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The Desert Fortress

May 11, 2009


Monday, 11:26 am local time


I learned the story of Masada in college. Ori was my Hebrew professor, and my friend, and she branched out into Hebrew Literature and Jewish Literature. I took every class she offered; I do that with people whose passion for the subject fills me. My senior year, Ori – knowing that I was an English Lit major intending to go to seminary – asked me to do a different project for the Hebrew Literature final. “Amir,” she said, always calling me by the Hebrew name she had given me, “Amir, I don’t want you to write a paper about something dead and gone. I want you to translate a piece of this poem and write about that.” So I did, and it changed me.

The poem she gave me was Yitzhak Lamdan’s epic poem “Masada,” which he wrote in the early twentieth century. I quoted part of it in the Site Report for Masada, but my favorite line bears repeating: “Matzadah lo shuv tipol.”

Masada shall not fall again.

Chip teaches us that it’s impossible to read any text outside of its historical context; Ori taught me the same, as did my English Lit mentor Jim Yoch. Lamdan wrote the poem as a Zionist call to colonize and settle the land of Palestine after the first World War, based on the historical account of Josephus Flavius of the first century, a Jewish collaborator with the Roman conquerers. The story I translated is a propaganda poem based on the imaginative account of a traitor.

And yet.

The legend of Masada is tragically wonderful, Hamlet and Faust and the Alamo and the Texan Goliad and the founding of America all rolled into one. Eliezer ben Yair gathered the final forces of the Jewish Zealots at the Herodian fortress of Masada for a last stand in 73 AD. Masada stands high above the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea, and is one of the most defensible positions in the Middle East. Jerusalem had fallen in 70 AD to the Roman invaders, the mighty temple there destroyed like a sand castle, and they had their sights set on wiping out any possible resistance.

The Romans had besieged Masada for a year. This presented no immediate problem to the Zealots, as they had room enough for three years worth of supplies, except that the Romans were clever. General Silva, not content merely to wait out the Zealots, had his slaves – most of them captured Jews – start building a ramp up the mountain on the west side. It was an ingenious plan; the Zealots could stop the progress of the ramp only by throwing stones and raining arrows down on their fellow Jews. The Romans didn’t relent, and in a year the huge ramp was built, and they had begun battering the front gate.

Eliazer gathered his troops, and in the infamous account of Josephus, he implored them to consider the safety of their wives and children should they be sent into slavery. Surely death would be better for them. And so they decided. Ten of the men killed all of the people of the fortress, men, women, and children, before drawing lots to decide who would be the one to kill the other nine and then fall on his sword. When the Romans entered the next day, they found the supplies burned, the armory destroyed, and the people all dead – save two women and three children who had escaped by hiding in a water jar, who told General Silva the tale.

This story was in my mind as we ascended the mountain to the fortress in a cable car. This story was in my mind as we walked through the vast complex of storerooms, baths, atriums, and palaces. And this story was in my mind when Samir gathered us all together and told us it wasn’t true.

Well, of course.

The main excavator of Masada in the 1950s, Yigdal Yadin, had falsified some of the evidence. Carbon-14 dating showed that the stones he had found, which he took to be the lots that the last ten soldiers cast in order to select the last man to die, were only 30 years old. The skeletons that he had found in a nearby mound were maybe 50 years old, and mostly animal bones besides. There was evidence of a community there, yes – after all, Masada does physically exist – but of the heroic sacrifice of the Zealots in 73 AD, there is no trace.

Samir told us all this with a bit of anger in his voice. His professor had been the one who had posited the authenticity of the stones, and he had been the one whose authority had been discredited. Samir sounded wounded, betrayed even, as if a great lie had been perpetrated. He told us that a panel of government officials had convened to deal with the troubling news that the story was not true. The Minister of Tourism urged the people to continue visiting the site, as it was nevertheless still an interesting piece of history. The Minister of Defense stopped Israeli soldiers from completing their training at Masada by swearing the oath, “Matzadah lo shuv tipol,” for the army shouldn’t build oaths on lies. The story was dead, even if the site remained.

Instead of taking the cable car back down, we walked the Snake Path, a narrow, steep trail that zig-zags down the east face of the mountain. It gave me time to think. Of course I knew that the story was just a legend, that Josephus had artfully built up an epic tale whether wasn’t one. Lamdan’s poem was a Zionist plea to return to the Promised Land, fancy words dressing up an ulterior motive. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling let down as I descended the mountain. This is how that kid must have felt when he said to Shoeless Joe Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

Say it ain’t so, Josephus.

