Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Israel: Masada to Jerusalem and Birthdays

The road to Jerusalem for us passed through Masada early one morning


Masada is a mountain top fortress overlooking the Dead Sea southeast of Jerusalem.  Herod the Great made it one of his palaces with ornate buildings atop this impressive plateau.  During the 2nd Jewish Revolt in the 66-70AD time frame, the Zealot Jewish Sect stormed Masada and took it for themselves.

They lived there over 3 years until the Romans focused their attention on crushing them.  Our guide talked about how the Romans were experts in sieges.  They built 8 camps around the mountain, created a wall around the entire perimeter making it harder to sneak supplies in, and basically used psychological warfare on the cities they sieged before crushing them.

The Zealots responded by showering and doing laundry on the mountain top in plain view to show the Romans they had plenty of water and weren't going to give up any time soon.  The Zealots reconfigured the palace (see below) to make living quarters for many people.

 Model of Herod The Great's Palace on Masada...

Profile of remains of palace (Dead Sea in background)...

Invaders of Masada (of the tourist kind)...

Eventually the Romans built a large ramp (see below) and constructed their 'tower' / 'battering ram' at the top of the ramp, smashed a hole in the wall, and then went back down the mountain to prepare to storm the mountain top the next morning.  In essence, once the fortress was penetrated, the battle was over due to the weapons of the Romans + the sheer number of soldiers they had.  The Romans had 15,000 trained soldiers versus 960 on Masada many of whom were women and children.

The leaders of the Zealots talked that evening and decided on freedom through death versus being taken prisoner, made slaves, women abused, children either killed or taken to be house slaves or maybe being brought up by Romans to not believe in God.  So, each man went back to his family, killed their wives and children, came back and 10 of the soldiers killed all the men and then drew lots to see who would be the last one to kill the other 9 and commit suicide (they actually found the lots during the excavation with the 10 men's names on the pieces of pottery used as the 'lots').

When the Romans arrived the next morning, no one was alive.  Masada became a rallying point for the Jewish people.  It became a bit like "Remember the Alamo"...an inspiring tale of defiance.  Our guide got emotional telling the story, so you know it means something even today to the Jewish people (he was raised an orthodox Jew).

As with other places of ruin, AJ had a blast playing in the dirt....

Note of history: Our guide told us the other side of the Zealot story.  We use the term zealot in modern times to refer to someone who is 'over the top' for whatever it is that they are doing.  These Zealots were radical to the point of killing their own brother and sister Jews if they strayed from the faith, got too soft, or cooperated in any way the Romans.  He told the story of how they massacred the entire village of En Gedi near Masada because they thought they were sympathizing with the Romans.

In addition, as the Romans were preparing to attack Jerusalem it was the Zealots who would not let anyone leave the city as they were determined to fight to the bitter end.  The chief Rabbi of the time (this is outlined in the Talmud) had to fake his death and be buried outside the city walls in a shallow grave.  He then dug out that night and made his way to the Roman lines.

When he was taken to the Roman General Vespasian the Rabbi said "Hail Caesar, Hail Caesar, Hail Caesar!"  And Vespasian said he should kill him right there as he was not Caesar (ie emporer) but just a general.  A messenger arrived with notification that Nero had died and Vespasian had been named emporer.   When he asked the Rabbi how he knew he was emperor  the Rabbi replied "Jerusalem will fall to your siege and eventual attack.  It is written that it can only fall to a king, so I knew you were a king."  Vespasian granted him one wish and our guide said "And like a good Jew he asked for 2 things!"  One was a sanctuary where a group of Jews could go and continue their ways (which was granted) and I don't recall the other one but it was granted too.  Under Vespasian these promises were kept.

Other notes of history:

1. Much of what we know about Masada and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD comes from the writings of Flavius Joshepus, a first century Jewish historian.  He was a Jewish rebel leader who was captured by the Romans and somehow gained the trust of Roman generals, serving as a go between during the days of the siege.  Afterward, he had access to the highest levels of the empire once Vespasian became Emperor.  So, his description of what happened was taken from eyewitness accounts of those who participated in various aspects of these events.  He also gave very detailed descriptions of what the temple looked like during the first century AD.

2.  Masada is an anchor for archaeology because Josephus wrote about it.  He published his book 6 years after Masada fell.  Therefore, all the pottery at Masada could be dated to a specific set of years.  Anything else found anywhere else in Israel with similar features is immediately known to be from the time period.

