Gateway to the Classics: The Hammer by Alfred J. Church
The Hammer by  Alfred J. Church

The Cleansing of the Temple

Azariah and Micah had been put under John, the eldest of the five brothers, in command of the force employed to blockade the garrison of Acra. The night had passed quietly; the garrison had not attempted a sortie, and had not even harassed the besiegers with a discharge of missiles. And when the morning came they seemed inclined to continue the same inaction. From the high ground the two Jews looked down upon the Temple courts and saw the priests directing a crowd of eager helpers in the work of cleansing the Sanctuary, and labouring diligently with their own hands. The first task was to pull down the idol altar which had been erected on the altar of burnt-offering. This was done in a fury of haste. The hands of the workmen could not, it seemed, move fast enough in destroying the abominable thing. The stones were carried out of the temple with gestures of loathing and disgust, and afterwards taken to the Valley of Hinnom—unholy things to be cast away in an unholy place.

But the stones of the holy altar itself had been polluted by the superstructure that had been erected upon them. What was to be done with them? At least it was manifest that they could not stand where they were: Sacrifice could not be offered upon them. They were reverently detached from the cement which bound them together, and then borne one by one to a chamber of the Temple, where they were to be laid up till a prophet should arise who should show what was to be done with them. The first duty of dealing with the altar completed, came the work of cleansing and repairing the courts and chambers. The long, trailing creepers were pulled down; the weeds and shrubs were rooted out. The place was still a ruin, but the manifest signs of its desolation and abandonment were removed. So numerous and so eager were the labourers that for this part of the work a few hours sufficed. The task of reparation would, of necessity, be longer and more tedious.

Azariah and Micah had been watching the work with perhaps a more absorbing interest than was quite consistent with their duty of watching the garrison, when suddenly one of the sentries blew an alarm. Scarcely had it sounded when a flight of arrows from the garrison of the fortress fell among the besiegers. The Greeks had watched their opportunity, and when almost all eyes were turned on the work that was going on below, had sent a volley among the ranks of the enemy.

This sudden attack did no little damage. One or two of the patriots were killed on the spot, several were seriously wounded; the others either covered themselves with their shields, a precaution which they ought not to have neglected, or sought refuge among the ruins.

Azariah, though he had been caught a little off his guard, was not unprepared to deal with a manifestation of this kind. He had organized a company of slingers, and he now ordered them to advance and clear the wall of its defenders. They knelt with one knee upon the ground, and covered themselves with their shields. Under this shelter they loaded their slings. Then, rising rapidly at a preconcerted signal from their commander, they sent a simultaneous and well-directed shower of leaden bullets on the defenders of the wall. These missiles, sent with a skill and a strength in which the Jewish slingers were unsurpassed, had a marvellous effect. In a moment the wall was cleared, except that here and there along its length the dead and wounded might be seen. The survivors did not venture forth from shelter to carry them away. A fierce conflict followed. From the loopholes of the towers and from behind the battlements the Greek archers kept up the discharge of their arrows, and the Jewish slingers replied. No great damage was done on either side; but every now and then a skilful aim at some exposed body or limb was followed by a cry of pain from the wounded man, and the cry was taken up by a shout of triumph from the hostile force. In the course of the afternoon a storm came on, with thunder and lightning and a deluge of rain. Before it had cleared away the light had failed, and hostilities had perforce to be suspended.

About the beginning of the second watch Micah, who was making a round of the sentries, heard the sound of something that seemed to fall heavily upon the soft and plashy ground. The rain had ceased, and the sky had partially cleared; for a few minutes all was still; then Micah could hear a sighing which was not the sighing of the wind. He followed the guidance of the sound, and found a woman lying almost insensible upon the ground. He called one of the sentinels to help him, and together they carried her under shelter, and brought torches, by the light of which they might examine her injuries. That she was stunned by the fall was evident, for she did not speak, and when they attempted to move her she groaned with the pain. When left alone she did not seem to suffer much, and they judged it best to wait for the morning, administering meanwhile a little wine and water from time to time.

The next morning four of the soldiers were told off to remove her on a litter that had been constructed for the use of the wounded to a deserted house in the Lower City—and of deserted houses there was only too great a choice. As the bearers put down their burden on the way to take a brief rest a strange figure came up to the party. It was a woman, young and still showing the remains of beauty, but with a miserably haggard look. It was easy to see from her uncertain gait and wandering eye that she was a lunatic.

