The Battle of Beth-Zur
Several months have passed since the scenes described in the last chapter. During the winter Judas has been increasing and consolidating his army, and he has now a force both more numerous and better equipped than any that he had hitherto commanded. Again he has marched to encounter the Greeks, but he has no easy task before him. Lysias in person commands the Syrian army. Antiochus has sent him some veteran troops from the capital; he has raised fresh levies of his own, and he has enrolled in his ranks the remnants of the armies of Seron and Nicanor. Altogether he has collected an army of sixty thousand men, and must out-number his antagonists at least five times. The struggle will be of a critical kind, and the victory, if won at all, can hardly be won without grievous loss. The Greeks are fighting for their last stake. If they lose this they are disgraced.
The experience of a soldier's wife had not lessened the anxiety with which Ruth waited for news of the battle. This time all that were especially near and dear to her had gone with the army—her husband, her brother, and Azariah—all had run or were even then running deadly peril of their lives. When the news came it might find her utterly desolate, a widow indeed.
During the night these terrors had had almost undisputed sway. It seemed impossible to her to recall the holy words which at other times brought comfort to her soul. Some dreadful picture of her dear ones lying cold and stark upon the battle-field would rise up before her eyes; and again and again the hideous laughing of the hyenas, echoed among the hills, seemed to her like the mocking triumph of the heathen.
The light of morning brought, as it is wont to bring, if not cheerfulness, at least a more hopeful spirit. Anyhow she had not to lie in forced inaction. The daily duties had to be done; and she could find in them not forgetfulness, indeed, but the wholesome invigorating influence of work. Her first task was to fetch the daily ration of food. Miriam and Judith accompanied her, and her little boy was now old enough to toddle by her side. The girls had already begun to bear the burdens of a woman's cares, but the child was in happy unconsciousness of trouble, and there was a certain infection of cheerfulness in his laughter and prattle.
Ruth's way to the store where the rations were distributed led past the point from which the best view of the pass could be obtained. She scanned the prospect eagerly as she went, but could see nothing. On her return she espied the figure of a man who seemed—for he was still almost too distant to be distinguished—to be approaching.
"Look, girl," she cried, "surely some one comes yonder, and he must be bringing tidings of the battle. Oh! if they are safe——"
As she spoke she dropped the piece of flesh, which she was carrying, from her hand; and immediately a vulture swooped down and carried it off.
The watchman had now descried the figure of the traveller, and made the signal which was to indicate to the inmates of the encampment the fact that tidings from the army was at hand. In an instant all that were able to move had poured out, and were hurrying to the top of the pass.
The messenger was Micah, whom, as one of the fleetest runners in the army, Judas had selected to carry the news of his victory. He had traversed the distance, which could not have been less than thirty miles, at a pace which had sorely tried even his athletic frame. He flung himself on the ground, panting convulsively for breath, and unable to speak. One of the elders poured a few drops of cordial into his mouth, and by degrees he recovered his powers. His first act was to kneel and with outspread hands to thank the Lord of Hosts. "We thank thee, God of our fathers, that thou hast delivered us out of the hand of the enemy, and brought us unto the haven where we would be." Then, amidst the breathless attention of the listening crowd, he told the story.
"Judas the Hammer," and as he said the name a murmur of blessing could be heard from the whole assembly—"Judas, the Hammer of God, has smitten the enemy to pieces. Two days since he met Lysias—for the Governor himself was in command—at Beth-zur. There by that valley of Elah, where David slew Goliah of Gath, has the Lord God of Israel proved again that the battle is not to the strong nor the race to the swift. Judas himself led the right wing; the left he had given to Seraiah and Azariah, whom I myself had the privilege of following. The lines of the two armies were about equal in length; nor, indeed, was there room on either side for more; but they had their ranks forty deep and more, and we but seven or eight at the most, for they were many times more numerous. But the Lord showed once again that He can deliver as surely by few as many. Our captain, than whom no man has a more generous temper, though he would gladly have been the first to advance against the enemy, granted that privilege to us. Then we shouted, as we did in the day of Emmaüs, "The Lord is our Help!" and ran forward. While we were yet halt a furlong from them, we saw them tremble and waver; and before we could cross our swords with them their line had broken. That done, their numbers availed them no more, but rather hindered them, so crowded and crushed together were they. We slew till we were weary of slaying."
"And what befell Lysias, the Governor?" asked one of the elders.
"He had posted himself over against Judas himself, judging that there would be the most need of his presence. And indeed they say—for I myself did not see him, being, as I have said, on the other side of the field—that he bore himself as a brave soldier and a good captain. And Judas, when he saw him, pressed forward, seeking to meet him face to face. But Lysias was struck with terror and fled. He had not the heart to abide a stroke from the Hammer. He escaped with some hundred horsemen of his bodyguard from the field. The prisoners say that he is gone to Antioch to gather another army. Let him gather it. We will deal with it and him as we have dealt hitherto with the enemies of the Lord."
"And what does Judas now?" asked the elder.