3.  Average life span for a Roman slave in their silver mines was 3 months.  Average life span for slaves in general was 1 year.

Finally, we had a brief service in what was the synagogue built by the Zealots on Masada.  There were notes found during the excavation from Ezekiel (35:11 to 38:14) which talks about dry bones and also from Deut 33:17-34:6  Pastor Jake Huffman from Virginia has been one of the leaders of this group and he gave a moving testimonial during this time while reading a different passage from Ezekiel 36:22-28

En Gedi

We didn't spend a lot of time at En Gedi, but we had a nice service focused around Psalm 104 which was inspired by this place.

It is a nature preserve in the middle of the desert with water falls and all kinds of wild life.

This is one of the areas David fled to when King Saul was pursuing him trying to kill him.  You can see a cave in the upper part of the waterfall picture above (there is a much larger waterfall farther up the hill).  There are also much larger caves in the area which can easily be seen from the trail.

The story in 1 Samuel 24 comes from here as well.  That is the story where Saul has his back turned to David and David has the chance to kill him.  Instead, he just cuts a piece of his robe and then a few minutes later shows himself to Saul saying "I could have killed you for the evil you have done to me but here is proof that I mean you no harm."  That event is a foreshadowing event for Jesus coming and preaching that we should let the Lord avenge the wrongs of our enemy.  Essentially, David turned the other cheek and showed love to his enemy just as Jesus would instruct all of us to do 1000 years later.

Our little monkeys at En Gedi....

Qumran - The Dead Sea Scrolls

We visited Qumran which is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  We learned about the community that lived there (VERY orthodox Jews who lived in like monks in a commune).  30% of the scrolls found described their practices, 40% were Bible texts (ie Isaiah and many other Old Testament books), and 30% were extra biblical texts  There was even a scroll that wrote about whether a 'John' who was killed by Herod was the same 'John' who had spent nearly 2 years with them!

Regarding the Bible text scrolls...  The significance of these manuscripts is that they match up almost exactly to the modern day version.  Many people who doubt the Bible use one angle of 'it's such and ancient book and the stories have been changed over time' etc etc.  Yet, here is proof that from the time these scrolls were written over 1900 years ago until today they remain the same.

The PhotoBomber struck at Qumran....(Cave #4 of the 11 that held scrolls is just above S's head)

Dinner with Abraham

We had dinner with Abraham!  This tourist attraction was well run with a camel ride to the tents where we ate a dinner prepared by Abraham & his staff (all dressed as one would have dressed in Abraham's time)

This picture just makes the girls laugh....goofy camel:

This day was V and H's birthday.  Everyone sang Happy Birthday on the bus and there was a special presentation by Abraham at this dinner.

The funniest part of this dinner occurred when another group came to have their dinner in another tent.  They had to yell for Abraham 5 or 6 times before he came out to greet them.  You had to be there but it was really funny.   Obviously some kind of miscommunication happened or Abraham was on his union approved break (that line was for my good friend Richie)!  LOL

We drove over the mountain and it really is remarkable how the desert gives way to the green of Jerusalem.

And after a long day with no nap, this was AJ's reaction to seeing Jerusalem for the first time....given the pace of this tour, the early morning wake ups, very little nap time I would say the little guy has done an AMAZING job.

JERUSALEM (next day)

We started in the old city by doing the underground tour of Jerusalem. What an INCREDIBLE tour that is (didn't do it the previous time Rachel and I were in Jerusalem).

The entrance to the tour is near the Wailing Wall (Western Wall of 2nd Temple).  The tour lasts 1 hour and 10 minutes and really gives you a sense of how massive the Temple Mount really was during Jesus' time.  

One of the most interesting parts of the tour is near the beginning where they have a model of Mount Moriah.   This hilltop is where Abraham took Isaac to sacrifice him.  It is where Solomon built the first temple and also where the greatly expanded 2nd Temple sat.  King Herod the Great (the crazy king who tried to kill Jesus as a young child) was a crazy builder as well.  He had a large chunk of Mount Moriah cut away and moved to build essentially a gigantic platform on which to build the 2nd Temple.  The Western Wall is the west wall of this gigantic platform.    

The Temple Mount plaza was 144,000 sq. meters in area, the equivalent of 29 American football fields.

A feat like this, without the benefit of modern machinery, seems almost impossible. And yet Herod’s engineers accomplished this in only 18 months. How? By employing 1000 priests as masons and 10,000 laborers. Even with this amount of manpower, the results are amazing.