Huldah had been for some time a well-known figure in Jerusalem, and her story was of the saddest. She had been a servant in the house of Seraiah, and had been Ruth's own waiting-maid. Returning home from some errand on which she had been sent one day at the beginning of Apollonius's reign of terror, she had been seized by the attendants of the newly-dedicated Temple of Jupiter, and made a slave. Before many weeks had passed the cruel outrages to which she was subjected overthrew her reason. Thus become a trouble to her captors she was permitted to escape. Since then she had been accustomed to wander about the city. The horrors of the past still haunted her, and the recollection of the abominable idolatries in which she had been forced to serve. At every pool of water and fountain she would stay and wash. From every passer-by she would beg for something that might serve for her cleansing: it was the one craving of her soul to be rid of its defilement. For food or money she never asked; but a few kindly souls in the city gave her enough to support life, and sometimes would renew the garments, threadbare, but always scrupulously neat and clean, which she wore. Of these friends the kindest was Eglah, who had a fellow-feeling for the sufferer, and who was always on the watch to atone by her charitable deeds for what she believed to be the great offence of her life.

Huldah cast a glance at the litter in passing, and at once recognized in the suffering woman her own benefactress. For indeed it was Eglah whom Micah had found under the fortress wall. The recognition made a marvellous change in the poor maniac. It turned her thoughts in another direction. She ceased to dwell upon her own sufferings, and, for the time at least, reason regained its sway.

She knelt down by the side of the litter, and kissed one of the hands that hung listlessly down. Then, rising to her feet, she arranged the cushion on which Eglah lay so as to make it more comfortable. That done, she bade the bearers take up their burden, made a gesture of dissent when they were turning aside to the house to which they had been directed, and led the way to Eglah's own dwelling.

The unhappy creature was positively transformed by the charge which had thus been laid upon her. The most intelligent and thoughtful nurse could not have done better for her patient than did the poor distracted Huldah. A physician who was called in examined Eglah, and found that though she had been sadly bruised and shaken, no bones were broken. Whether any internal injury existed was more than he could positively say; that time alone would show. Meanwhile careful attention was all that could be done for her, and attention more careful than Huldah's it would be impossible to imagine.

The two priests who had found shelter in Eglah's house were naturally among those whom Judas had summoned to take part in the cleansing of the Temple when he made proclamation for all such as, being of the House of Aaron, were "of blameless conversation and had pleasure in the Law." Posts of special dignity were, indeed, conferred upon them, for both were men of high reputation for sanctity and learning, which was not a little increased by the romantic story of their long seclusion and marvellous escape. Judas assigned them quarters near to his own, and was accustomed to have frequent recourse to their advice. They thus found themselves almost constantly employed, and were unable for several days to find an opportunity of inquiring what had happened to their protectress.

When at last they found their way to the house Eglah had sufficiently recovered her strength to be able to rise from her bed. She was sitting, busy with her needle. Huldah was watching her with an intense look of affection that was infinitely pathetic.

The poor woman told her story with a voice that again and again was broken with sobs.

"When I was preparing your morning meal in the kitchen my husband, whom I had never before known to set foot in the place, suddenly appeared. I was greatly terrified lest he should ask for whom I was getting the food ready, but he was too much occupied with other things to notice it at all. 'Eglah,' he said, 'you must come with me into the fort. Judas the Hammer has broken our army to pieces. Lysias has fled before him, no one knows whither, and within a few hours he will be in the city. I would have you here, for the fort is scarcely a place for a woman, but I fear your people. Haply they may slay you as having been yoked to a heathen. My darling,' he went on—and here poor Eglah's voice was choked with tears—'I have done ill for you, I fear; but I meant it for the best. And now, I fear, you must cast in your lot with me. May the God whom you serve turn it for good.' So I gathered a few things together, and went with him. I thought many times that we should scarcely have reached the fort alive, for the people cursed us as we went, the women especially casting many bitter words at me as one that had left her people to join herself to the heathen. But my husband had some six or seven soldiers with him; and they were brave men and well armed. We had not been many hours in the fort before there began a battle between the garrison and the soldiers of Judas. One of my husband's men, who had gone in a spirit of folly and vanity to show his courage, was struck down with a stone, and my husband ran forth to drag him in. And just as he was returning, another stone from the slingers struck him on the back of his head. It was about the ninth hour of the day when he was wounded, and he lived till the beginning of the second watch, but he never spoke again."

