Masada | Book Review


I first visited Masada in the summer of 1982, wending my way up its treacherous “Snake Path” to the summit. Since then, I have returned more than a dozen times—though now I ride the cable car. Masada is the second-most visited tourist site in Israel, well worth the long ride from Jerusalem.

The allure of Masada has always been tied to the story the historian Flavius Josephus told about its last Jewish residents. The First Jewish Revolt against Rome began at Caesarea Marittima in A.D. 66 and quickly spread throughout what is today Israel, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. It was a bloody affair, not only between Jews and Romans but among factions of the Jews themselves.

Members of one of those factions, the Sicarii, seized Masada early in the war. (They were known as Sicarii—from the Latin sicarius, meaning “dagger-man”—because they assassinated appointments in public places using easily concealed daggers.) After Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70, members of the Sicarii led by Eleazar Ben-Yair holed up at Masada. The Romans destroyed similar holdouts at the desert fortresses of Herodium and Machareus, then they turned their attention to Masada, laying siege to it in winter-spring of either 72–73 or 73–74. (The precise date is uncertain.) The outlines of the siege wall, Roman camps, and siege ramp are still visible today.

According to Josephus, the night after Romans breached the casemate wall on Masada’s eastern side, Eleazar Ben-Yair stood before the Sicarii and urged them to kill themselves rather than submit to Roman slavery. Each man would kill his family. Lots would be drawn, determining a handful of men who would kill heads of households. Finally, the last lot would determine who killed those killers before killing himself. “Let our wives thus die dishonored,” Eleazar exhorted, “our children unacquainted with slavery; and when they are gone, let us render a generous service to each other, preserving our liberty.”

Fast forward nineteen centuries to Israel’s War of Independence (1947–1949), and it is easy to see why the Israeli Defense Forces, with the Holocaust behind them and hostile Arab armies around them, began to use “Masada Shall Never Fall Again” as a motto. Indeed, for many decades, new soldiers climbed to the summit via the Snake Path and took an oath to defend Israel. This patriotism was bolstered by Yigael Yadin’s excavation of Masada, which seemed to verify Josephus’ picture.

Today, however, archaeologists and historians take a more critical view of Josephus, the only ancient author to give us information about the siege of the fortress. Jodi Magness’ Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth brings readers up to date with this more critical view, explaining how archaeology provides partial confirmation of Josephus’ account, as well as potential rebuttal at key points. Magness is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She codirected excavations of the Roman siege works at Masada in 1995.

Masada is an informative read. I learned new things about the site, and when I return in spring 2020, I plan on taking a closer look at them. Moreover, the book’s historical chapters (5–8), which narrate the history of Jewish conflicts from the Maccabean Revolt to Masada, were a tour de force, making sense of the various people, movements, and events that shaped this period. This is especially true of Herod the Great, that master builder of the ancient near east, including the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and Masada itself. This period is crucial for understanding Masada, of course, but for Christians, it is also crucial for understanding the history and culture of the New Testament period.

As an editor, I was frustrated by the organization of the book. It starts with the siege of Masada (chapter 1), then turns to early archaeological explorations (chapter 2), then moves to the geographical and historical contexts—starting with the Chalcolithic Period! (chapter 3), then describes Herod’s building projects (chapter 4), then gets into the chronological telling of chapters 5–8, then ends with a chapter on Yigael Yadin’s excavations and their aftermath. Because of this organization of chapters, some of the material gets repeated. To be honest, I was losing interest in the book until I got to chapter 5. In my opinion, readers would’ve been better served by a straightforward chronological organization, beginning with the Maccabean Revolt and ending with modern archaeological excavations.

Still, Masada is a worthwhile read. If you’re going to Israel and plan on visiting Masada, you might want to read it beforehand. I recommend reading it in this order: Prologue, chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. If you don’t have a guide, use Magness’ Epilogue, which lays out a tour of the summit.

Book Reviewed
Jodi Magness, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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The Siege of Tel Aviv | Book Review


Since its founding on May 14, 1948, the State of Israel has fought three wars whose outcome arguably was existential: the War of Independence (1948–1949), the Six Day War (1967), and the Yom Kippur War (1973).

In The Siege of Tel Aviv, Hesh Kestin imagines a point in the near future where Iran leads Arab armies in a genocidal war against Israel…and wins. So quick and total is the Persian-Arab victory over Israel that six million Jews flee to the only major Israeli city still under Jewish control, Tel Aviv, making it a ghetto. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the U.N. watch and wait, not wanting to interrupt the flow of oil from the Middle East.

