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Masada: Herod, Heroes and Sacrifice


Masada, the Hebrew word for “fortress,” is a perfect description of the Biblical site where Herod the Great had one of his summer palaces. If you’ve traveled to Israel to stand on this dusty summit and know what’s behind the historical mountaintop, the site grips your imagination like few others.

Located in the East Judean desert close to the Dead Sea, Masada served Herod’s concerns for protection during his 33-year reign (36 BCE -4 CE). The Jews would rather have killed him than be ruled by him so building a desert fortress high on a rocky mountain made sense for a king consumed by fears of angry subjects.

But Masada’s roots began a century earlier (c. 100 BCE) when Jews newly liberated from the Greek Seleucids, began building its initial structures. Herod knew from his experience as a general sent to recapture the site from rebels, just how impregnable this mountain could be.

When Herod took Masada for his own, he focused first on ensuring a water supply by building twelve huge cisterns carved into cliffs. Designed to capture potential floodwaters that flowed through nearby wadis, the cisterns made Masada possible. What a sight to glimpse this Northern Palace constructed on three natural terraces that included storehouses, a bathhouse, shaded courtyards, staircases and colonnades –all revealing Herod’s almost obsessive concern for security.

By the time Herod completed his building project, Masada was fortified with a wall almost a mile long and 30’ wide, 70 rooms embedded within the wall, 30 towers and two gates. A defensive infrastructure indeed!

But the history that has filtered into the collective memory happened 75 years after Herod’s death when the first Jewish revolt against the Romans began for the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Jewish Zealots fled to Masada with their families and held out three long years as Rome’s Tenth Legion found increasingly clever ways to penetrate the fortress.

Using thousands of Jewish prisoners of war, Roman General Silva constructed a rampart and finally a battering ramp that breached the walls, only to find the rebels had just died. Jewish leader, Elazar ben Yair, convinced the men to kill their wives and children, then commit mass suicide themselves, related by two surviving women. As ben Yair told them:

Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice…We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom (Jewish Virtual Library).

Mini-series starring Peter O’Toole and Peter Strauss.

A 1981 television mini-series, “Masada”, captures the conflict movingly. But best of all is a bonus feature at the film’s beginning of an officer’s swearing-in ceremony for those serving in today’s Israeli military.

Masada continues to symbolize the ultimate Jewish resistance.

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Mt. Nebo and Moses’ Lessons in Obedience

If you’ve ever looked forward to something, really wanted it, strove for it but in the end didn’t realize it, you can identify with Moses as he gazed across at the Promised Land from today’s Jordan, realizing he would not enter.

This month’s video blog takes place at this special site, Mt. Nebo, the place in ancient Moab where Moses got only to preview Canaan from a distance before he died and was buried.

Did you wonder why such a faithful follower of God didn’t get to realize his dream? I did. The book of Numbers has answers, but first some context.

In that first month of the Exodus, the people had started murmuring about why Moses brought them up from Egypt only to die of thirst in the desert, their initial provisions having run out.

Anyone who has served in a position of leadership can identify with the frustration and end-of-his-rope feeling Moses must have experienced. Doing what he had always done when in trouble, the great leader turned to God for answers, retreating into the ‘tent of meeting’ constructed for the worship of God. There, Moses and Aaron experienced a theophany, a divine appearing, as recorded in Numbers 20:6, 8 –“They fell on their faces and the glory of the Lord appeared to them” (Common English Bible).    The continued instructions are clear: “You and Aaron your brother, take the staff and assemble the community. In their presence, tell the rock to provide water (vs. 8, emphasis added).”

Instead of following divine instructions, however, we learn: “Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice Numbers 20:11, emphasis added).“

It’s a subtle difference and the end result seemed not to matter: the people got their water.

But that moment of disobedience revealed far more than how water was extracted. It was about Moses either trusting God fully to obey His commands, or determining he had a better way. And in this case, that ‘better way’ appeared to be filled with anger (Moses striking the rocks), something that was completely contrary to the loving provisions that God was supplying.

Once again the Bible illustrates that the best leaders are those who follow the leadership of God.  It’s somehow a bit reassuring to realize that even history’s greatest leaders, like Moses, have their moments of doubt or ego.  Yet Moses seems to have learned a significant lesson at this early stage of the Exodus:  we don’t find another example of him choosing a way other than how God has directed him.  That is a leadership example we can all follow.

Sitting on an ancient wall at Mt. Nebo overlooking Roman milestones and the valley below where Moses is thought to have been buried. The view is tremendous!

The video blog from Mt. Nebo is an example of where the Bible’s physical geography teaches us spiritual lessons. Israel is so close, the promised land right there to enter.  Yet it wouldn’t be for Moses.   Mt. Nebo’s high ground overlooks nearby Israel, just West of the Transjordanian River Valley which serves as the border between Israel and today’s Jordan. Much of Israel spreads out before you like a vast desert carpet. Here Joshua would, as Moses’ first lieutenant, take the leadership command and begin his mission of conquering Canaan, but only after burying the great leader that had given Israel so much.

