Gamla, Masada, and Symbolism

It’s been over a month since my last post about my trip to Israel last summer, but it’s a rainy day and my wife is out of town, so now is as good a time as any to get back to it. This is the eleventh such post (to read them all, click here).

June 24 AM

On our second day in Galilee, we went east of the Sea of Galilee and into the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967. Before then it belonged to Syria, and this is as close to Syria as we would get on this trip. I remember one of the mornings we were in Galilee I got up early and sat on the west side of the sea at our hotel. In the quiet, I could hear booming across the water. I don’t know for sure that these were the sounds of the long civil war going on in Syria, but that may have been what I was hearing.

Our first stop in the Golan Heights was the site of an ancient town called Gamla. The name comes from the Hebrew word for “camel,” and the town got that name because it was built on a ridge that looks like a camel’s hump.

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Gamla. The Sea of Galilee is in the upper right.

Gamla is not mentioned in the Bible, but in the years leading up to the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66–70) it was a hotbed of Zealot activity. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus records that the Romans attacked and destroyed the town in 67 (Jewish War 4.1–83). Josephus himself was present with the Roman general Vespasian when the town was taken.

It is especially significant to those who are interested in biblical archaeology because a Jewish synagogue was found there. Since it was destroyed in 67 and left untouched for almost 2,000 years, it sheds light on what Jewish synagogue life was like in Jesus’ day. It is even possible that Jesus visited this synagogue in the course of his itinerant ministry in Galilee.

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Our group in the synagogue at Gamla. Tim has on a Jewish prayer shawl.

As we sat in the synagogue at Gamla, Tim, our guide, talked to us about the Zealots. At least one of Jesus’ disciples was a Zealot (Simon the Zealot), and Judas Iscariot might have been one as well (“Iscariot” might be a reference to the sicarii, “dagger bearers,” a subgroup of the Zealots who were part of fomenting the revolt against Rome. However, scholars are not united on this interpretation.) At the same time that Jesus called people who were adamantly opposed to the Roman occupation, however, he also called Matthew, a tax collector who was working for Rome. It is amazing to think that Jesus was able to transcend such deep political differences among his disciples. As deep as political differences are in our own day, there is hope that they can be transcended.

This was not the only site related to the First Jewish Revolt that we visited. Two days before, on the morning of June 22, we visited Masada, the famous fortress by the Dead Sea where the last of the Jewish rebels were defeated by the Romans in AD 73 (the end of the revolt is often given the date of AD 70, since that is when the temple was destroyed, but the Romans didn’t get around to crushing the last of the revolt for another three years).

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From the top of Masada, you can still see the rectangular ruins of the Roman camps all around.

It was striking to me, visiting Gamla and Masada, how symbols can mean different things to different people. Both places, but especially Masada, are now symbols of Jewish pride and heroism. There is a sentiment in Israel, expressed to us by our Israeli tour guide Ariel, that “Masada will not fall again.” While both places were ultimately conquered by the Romans, the Jews who were fighting there did not surrender.

For readers of the New Testament, on the other hand, the entire First Jewish Revolt is a symbol of the refusal to accept the way of Jesus. I think not only of Jesus’ predictions that the temple would be destroyed, but also of his words toward the end of his public ministry: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate” (Matt 23:37–38).

All this makes me think about symbols and how they are interpreted differently. Premkumar Williams wrote this in an essay in a book called Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends:

Symbols can be very potent in the way they bring order to our seemingly chaotic experiences and give them appropriate meaning. At a ball game, the singing of the national anthem might mean more to a veteran than to the person next to him. His training and time spent away from home, views on life and sacrifice, scars and skirmishes, all are brought to attention when he stands with his hand over his heart. By itself, the anthem is but a piece of music, but for him (and many others) it is a potent symbol. Shared memories and experiences are embodied in the symbols that accompany a healthy community. Recalling a common past is a significant way to re-member (put the body back together) who we are. (125–126)

“Recalling a common past” through symbols helps to bind a group together, but sometimes it leads to blind spots. What if the national anthem means different things to different people, the way Masada is a symbol of heroism to some and foolish pride to others? I don’t want to minimize the importance of symbols; I think it’s impossible to live without them. But I do think that recognizing that symbols mean different things to different people is a way to exercise humility and be open to hearing the experiences of others. You may still disagree with each other in the end about the nature of reality and the way to move forward (I still believe in the New Testament interpretation of the First Jewish Revolt rather than the modern Israeli one), but seeking to understand how symbols operate can minimize blind spots and give you a fuller understanding of reality.

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