But the Israelis take a page from the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto and begin to fight back, led by the unlikely duo of an Israeli capitalist and a Russian Jewish mobster. Other memorable characters in the story include a cross-dressing ace pilot in the Israel Air Force, a Bedouin Israeli Defense Force scout and a Christian Arab barber who remain loyal to Israel, three joy-riding Marine F/A-18 pilots who save the day at crucial moment, and a six-ship flotilla of “Amazing Grace”-singing Christian fundamentalists on a humanitarian mission to feed the besieged city.

The Siege of Tel Aviv is a page-turner whose premise is frighteningly plausible. The problem is that the book’s happy ending isn’t. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, which Israel nearly lost, Israel realized that its victory in the Six Day War had falsely led it to conclude that the Arabs would never fight it again because of its humiliating loss. In Hebrew, this false conclusion is known as the kontzeptziya.

What worries me about The Siege of Tel Aviv is that Israel’s comeback is too easy, the instance of a new kontzeptziya, that Israel’s will-to-live is sufficient to overcome overwhelming odds against it. Given its victories in 1949, 1967, and 1973, I can understand the basis for this. Israel has survived; it will survive. The problem with this novel’s execution of that will to survive is that the victory is just too easy. SPOILER ALERT: One doesn’t just liberate the entire Kuwaiti Air Force or steal hundreds of Jordanian tanks as quickly and painlessly as the rejuvenated IDF does.

Moreover, it seems to me that there are a number of false notes in Kestin’s portrayal of Christian fundamentalists and the Southern Republican U.S. president. Neither talk nor think the way Kestin portrays them. At least not the Christians, and as a Christian minister, I speak with some experience here.

So, a three-star review from me. The book was enjoyable as I read it, but after I read it, the too-easy victory and character false notes sounded too loudly to ignore. That said, Steve King—to whom the book is dedicated—likes it, saying it is “scarier than anything [he] ever wrote.” So, weigh that in the balance with my review.

A final note: The first edition of this book was published by Dzanc Books, who had published a previous novel by Kestin. Activists accused the book of being Islamophobic, so under pressure, Dzanc pulped it. Kestin then released it in a self-published second edition, which is what I reviewed. Is the book Islamophobic? I didn’t think so, and neither does Commentary magazine. You’ll have to read the book to make up your own mind.

Book Reviewed
Hesh Kestin, The Siege of Tel Aviv, 2nded. (Shoeshine Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Unlucky Woman | Book Review


Hilda Lipkind is an unlucky woman. Seven months pregnant–after three miscarriages–she is worried that her husband David is cheating on her. So, she hires Adam Lapid to track down David’s paramour. The truth, however, is more complex and results in tragedy.

The Unlucky Woman is a short story, not a novel, and a quick read. While I am a fan of the Adam Lapid mysteries, set in post-Independence Tel Aviv, I didn’t enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed the previous novels, hence the three-star rating.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Dunsky, The Unlucky Woman: An Adam Lapid Short Story (Self-published, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Other Woman | Book Review


When Daniel Silva publishes a new Gabriel Allon novel, I read it as quickly as I can. I get up early to read it, catch a few pages during breaks throughout the day, and stay up late until it’s finished. Some people binge-watch their favorite shows on Netflix. I binge-read spy books.

And so it was with The Other Woman, the latest installment in Silva’s long-running series. In it, Gabriel Allon, chief of Israel’s Mossad, discovers there’s a mole near the top of a Western intelligence agency. Discovering who the mole is and what agency has been compromised before any more damage can be done is the engine that drives the plot forward.

As with all murder and suspense books, my chief criterion of a well-told tale is whether it keeps me turning pages. If a suspense book especially doesn’t grab my attention and force me to keep reading because I absolutely must know what happens next, then it’s not a very good suspense book. By that criterion, The Other Womanis a success.

The book also kept my attention because the plot hinges on Cold War history. I can’t go into detail without spoiling things, so I’ll just say that James Jesus Angleton’s description of counterintelligence as “a wilderness of mirrors” is an apt description of The Other Woman’s plot. Angleton was obsessed that Russia had a mole in the CIA, an obsession grounded in the all-to-real treachery of Kim Philby and the other members of the infamous Cambridge Five, but his obsession also tore relations between Western intelligence agencies apart. That kind of obsession is in play here too.

One of the downsides of page-turners is that you often only see the plot’s weaknesses in hindsight. That was the case here too. In the moment, I thought the Cold War-related plot (again, no details because…spoilers!) worked well. But on reflection, I started to think it was highly implausible. Once you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Even with this caveat, The Other Womanis an entertaining read, a trip down Cold War Memory Lane, and a reminder that in the real world, the New Boss of Russia is the same as the Old Boss, and neither is the good guy.

