by Gordon Franz
I should preface my comments about the passages on Masada in the psalms by recounting a story. While teaching at the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem, I was invited to speak to a Christian tour group in one of the local hotels. The tour host never took his groups to Masada because, as he put it, “The site is post-resurrection [of Jesus], thus unimportant.” One elderly lady in the group asked me quite piously and condescendingly, “You don’t take your groups to Masada, do you?” I knew where that question was coming from. I smiled and said, “Of course I do, it’s a very important Biblical site. King David visited the site on at least three occasions and composed several psalms that mention Masada!” The shocked look on her face was one of those priceless Kodak moments! J She told the group leader of our conversation. He examined the passages and from that point on, he took his groups to Masada.
David at Masada
The word “Masada” in the Hebrew Bible is generally translated “stronghold” or “fortress” in the English Bibles. The French geographer, F. M. Abel, associates Masada with this Hebrew word (1938:2:380). David visited the site on at least three occasions. The first time he saw it was when he was fleeing from Saul. After his family joined him in the cave of Adullam (I Sam. 22:1, 2), David decided to take them to the Land of Moab and ask the king of Moab to let them stay under his protection in his land. David and his entourage would have gone past Masada as they forded the Dead Sea at the Lisan (“tongue”).
As David passed by, he would have noted the strategic and military value of Masada. The mountain plateau was situated 360 meters above the plain floor on the southeastern edge of the Wilderness of Judah, opposite the Lisan of the Dead Sea. Strategically, from the top of the site, David would have a commanding view of the Dead Sea region and the eastern slopes of the Wilderness of Judah. If there was any large troop movement by Saul, or even the Philistines, he could quickly escape across the Lisan to Moab. Militarily, he also noticed the site had steep sides all around it with only one accessible path to the top on the eastern side of the mountain, today called the “Snake Path.” It was easily defensible from any attackers because of its elevation and the single path to the top. The defenders on top could easily roll down boulders of rocks to stop any attackers.
David made good on his observations and stayed at the “stronghold” (Masada) after he left his parents in Moab. As long as there was water on top of the mountain, David felt safe and secure and did not want to leave. It was not until the prophet Gad came and told David to leave, that he left for the Forest of Hereth in the Land of Judah (I Sam. 22:4, 5).
The second time David and his men went to Masada was after he spared Saul’s life at Ein Gedi. The Bible says, “And Saul went home, and David and his men went up to the stronghold” (I Sam. 24:22). Here was the “parting of the ways” between Saul and David. Saul goes northwest, back to his palace at Gibeah of Saul, and David goes south to the stronghold situated 18 km to the south of Ein Gedi.
The third time we know of David at Masada is after he was anointed king of all Israel in Hebron. The Bible says, “All the Philistines went up to search for David. And David heard of it and went down to the stronghold” (II Sam. 5:17). Notice the topographical indicators in this passage. Hebron (Tel Rumeida) is situated 944 meters above sea level. The base of Masada is 300 meters below sea level. David literally went down to Masada.
Masada was extensively excavated by Professor Yigael Yadin in the early 1960’s. Most of the excavations concentrated on the Early Roman period remains built by Herod the Great and used by the Sicarii at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in AD 73. Yadin, however, also found 10th century BC, Iron Age pottery scattered on the surface (1966:202). Perhaps some of the 10th century pottery was left by David and his men. Yadin, however, is unconvinced by this idea (1965:115). One of his field supervisors, on the other hand, considers the possibility that David and his men did stay at Masada (Meshel 1998: 48; Yadin 1966: 6).
Masada in the Book of Psalms
David composed at least four psalms in which he mentions Masada. The first psalm is Psalm 18. This psalm was written on the “day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul” (18: superscription). In it he sings, “I will love You, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress (Masada) and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold (lit. “high tower”)” (18:1, 2; see also II Sam. 22:2-3).
The second psalm is Psalm 31. Again David sings, “In You, O LORD, I put my trust; Let me never be ashamed; Deliver me in your righteousness. Bow down Your ear to me, Deliver me speedily; Be my rock of refuge, a fortress (Masada) of defense to save me. For you are my rock and my fortress (Masada); Therefore, for Your name’s sake, Lead me and guide me” (31:1-3).
The Hebrew word “Masada” is also used in Psalm 66:11 and is translated into English as “net” (NKJV; NASB) or “prison” (NIV).
The third psalm that uses Masada is Psalm 71. It is uninscribed, but most likely written by David. In it he sings: “In You, O LORD, I put my trust; Let me never be put to shame. … Be my strong refuge, To which I may resort continually; You have given the commandment to save me, For you are my rock and my fortress (Masada)” (71:1, 3).
The fourth psalm composed by David that mentioned Masada is Psalm 144. In this psalm he sang: “Blessed be the LORD my Rock, Who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle – My loving-kindness and my fortress (Masada), My high tower and my deliverer, My shield and the One in whom I take refuge, Who subdues my people under me” (144:1, 2).
One other psalm mentions a “stronghold.” Psalm 91 is uninscribed, but some commentators attribute it to Moses and suggest it is a continuation of Psalm 90. The superscription of that psalm says: “A Prayer of Moses the man of God.” In Psalm 91 it starts out: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress (Masada), My God, in Him I will trust” (91:1, 2).
This would have been a psalm David knew by heart. He understood theologically that the LORD was his fortress / stronghold and his trust was in God. Perhaps when he saw Masada for the first time, it reminded him of the Lord. After staying there on several occasions, he came to realize, as secure as this rocky plateau may seem, the Lord truly was his Masada!
Abel, F. M.
1967 Geographie de la Palestine. Vol. 2. Paris: Librairie Lecoffre.
1998 Governments-in-Exile. Biblical Archaeology Review 24/6: 46-53, 68.
1965 The Excavation of Masada 1963/64. Israel Exploration Journal 15/1-2: 1-120.
1966 Masada. Herods Fortress and the Zealots Last Stand. Jerusalem: Steimatzky. Reprinted 1984.