Mass suicide atop Masada

Suicide by individuals or a group of people have serious medical and psychological implications. The mass killing for a nobler cause atop the Masada fortress by the Dead Sea in Israel added a great historical significance and dimension about the Jewish people.  It is a blessed symbol of the indomitable power of survival, principle of freedom over physical existence with slavery and abuse, of a persecuted people, and the final resurrection of the Jewish nation.

While on our family tour of Israel last month, we traced the footsteps of Jesus in Jerusalem (Via Dolorosa) on His way to His crucifixion at Calvary (Golgotha), floated at the Dead Sea, and visited the Masada National Park, taking a cable car to the top of Masada, over 1350 feet above the surrounding dessert and the Dead Sea, the lowest point in the globe, 420 meters below the sea level. When I was there in 1960 as a medical student attending a conference, the only way to get to the top of Masada was by foot, a 400-meter snake path hike that took about 90 minutes around this historical mountain. The cable car was built in 1971. Each year, about 3.6 million tourists visit Israel, 78 percent, Jerusalem, about 49 percent, Dead Sea and this magnificent strategic Masada fortress in the Negev dessert, and 35 percent, Tiberias and Galilee. Tourism contributes about $5.8 billion annually to Israel’s economy.

The most interesting story about the Masada Moshe Gilad, the fortified mountain stronghold, seemingly insurmountable and impervious, was the account of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish rebel leader captured by the Romans, about the First Jewish-Roman War and the Roman siege against the last remnants of the Jewish zealots (the Sicarii rebels) and their families (967 of them) hiding atop the Masada plateau since they overtook that Roman garrison in 66 CE.  The 15,000 invaders (warrior Roman legion X Fretensis) who were led by the Roman governor of ludaea, Lucius Flavius Silva in 73-74 CE (Common Era, same as BC and BCE, but used to be politically-correct at the time avoiding reference to Christ, BC, Before Christ, and AD, anno domini, the year of our Lord), had to build a siege ramp (one made of a giant massive uphill mountain of earth reaching the top) against the western face of Masada for 2-3 months to enable the Romans to walk to the top of this tall mountain.

Josephus wrote that when the Sicarii rebels and their families realized the inevitable doom was near, they decided to choose death over capture, slavery, rape, and abuse, that each man would kill his own family as painlessly and humanely as possible, and drew lots and killed each other in turn, down to the last man, who then killed himself, the only one to break the rabbinical law, because Judaism prohibits suicide.

Two women and five children survived, hiding inside a water cistern, according to Josephus, who claimed the women quoted these words of exhortations by rebel leader Eleazar ben Ya’ir to his followers before the mass suicide: “Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice … We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.” These rebels believed they were destined to die to save Israel as a future nation, preferring death with freedom to life of slavery and inhumanity.

The Masada fortress with two well-appointed palaces was actually built by the insecure King Herod the Great, well-known as an excellent builder, for his own protection between 37 and 31 BCE. He was appointed by the Roman Empire King of Judea till 4 BCE. Prior to the Parthian invasion he successfully quelled earlier on, he was governor of Galilee since 47 BCE.

On April 16, 73 CE, the Romans were finally able to breach the wall of the fortress atop Masada, anticipating the capture all 967 Jews. Instead, they found “a citadel of death,” a sea of lifeless bodies sprawled all over, men, women, and children. The rebels had set all the storerooms on fire, destroying all jewelries and other valuable items, but saved the foods, medical herbs, and (hid) some records, to show the Romans the defenders retained the ability to live as they were more than well-stocked, even with water, to the end, but killed themselves as planned in defiance of the Roman empire and declared a “glorious death, preferable to a life of infamy.”

To this day, inspite of some unanswered questions by Jewish and other scholars, this romanticized legend of the siege of Masada lives on as a symbol of Jewish patriotism, steadfast principle, selfless courage, and heroism, “a last stand of the State of Israel against an aggressive, tyrannical, brutal empire, with a major role in forging national identity and pride.” 

This UNESCO World Heritage Site will forever remain an inspiring fortress to behold for all the peoples of the world who believe in freedom and justice.

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Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS, Cardiac Surgeon Emeritus in Northwest Indiana and chairman of cardiac surgery from 1997 to 2010 at Cebu Doctors University Hospital, where he holds the title of Physician Emeritus in Surgery, is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the Philippine College of Surgeons, and the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society. He is the chairman of the Filipino United Network – USA, a 501(c)(3) humanitarian foundation in the United States. Email: scalpelpen@gmail.com

Dr. Philip S. Chua
Dr. Philip S. Chua

Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS, Cardiac Surgeon Emeritus in Northwest Indiana and chairman of cardiac surgery from 1997 to 2010 at Cebu Doctors University Hospital, where he holds the title of Physician Emeritus in Surgery, is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the Philippine College of Surgeons, and the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society. He is the chairman of the Filipino United Network – USA, a 501(c)(3) humanitarian foundation in the United States.

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