Book Reviewed
Daniel Silva, The Other Woman (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The Auschwitz Violinist | Book Review


When a man greets Adam Lapid on the streets of Tel Aviv, Lapid recognizes him as a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz named Yosef Kaplon. A few days later, Kaplon slits his wrists and a friend asks Lapid to figure out why. His investigation opens a window on Holocaust survivors, collaboration, and vengeance.

Before the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial, many Israelis poorly understood the experience of European Jews who had survived the Shoah, and the survivors rarely spoke about their experiences.

Some Israelis—sabras, “natives”—felt that European Jews had been too weak and compliant in the face of oppression. The “new Zionist man” would show the world that Jews couldn’t be pushed around. Survivors felt differently, of course. There had been little they could do, and there were few Gentiles willing to help.

After the war, radicals began targeting Nazi officers and camp guards for assassination because the Allies were doing relatively little to bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice. This the background leading up to the Mossad’s capture of Eichmann in 1960. The radicals also took a dim view of European Jews whom they felt had collaborated with the enemy: the Judenrat(ghetto police), Kapos(concentration camp supervisors), even musicians forced to play in camp orchestras.

Dunsky uses this mix of survival, collaboration, and vengeance as the background to The Auschwitz Violinist, which is the third Adam Lapid novel. On the whole, he does a good job. I will note, however, that when Dunsky introduced a particular character in particular, I had a premonition he would turn out to be the bad guy. And I was right. I can’t say whether this was because I have read too many mysteries or because Dunsky telegraphed the ending unwittingly. Probably the former.

So, three stars for The Auschwitz Violinistfrom me, but it’s still a page-turner, and I look forward to the fourth novel in the series.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Dunsky, The Auschwitz Violinist: An Adam Lapid Mystery(Charleston, NC: CreateSpace, 2016).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

On the 50th Anniversary of the Six Day War


Today is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Six Day War. In this article, historian Michael Oren, author of the excellent ‘Six Days of War,’ explains what that war meant to both Israel and the broader Middle East. He writes:

All wars in history inevitably become wars of history. No sooner do the guns grow silent then the debate begins over whether the war was justified and its outcome positive. The arguments surrounding the Civil War, for example, or even World War II, fill volumes.

But few wars in history have proved as contentious as the Six-Day War. On American campuses, students and faculty members still lock horns on the question of Israel’s right to Judea and Samaria — the West Bank’s biblical names — and the Palestinians’ demand for statehood in those areas. U.S. policy-makers, meanwhile, devote countless hours to resolving the war’s consequences diplomatically. Obsessively, it seems, the media focuses on the realities created by those six fateful days.

And never have the disputes surrounding the Six-Day War been bitterer than now, on its 50th anniversary. The battle lines are clearly drawn. On the one side are those who insist that the Arabs never threatened Israel seriously enough to provoke her territorial expansion. The war resulted in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the building of Israeli settlements. Rather than a victory, the war transformed Israel into colonial, apartheid state.

The other interpretation maintains that Israel had no choice but to fight and that this defensive war provided the state with secure borders, vital alliances, peace treaties and a renewed sense of purpose.

Read the whole thing! Then read the book!

Review of ‘Jabotinsky: A Life’ by Hillel Halkin


Jabotinsky Hillel Halkin, Jabotinsky: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

One day, while I was waiting for my chai latte at the café, a friend noticed Hillel Halkin’s book in my hand and asked, “Who is Jabotinsky?” I should note that my friend is given to reading obscure books by obscurer theologians. But he joked that I had “out-obscured” him this time with my choice of reading.

So, who is Jabotinsky? Why is he worth reading about, especially if you, like me, are a Gentile Christian reader?

The answer to both questions is straightforward: Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky (1880–1940) was the founder and leader of Revisionist Zionism. He is worth reading about because of his influence on the Israeli Right, including Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister, and Benjamin Netanyahu, its current Likud prime minister. (Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion, was an aide to Jabotinsky.) And his form of Zionism complicates American Christian support for Israel in interesting ways.

That last point requires explication. Christian Zionists typically believe that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. But the Zionists whose labors brought this about were not particularly observant Jews. (Religious observant Jews in Israel today tend to lean Right, often forming political alliances with Likud.) Moreover, they vigorously disagreed—occasionally to the point of physical fights—on political and military means and ends.

The dominant form of Zionism in the early years was Socialist and largely secular, the predecessor of today’s Israeli Left. (For anticommunist American Christians, this is always something of a surprise.) They tended to think peace with the Arabs was possible and often agreed with the various partition plans (prior to 1948) of the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations. Revisionists, on the other hand, prepared for battle from the get-go and were territorial maximalists. What united Left and Right was the dream of a Jewish nation in its historic homeland. To a certain extent, they collaborated as the British Mandate in Palestine wound down after World War II and then in the War for Independence against the Arabs. But that collaboration, rare before Independence, rare after it, was tactical rather than strategic. The divisions between Left and Right were bitter in Jabotinsky’s day. They have not become sweeter since. Jabotinsky was denounced by the Zionist Left as a “fascist,” a canard that is regularly applied by the Israeli Left to the Israeli Right in the present day, applied more generally to all Israelis by anti-Semitic streams in Europe and the Arab world.

