An early wake-up call started a long day for 42 intrepid travelers associated with Campbell University Divinity School who are exploring the land of Israel and the West Bank.
After fighting a snarl of traffic to exit Jerusalem, we drove down the Jericho Road, then continued along the Dead Sea from north to south, with the sea to our left and barren, forbidding hills to the right.
Our destination was Masada, an isolated flat-topped mountain on which Herod the Great built a private fortress (including a luxurious palace complete with a large bath house and sauna) in which to seek safety if his kingdom, which he ruled in Rome’s behalf, came under attack.
Masada sits high over the Dead Sea, and is incredibly dry. Yet, Herod’s architects constructed large cisterns and ingenious methods for trapping water on the 3-5 days per year when rain fell, providing adequate water for those who lived in the fortress.
During the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 A.D., Jewish zealots climbed the winding snake pass of the mountain by night, surprised the small Roman garrison stationed there, and captured the fortress. They and their families moved in to stay, and converted what was probably a storeroom into a synagogue – now the only first century synagogue known to exist. While we were there a Jewish family from the states came to visit: the children read the Torah, then they danced while singing “That Old Hebrew High.”
After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the zealots on Masada were the only Jewish enclave that had not be overcome. Thousands of Roman soldiers were sent to recapture Masada, but the fortress was so well protected that it took them three years to accomplish it. The remains of a siege wall and eight camps where the Roman army lived during the siege can still be seen surrounding the mountain.
Eventually, the Romans used captured Jewish slaves to build a huge ramp on the western side of the mountain, enabling them to roll a giant battering ram into place and knock down the wall. According to Josephus, all but seven of the 965 Jews living there died on the night before the final attack, rather than submit to the brutality, rape and slavery they expected if captured. Josephus reported that the men met and agreed to kill their women and children first, then chose 10 men who would kill all the men but themselves. Those 10 then drew lots for who would kill the others, then fall on his sword.
Masada remains a powerful symbol of commitment and allegiance to God, something Rick Hollings reminded us of as we had worship within sight of the synagogue. We also sang hymns like “The Solid Rock” and “Rock of Ages.”
From Masada we drove to En Gedi, a famous oasis since biblical times, a place where springs gush from the mountains in the midst of a dry and dusty land. According to 1 Samuel 24, David was hiding in a cave at En Gedi when King Saul just happened to come into the same cave to relieve himself. David could have killed Saul, but did not.
We had an opportunity to hike past three separate waterfalls, and a half-dozen of us made it to the top, where we reflected on the many biblical references to springs of water in a dry and thirsty land – and how welcome it is. This was my first opportunity to climb to the waterfalls, and one of my favorite experiences of this trip.
Our track led from En Gedi to Qumran, where we finally got lunch at about 2:00 p.m., and a chance to cool down a bit: I didn’t see a thermometer, but it felt to be well over 100 degrees. Fortunately, the remains of the village were right behind the visitors’ center, so we didn’t have far to walk. Qumran is near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and following excavations in the 1950s, it became commonly accepted that a sect called the Essenes lived at Qumran. A room in the complex held remains of what were interpreted to be writing tables, so it was called “the scriptorium,” and it was imagined that the residents may have copied the scrolls that were later hidden in hard-to-reach caves. In the picture below, the room to the left is the “scriptorum,” while the room to the right, were many oil lamps were found, was labeled as a place for study at night.
In recent years, other scholars have posited alternate views, interpreting the Qumran complex as a wealthy person’s country villa, or as a small village that specialized in making pottery. Whatever the case, the discovery of the scrolls in the nearby caves – giving us the oldest known biblical texts – cannot be underestimated.
Many travelers rejoiced when we reached our final destination of the day, and a long-awaited chance to swim (or float, at least) in the Dead Sea. In Hebrew, the Dead Sea (technically a lake) is called Yam Hamelah, “the Salt Sea.” It is the lowest place on earth — about 1300 feet below sea level. Its salt content is about 30 percent, eight times greater than sea water. Many people believe the mineral-laced mud along the bottom is good for the skin, and plaster themselves with it while there. Some of our folks gave it a try, though not the same “full-body” treatment we saw others try.
A good part of our group enjoyed a brief foray into the water, where they lounged about,
and even tried synchronized floating. I think it is unlikely that they will get into the Dead Sea Olympics any time soon.
We were one tired group when we arrived back at Ramat Rachel, wanting only a good shower and supper before hitting the bed – with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call scheduled for Monday: erev tov (good night)!