Day Four – Wed, May 21, 2014

MASADA. The Hebrew word simply means “fortress,” but for nearly two centuries the three-syllable word has carried a far more powerful meaning to Jews.

This morning our group departed early from our hotel in Ein Bokek on the Israeli shore of the Dead Sea and drove just 15 minutes to our morning destination: Masada. Mike and I first visited this site at the top of an isolated rock cliff at the western end of the Judean Desert nearly 20 years ago, and still recall the extraordinary story our guide on that trip, Halvor Ronning, recounted.

Masada was developed as a royal fortress by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 BC as a personal place of refuge in the event of revolt. At the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War in AD 66, the Sicarii, a group of Jewish extremists, overpowered the Roman garrison in Masada.

After the Second Temple was destroyed in AD 70, other members of the Sicarii and many Jewish families fled from Jerusalem to Masada.

In AD 72, the Roman Legion X Fretensis surrounded Masada, built a line of fortifications and then moved thousands of tons of earth to create a siege embankment against the western wall of the plateau. After a two to three month siege, the Romans finally breached the wall of the fortress with a battering ram on April 16, AD 73.

First century Jewish Roman historian Josephus reported that when Roman troops entered the fortress, they discovered that the 960 inhabitants had committed mass suicide. Only two women were said to have hidden and survived to relate how the men had committed their own families to the sword rather than to have their wives and children taken captive by the Romans. The final ten men alive had written their name on potsherds (discovered during an archaeological dig) in order to draw lots and determine which would kill the others and fall on his own sword at the last.

MASADA – a word that has come to mean resistance. Defiance. And, wrong or right, the choice to die rather than be enslaved.

Much has changed since our first visit to this historic site in 1997. Visitors still ascend to the top of the desert fortress by cable car, but this time our group walked 300 feet down to the plateau courtesy of the Roman built ramp. Reconstruction continues atop Masada, and today it is much easier to see the outlines of Herod’s original palace, swimming pool, and ritual baths.

But the most amazing part of our day had nothing to do with the Jewish revolts or Roman sieges.

For nearly 20 years, Mike and I have included in our Bible teaching stories, illustrations and lessons from the Holy Land we first learned through Halvor Ronning, an American pastor who has lived in Jerusalem for most of his adult life where he and his wife run a home for Bible translators. Over the years we lost touch with Hal, but this trip has renewed our appreciation for gifted guides like Hal and Yoni who have mastered a vast body of information about the land, language and literature of the Bible.

We thought of asking Yoni if he had ever heard of our former guide, but what would be the chance of that?

And then just before we began to descend from Masada, Yoni looked back at a group just behind us and shouted a greeting in Hebrew.

“It’s an older man from my church,” he explained to us, “who is a veteran guide. We’re good friends.”

We looked back and then broke into a run. It was Halvor Ronning.