I mention these things because Christian Zionists often have an uninformed view of Israeli history. I have met many sincere Christians who think they can skip directly from biblical Israel to modern Judaism, seemingly unaware of both the evolution of the religion of Hebrew Scriptures into rabbinic Judaism and of the prevalent secularism of Zionism in its earliest forms. (They are really shocked when they discover that some ultraorthodox Jews are not even Zionists at all!) Christian support for Israel should not be informed by such errors. If you’re going to support the nation, at least understand its history correctly.

There is another reason to read this book, however—aside from the light it will shed on a crucial chapter in Zionist history. That reason is the intrinsic interestingness of Jabotinsky’s life. He was born in Odessa, Russia. Odessa was a relatively new city, filled with all sorts of ethnic and religious minorities. While many other Russian and Eastern European Jews experienced pervasive discrimination, Jabotinsky grew up in a relatively liberal environment. He wasn’t a resident of the shtetl, he was a cosmopolitan. He didn’t become a Zionist out of a reactive mechanism of self-defense. He chose to become one.

Hillel Halkin pays particular attention to the cosmopolitan side of Jabotinsky’s personality through close and regular attention to his journalism, short stories, poems, books, and plays. The Russian author Alexander Kuprin once told a Jewish audience that Jabotinsky had “a God-given talent who could have been an eagle of Russian literature had you not stolen him from us” and drawn him into Zionist political activity. Kuprin went on to say, “What a great loss to Russian literature, only a few of whose writers have been blessed with his style, his wit, his insight into our soul!” Jabotinsky was educated, well traveled, fluent in several languages, and a man of letters who settled into politics, lured by the necessities of his age.

His life should not be reduced to politics, as important as they were to him and as enduring as his political legacy may be. No one’s life should be. The personal is always more than—and more interesting than—the political, even in the life of a man who gave himself to politics for the sake of Zion.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. You might also want to check out Menachem Begin by Daniel Gordis. (See my review here.)

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, June 7, 2011


A pacifist college bans the national anthem from sporting events. “The Goshen College Board of Directors announced today that it has asked President James E. Brenneman to find an alternative to playing the Star-Spangled Banner that fits with sports tradition, that honors country and that resonates with Goshen College’s core values and respects the views of diverse constituencies.” Needless to say, the Armed Forces are not one of those diverse constituencies.

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“God’s Politics? No Such Thing.”

As Christians we will always live in some tension with the way in which our nation navigates history. If we do not have the same sense of tension with the world around us, in fact, we are probably not paying attention to God, the world, or both. We can and should engage political question, but we will often be forced to do the complex work of evaluating secular priorities in light of the tra nscendent claims that God makes on our lives.

God’s politics? No such thing.

In fact, we will also discover that more often than not, it’s not about God-given government—it’s more often about government that acts too much like God. But that shouldn’t trouble us too much. We aren’t called to nation building. We are called to participate in the reign of God.

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“Following court ruling, Texas student prays at graduation.” This seems like a straightforward First Amendment to me. If a student wants to include a prayer in her speech, then if her speech is protected, so is her prayer. The key issue is that the school itself did not mandate the prayer.

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Do you want to make a mainline church more theologically and ethically conservative? Promote ethnic diversity. That’s the lesson of the United Methodist Church, at any rate.

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“No Adam, No Eve, No Gospel”: That’s the title of a Christianity Today editorial. Yesterday, I linked to the CT article on the evangelical debate over the historicity of Adam and Eve. This complements that.

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“Missing faith: Getting religion in the newsroom.” Religion is a huge part of the lives of most Americans, although you wouldn’t know it from the news. This articles explains the disconnect and offers suggestions for reconnection.

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A minister and a rabbi write an op-ed… No, that’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s the background to “What’s right in the Middle East?” Answer: Israel. The answer might’ve been more complex had they added an imam to the conversation.

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From National Geographic: “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization” (emphasis added). It’s always nice when archaeologists catch on to what the religious have known for years.

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“Where Are the Mainline Protestant Candidates for President?” They’ve done what droves of mainliners have done over the years: decamped for evangelical and Catholic churches, or none at all.

This video has absolutely nothing to do with religion, but this is my blog, so I’m posting it anyway.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Pure bluegrass awesomeness! And from the looks of it, these boys shop at Bass Pro.

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