebuchadnezzar destroy Jerusalem —

(Jer 21)  The word came to Jeremiah from the LORD when King Zedekiah sent to him Pashhur son of Malkijah and the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah. They said: 2 “Inquire now of the LORD for us because Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is attacking us. Perhaps the LORD will perform wonders for us as in times past so that he will withdraw from us.”

3 But Jeremiah answered them, “Tell Zedekiah, 4 ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I am about to turn against you the weapons of war that are in your hands, which you are using to fight the king of Babylon and the Babylonians who are outside the wall besieging you. And I will gather them inside this city. 5 I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in anger and fury and great wrath. …

8 “Furthermore, tell the people, ‘This is what the LORD says: … 12 O house of David, this is what the LORD says: “‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done– burn with no one to quench it. …

(Jer 22)  This is what the LORD says: “… 3 This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. 4 For if you are careful to carry out these commands, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this palace, riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by their officials and their people. 5 But if you do not obey these commands, declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.'”

… 13 “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. 14 He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red.

15 “Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.

17 “But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion.” 

You see, God’s complaint was not just idolatry, but also a failure to do justice for the people. He overthrew Judea because the leadership was dishonest and oppressed the poor. Our God defends the poor, even to the extent of overthrowing his own nation and his own dynasty when the poor are neglected by their leaders.

Why did God allow Jerusalem to be overthrown by the Romans?

The obvious spiritual answer is to end the temple sacrificial system, to announce the beginning of a new covenant. But is that all? As Wright says,

… Jesus was implicitly claiming to do and be what the temple was and did. It is not enough to say, within a normal western-Christian mode of thought, that he was ‘claiming to be God’. What he was claiming to do was to act as the replacement of the temple, which was of course the dwelling-place of the Shekinah, the tabernacling of Israel’s God with his people. His offering of forgiveness and restoration undercut the normal system; in modem terms, it had the force of a private individual offering to issue a passport or a driving licence, thus bypassing the accredited office. Jesus was offering just such a ‘bypass’.

For Jesus to grant forgiveness was to claim to replace the temple and the priests. To a First Century Jew, it was astonishing beyond words. 

A significant part of Jesus’ ministry was spent warning Jews against rebellion.

Jesus’ stance was based on old prophetic traditions according to which Jerusalem would be destroyed for her rebellion against her God; not for nothing did some in the crowds say he was Jeremiah (Matt. 16:14). Jesus was announcing the way of peace, of loving one’s enemies, of marching an extra mile with the Roman soldier; and the announcement was reinforced by the warning, which at one level is straightforward Realpolitik, that, if Israel and particularly Jerusalem refuse this path, the alternative will be destruction at the hands of Rome. Where Jesus differed was in his insistence that when this happened it would have to be seen as the wrath of Israel’s God against his wayward people.

In context, Jesus’ warning to “turn the other cheek,” while surely a universal truth, was counsel not to rebel against Rome. 

So Jesus went to his death, convinced within his own first-century Jewish worldview that Israel’s destiny had devolved upon him and that he represented the true Israel in the eyes of God. His death would therefore be the means of drawing to its climax the wrath of God against the nation, forging away through that wrath and out the other side; as a result, all who wanted to do so could follow his way, be joined to his people, and find rescue from the great and imminent disaster, while those who chose to stick to the path of nationalistic militarism would find that such a route led only one way: ‘if they do this when the wood is green, what will they do when it is dry?’ (Luke 23:31). …

Jesus’ understanding of his own death and vindication must be seen in this light. He was drawing together the threads of Israel’s destiny, and acting them out in pursuit of one of Israel’s oldest goals and vocations, long forgotten in the dark years of foreign oppression: she was to be the ‘light for the nations’ (Isa. 42:6). God’s house in Jerusalem was meant to be a ‘place of prayer for all the nations’ (Isa. 56:7; Mark 11:17); but God would now achieve this though the new temple, which was Jesus himself and his people. 

You see, the Jews’ sin in the First Century was to seek freedom through military and political means — rather than seeking to be a light for the nations. The Jews failed to teach their neighbors about God!

After all, God’s covenant was for the nations to be blessed through Abraham —

(Gen 18:18)  Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.

In the Law of Moses, God taught the Jews that their obedience would teach the nations about God.

(Deu 4:5-9)  See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” 7 What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? 9 Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.

This was David’s purpose in slaying Goliath.

(1 Sam 17:46)  This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.

Countless Old Testament prophecies speak of the importance of God being known by the nations — of Israel being a light to the nations.

(Isa 51:4)  “Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations.”

And yet the Jews, rather than spreading the good news about God, chose to emphasize separation from the nations — which led to the end of their nation and their temple. As a result, God created a new Israel, a new nation, to fulfill his original mission — for the world to know God and his righteous decrees.

And so, what does this teach us about how to live as God’s people?

Plainly, if we fail to honor God as the Jews failed to honor God, we should expect to suffer the same fate. Therefore —

* We should not be looking for a political or military solution to our problems or the world’s problems.

* We should stand against oppression and injustice, especially when those suffering are the poor, the alien, the fatherless, and the widows.

* We should spread the good news that there is a righteous God to all the nations.

* We must live as God’s people, because the first (but not only) way people outside the church will see that there is a God in his Kingdom is by seeing us living as God’s people. The true evidence that there is a God is that he has a people who live for him. We must therefore give up everything that makes us look un-Godly.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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3 Responses to Faith Lessons by Ray Vander Laan: My Rock and My Fortress (Masada)

  1. mark says:

    "Modern Christians generally ignore the Jewish roots of Christianity. "
    I think this because to dive to deep into Jewish history makes Premillennialists or Preterist out of all of us.

  2. Alan says:

    So Jesus went to his death, convinced within his own first-century Jewish worldview…

    That's a curious way to refer to the "worldview" of the one through whom the world was created. I think his worldview was considerably broader than that of the average first century Jew.

    Jesus’ understanding of his own death and vindication must be seen in this light.

    Jesus' understanding is the whole truth of the matter. So it is better just to say: "Jesus' death and vindication must be seen in this light."

    Sorry if I'm overly picky. But those parts just don't seem to acknowledge the true and appropriate position of the Son of God.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    Your points are well taken, but Wright isn't quite as wrong as you likely think. The chapter I quote is from a book written for scholars and so approaches the scholars with whom Wright is interacting where they are. And many don't start with belief in Jesus' divinity.

    He concludes, "Rather, it is to say that God’s plan had always been to save the world through Israel; and in Christ it becomes clear that God, in making that plan, always intended that he would come himself to represent Israel in person."

    If you are very patient, Wright's lengthy discourse on Jesus' work within the framework of First Century Judaism in Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2) is a very good read — but very challenging for me to get my 21st Century mind around.

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