Birdsong of Masada

The clear, haunting notes of a songbird pierce the chilly breeze at the top of Masada.  Perched on a rock ledge, I notice what looks like a cousin of the red-winged blackbird that inhabits the summer cattails surrounding the pond back home. He looks directly at me, cocking his head in that strange, questioning way of one creature attempting to comprehend another.  We lock eyes for only a few seconds, but he and I both understand the unspoken eternity locked in that one moment.

A small group of us have come to Israel to see the land and people that make up so much of the historical background of our faith.  Almost everything we have gazed at or walked upon was ancient long before Columbus set sail for the New World.  The scope of Hebrew history – the ancient port of Jaffa, the sacrificial altars at Tel Dan, the ruins of a second-temple synagogue on the Sea of Galilee, the 1967 Syrian trenches along the Golan Heights border, and the colorful collage of Jews, Muslims, and Christians with their separate and unique, yet interwoven cultures mingling on the streets of Jerusalem – is so alien and, yet, eerily familiar to pilgrims coming to the Holy Land.

Named after Isaac’s youngest son, Jacob, Israel has been the focal point of conflicts throughout history.  The Canaanites, Israelites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moslems, Crusaders, Mameluks, Ottoman Turks and British all laid claim to this land at one time.  Strategically situated between Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea, the numerous conquering armies  left behind a variety of languages and cultures along with the ruins of their civilizations.

Biblical scriptures tell us that this land was given to the twelve tribes of Israel when they left bondage in Egypt with Moses.  Generations later, after the death of King Solomon, the mighty Hebrew empire split into two kingdoms:  the Northern Kingdom, called Israel, and the Southern Kingdom, called Judah.  The Northern Kingdom, comprised of 9 ½ tribes (half of the Levites stayed with the Southern Kingdom), was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC and eventually dispersed throughout the world (known as the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel). The Southern Kingdom, comprised of the remaining tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and the other half of the tribe of Levi, was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC and the first Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed.  However, unlike the fate that befell the Northern Kingdom, they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and the land of Israel to build the second Temple seventy years later.  These people are the “Jews” referred to in New Testament scriptures, and are the lineage from whence came the Savior, Yahshua Messiah.

During the first century BC, the Kingdom of Judah, or Judea, lost its independence to the Romans.  The Jews rose up against the oppressive Roman rule in 66 CE.   The conquering Romans brutally responded to the Jewish rebellion, destroying the second Temple, slaughtering or enslaving the inhabitants and laying waste to Jerusalem.   Approximately 960 zealots escaped to a mountain fortress, called Masada, built years earlier by Herod the Great in 37 BC as a place of refuge for himself should conflict threaten his rule.

Masada is not mentioned in biblical scriptures, yet its history tells a dramatic story of a people’s struggle to remain free in the face of formidable odds. When the Romans were destroying Jerusalem, it is believed that some Jews were able to escape through a drainage tunnel leading from the Pool of Siloam at the foot of the Temple to just outside of the Western Wall.  Walking through the dark, narrow passageway must have been terrifying to those fleeing with only oil lamps to guide them.  The refugees that made it to the mountain fortress were able to live in relative security for three years, until the inevitable day came when 15,000 Roman soldiers breached its walls.  What the Romans found, however, was not what they expected.  Only one woman and a few children remained, the others having chosen suicide instead of slaughter or slavery.  Historian Josephus Flavius and archaeological finds provide evidence that the Jews drew lots and chose ten men to slay all of the rest.  After they had performed their grisly mission, the ten chosen executioners again drew lots to kill the remaining nine, the last man taking his own life.

Seventy years following the tragic events at Masada, the Jewish people rebelled again.  They were able to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel for three years before another defeat by the Romans.  The Roman Emperor Hadrian, in his effort to wipe out the identity of Israel-Judah-Judea, renamed the country Syria Palaestina.  The Jews that weren’t killed, enslaved or exiled remained to face persecution, indignities, deprivations and horrors.  Those that were sent into the Jewish Diaspora (dispersion or scattering) were likewise mistreated, the Inquisition and the Holocaust being the most infamous.

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 is nothing short of a miracle.  Today Masada is a symbol of national pride and courage in Israel as its memory evokes the declaration, “Masada shall not fall again!”  Perhaps this is the message that the bird was singing as he flew off the cliff, soaring freely in the updrafts from the valley below.

by: Debbie Reed

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