Since the destruction of Jerusalem was an event of earth-shattering covenantal significance, what might be the meaning of the subsequent tragic events at the desert fortress of Masada?
In Hebrew, the name Masada means “strong foundation or support,” from a root meaning “to hunt, lie in wait for prey.” Located on the eastern edge of the Judean desert between Ein Gedi and Sodom, the plateau is a natural fortress, standing 1,300 feet (400 meters) above the Dead Sea. The three natural approaches to the top are very difficult to navigate, and were once protected by heavily fortified gates.
Originally built by Herod the Great as a “winter castle,” the complex constructed upon it included two palaces and also served as a possible refuge for the king in the event of a revolt. After his death and the annexation of Judea, the Roman army stationed a garrison there.
In 66AD, a splinter group of Jewish zealots known as the Sicarii (‘small daggers’) used a ruse to overcome the Romans and retake Masada. Following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD after a long and costly siege, the Sicarii raided Jewish villages near Masada and massacred the inhabitants. The Roman governor responded by laying siege to the fortress in 73AD. With a force of 15,000 people including Jewish prisoners of war, the Roman legion constructed a siege ramp (which still stands today) against the western face of the plateau and laboriously moved a giant siege tower with a battering ram up this ramp to breach the wall.
After breaking through, they discovered that almost all of the occupants had committed mass suicide or killed each other. According to Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, a total of 960 men, women, and children were slain. Only two women and five children remained alive. Due to the arid environment and the remoteness of the location, the site remained virtually untouched for two millennia until archaeological investigations began in 1963.
Understandably, the significance of this momentous and tragic event, especially after taking into account the cunning, bravery, and brutality demonstrated by both sides involved in the conflict, is disputed among Jews. But with a resurgence in the popularity of a preterist approach to Jesus’ Olivet discourse and the book of Revelation—and much progress in better interpreting these passages through identification of Old Testament types and historical and liturgical sequences—the timing and the location of the siege and its culmination in mass suicide might be a crucial part of the fulfillment of the curses of the Torah upon the Old Covenant order and its rulers.
In other words, to find out what Masada means, we must consult Moses.
The Two Goats
In Leviticus 23, the nation of Israel was given an annual festal calendar that recapitulated the Creation Week of Genesis 1. The annual pattern was an “amplification” of the weekly pattern of work and rest, so the Sabbath week was the liturgical “head” of the festal year. Culture always flows from cultus, so the sequence works from a frequent Jewish observance in microcosm to a Jew-Gentile celebration in macrocosm. The annual harvests thus described God’s intention to purify Israel as a means to ultimately redeem every nation.
As this “lunar” festal clock governed the times and the seasons for Israel over the centuries, its rhythmic character—like the later Christian liturgical year—became embedded in the subconscious of every Israelite. The people of Israel can be excused for their initial failure to perceive that Jesus, in His incarnation and ministry, had come to fulfill this festal architecture by measuring out the feasts upon the Land in a harvest of believers. However, after the sending of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, it was understood by many that Christ had fulfilled Passover in His death, Firstfruits in His ascension, and Pentecost in the salvation—rather than the executions—of three thousand Jewish men (Exodus 32:28; Acts 2:41).
The book of Revelation then describes the apostolic testimony and the mustering of the Jew-Gentile Body of Christ as the fulfillment of the Feast of Trumpets, the “ten days of awe” that preceded the Day of Atonement. So, just as Passover and Atonement matched each other in the symmetry of the liturgical year, so the tearing of the Temple veil at the crucifixion of Christ was a sign of the destruction of the entire Temple, just as Jesus had predicted. The pattern of events also recapitulated the journey of Israel under Moses from Egypt to Canaan, with Jerusalem being “circumcised” with a Roman trench just as Jericho had been “circumcised” under the ministry of Joshua. The testimony of the Apostle John was the last trumpet of warning against the great city who had slain her own children.
This understanding of “the days of vengeance” as a fulfillment of patterns established in the Levitical Law helps us to interpret the signs given in the book of Revelation. Christ had fulfilled the Law on behalf of Israel, but the curses of the Law would be fulfilled upon those who rejected Him. Once every righteous person had been “threshed” out of Jewry, this judgment would fall with fullness and savagery beyond any previous fate that had previously befallen the nation in its apostasy.