The dimensions for the Temple of Jerusalem were staggering: 460 meters to the east, 315 m to the north, 280 m to the south, and the western wall was 485 meters long.
The walls above ground rose 30 meters (ten stories tall), and their foundations were as deep as 20 meters in some places in order to reach bedrock. Each layer of the wall was recessed about 3 centimeters from the layer beneath it. This was to avoid the optical illusion created whenever you look up a tall, straight object, that it is about to fall over you.

Some of the quarried stones used in the Western Wall are so large that, to this day, archaeologists have trouble understanding how they could possibly have been transported. The smallest stones weight between 2 to 5 tons and the largest stone of them all – possibly the largest building stone in antiquity – is 13.6 meters long, 4.6 meters thick and 3.3 meters high, and is estimated to weigh 570 tons. 

Here is a picture of that rock....I am at one end and Rachel is at the other.  It weighs more than 1.5x the amount of a jumbo jet.  There is another rock of similar size a little bit farther down the corridor.  When the Romans were destroying the temple block by block they got to this rock and could go no further.  

The builders used dry construction – there is no cement between the stones. In fact, there’s nothing holding the stones together except their own weight.

Jesus walked on this level, down by the base.  If you close your eyes you can image people standing here cheering him as he entered the city and maybe next to this the wall the guards marched by as they headed to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him.

I love this picture of Rachel praying at the wall and AJ running up to her...

There was one picture where there were some pillars and the street from Jesus' time.  I just got the chills at that moment feeling His presence in that area for some reason.

I will probably upload more pictures later but right now I don't have the greatest internet connection.  Anyway, the underground tour was excellent.

I was trying to take notes as fast as I could.  Here are other interesting facts:

1. Archeologists found 170 mikvahs around the temple area(ceremonial baths used to get 'clean' before entering the temple) .  Interestingly, our guide told us that these were used on the first Pentacost when the 3000 initial Christians were baptized!

2. After the 6 day war when Israel gained control of all of Jerusalem, they cleared the area in front of what is now the Western Wall.  The Muslims had essentially put a slum at the Jews most Holy place, had houses right up next to the wall, threw trash on the wall etc.  Israel gave all the people who lived there new places to live (that were much nicer) and then leveled the area to create the plaza we see today.

3.  Guide talked about how the stones were not just placed....each one was chiseled with a design (simple design but it still took a huge amount of work to do).

4. Our guide mentioned something about all of these events happened on the same day in the Jewish Calendar...first temple destroyed, second temple destroyed, first day of Spanish inquisition when Jews were persecuted, first lighting of gas chambers in WWII...they all happened on the 9th day of the 11th month of the Jewish Calendar.... 9-11....eerie....

5.  Today Israel remembers the Holocaust and everything stops (even traffic) for 2 minutes in the middle of the morning.  We paused for 2 minutes underneath the city.

6  We got to a part of the wall that was bedrock and what they had done was chiseled the stone to make it look like the rest of the stones.

7.  Ended the tour at Hadrian's arch over Herod's water cisterns for the city.  The Antonio fortress was built on top of this arch.  It is an engineering marvel and still stands today despite the weight on top of it for the past 2000 years.

We came back outside and visited this site where the miracle described in John Chapter 5 occurred:

The Healing at the Pool

John 5 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. [4] [b] One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

Our guide stated this was an 'A' site...as close to a 'definite' based on Bible + archeology as you can get.    Look through the Arch at the steps leading down to the pool.  That is the area where this miracle happened.  Another round of chills running through my body.  It was hard for me to pull away from this site as I just wanted to stay there.

Where were you when Jesus healed you?

We moved into the church nearby.  This is one of the few churches that the Muslims did not destroy when they took over Jerusalem in the Arab period.  If you are a part of a group you may sing 1 song in the church and then move on.  We sang "How Great Thou Art"

We exited the LIONS GATE (see below), heard our guide talk about the famous story of the Israeli Army storming this gate in the 6 Day War & retaking the Temple Mount, and headed over to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Garden of Gethsemane

There is nothing that can be done about it, but the massive number of people at places like the Garden of Gethsemane (and later in the day at the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem) really impact the quality of the visits.  This is one place where having some time to just sit and reflect & pray would be really nice.  So, that is the downside of doing a tour.... there are time schedules.  Plus the area inside this church you really can't pause and reflect at the rock where tradition says Jesus prayed the prayer of relinquishment and said 'Not my will be done but Thy Will be done'

So, for me, the Garden was a bit of a letdown.  I'm actually appreciating it more now a couple of days after the fact looking at the pictures (most of which don't have masses of people everywhere).  Our guide talked about one of the trees nearly dying a couple of years ago which allowed people who deal with these things to work on it and figure out how old it is....and sure enough the tree was estimated to be 2000 years old.