As we walked down, I got caught behind Gordon and Semaj, and I listened to their conversation from a few steps back. Gordon was pointing out that this is akin to the wilderness in which Jesus was tempted; Jerusalem isn’t that far away, and the southeastern desert of Israel is fairly nondescript. “It is not good for man to be alone,” he said, referencing the abundance of resources in Eden and wondering how two people could be tempted to sin in such wealth, while one was able to resist in the middle of desolation.

Gordon continued talking, referencing the story in Exodus of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on top of a mountain in the midst of awesome fire and terrible flame. Elijah climbed that same mountain to flee ****, but God didn’t appear in the fire but rather in the still, small voice. I noticed that Gordon started to get more energized as he spoke about Jesus ascending another mountain, and Peter and John seeing him transfigured before their eyes. “The miracle,” Gordon said excitedly as Semaj murmured his ascent, “wasn’t that Jesus was transfigured; it’s that Peter and John were able to see him as he really was.”

“And us,” Semaj answered, referencing 1 John, “We will become like him. That’s how we’re going to be.”

“Right,” Gordon said.

It was remarkable to hear Gordon and Semaj speak. They believe; the stories that they were telling actually matter to them. Gordon said as much: “It matters if the resurrection happened!” he practically shouted. He shook his head, “Sometimes, believing that is the only way I can get up in the morning.”

Friedrich Buechner was a theologian in the twentieth century, and he wrote a book called Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale. We read a lot of books in seminary, and I’ll admit, few of them have any real impact on me, but this one…this one changed me. Buechner’s basic question is, what is a true story? What makes a story ‘the truth’? Is a true story an accurate reporting of facts? Emotions are not facts; feelings are not facts. This blog could be, “10:21: Drove up to Masada. 10:22: Got off of the bus,” and so on, but that not why you’re here. That’s not why I’m here – that’s not why we’re here.

The things I’m writing matter because of the emotions I’m infusing in them; the story of my trip to Masada matters to me because I damn near cried when I stood in the cable car and watched the fortress approach. I’ll tell you that Gordon and Semaj didn’t say the exact words I’ve quoted here, but they’re close – they evoke the feelings that I remember, and isn’t that important, too? Isn’t that true?

People have been ‘disproving’ the Bible for centuries. The Israelites couldn’t have crossed the Red Sea; they probably just waded through a ‘sea of reeds.’ Ezekiel didn’t really see a chariot in the middle of the air, he was just smoking some pretty heavy hallucinogens. And so on.

But Gordon says, “It really matters if the resurrection happened.” And it does. Our faith isn’t just built on stories, it’s built on reality – but the stories are all we have. The stories are important, too. The truth we tell is mediated through our experiences; we cannot live but through our experiences. The truth of the Masada story is as much in the evocation as in the delineated historical facts. It doesn’t matter if Eliezer ben Yair died that day. What matters is the courage, sacrifice, and tragedy did not.

For as long as I remember the story, Masada shall not fall again. And that’s good enough for me.

One Comment leave one →
  1. g. handler, m.d. permalink
    May 24, 2009 6:27 pm

    Mr. Timpte:
    A long while ago when I was young and the earth was fresh, fortune permitted my acceptance in the final group under Yadin’s personal direction to excavate Masada. He arrived by helicopter every third day to examine what had been unearthed then lectured us about those times and their many actors. He was a thoroughgoing, postdoctoral professor. While well intentioned Israelis may have concluded that
    Yadin or one of his group salted the site, I can personally attest
    to finding correctly designated small coins from Roman “pockets,”
    clay oil lamps in balcony seats presumably for lookouts, human
    vertebral segments documented and later carbon-dated by med school colleagues. Since 1963, I have not kept current on news about the
    dig, but I can say that many surprising physical objects and their
    even more surprising surroundings were not revealed within five years
    after my participation. “Certum est quia impossibile est.” I still
    have photographs, though my friends’ were confiscated by obedient soldiers.
    Yours is an extraordinarily mature understanding of how to position
    intellectual expectation in order that it not be overcome by emotional betrayal, and such insights will serve you well no matter your role in the world. Only a thought. “Meaning devolves from structure” is one of Gestalt’s enduring truisms, but, as such, may be relegated to inactive memory. Should you ever find yourself among the Church’s administrative elite, consider using its clarifying power before any immovable judgment is formulated, internalized and acted on.

    Good fortune.

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