How should the church relate to an unjust world?
One way to respond to injustice is to take up arms and fight. Another way is to withdraw from society and wait for God to take care of business at a predetermined time. Both of these ways—the activism of armed revolt and the passivism of pious withdrawal—are found in the church’s history. A third response is all too often the road not taken, and it makes all the difference. Three ancient sites on the western shore of the Dead Sea epitomize the three responses I have in mind.
I recently posted on the Dead Sea as part of my series based on a recent GRTS study tour of Bible lands with GTI. This post engages two well known Dead Sea sites, Masada and Qumran, as well as the lesser known En Gedi. Masada is famous for the heroism of its defenders, and Qumran is deservedly known for the ancient manuscripts found in its environs some 70 years ago. Yet, if we’re willing to listen to the land, the living waters of the En Gedi oasis may have more to teach us than either of its more famous Dead Sea neighbors.
Masada and Revolt
Masada is a about ten miles northeast of Arad, and only 35 miles southeast of Jerusalem. Geologists call this place a horst; those familiar with the Southwest USA might call it a mesa. In geometric terms, it is shaped roughly like a parallelogram, with a plateau top soaring about 1400 feet over the Dead Sea. The plateau is about 650 yards long and 350 yards wide. Although Masada is not directly mentioned in the Bible, “masada” means “stronghold” in Hebrew, leading some to speculate that David may have sought refuge at Masada during his flights from Saul in the region of the Judean wilderness and En Gedi (1 Sam 22-24).
Masada’s fame is due to its being the site of the last stand of the Jewish rebels who dared to stand up to their Roman occupiers from 67-73 CE. Masada was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Its history is summarized in this brief UNESCO video. It is one of the top tourist sites in Israel.
Ascending Masada is an awesome experience, whether one takes the strenuous Roman ramp up the west side or the much more strenuous snake path (Josephus, Jewish War, 7.282-84) up the east side. Online videos such as this one portray the site well.
Riding up on the cable car is not strenuous at all, but just as awesome. Either way you can buy a tee shirt in the gift shop that says “I climbed Masada.” I’ve done all three but never got around to buying the shirt.
Historians of Masada depend almost exclusively on archeological findings and the report of Josephus (Jewish War 7.282-406). Both sources present challenges. Josephus’ report that Masada was first fortified by the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus is not confirmed by archeological evidence. There is no doubt that Herod the Great put his stamp on Masada, constructing a three-tiered palace at the extreme northern end, a nearby Roman-style bath house, and accompanying facilities to support a palace-fortress not unlike his other fortresses at Machaerus in Jordan and the Herodium near Bethlehem. Shaye Cohen summarizes the historical issues here.
Josephus attributes the Jewish War against Rome to the revolutionary sicarii (“knife men, assassins”; Acts 21:38), who were extremists linked to the zealots, whom Josephus called the “fourth philosophy” (Antiquities 18.23-25). They were convinced that the Jews should be totally independent from any human ruler, and that any means necessary to overthrow the Roman occupation were justified, including killing fellow Jews (Josephus, Jewish War 2.254-57; Antiquities 20.186-88, 256-57). Today the sicarii would be called terrorists (or freedom fighters!). Current fascination with their final defeat at Masada is akin to that associated with the Alamo in the USA. Even the History Channel’s Battlefield Detectives series did a show on Masada. Numerous YouTube videos present a variety of takes on the historical questions. Epic films fictionalize the story, including a 1981 TV mini-series and 2015’s “The Dovekeepers,” a made-for-TV project in which Josephus appears. It was based on Alice Hoffmans’s 2011 novel by the same name.
Unfortunately, attempts to romanticize Masada and lionize its defenders miss the point. In the name of overthrowing injustice, the sicarii committed many injustices of their own. Like John Lennon said, “If you’re talkin’ ’bout destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.”
