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Thoughts on Masada

May 11, 2009


Monday, 5:57 PM local time

Today we visited some sites in Old Jericho, viz. the Mount of Temptation. According to the best guess, Jesus was baptized by John just east of here. Looking west we could see mountains rising high above the city, peppered with caves. It was to this wilderness that Jesus sojourned for forty days and forty nights, and was tempted by the devil. This place is full of ‘forties’ – Moses spent forty days atop Mount Sinai, the Jews wandered for forty years, then another forty years, then Jesus goes on a similar ‘wandering’ for forty days.
Speaking of which, this site was also the home to the excavation of a piece of the original wall of Old Jericho. Technically you couldn’t see any actual wall, but there was an impressive tower about thirty feet below where we stood. Even more impressively, it is estimated that this tower was built in the year 10,000 BCE, making it the oldest known human construction. I think if I was going to break my teeth on the whole building trade, I would have started with something a bit more modest. While we were all thoroughly impressed, it did start a lively debate about whether or not this tower was in fact the Tower of Babel. While the ‘nos’ carried the day, I think that the arguing and dissension that came about as a result is points in favor of it being Babel.

In Jericho we have reached the apex of our accommodations: the luxurious Inter-Continental. Two big fluffy double beds, full room service, bar. Right now I am sitting outside by the swimming pool in the waning evening light. Yup, being in the Holy Land sure is tough.

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here as far as sleeping arrangements go, so we’re planning on drinking it to the dregs.

On a trip like this one, home is a movable feast. After a long day (and this one sure was long), even a hotel that we’re staying in for one night feels like home, but we’ll keep moving. Our bus is probably more like a home than anything But it is fitting, in a land where boundaries are already being redrawn, and a person’s homeland today might be someone else’s tomorrow.

(My thoughts on Masada)
There is a clear back line between truth and fiction. At least, that’s how it appears when you step out of the tram car at Masada. Archaeologists (or whoever was in charge) were kind enough to draw a line between the original walls and what was added later. They took care to match the style of the architecture to give visitor’s a more vivid impression of what the fortress/palace looked like to the Zealots who took refuge there.

It is a striking metaphor for the tension between what happened and what we say happened. There is no history without interpretation. We listen to the voices of the past the best we can, and we try to be faithful to what we find, but we are all working with imperfect instruments. Perhaps even more problematic, however, is the peculiar bent that we all bring with us when we look at a history. We are taught certain stories about our past, and rarely do we get a glimpse at all the decisions that were made in the writing of that story. What we see when we look at a tel, or the ruins of a palace, are answers to questions asked thousands of years ago. We come with our own questions, and we get different answers.
So we are left with two Masadas. One of the exists below the black line. It is the Masada that ‘happened.’ It is the sequence of events as they actually unfolded throughout time. This is the Masada we want to reach. It is the Masada built by the flesh and blood of past people. A number of characters who entered history, and then exited, some nobly, some not so much. This Masada is the object of desire for historians and archaeologists. Alas, it can not be seen. Somewhere between the light refracted off stone and the impression of the image on our brains, it is lost.

The other Masada exists above the black line. This is the Masada of story and legend. The one we have uncovered in successive centuries as we have tried to make sense of what we found there, and the accounts left by Josephus. This Masada takes root in our imagination, and flourishes in the intersection between our world and the world of first –century Judaism. It is a reconstruction as faithful as we can make it, but a reconstruction nonetheless. When I went up to the ruins I did not see Herod’s winter getaway, or the site of a rebellion. I did not even see just another mountain in the Negev. I saw walkways winding through rooms and hallways. I saw signs directed traffic. I saw people from many different countries, coming in droves to see something that has taken on some great significance. What is Masada symbol of? Jewish solidarity? The strength of religious conviction? The conflict between a coercive state and the socio-political margin?
I must confess I find the second Masada far more interesting. As much as I respect the painstaking examination of details in the quest to better understand our collective history, I am thoroughly enamored with the life that this history takes in the minds of people today. Particularly in a place like Israel, where different groups are constantly negotiating the history of the land in the face of political concerns. What would Masada look like if Palestinians were in control, or Christians? At one time Christians were in control of Masada, and the remains of a church are testimony. There is even a baptismal fount. A chunk of land like the mountain Masada was built on takes on different significance, depending on who is in control. When we read someone’s take on that significance, we often find out just as much about the person as we do the event itself.

Perhaps it is clear now that there really isn’t a very clear line between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction.’ Even while we admit a level of ignorance in terms of knowing what actually happened there, we do not simply throw up our hands. We hear the different stories and listen to the context behind those stories. Then we join them to our own story, our own take on what is going on. I think this process could be known as ‘myth.’ Myth does not necessarily mean untrue. Rather, myth denotes a story which is formative for the present. It helps us explain ourselves and our experiences. It draws back on crucial events – such as the fight between a Jewish sect of Zealots (capital?) against the larger Roman army, which sought to put them down. Yet, even as we draw on these events, the meaning of the event is changed by who we are in the present. Thus, the story is a living story. We learn to be a part of this story, to make it our responsibility as much as those who came before us.

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