The final seven years of “Jerusalem below” follows the same sevenfold pattern as that described above, with the first three-and-a-half years bringing untold suffering to the Church at the hands of the Jews whose Temple was completed in 64AD, and the Romans who now viewed Christians as a separate sect from the Jews. Emperor Nero blamed them for the burning of Rome in the same year. Persecution was suddenly coming from both fronts, just as Herod and Pilate had become friends over the condemnation of Jesus (Luke 23:12).
In the middle of this “week” of years, war broke out between the Jews and the Romans. Near the end of this period, General Titus Vespasian besieged the city just before Passover, trapping Jews from all over the empire who had travelled to attend the feast. Jerusalem became a hell on earth, as described in detail by Josephus.1 Violence against the Jews spread into many cities across the empire. Thus, the Jewish War was not the Great Tribulation, since the Jews were the primary persecutors. The Roman siege was the final judgment upon Jerusalem and Jewry for a generation of persecution.
And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified. (Revelation 11:8)
Since this final “seven” was divided into two parts, this great Day of the Lord against the rulers of the Land fulfilled the offering of the two goats on Yom Kippur. The Jewish saints were slain as the first goat, washed and offered by fire, ascending to heaven in a cloud just as Jesus had. The Jews who rejected Jesus, however, comprised the second goat, the one that bore the sins of the people. As Jesus had promised, all of the blood of the prophets would be avenged upon that generation.
One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. (Luke 11:45-51)
The Second Death
The book of Revelation uses the phrase “the second death” a number of times. Revelation 20 makes it clear that the “second death” is the lake of fire, but an analysis of the Levitical structure of the prophecy reveals its liturgical meaning as part of the fulfillment of the curses of the Law of Moses.
The first mention of this second death is in the letter to the pastor of the church at Smyrna. Not only does this letter allude to the “ten days” that led to the Day of Atonement as a period of imprisonment and tribulation for the saints (Revelation 2:10), but the pastor of this church was to tell his flock to be faithful to death so that the second death would be unable to hurt them. Since the seven letters work through the same heptamerous pattern as that described above, the theme of this second letter is Israel in Egypt: the slander of Joseph by his brother Israelites and his unjust imprisonment, and then the “second death” of Passover that brought about the release of the Hebrews.
Every sacrifice released the believer from bondage and condemned the unbeliever who had rejected God’s mercy. The “first death” at Passover was the lamb whose blood was applied to the doorposts of believing households. The “second death” was all the heirs of Egypt, including the firstborn of Pharaoh. Since these sons were not covered—atoned for—by the mercy offered by God, the blood of all the sons of Israel who had been slain by Pharaoh would be avenged upon them. Thus, the Christians in Smyrna were being asked to be Passover lambs, following the submission and death of the Lamb who first covered them. This “first death” is described in Revelation 14:14-20 as a bloody harvest of the land, the saints who partook of Jesus’ “flesh and blood” now martyred as grain and grapes. Later, their blood is avenged upon the great city who “drank their blood” (Revelation 17:6).
Applying this to the “Day of Atonement” context of the Revelation, the second death describes the execution of judgment against those who rejected the testimony of Jesus in the Apostolic (Firstfruits) Church. The same process is seen it the division of the “sheep” from the “goats”—the nations that had welcomed the testimony of the members of the Apostolic Church as the true sons of Abraham in contrast to those who had mistreated them (Genesis 12:3; Matthew 10:42; 25:31-46).
The only other mentions of the second death are in Revelation 20-21. This passage refers to the final judgment, and it all takes place within the court of God whose architecture was replicated in the Tabernacle. The “lake of fire” that is in the presence of God is thus the inspiration for the Bronze Laver, the “hot and cold” of sound judgment (Revelation 3:16) that cleansed both the priests and the sacrifices under the Law of Moses before their “service” for God. In the correspondence between the Creation Week and the microcosmic “world” of the Tabernacle, the Laver corresponds to the Edenic springs of Day 6 and the Day of Atonement.