With a look of joy and triumph Micah lifted his head and said, "He is in Jerusalem. The Lord has given back into our hands the Holy City, the City of David His servant."
It is impossible to describe the delight with which this announcement was received. The women, even the men, wept for joy. This was indeed a glorious gain of victory. Last year they could only see the Holy City from afar, and weep over its desolation. Now they could pour out their love and their sorrow within its sacred precincts.
"Yes," he repeated, "Judas is in Jerusalem, and is making ready to purify the Temple. And you are to return as speedily as you can. The days of your exile are over. Our God has recalled His banished unto Him."
His public mission finished, Micah could give time to private affection. He went with Ruth and the children to their cave, and then, after sharing their morning meal, told them all they wanted to hear. Seraiah and Azariah were both safe, though both had had narrow escapes, Azariah's helmet having been broken in by a sword-stroke from a gigantic Gaul, and Seraiah being saved by a little roll of the Prophecy of Daniel, which he always carried about with him—it was a gift from his wife—and which had stopped the point of a javelin that would otherwise have pierced his heart. Ruth and the children were never satisfied with asking questions and listening to his answers. Even the little Daniel seemed to understand something of what was being said, as he listened, with his baby-eyes wide open, to the talk of his elders.
"And Cleon," asked Ruth, "the Greek with whom you used to be so friendly in time past—did you see him? You met him, you told us, in Modin, and parted in anger; did you meet him again?"
A cloud seemed to pass over Micah's face at this question, and for a few moments he was silent.
"Ah! Ruth," he said, "the Lord be merciful to him, as He has been merciful to me! And did I not sin against Him tenfold more grievously than any heathen could have sinned? For was I not a child of the Covenant, and had I not light and knowledge, whereas he was born in ignorance and knew not of the mercies and deliverances which I knew, and knowing despised."
"Is he a prisoner, then?" asked Miriam, "and will Judas spare him?"
"He needs no mercy from man, my child," said Micah, solemnly. "In the battle I did not meet him. That was well. I should have been loath to cross swords with him; and yet I could hardly have failed to do so. But in the evening, when Lysias had fled eastward with the remnants of his host, and the victory was won, I saw him on the field of battle. The captain himself was with me, as we went among the wounded and the dead, looking for any to whom we could give such help as they needed. He had been pierced with a ghastly wound through the breast. And when Judas saw him, he said to me, 'Ah! that is a brave soldier, and as good a swordsman as ever I met. I had a hard bout with him this morning, and had he not slipped in making a blow, it might have gone ill with me. Do you know him?' 'Yes;' I said, 'in the old time, when I mingled with the heathen and walked in their ways.' 'See, then, whether you can help him in any way; I love a brave man, be he heathen or no.' I was willing enough to do anything that I could for him, you may be sure; one glance at that pale face was enough to chase away all the anger with which we had parted. 'Cleon!' I said. And he knew me and smiled—a very wan and feeble smile, but still a smile. Then I tried to stanch the blood that was flowing from his wound. 'Nay,' said he, ' 'tis idle; I am past all help; let it flow, and I shall be sooner out of my pain. But, dear Menander—nay, pardon me, I should call you Micah—give, me some water to drink, for I have a raging thirst.' I had a leathern bottle of water, and gave him a draught. Then I rested his head upon my shoulder, and bathed his forehead with the water. Judas meanwhile had gone further, and I saw a party of the Chasidim ranging the field, and I thought that they could scarcely pass us by without seeing us, so I said to Cleon, 'Let me lay you down till these are past; for if they know you as a friend of Jason they will not spare your life. 'Tis better to feign death than to meet it at their hands.' Then he smiled and said, 'No need, Micah, to feign death. Your Hammer has smitten me down, and I shall not need another stroke.' And almost as he spoke the words, he died. And just then the captain came back, and we buried him where he had fallen. The Lord have mercy on him!"
"But will He have mercy on the heathen?" said Miriam, who had begun to think.
"Nay, child—who knows?" answered Micah. "Surely some of us need His pardon more than they, who have not known Him, nor have been called by His name."
The next day Micah returned, in obedience to orders, and two or three days afterwards all the party that had been left in the mountains followed him to Jerusalem. It was a happy day, but saddened, for the children at least, by one loss. The jackal, Jael, followed the party awhile, but when they reached the plain, stood still and watched them disappear, making mournful cries the while. Even the prospect of seeing their old home could not quite reconcile the children to the loss of this strange playmate, who had yet grown so dear to them.
And so the rugged mountains which had afforded a refuge to the faithful remnant were left again to silence and solitude. But the memory of what the confessors and martyrs had endured in the evil days was never to perish. Generation after generation remembered with sympathy and reverence what men, aye, and weak women and children had borne for conscience' sake—cold and hunger and nakedness, and that anguish of soul which is harder to be endured than all bodily pain. Two centuries later, an inspired Hebrew, writing to Hebrews, commemorated the noble endurance of this faithful band in his famous roll of the triumphs of faith: "They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, of whom the world was not worthy; they wandered in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth."