The final moments of the Zealots on Masada.
|What is this? The story of the Zealots' tragic stand at the mountain fortress of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea has always struck a chord in my heart. For the price of freedom, one man had to pay the ultimate price. May this offer a glimpse into what the final moments of the Jewish rebels may have been like, especially for the hero.
One Last Cup
The crash echoed through the room as pieces of pottery flew in every direction. Much of what was once a water basin disintegrated to dust, leaving behind only fissiparous pieces of broken clay. Each man took a piece, scratching his name into the rough surface with a rock, his fingernail, other broken pieces, daggers, anything he could find that was strong enough to scratch lines into his token. Everyone did this in silence; the fading echo revealed the distant clamor of Roman voices and the ringing sound of stone striking stone. At least the faint din reminded them that they were not acting in vain, that there was a purpose to their deeds.
Simon etched his name with a twig he had found in one of the storehouses. It was dry and brittle, but it was durable enough to fulfill its final task before being tossed aside into the shadows by defiled hands, hands embraced with the wine of another’s life. How he wished his own blood had been spilt instead of those whose blood covered his hands. But that was over now, and life had to go on, however short the remainder might be.
They had arrived at Masada nearly three years previously, climbed up the nearly impassable cliff face, and lived in nearly peaceful resistance during that time. They were Zealots—others called them Sicarii—those who believed in freedom without the Romans. It was odd to Simon that they were referred to as rebels. Rebels, he thought, were those who fought against a ruler or government. The Romans had done that when they had taken control years before: the Zealots were simply attempting to reestablish order in their land. In any case, the Romans would not cooperate with their demands, and the former began to siege the fortress. The small contingent of Sicarii had managed to stave off the oppressors for quite some time, but even the strongest will must submit to inevitable defeat. And defeat was sure, advancing closer with every passing moment.
A gentle clinking filled the room as each man dropped his piece of pottery into a bowl handed from one haggard man to another. The rim of the earthen basin turned a deep red as these many hands touched its smooth exterior, hands that had drunk deep the life of others, still stained with the living water. What was once used to hold water became a pool for Fate, the blood of the innocent mingled with names of their killers.
“Let us rather be taken from this life than let us and our wives and children become slaves to the Romans.” That was what Eleazar had said to spark this atrocity; that was the phrase that had twisted madness into reason. Simon dropped his own piece of pottery into the bowl as it was passed to him, his heart pounding in his chest, his lungs denying any more air, his stomach tumbling down a cliff. He had had a wife, and he had had two children, neither of them even of age. His heart gave a jolt as his lot collided with those of others, each stained with red fingerprints. No, his family would never be slaves, his friends would never suffer the yoke of the Romans. The demand for freedom was high, and so was the price. Though, for one man, this price would be more than his physical life; no other hand would act when only one life was left: he would have to act himself.
Images flashed into Simon’s head, images of his two sons, the looks of horror on their faces as their father gave them one final kiss, one last blessing before filling his cup with their blood; the façade of strength in his wife’s misting eyes as they embraced each other for the last time, sharing the warmth of their undying love before she fell to the ground, her flowing, red river mingling with the stream of her offspring. Simon closed his eyes as though doing so would stop these memories from torturing him. His family was gone, and he was sure to follow soon; there would be time enough in eternity to forget the appalling crime, time enough to see if their affection could truly cross the deepest chasm. There was just one last cup needed to be drunk.
Though only a few minutes had passed since the echo had ceased, the men who sat resignedly around the room felt as though hours had inched by, hours that they would never be able to call their own. Each second they waited for the final lot to be cast became another opportunity to breathe, another chance to ruminate. Life becomes so very precious when it is endangered, each moment wasted becoming a mountain unclimbed, each regret becoming a chance missed, each desire becoming a dream unrealized. But time does not stop for thought, even time running out.
Simon opened his eyes when he heard the whispers begin. Eleazar held the bowl between his legs, his eyes closed, lips moving in a silent prayer. Every man looked away from the leader, the one whose fingers would choose the executioner of every life there. Simon held his breath, muttering a breathless prayer to anyone who might hear him. He was sure everyone else was doing the same.
A spider in the corner caught Simon’s attention. The arachnid was binding its latest victim, a small fly, with the sticky rope it created. Before long, the spider stopped its wrapping and went to work repairing the part of the web that the fly’s struggle to escape had destroyed. Simon knew that the tiny architect would soon return to its catch and feast, but this did not linger in his mind. He was curious to know which he would be, the fly or the spider.
The stillness of the room was broken as Eleazar’s hand pulled out of the bowl one of the tokens. Each person’s gaze rested on the lips of their leader, their figurehead, their condemner. Each person’s mind battled with the possibility that theirs was the name inscribed on that token. Each person’s heart beat with the ferocity of one doomed to perish. Simon was no exception.
Eleazar found the name, sighed dejectedly, and stood up, setting the bowl down in front of him. He took three steps forward, placing himself in the middle of the group, and looked at each man’s face. Simon could not help but notice the folds of anguish striped on Eleazar’s brow as their gazes met, the look of sorrow in his eyes, the pain wrought in every feature of his physiognomy, the fact that the face did not move on. Their eyes remained fixed on the other, an unspoken connection of remorse. Nothing else existed as Eleazar handed Simon a familiar token, a piece of broken pottery with his name etched on one side, the other defiled with a red fingerprint. Simon closed his eyes and started to weep. The other men in the room muttered silent prayers for their good fortune, slowly rising one by one and, following Eleazar’s lead, began destroying every manmade object: pots, vials, cups, clothing, blankets, everything except the food. Simon looked up at his friends as they did this, each face a mixture of anguish, sympathy, and, perhaps, a little hope. Reaching to the ground, he grabbed his knife, a simple blade, a cold, heartless, simple blade. His hands were not yet finished with their carnage. He still had one more cup to drink.