Following this twofold sacrificial rite carried out upon the city of Jerusalem, the liturgical meaning of the siege of Masada becomes apparent. While the first goat ascended, clothed in the glory of fire to be with God—fulfilled in the saints from whose eyes Jesus would wipe all tears—the second goat would be expelled into “utter darkness” (Jude 1:13).
“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:11-14)
For Israelites, beginning with Sarah, being buried in the Promised Land was a sign of hope in the resurrection. The cave in the field of Ephron was a grove reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, and thus also of the later Tabernacle and Temple Sanctuaries (Genesis 23:17-19). In contrast to being laid to rest with one’s fathers, those under the curses of the covenant would be left unburied upon the ground; rather than being “gathered” to their ancestors, they would be “scattered,” devoured by unclean scavengers, the birds and the beasts (1 Samuel 17:44-46). This is the fate that Jesus predicted for Jerusalem with a terrifying irony. Instead of fulfilling the Feast of Booths, that final event of the harvest year when the olives and grapes were gathered and the Jews joined with believing Gentiles for worship and celebration, this ingathering would see the Gentiles attend not as guests but as devourers, and the disobedient Jews would be the food on the table. “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Matthew 24:28; Revelation 19:17-18).
The book of Revelation reveals that the two goats of Atonement pictured the bride and the harlot, the Church of God and her evil twin. Jesus would divide between these two “women” through a jealous inspection like the ritual carried out by the priest in Numbers 5:11-31, or the cunning ruse employed by King Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16-28. The secret things would be uncovered, exposed, and judgment would fall. Just as the true Church had found sanctuary in the wilderness but was now glorified, the harlot of the great city would be stripped of her glory and exiled into the wilderness as the second goat, the one sent to “Azazel.”
And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. (Leviticus 16:8-10)
The source of this phrase is from the laws of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:10) where a ram was taken out into the desert and let go as an atonement for the sins of the nation. While the word “sair” means ram, (Leviticus 2:24) many scholars have pondered over the word “Azazel.” Some think it came from “Ez” + “Azal” – meaning that the ram has gone. Others say it comes from the words “Azaz” + “El,” or strong God. The Talmud (Yoma 67b) deems it to be a steep cliff at the edge of the Judean desert near Jerusalem, from which the ram was thrown. The modern definition of a scapegoat is someone (or something as in this case) which pays the price for another’s transgression. Azazel can be found in one other phrase whose use is not recommended for polite company or even impolite company. The term “Lech l’azazel” or “Go to Azazel” basically refers to the cliff in the first phrase as in “Go jump off a cliff.”
This background explains the desire of the Jews in Nazareth to throw Jesus down a cliff after He claimed in the synagogue to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-2, and then deliberately provoked them to jealousy by citing the faith of famous Gentiles (Luke 4:28-30). Instead of becoming the “goat” that bore the curse, He passed through their midst like the blazing torch that passed through the divided Abrahamic sacrifices, and as Israel passed through the Red Sea and the Jordan. Paul later divided the Jews with his mention of the resurrection (Acts 23:6-10). Jesus would not be divided. It was He who came to bring a sword to divide Israel.
The liturgical context of Masada is thus made plain. This brutal contingent of “zealots among zealots,” those who had deceived and devoured Jerusalem from the inside, murderers like Barabbas whom the hate-filled Jews had chosen over the publicly vindicated Jesus, would serve as the last act in the fulfillment of the Law of Moses upon the covenant breakers of Israel. Insofar as “the second death” at the end of World history was typified in the first century judgment upon the Land, the Cainite murderers who retreated to Herod the Great’s “city of refuge” would meet their end atop a gigantic “altar” of earth in the ascension of a siege tower bearing both the aquiline standard of Rome and the giant iron head of an Abrahamic ram. Since the Lord had already provided for Himself the lamb for the ascension, the scavenging birds would not be driven away.
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord,
but he who fails to find me injures himself;
all who hate me love death.
Through the Word of God, the fate of the Jews, in both their glory and their shame, remains a testimony to all nations. The pattern described above has been playing out over and over throughout history since the first century. But right now, we in the West, like the Jewish rulers in the first century, are entirely without excuse. The sword of Jesus still divides families, nations, and empires, and will do so until the last day.
Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in Australia, and author, most recently, of Schema: A Journal of Systematic Typology, Vol. 2.
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