Deuteronomy sums it up: The Lord spoke to Moses that very same day:  “Hike up the Abarim mountains, to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab opposite Jericho. Take a good look at the land of Canaan, which I’m giving to the Israelites as their property.  You will die on the mountain you have hiked up, and you will be gathered to your people….You can look at the land from the other side of the river, but you won’t enter there” (Deut. 32:48-50, Common English Bible).

Another Biblical lesson in obedience.

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Why Jesus’ baptism is told differently

The Baptism Site on the Jordan side of the Jordan River is one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations only began here in 1996, following Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but have already uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods. (Picture from Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

The fact that our New Testament contains four Gospels by four writers with four viewpoints can sometimes be tricky to navigate when some events of Jesus’ life are told differently.  Yet there are substantial blessings in having these four accounts for Bible students twenty centuries later:  we gain a fuller picture and understanding of Christ Jesus’ life and ministry.

The Master’s baptism is one of a number of examples where there is diversity in the four accounts.  This video blog tells the story of two versions of the baptism, one from Matthew and the other from Luke, that will perhaps shed light on some discrepancies you’ve no doubt noted.

Before reading further (spoiler alert!), you might want to reread Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:4-8, Luke 3:21-22 and John 1:29-34, the four evangelists’ versions of the baptism of Jesus.

The video below was taken on a recent trip to Israel, standing at the traditional site of the Jordan River where historians believe this pivotal event of Christianity took place. (The picture above is from the Jordanian side of the river where new excavations are occurring.)  Christian tourists travel from every continent to be baptized as was the Master Christian.  Here are the hopes of a lifetime to experience the purification that this 2000-year-old immersion in water symbolizes for believers.

Since Mark is believed to have been the first Gospel written, we see how significant the baptism is to the early Christians as Mark chooses to open the story of Jesus not with his birth, but his baptism.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:9-11).”

John baptizes Jesus as he has so many others but this time a sense of God’s presence is so vivid that John hears a voice claiming Jesus as God’s son and identify Jesus.

But in the Luke version, John is not even at the baptism.  He is miles away imprisoned in one of Herod’s fortresses, just before his death.  Again, by rereading the Luke version below, you’ll see the writer is telling us John is well off the scene so that Jesus is known to be unmistakably the Son of God.  There would be no confusion, in Luke’s relating of the story, which figure was the son of God.

20 “…he shut John up in prison.  When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened”  (Luke 3:21,22).

One baptism.  Two versions.  Each writer had his own reasons…thus the beauty of four distinct gospels.

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How the Beatitudes come alive on a Galilean Hill

There are few places in Israel more ‘ground zero’ to Christianity than the Mt. of Beatitudes on the shores of the Galilean Sea, the subject of this month’s video blog. It is in this beauty-filled place that historians think Christ Jesus gave a sermon that included the core teachings of what it is to be part of the community of believers, of Christ’s Church.

The heart of this teaching, called “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7), are the Beatitudes.  These eight verses, unified by their common beginning of  ‘blessed’ (makarios in Greek), address an objective–not subjective–state of happiness.   Moving far beyond an emotional state of happiness, Jesus pointed his followers to an objective reality of being spiritually enriched because of one’s citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christians have made pilgrimages to this sacred site since the 4th century, the first thought to be an Italian woman, Egeria.  Visiting in 380, she wrote to her Christian community back home, “Near there on a mountain is the cave to which the Savior climbed and spoke the Beatitudes.”  A 4th-century Byzantine church was built to commemorate the site, featuring an unusual octagonal floor, in honor of the eight Beatitudes.  The modern Catholic church (in this photo and the video blog) was built in 1936, near the 4th-century Byzantine ruins.

We hope this month’s two-minute video blog gives you, too, the feeling of peace and serenity felt on a recent visit.

Regardless of whether this is the exact spot where Jesus Christ delivered this Sermon on the Mount, or one nearby, the sense of elevation over the sea, the shady trees and the tranquility all make it likely that here was first heard the Sermon to stand through the ages.  And now we get on with trying to live it more.

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Christ Jesus’ home at Capernaum

Welcome to another video blog from a recent trip to Israel.

“He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea…”.

So writes Matthew in 4:13, introducing the reader to this central location of Christ Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee. Capernaum is located on the northwest shore of the Galilean Sea, a beautiful site in calm weather and a treacherous one when rough seas churn.  Although only about 1500 people and 13 acres in size in the first century, Capernaum has found its way into the Christian’s vocabulary as a center for the healing ministry of Jesus Christ — from Peter’s mother in law, to the man with evil spirits, to the centurion’s servant.  Enjoy this brief journey to the heart of the Master’s Galilean ministry.

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