Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Alfred J. Church

Civil War

The new high priest arrived at Jerusalem, escorted by a powerful force under the command of Bacchides. None but absolute renegades were glad to see Greek soldiers again lording it in the streets of Jerusalem; but otherwise there was a wide difference of opinion as to the duty of faithful Jews with regard to the reception of the stranger. Alcimus and his Greek companions were loud in their professions of good will. They intended, they said, nothing but benefits to the people. All would be well if they were only received in the same spirit in which they came.

Judas and his brothers received these assurances with profound incredulity. They and their immediate followers had thought it prudent to leave the city. There had been no opportunity of properly repairing the walls of the Temple fortress, and without some such stronghold to serve as shelter in case of need, they would, they felt, be at the mercy of the Greeks. In the position to which they had withdrawn there was a hot discussion. Judas, as usual, urged the counsels of prudence and common sense. It was easy, he said, to make these professions of peace and good will—so easy that, without some substantial guarantee of their sincerity, it would be madness to risk anything on the strength of them. Alcimus, or Eliakim—he must own that he did not like or trust these double-named Jews, for they were often double-faced also—might be thinking of nothing but peace; but why did he come with an army behind him? He might have been sure, sprung as he was from the race of Aaron, that none of his countrymen would harm him. Why had he surrounded himself with a multitude of godless heathen who would be only too likely to harm them? "Let us wait"—this was his final advice—"till he and his friends give us some proof that they really mean what they say."

The Chasidim were loud and vehement in their opposition to this counsel. Joseph, whose bitterness and jealousy had not been weakened by the lapse of time, constituted himself their spokesman.

"The Law," he said, "plainly declares that there shall be a high priest. There are acts, acts of the highest importance, even necessity, which only he can perform. Our worship without him is maimed and imperfect. We cannot expect that there will be a blessing upon it, that, lacking this essential part, our sacrifices will be accepted or our prayers heard. And now we have a high priest that is of the race of Aaron. He promises—and why should we not believe him?—that his purposes towards us are for good and not for evil. Let us go to him, and do him the honour that is due to his office. If harm come of it, we shall have at least obeyed the commandment of God."

Judas and his brothers, with such faithful followers as Seraiah and Micah, stood resolutely aloof, but they could not control the action of the enthusiasts. A large body of the Chasidim paid to Alcimus a formal visit. They welcomed him to the seat of his office; they paid him their homage; intimating at the same time that there were grievances for which they asked redress and abuses which needed reform. Nothing could have exceeded the show of politeness and even friendship with which they were received. Alcimus made the most solemn protestations that neither they nor their friends should suffer any harm. He could only regret that unfounded suspicions had kept away the great soldier who had done so much for his country and whom he would have had so much pleasure in welcoming. They were invited to a banquet, which had been duly prepared, they were assured, in obedience to the requirements of the Law, and of which they could partake without any fear of contracting impurity.

After the banquet there was to be a conference. The proceedings began, and were continued for some time without interruption, though Alcimus could scarcely control his impatience at what he thought the unreasonable demands of the bigots. Meanwhile Bacchides, who had hitherto kept himself in the background, was quietly surrounding the council-chamber with troops. Joseph was in the midst of an harangue when the doors were thrown open, a company of soldiers marched in, and arrested every member of the deputation. It was now the turn of Alcimus to retire into the background. He had served his purpose, acting, it may be said, as a decoy, and, thanks to him, some of the most inveterate enemies of the Greek party had been entrapped. The Greek commander made short work with his prisoners. Alcimus went through the farce of interceding for them, but he never expected, and, perhaps, never intended, to obtain his requests. Sixty of them were executed on the spot, and the rest were cast into prison. The bodies of the victims were hurriedly thrown into carts, drawn outside the city, and left to be the prey of the vulture and the wild dog.