Here the poor creature's story became confused and broken, and her listeners could only guess what had followed. The tale of what followed must be told for her. " 'Ah!' said one of the soldiers, 'Glaucus has it. He will never move again, I reckon. A good fellow, but overstrict.' 'But how about the Jewish girl whom he calls his wife?' said the other; 'I shall take her.' 'Nay, nay; let there be fair play between us, comrade, as there has always been. Why you more than I?' 'Because I was the first to speak.' 'Not so; 'twas I that first spoke of her.' 'Well, we won't quarrel, comrade. No woman is good enough to separate old friends. Let us cast the dice for her, and the man that wins shall stand treat for a flagon of wine.' And then Eglah heard them cast the dice, and count the numbers—they would have twenty throws a-piece, they said—and curse and swear when they threw low. And when they had finished their dice-throwing they came in to see how Glaucus fared; and just as they entered the chamber, he drew a long breath and died. One of them put his hand upon his heart and said, ' 'Tis all over with him; he will never toss a flagon or kiss a pretty girl again.' And then he laid his hand upon Eglah's shoulder, and said, 'Cheer up; we will find another husband for thee as good as he.' But the first said, 'Nay, Timon, leave her alone. The women are not like us. You must give them a few hours to cry.' 'Well, well,' said his comrade, 'you were always soft-hearted. Let us come and have our flagon; there is no reason why we should wait for that.' " The comrades went on their errand and left the widow alone with her dead husband. She kissed him, and cut off a little curl of his hair, and then went forth on the wall—for the chamber in which he lay was in one of the wall-towers—and threw herself down to the ground. It was better, she thought, to die than to sin again.

"Daughter," said Joel, "you should thank the Lord that, without your own doing, the tie that bound you to this heathen man is broken."

"O sir," broke out the poor woman, do not say so. I cannot find it in my heart to thank Him, though I do try to say in my heart, 'Thy will be done.' "

"Brother," said the old Shemaiah, "you are too hard upon her. 'Tis right that a wife should mourn for her husband, be he Jew or Greek. Before the Lord, I had thought ill of her had she been of the temper that you would have her."

Eglah turned to the old man a grateful look. "O sir," she said, "you do not know how kind and good my Glaucus was. I never had an angry word from him. Nor did he ever hinder me from my prayers. Rather he would say when I went three times to my chamber to pray, 'Speak a word for me, wife, if you will.' And he would oftentimes speak to me about my God, and say that he liked Him better than the gods in whom he  had been taught to believe. And I used to tell him stories out of the Book, and how the Lord had delivered his people out of the land of Egypt, and had brought them into the land which He sware to Abraham to give him. And he never mocked or laughed, but listened with all his heart. And, sir, I do sometimes think that if he had been spared to live longer, he would have become one of us. But he is dead, and I shall never, never see him any more."

And the poor desolate widow burst out into a passion of tears, and threw herself prostrate on the couch, Huldah trying to comfort her, not with words—which, indeed, she could not command, and which, in any case, would have been of small avail—but with great demonstrations of love.

After a while Eglah looked up, and turning to Shemaiah, in whose sympathy and charity she trusted, said, "O, sir, do you think that there is any hope for him? Must he go into that dreadful Gehenna? For indeed he was kind and good, and never thought of any woman but his wife, and never injured one of our people, but would help them and defend them when his fellows were rough with them. He was better than many Jews that I know. Is it not possible that God may have mercy upon him?"

Joel was about to speak, but Shemaiah beckoned to him to hold his peace. "My daughter," he said, "these things are too deep for us; but I would say, be of good hope for him that is gone, seeing that he was such as you say. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? To some He giveth much light, and to some but little; and He judgeth each according to that which He has given. Therefore I bid you be of good cheer."

"And may I pray for him?" asked Eglah.

"Surely you may, for no prayer, so that it come out of an honest heart and pure lips, but finds some fulfilment."

He rose and, giving her his blessing, departed, followed by Joel, whose narrow intelligence was not a little startled by what his old companion had said.

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