Qumran and Withdrawal
Qumran is about 35 miles north of Masada, but the separatist mindset of those who lived there was worlds apart from the rebels who died at Masada. Qumran is only 15 miles east of Jerusalem, but sectarian documents found in caves near there view the Temple authorities and legal experts in Jerusalem with great disdain. The ruggedness of the terrain and the scope of the ruins are portrayed well in this aerial video.
A few scholars believe the Dead Sea Scrolls were originally from the Jerusalem Temple library, and were hidden at Qumran by Temple officials fleeing the Roman army during the first revolt (ca. 70 CE). On this view the structural remains at Qumran represent a border fort, villa, or pottery factory unrelated to the documents found in the caves. However, a majority of scholars believe that the scrolls were produced at Qumran by a separatist community living there known as the Essenes. The Roman author Pliny the Elder spoke of an Essene community living just west of the Dead Sea, north of En Gedi and Masada (Natural History 5.73). Some scholars link the Therapeutae discussed by Philo in his work The Contemplative Life to the Essenes. This sect is not mentioned in the New Testament, but Josephus spoke of them at length, comparing their views to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the “fourth philosophy,” his term for those whose radical views of Jewish independence led to the revolt against Rome (Jewish War 2.119-61; Antiquities 18.18-22). Their views of predestination, the Jewish calendar, Torah observance, and eschatology diverged greatly from those of the Jerusalem authorities.
The term “Dead Sea Scrolls” is used to describe the thousands of documents (mostly fragments of documents laboriously compared and reassembled as well as possible) found near Qumran. These documents include every book of the Old Testament (with the possible exception of Esther), apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books, and books related to the rules, worship, and distinctive views of the community itself. Their discovery has had a huge impact on scholarship, especially in the areas of Old Testament textual criticism, Second Temple Judaism, and the thought-world of the New Testament. James VanderKam and Peter Flint’s book is probably the best available comprehensive introduction to these documents and their significance. The English translation by Wise, Abegg, and Cook contains brief introductions as well. The two volume study edition by Garcia Martinez and Tigchelaar contains the original language text with an English translation on the opposing page. The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible presents an English translation from the biblical manuscripts among the scrolls, the oldest Hebrew Bible manuscripts discovered to this date.
According to their charter (1QS, often called the Rule of the Community), the residents of Qumran lived there because they understood Isaiah 40:3 as a command to prepare the way of the Lord by withdrawing from perverse people and living in the desert where they could interpret the Torah accurately and obey it rigorously (1QS 8:12-16). Of course, Isaiah 40:3 also figures prominently in the New Testament accounts of John the Baptist (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23), and there is speculation that John the Baptist might have spent time at Qumran.
The Qumran community believed that humans were eternally and irrevocably predestined for good or evil lives. Their “War Scroll” (1QM, The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness, ) depicts seven battles between these predestined groups. After six battles, things are more or less even, but God intervenes for the sons of light in the seventh engagement of the seventh battle and defeats the forces of evil: “the great hand of God shall be lifted up against Belial and against all the forces of his dominion for an eternal slaughter” (1QM 18.10). No doubt this document provided great hope for the community, but it was a false hope. They were the ones slaughtered and their community was destroyed by the Roman army during the Jewish revolt. The great hand of God was not lifted up against the enemy after all.
En Gedi and Pilgrimage
En Gedi (“spring of the young goat”) is located between Qumran and Masada, roughly east of Arad. The area is an oasis containing two streams (Nahal Arugot and Nahal David) fed by four springs. Ancient remains going as far back as a chalcolithic temple from roughly 3500 BCE show the enduring value of the oasis for human sustenance. There is also a synagogue (400 CE) with well preserved mosaic floors. Today a prosperous kibbutz engages in agriculture and tourism. En Gedi is also the site of a popular national park and nature preserve which features a large botanical garden and hiking trails. Species such as the Nubian ibex and the hyrax (Lev 11:5; Deut 14:5) are encountered on the trails .
