The third day exploring the Negev was spent entirely along the Dead Sea. We stopped first at Masada, then swam in the Dead Sea, visited En-Gedi, and finished the day at Qumran.
Josephus and Masada’s fall in 73AD
The story of Masada’s fall, as recorded by Josephus, is very well known. In his account Josephus tells how the Roman governor of Judea, Lucius Flavius Silva, besieged the Sacarii, who were an offshoot of the Zealots. The Sacarii had taken Masada from a small Roman garrison in 66 AD.
The Sacarii were led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir. Josephus records the supposed final speech of Eleazar verbatim. In this speech Eleazar declares that falling into the hands of the Romans would be the ultimate dishonor. They would be taken as slaves and their wives and children would be used in all kinds of awful ways. The only honorable option was to take their own lives. So the men drew lots to choose the ten men who would kill all the others would be. Then they all went home and killed their families. When they regathered the ten men killed all of the others and one of the ten killed the other nine then fell on his own sword. The next day, when the Romans reached the summit of Masada, they discovered all of the Sacarii were dead and they had burned all of the buildings except for the food storehouses. Josephus records that this was so that the Romans would know the people had not died of hunger but for honor. Plus, this way the Romans had nothing to plunder.
That is Josephus’ tale. It has catapulted Masada into the position of the national symbol of Israeli independence. Today, the elite units of the Israeli Defense Forces are sworn in here. Unfortunately, archaeology has dropped some bombs on Josephus’ account.
1. How could Josephus have known what happened on Masada if everyone was killed? Supposedly, the account including Eleazar’s speech was related to Josephus by two women and five children who hid in a cistern and escaped when the Romans left. This is possible but it seems very unlikely that two women and five children could manage to get past the Romans and their circumvallation wall.
2. There is a lack of human remains on Masada. It is improbable that the Romans would take time to remove the dead from Masada. However, skeletal remains have only been found for only 28 of the supposed 936 inhabitants Josephus records. Where could they all have gone?
3. There is a second siege ramp on top of Masada going up and over the southern wall of the northern palace. If there had been no defenders when the Romans broke into Masada, why would there have been a need for a siege ramp?
The Dead Sea and En Gedi
Next stop, the Dead Sea! Swimming there was great, but it sure was strange. You float with nearly half of your body out of the water! Treading water is not necessary. It is just like your sitting in a bean bag filled with water instead of beans (I suppose those are called waterbeds). After that we climbed through the oasis of En Gedi and washed the salt off in the fresh water springs that come up there. It was marvelous!
The last site visited on this three day field study was Qumran. This is the settlement near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
There is no solid consensus on what this settlement actually was. The original excavator, Father Roland De Vaux, claimed that it was the site of a Jewish cult known as the Essenes and that the people who lived there were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Later excavations and analyses have challenged this hypothesis. Some claim that this was really a Roman villa and others that this was a trade depot. Neither has large amounts of evidence to support it. Some also believe that the caves of Qumran were used as permanent libraries, storage facilities, and even living quarters of the settlement. I think this is unlikely. The original openings to the caves are extremely small and difficult to pass through. The openings in all of the modern photographs are of the openings that were blown out by de Vaux to make entry and excavation easier.
I think that the settlement below probably was one of Essenes and that when they knew the Romans were going to sweep through they hid the scrolls in the caves. The caves might have been used for storage earlier, however, access seems far too complicated for them to have been in regular, everyday use.
God, the God of the Universe
We were able to climb up and have class in one of the caves! While there we read from Ezekiel 9. In this verse it seems that God, in some way, exiled Himself. Throughout our study of historical geography the theme of territorial gods continues to arise. Our God makes it clear over and over again that He is God of the universe, not just a territory. And, even though He seems to exile Himself in some way, He returns and He brings with Him living water (Ezekiel 47)! This water makes the Dead Sea fresh, it brings life to Sheol, the abyss. If God can do that, He is more than capable of bringing Life to our dead flesh. He is completely worthy of our trust.