I understand now the phrase in the Bible that refers to 'Like olive shoots' as these incredibly old trees will periodically have new 'shoots' coming out of them that help revitalize the tree.

The way this tree grew, I could just see the disciples leaning up against it and falling asleep in it...

If Jesus prayed at a tree and not at the rock in the church then I bet it was this tree.  It was by far the largest one there...

AJ in the Garden...

Outside the church at the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.  The pastor in our group gave a nice message about how Revelation talks about the Jesus coming again and planting his feet on the Mount of Olives.  This view is looking west over the huge Jewish cemetery toward the old city.

Inside the church...

Praying at the rock....we didn't get a picture of this but I was praying (I thought alone) and AJ came up next to me.  There must have been someone across the way with their hands in a prayer position in front of them because I looked over and my little boy was sitting there on his knees with his hands together as in prayer at the place where Jesus prayed.  It was an awesome sight for me as a father.  Thank you Jesus.  Here is a picture of the girls at the rock.


I remember being underwhelmed the first time I came to Bethlehem 20 years ago, and I was underwhelmed again.

First, it is in the Palestinian controlled area and there is DEFINITELY a different feel about the place compared to Israel.

Second, the church is PACKED with people.  We stood in line for 45 minutes to get to the little spot below which marks the most likely spot of Jesus' birth.  After such a long wait, you have to hurry through because there area  ton of people waiting for the chance to see and touch etc.

Third, the orthodox religions kind of have a monopoly on the most holy sites since they have been over them the longest.  So there are just a huge number of accoutrements all over the place.  Just not my cup of tea as I don't think one needs relics etc to worship Jesus.  The Bible talks about the importance of the body of christ (ie people) and the Holy Spirit (in us) and being in community with each other.  No disrespect to others, relics etc it just don't connect with me.

One positive thing we learned is why this spot was chosen as the birth place of Jesus.  Hadrian was Roman Emperor from 117 to 138 around, just 20-30 years after the Apostle John died.  Hadrian was one of the most well traveled Roman Emperors, visited the Holy Lands personally, and absolutely  HATED Christians.  He wanted to wipe Christians off the face of the earth.  Our guides reminded us that Bethlehem in the first century was a tiny village.  It DID NOT have multiple "Inns"   It had ONE Inn.

So, Hadrian came to Bethlehem, asked where the Inn was, confirmed it had been in the same place for a very long time....and he filled in all the grottos (caves that served as stables of the day) and built a temple to some Pagan God on top of the spot.  When Constantine's mother came to the Holy Land about 200 years later, essentially Hadrian had marked the spot of the birth of Christ as well as the likely spot of the Crucifixion (he did the same kind of thing there as well)

After seeing the birth place of Christ, we saw a room where one of the early Catholic priests spent 36 years translating the Bible from Aramaic to Latin.  This is the room where he did the work.  This is the work that was used for over 1000 years and is the work off which the King James Bible was ultimately translated from.

Finally, 3 of our 4 kids celebrated birthdays over these two days.  Happy Bday to V, H, and AJ!

There are many good things about doing a tour like this, but I will say it is exhausting!  The kids are hanging in there great.  I'm really amazed at just how well they are all interacting with others and with each other.   Really proud of them....

Til next time, God Bless.


  1. Great sites and stories. Continues to remind me of my trip in '99. I remember being exhausted on my trip so I'm sure your kids must be tired. Glad to hear they are hanging in there like troopers. What a great experience for your family. When I was there, 4-5 of us walked down from the top of Masada. That was kind of nuts, huh?

  2. I'm exhausted for you all! It sounds like an incredibly full schedule! Happy Birthday H, V and AJ! What a way to celebrate your birthdays! Hey AJ, so glad you still want to come to my house!

  3. Happy Birthday V, H and AJ - Love you all bunches! What a great way to spend your special day, can't wait to celebrate again when you get home! Much love and Many Blessings, Emily xo


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