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The Bible and Suicide

Virtual Tour of Israel: Masada
Dead Sea
Jordan River
Tel Aviv

Masada is a mountaintop, complete with ancient ruins, located in the Negev desert near the Dead Sea.

The word Masada means "fortress" in Hebrew. The cliff's remoteness from human habitation and difficult approach made it an ideal location for a fortress. Two fortified palaces were built there in the 1st century BC by the Judean king Herod the Great. After Herod's death, Masada was occupied by a Roman garrison. Jewish zealots captured it in AD 66.

From AD 66-70, Masada became a refuge for Jewish zealots revolting against Roman rule. After the Romans conquered Jerusalem in AD 70, about 1000 men, women, and children escaped to Masada.

At the end of AD 72, the Romans set out to conquer Masada, the last point of Jewish insurrection. The Roman camp consisted of some 10,000-15,000 Roman soldiers and Jewish prisoners. Eight Roman army camps, linked by an earthen wall, were built in a circle around the base of Masada. The Jewish zealots fought the approaching army off with stones. When the Romans finally succeeded to breach the wall at the top of the mountain, the Jewish zealots knew they had lost the fight.

Eleazar Ben-Yair, leader of the Jewish zealots, delivered the following speech.

"My loyal followers, long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone else but only God, who alone is the true and righteous Lord of men: now the time has come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. At such a time we must not disgrace ourselves: hitherto we have never submitted to slavery, even when it brought no danger with it: we must not choose slavery now, and with it penalties that will mean the end of everything if we fall alive into the hands of the Romans. For we were the first of all to revolt, and shall be the last to break off the struggle. And I think it is God who has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men, unlike others who were unexpectedly defeated. In our case it is evident that day-break will end our resistance, but we are free to choose an honourable death with our loved ones. This our enemies cannot prevent, however earnestly they may pray to take us alive; nor can we defeat them in battle."

"Let our wives die unabused, our children without knowledge of slavery: after that, let us do each other an ungrudging kindness, preserving our freedom as a glorious winding-sheet. But first let our possessions and the whole fortress go up in flames: it will be a bitter blow to the Romans, that I know, to find our persons beyond their reach and nothing left for them to loot. One thing only let us spare—our store of food: it will bear witness when we are dead to the fact that we perished, not through want but because, as we resolved at the beginning, we chose death rather than slavery." (Josephus Flavius, Jewish War)

All but seven Jews killed themselves rather than surrender to slavery.

Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin excavated Masada in 1963-65. Today Masada is both a popular tourist attraction and an Israeli national shrine.

Information from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and Microsoft's Encarta '95.

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~ Lisa Katz

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