Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
William Shepard

Hyrcanus, the Son of Joseph

For twenty-two years Joseph continued to gather the taxes, and as the sum he gathered every year was larger than that which he paid to the king of Egypt, he grew very wealthy. He married and had eight sons, the youngest of whom was named Hyrcanus. Joseph loved Hyrcanus the best of all, for he was good and obedient. All the sons were sent to be taught by learned men who were skilled in training youth, but the only one who profited by this instruction was Hyrcanus, the others being too dull and lazy to learn anything. And once Joseph, to test the cleverness of Hyrcanus, gave him three hundred oxen, and bade him go into the wilderness and sow the land there. But without the lad's knowledge he took away the harness by which the oxen were bound to the ploughs. So when Hyrcanus came to the place which he was to plough he found he had no harness. The men who were with him advised him to send home to his father for the harness. But Hyrcanus told them this would be too great a waste of time. And he slew twenty of the oxen, whose flesh he gave to his men to eat, and used their hides to cut up into leather for the harness. When he had sowed as much land as his father had ordered he returned home. And Joseph received him very gladly, and praised him for what he had done.

This happened when Hyrcanus was about thirteen years of age. Now at this time Ptolemy Philopator, who was the son of Ptolemy Euergetes, was king of Egypt. Joseph was told that the king had a new son born to him, and that all the principal men in Syria and other countries subject to Egypt were going to Alexandria to assist in celebrating a great feast in honor of the child's birth. Joseph felt that he was too old to make so long a journey himself, but he asked his sons if any of them wished to go. The elder all excused themselves, saying they were not educated, or able to make speeches in public, and that Hyrcanus had better be sent. Joseph gladly listened to their advice, and he called Hyrcanus and asked him if he would go. Hyrcanus said he would. Joseph then said that he would give him money for his journey, and also many handsome presents for the king. But Hyrcanus answered that he himself would need very little money for the journey, and as to the presents, he had better wait until he reached Alexandria, and he could buy the presents there. So he asked his father to give him a letter to one of his stewards, named Arion, who lived in Alexandria, commanding Arion to pay to Hyrcanus whatever sum the latter might require. Joseph agreed to this, and gave him the letter. Then Hyrcanus made haste to Alexandria.

Now, the brothers of Hyrcanus were all envious of him because he was their father's favorite son. So they wrote letters to many of the chief men in Egypt, asking them to put Hyrcanus to death.

The boy, however, arrived safely in Alexandria. He went first to the steward, Arion, and, presenting his father's letter, boldly asked for a thousand talents. This was such a large sum that Arion refused to give it to him. Hyrcanus then complained to the public officer that Arion refused to obey his master Hyrcanus, and had him thrown into prison. Now, the wife of Arion was a friend of Cleopatra, the wife of King Ptolemy, and she at once hastened to the queen, asking her to obtain liberty for Arion.

Cleopatra laid the matter before the king, who summoned Hyrcanus into his presence. When the boy appeared, the king wondered to see how young he was, and he said to him,—

"Since thou hast been sent to me by thy father, Joseph, why didst thou not come into my presence at once? And wherefore hast thou cast into prison thy father's steward, Arion?"

Hyrcanus answered, "I did not come into thy presence at once, O king, because I did not wish to appear there without such gifts as were becoming to thy dignity. And I cast the slave Arion into prison because he refused to obey my orders, for I am his master by my father's appointment, and it matters not whether a master be little or big, his orders should be obeyed. Unless such rebels as these are punished, thou thyself mayst expect to be disobeyed by thy subjects."

Upon hearing this answer the king fell to laughing, and wondered at the great soul of the child. And he refused to release Arion from prison until he had obeyed Hyrcanus.

Arion, on learning this, gave Hyrcanus a thousand talents, and was let out of prison. The king was so much pleased with the boy's ready wit that he invited him to dine at the royal palace with the principal men of the kingdom. These men were jealous of the favor Ptolemy showed to the young Jew, and they endeavored to turn him into ridicule. When they had eaten, they bade the servant take the bones they had left and place them in a heap in front of Hyrcanus. And they asked the king's jester, who was named Trypho, and whose business it was to make jests at public banquets, to call the king's attention to these bones.

So Trypho went and stood by the king, and said,—

"Dost thou see, my lord, the bones that lie by Hyrcanus? They are an emblem of the manner in which his father, Joseph, stripped all Syria, till it was as bare as Hyrcanus hath made these bones."

The king, laughing at what Trypho had said, turned to Hyrcanus and asked him how he came to have so many bones before him.

"Very rightfully, my lord," answered the boy, "for only dogs eat both flesh and bones, as these thy guests appear to have done; but men eat the flesh and cast away the bones, as I have done."

The king laughed louder than ever, and he made all the guests join in applauding the jest, so greatly was he pleased with it. So the men only succeeded in turning themselves into ridicule.

Next day Hyrcanus went to every one of the king's friends and the men who were powerful at court and, having paid his respects to them, he inquired privately of their servants what presents they intended to make the king on his son's birthday. Some said they would give twelve talents, and others more; but twenty talents was the highest sum named by any of them. Hyrcanus pretended to every one of them that he was grieved not to be able to give more than five talents himself. The servants laughed at him for his poverty, and they told their masters, who were pleased to think that Hyrcanus would fall into disgrace with the king on account of the meanness of his present.

The day came at last, and all the great men of Egypt and of the countries subject to Egypt made their appearance, and gave their presents to the king. None of these amounted to more than twenty talents in value. But Hyrcanus had secretly purchased two hundred slaves, half of whom were boys and half girls. He had dressed them magnificently, and placed a talent in the hands of each. He now made them come forward, and he presented the boys to Ptolemy and the girls to Cleopatra. Every one marvelled at the richness of these gifts, and the king and queen marvelled the most. Then Ptolemy in his gratitude told Hyrcanus to ask for anything he wished and it should be granted to him. Hyrcanus only asked that the king would write to his father and his brethren about him. He well knew that they would be angry with him at what he had done, and he hoped that the king's letter would protect him from their anger. And when the king had paid him great respect, and given him very large gifts, and written, as he had promised, to his father and his brethren, he dismissed him.

On the return of Hyrcanus to Judea his brethren went out to meet him and kill him, for they were jealous of the favor he had received from the king. And even his father, because he was angry at the large sum he had drawn from the steward Arion, was willing that he should be punished. But when the brethren attacked Hyrcanus, he defended himself so well that two of the brethren, with a great many of their men, were slain, and the rest escaped to Jerusalem. Hyrcanus, however, fearing for his safety, then withdrew beyond the Jordan, and became collector for that district. Shortly after his father, Joseph, died. About that same time the high-priest, Onias, died also, and was succeeded by Simon. A contest now arose between the sons of Joseph for the division of their father's wealth, the elder sons refusing to allow Hyrcanus any share of it. The new high-priest sided against Hyrcanus, who again fled beyond the Jordan, to a place called Heshbon, and built himself a magnificent palace there. This was all of white marble, with animals of great size sculpted upon it, and around it ran a deep canal of water. The rocks near the palace were hewn out into chambers and halls for banquets and sleeping-rooms. But none of the doors anywhere were wide enough for more than one man to pass through, lest the master should be surprised by his enemies, his brothers. Here Hyrcanus ruled for seven years, and then, fearing he would fall into the hands of Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, he put himself to death.