by Doris Horton Murdoch
I recently traveled to the Holy Land. One of the sites I visited was Masada. To prepare myself for this excursion, I watched the mini-series entitled “Masada” produced back in 1981 with Peter O’Toole as Flavius Silva and Peter Strauss as the zealot Eleazar. Then I read Josephus’s eyewitness account of Masada found in The Wars of the Jews, Book 7, Chapters 8-9. I learned that the residents after King Herod were the Jewish zealots. In my limited knowledge, I had always thought of the zealots as members of an ancient Jewish sect that were zealous for God and His Son Jesus Christ and resisted the Roman authority. The word zealot comes from the Greek word “zelotes”, from “zeloun” meaning “to be jealous”. My overall impression of the zealots had always been very positive.
When I returned home from the Holy Land, I reread the passages from The Complete Works of Josephus. Josephuscalled those at Masada as “Sicarii”. Sicarii is the Latin plural form of sicarius meaning “dagger man”. In Book VII of The Wars of the Jews, Josephus defines Sicarii as ruffians and in 18.104.22.1680, the Sicarii are described as those that “imitated every wicked work.” Josephus considered the Sicarri to be barbaric and “wild and brutish” in disposition. These Sicarri killed, terrorized, and plundered fellow countrymen that were trying to live peacefully and cooperatively under Roman rule.
I now interpret these zealots or Sicarii at Masada as “radical followers of God” just as we have “radical followers of God” and/or “radical Muslims” today. Then and now, some consider the radicals as “heroes of the faith” and others consider them as “radical terrorists.” I’m not sure what side I’m on in this argument, if any side! I know that all men need to live within the will and laws of God.
The laws of God are found in Exodus 20:1-17 in the Ten Commandments. Commandment 1 is “You shall have no other gods before me.” At what point do extremism and terrorism become our gods? When man fights in the Name of God, at what point in the battle is he taking the Lord’s name in vain? Can warfare misuse the name of God? God commands, “Thou shall not kill”; when does killing another man become acceptable? God says, “Thou shall not steal.” When does it become satisfactory to plunder the defeated? God says, “Thou shall not covet.” Covet means “to be jealous or desirous for” what another has. Zealot comes from the word jealous. When is it appropriate to be zealous to the point of being radical or a sicarii?
Yes, throughout the Bible, God has allowed these things to happen within God’s will. Knowing God’s will is personal and can only be found in a close relationship with God. Even today, the only way any of us can be zealous about God and political positions is through our relationship with God. As Christians, are we spending enough time alone with God to truly know His will for our lives? Are we spending enough time in spiritual community to know that we are working within God’s will?
In the sight of defeat, the Sicarii of Masada, led by Eleazar, began to question whether their efforts were within the will or favor of God. In Eleazar’s final speech, he discusses how the group chose to never become servants of the Romans; victory at Masada was not defeating the Romans. Victory would be to die bravely and to not be overpowered by the Romans. Eleazar called this as a favor from God. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, we see a repentant heart in Solomon; he found zeal for worldly (under the sun) victories was only chasing after the wind. In Eleazar’s speech to his most courageous men in the Wars of the Jews, I also see a repentant heart:
“To be sure we weakly hoped to have preserved ourselves, and ourselves alone, still in a state of freedom, as if we had been guilty of no sins ourselves against God, nor been partners with those of others; we also taught other men to preserve their liberty. Wherefore, consider how God hath convinced us that our hopes were in vain, by bringing such distress upon us in the desperate state we are now in, and which is beyond all our expectations; for the nature of this fortress which was in itself unconquerable, hath not proved a means of our deliverance; and even while we have still great abundance of food, and a great quantity of arms, and other necessaries more than we want, we are openly deprived by God himself of all hope of deliverance; for that fire which was driven upon our enemies did not of its own accord turn back upon the wall which we had built; this was the effect of God’s anger against us for our manifold sins, which we have been guilty of in a most insolent and extravagant manner with regard to our own countrymen; the punishments of which let us not receive from the Romans, but from God himself, as executed by our own hands; for these will be more moderate than the other.” 22.214.171.1249-333
Eleazar later states that true freedom is allowing the soul to be released from its earthly constraints and that is found only when God calls us home to His eternal kingdom.
Man can become zealous about the wrong things. Our humanity calls us to earthly efforts, but God calls us to things that are above. Galatians 4:26 says, But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. Colossians 3:1-2 confirms where our thoughts and actions should be, Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. While on earth, man needs to: follow God’s laws and strive for that personal relationship with God that guides him to better understand God’s will and plan.
Thomas Merton expresses well the journey of that personal relationship:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, You will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
While on earth, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 concludes what man should be zealous for: Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.