There are relatively few biblical references to this oasis. It is listed as one of the wilderness towns allotted to the tribe of Judah by Joshua (Josh 15:62), and later serves as David’s refuge from Saul, the location of the cave where David cut off the corner of Saul’s robe instead of killing him (1 Sam 23:29-24:22). Later King Jehoshaphat learned that a coalition from east of the Jordan was at En Gedi (also known as Hazazon Tamar, “place of date palms,” cf. Gen 14:7), prepared to attack Judah (2 Chron 20:2). These historical citations are supplemented by a poetic allusion to the vineyards of En Gedi in Song 1:14 and a visionary reference to its future prominence as a fishery along the renewed Dead Sea (Ezek 47:10).
The water gushing from the springs at En Gedi comes from rain that falls many miles away on the western slopes of the hills of Judea. This water seeps through the geological strata and eventually emerges in the barren Jordan rift valley to the east. Along the the west shore of the Dead Sea the annual rainfall averages less than two inches and temperatures can push 120°F, so the En Gedi oasis is literally a lifesaver.
The Bible commonly speaks of the peril of thirst (Gen 21:8-20; Exod 17:3; 1 Cor 4:11; 2 Cor 11:27), something that most of us who live today in developed nations have never experienced. References to life-sustaining water provide bookends for the entire biblical library, from Genesis to revelation (Gen 1:1, 6, 20; 2:5-14; Rev 21:6; 22:1-2). Wells and springs were divine blessings crucial for human existence (Gen 24; 27:17-22; Num 20:1-13; Deut 8:7, 15; Jdg 15:18-19; Neh 9:15, 20; Ps 104:10-13; Isa 48:21; 49:10; Rev 7:16). No wonder the Bible so frequently uses water as a metaphor for spiritual renewal (Amos 8:11; John 3:5; 4:4-15; Eph 5:26; Tit 3:5; Heb 10:22). No wonder En Gedi’s living waters remind us of our deep need for God’s sustaining grace during our pilgrim journey on this arid earth.
Relating to an Unjust World
As George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Revolutionary attempts to end injustice and movements that withdraw from engaging injustice have both been ineffective throughout church history. Those who rage against the machine are bent on revolution. Those who sense the bankruptcy of secular answers to humanity’s problems retreat into religious enclaves where they pray for an eventual apocalyptic solution. The demise of the Masada zealots and the Qumran Essenes, both at the hands of imperial Rome, demonstrates the folly of both these worldviews.
For Christians, the way that is all too often not taken is the way of engaged pilgrimage. This way promises no quick fix by political action under the guise of righteous indignation (cf. Matt 27:52; 2 Cor 10:3-5). Nor does it avoid action by withdrawing from culture. This way does not believe that the fulfillment of God’s promised shalom can be achieved by political action or monastic inaction. This way hears Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:13-16 about a salt and light identity that engages culture (as salt seasons and preserves) with truth that transcends culture (as light illumines darkness). All too often the church appears to the world as a militant Masada or a withdrawn Qumran, but it ought to be a welcoming oasis like En Gedi, a place where people who are thirsty can drink at the springs of living water.
As the deer pants for the streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God. (Ps 42:1)
You, God, are my God,
Earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
My whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land where there is no water. (Ps 63:1
The poor and needy search for water,
but there is none;
their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
and the parched ground into springs.
I will put in the desert
the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set junipers in the wasteland,
the fir and the cypress together,
so that people may see and know,
may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
that the Holy One of Israel has created it. (Isa 41:17-20)
Let us acknowledge the Lord,
Let us press on to acknowledge him.
As soon as the sun rises,
He will appear.
He will come to us like the winter rains,
Like the spring rains that water the earth. (Hos 6:3)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled. (Matt 5:6).
To the one who is thirsty
I will give water without cost from the springs of the water of life. (Rev 21:6)
All the biblical quotations above are from the NIV.