The horror and dismay which spread through the city with the news of the bloody deed were such as it would be impossible to describe. The victims were well-known men, and, for the most part, as much respected as they were known. There was a frantic rush to do honour to the remains of the martyred patriots. But Bacchides had foreseen that this would probably occur, and had surrounded the place with a cordon of soldiers. The people could do nothing but stand upon the walls while the birds and beasts of prey mangled the corpses, and mingle, in their impotent rage, curses on the murderers, with lamentations over the dead. In more than one of their national hymns they found a fitting expression of their grief; but none was more suitable to the circumstances of the time than the words of the seventy-ninth Psalm: "The dead bodies of Thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and the flesh of Thy saints unto the beasts of the earth. Their blood have they shed like water round about Jerusalem, and there was none to bury them."

The conduct of Judas did not, as may be supposed, escape censure. It, is the first impulse of a multitude in the presence of some great disaster to throw the blame upon its rulers, and the Jews, in their anger and grief, felt and yielded to it.

"Yes," said an old man, who had lost a brother and a son in the massacre, "he was too prudent to trust himself to the heathen; he stood aloof from their danger, and when they offered themselves up as a sacrifice, he was not there."

"And did he not well?" said a zealous partisan. "Did he not warn them and entreat them, and they took no heed to his words?"

"But had he and his men of war gone with them," returned the other, "they had not been left without defence. But now they went as sheep to the slaughter."

"What can you look for when the sheep will go where the shepherd does not lead them? And as for Judas, did he ever spare his life? Has he not taken it in his hand time after time, fighting with a few men against thousands of the heathen? And tell me now," went on the speaker, "to whom should we have looked for deliverance had Judas also been slain with these? The Lord has had mercy upon His people, lest they should be utterly cast down, and has left unto them their captain."

On the whole, popular opinion was strongly in Judas's favour. Then came another turn of events. The Greek general, weary of his sojourn among a people that hated him, marched out of Jerusalem, and encamped in one of the suburbs, where he could keep his troops better in hand, and not expose them to the daily risk of collision with a hostile population. This place, too, he shortly evacuated, returning with the main part of his army to Antioch, though he left a small force to support Alcimus, who would now, he thought, with this help, be able to hold his own.

But before he went he committed another deed only less atrocious than the treacherous massacre of the Chasidim. Every partisan, or supposed partisan, of Judas whom he could either entrap or seize was mercilessly slaughtered. Nor did Greeks, who, from motives of expediency or under pressure of superior force, had submitted to Judas, escape.

If Bacchides imagined that these cruelties would strengthen the position of the renegade high priest he was greatly mistaken. Alcimus was more universally, more fervently hated than even Jason or Menelaüs had been. The disappointment caused by this renewal of troubles was all the more bitter because it had succeeded to hopes that seemed so well established. And every one felt that it was Alcimus who was to blame. His greed and ambition had disturbed the peace which they were beginning to enjoy. On his head was all the innocent blood that had been shed.

And now a new horror was added to all that the unhappy country had endured. It was no longer Jew fighting against Greek, but Jew against Jew. Civil war, always more bitter, more ruthless than the very fiercest struggle between strangers, broke out. The renegades rallied to Alcimus. Their interests were bound up with his cause. Some of them had committed themselves so deeply that they could not hope for pardon from the patriots. Others had a genuine dislike for Jewish severity and a liking for Greek license, and fought for all that, as they thought, made life worth living. But the number of these philo-Greek partisans was but small, and the popular feeling was unmistakably against them and Judas felt himself strong enough to assert his position vigorously. He was not now a partisan leader, raising the standard of revolt against established authority; he was himself the established authority, justified in punishing all that presumed to rebel against him. This judicious display of firmness, of what might even be called severity, vastly strengthened his position. The waverers who always go with the strongest, who care little for principle, but most for self-interest and safety, when they saw that the sword of Judas was a more immediate danger to his enemies than the sword of the Syrian King, hesitated no longer about joining him. Alcimus found himself deserted by all but a few desperate partisans. The commander of his Greek auxiliaries declared himself unable to give him sufficient help. Accordingly he had no alternative but to give up the unequal contest, and to hurry back to Antioch, where he might lay his complaints before King Demetrius.