On Saturday, July 2, our group drove northwest from Jerusalem, past Jericho, to the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. To get from Jerusalem to the Jordan River, we had to drive through the Judean desert. Unlike the Arabian desert with its mountainous sand dunes, the Judean desert has rocky, muted hills that eventually smooth out into dry planes as you get closer to the river.

The Jordan River

We spent that day exploring the desert, discussing the rich history and culture of the people who dwelt there 2,000 years ago. In addition to the site of Jesus’ baptism, we went to the Qumran Caves and the mountaintop fortress of Masada. As our group spent the day absorbing the diverse stories that have come from that land, we discussed how the desert was a place where generations of people went to search for freedom.

The Judean Desert

Across the Bible, we read stories of God’s people going to the desert to find freedom. After their 40-year sojourn, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land to live freely. Prophets like Elijah went to the desert to experience liberating encounters with God. John the Baptist called people to a way of life free from all that hindered their full devotion to God. Jesus demonstrated that He would not be overcome by the devil’s temptations and that he was free to fully follow God’s plan for His life. Outside of the Bible, we see even more examples of God’s people searching for freedom in the desert. In fact, in just the Judean desert itself, there were three groups who did so in very different ways. 

The Essenes – The Essenes were a Jewish ascetic group who lived in the Judean desert from 200 BCE to 100 CE. While not mentioned in the Bible, the Essenes are discussed at length in other ancient writings. Along with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Essenes were one of many Jewish groups who endeavored to live out their Jewish faith within the complex matrix of Roman rule and Hellenistic culture. Believing the Jewish Temple authorities in Jerusalem were compromising Judaism’s central teachings, the Essenes created religious communities in the desert where they were free to revitalize Judaism according to their vision of faithfulness. 

Our group visited one of the Essenes’ communes, Qumran. At Qumran we saw the unearthed walls of their buildings. We also saw the caves where they hid Biblical manuscripts, fearing attack from the Roman army. (Side note: those manuscripts remained hidden for 2,000 years until a shepherd boy in 1946 accidentally found them.)

The Zealots – The Zealots were a group of Jewish freedom fighters who lived during the first 100 years of the Common Era. Wanting to overthrow the Romans through military means, the Zealots leveraged tools like guerrilla and even traditional warfare to chip away at the occupying force’s resolve. In the Luke 6, we meet a member of their group (Simon the Zealot) who turned away from that way of life to follow Jesus. The Zealots’ activities ultimately brought them into the crosshairs of Rome, when the Roman military crushed their uprising in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE). Fleeing to the desert, the Zealots took refuge on the mountaintop fortress called Masada. Overlooking the Dead Sea, Masada gave them the refuge they needed to regroup and plan their response. Eventually, the Romans, who occupied the area below, were able to build a ramp and ascend to the mountaintop. But when they did, the Jewish historian Josephus reports, all of the Zealots were dead, having chosen to kill themselves rather than submit to Roman rule.

The mountaintop fortress of Masada

A person can get to the top of Masada by taking one of two trails. It’s a tradition of elite Israeli military units to run with full gear up one called the “Snake Path” and have their swearing in ceremony at the top, ending with the declaration “Masada shall not fall again.” Our group took a cable car ride to the top. Atop Masada, I looked out over the expanse of desert and the Dead Sea, considering what life might have been like for the Zealots as they watched the Roman army camped at the base of the mountain.

Christian monastics – After Christianity was legalized in the Roman empire in the 4th century CE, scores of Christian pilgrims made their way to the Holy Land. They built churches, monasteries, and shrines in the locations of important events from the Bible. We have no evidence from Scripture that Jesus ever visited Masada, however the site’s remoteness made it appealing to Christian monks looking for seclusion. So atop the Masada fortress, I learned that Christian monks made their home there for a time. These Christian hermits created caves for themselves, where they would study, pray, and contemplate. They also built a church around the year 400 CE. These monks created a small society where they could devote time to their individual spiritual growth as well as foster the bonds of community.

An ancient Byzantine monastery atop Masada

While I was exploring Masada, I was struck by the contrasting stories of that place. One the hand, Masada is a memorial to the Jewish Zealots who made their last stand there against the Roman army. One the other hand, the ruins of the church make it a memorial to Christian monasticism’s practices of worship and devotion. It’s as if Masada is both an Alamo and a Cathedral. A place of war and a place of peace. 

Each one of these three groups came to the desert looking for freedom. The Essenes came looking for freedom from the religious bureaucracy in Jerusalem. The Zealots came looking for political freedom. And the Christian monastics came looking for inner, spiritual freedom. What that freedom looked like was different for each group. But they believed it could be found in a dry land where most people would never choose to go.

For me, the lesson of the desert is about sacrifice. In order to find the freedom we seek, we need to make personal sacrifices. For example, an accomplished pianist can only know the freedom of being able to play the beautiful sounds of improvisational music after having made the sacrifices of spending countless hours practicing her scales. So often in Western societies we only think of freedom in terms of what we are free from—freedom from someone or something infringing on our rights. Valid as this view of freedom is, it is only half the picture. There’s another side to freedom: a freedom for something. To be free for a life of flourishing requires that we learn how to balance freedom from and freedom for. We need to learn what to say yes to and what to say no to. The pianist said no to the desire to take a break from practice. The Essenes, Zealots, and Christian monastics all said no to certain creaturely comforts, so they could say yes to the thing they were searching for. They made sacrifices to be free for a life they thought worth living.
– Pastor Herbie Miller, Philadelphia Presbyterian Church