The Roman spear arched over the flaming timbers of the breached wall, silhouetted momentarily against the night sky. Elazar ben Yair, commander of the 967 Zealot souls atop Masada, watched it strike quivering into the ground. Something was wrapped around its shaft.
In the dark valley below, the evening cook-fires of the Tenth Legion twinkled in every direction. Ten thousand Roman soldiers, slaves and support personnel had surrounded Masada for months. They had built a seven mile long wall six-foot thick around the citadel. No one would escape. Flavius Silva’s orders were to capture or kill every Zealot.
Elazar had been confident Masada was impregnable. Any assault up the vertical cliff could be easily repelled. Storerooms full of provisions would last many years. Catch-basins kept the cisterns full of water.
The Roman’s first attempt to build a ramp up a sloping spine of rock to position a battering ram against the defense wall was easily rebuffed. It was impossible for soldiers to withstand boulders crashing down upon their shields and roofed assault catapults followed by a hail of iron-tipped arrows.
Tonight, Elazar knew differently. That is why he had given a command for everyone to assemble in the huge hall of Herod’s old palace. After a final tour of the wall, he would speak to them. When the white of a person’s eyes could be seen tomorrow, it would be over.
Walking to the spear he yanked it from the ground. A parchment was attached to a white flag wrapped around the shaft. The message proclaimed: “Any Jew standing by this flag at sunrise will live. Under orders of Flavius Silva.” The General’s seal was impressed in red wax.
When Flavius put captured Jews at the front building the ramp, everything changed. Elazar could not give the order to kill a fellow Jew, nor would any Zealot have done so if he had. Day by day they watched the ramp approach the wall and a battering ram moving into place. They worked feverishly night and day stripping ceiling timbers from many of Herod’s buildings to construct a second, higher wall in front of the ramp, filled with timbers and dirt.
This wall would have enough give to defeat the battering ram, they hoped. It would have worked if Flavius had not set the timbers on fire after breaching the rock wall. Tonight, the flickering flames of the burning timbers confirmed the Roman soldiers would assault the fortress in the morning.
Elazar hurled the spear over the side. His followers were waiting his command.
“We agree. We will never surrender. We will not give the Romans the satisfaction of killing us. Burn your personal possessions. Hug and kiss your family, then let them lay down holding each other for you to send them to heaven. Afterwards, write your names on a pottery shard. Choose ten men by lot to dispatch the rest of us. Finally, one name of the ten will be drawn.
“Before setting the buildings on fire, he will check to make sure no one needs further assistance. Leave the food supplies. The Romans must know they did not starve us into submission. We die as free people. The last man only will have the sin of suicide.”
The next morning, with banners fluttering in the gentle breeze, helmeted Roman soldiers marched up the ramp, swords and shields at the ready. Quickly breaching the weakened wall they shouted for the Jews to surrender. A puzzling silence greeted them, broken only by the twittering of pigeons in the rookery. Smoke curled upward from many buildings, stinging the eyes and leaving an acrid taste.
The palace, looming large before them, was not burning. Shouting for the Jews to surrender, to show the white flag, they advanced slowly toward their enemy.
From lower down and to the left, an old woman trudged slowly into view. A younger woman and five children followed.
“We only, live” she shouted. “We hid in a cistern. In there,” she pointed. “They give you no satisfaction. May God punish you for destroying the Temple and for persecuting us.”
Entering the palace, the soldiers were stunned by the sight. In muted, respectful tones they whispered back down the line that the siege was over.
One soldier noticed some pottery shards, ten he counted, laying in a corner of a wall. Picking one up he read “ben Yair”, then threw it back where it lay for almost two thousand years.
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