Light out of Darkness
For a time the prospects of the patriots seemed dark indeed. Beth-zur had fallen, and the only hope of the cause was in the Temple fortress. This was fiercely assailed by the garrison of the Greek stronghold of Mount Zion on the one side, and, on the other, by the army which had been victorious at Beth-Zachariah, and which now occupied the Lower City. The Temple fortress was strong; it was fairly well supplied with munitions of war; and the garrison was large—indeed, almost too large for the accommodation of the place. The fatal weakness of the position was the scanty supply of provisions. Only water was abundant, for the unsparing toil of former generations had provided for this want; had it not been for this the resistance of the garrison must very soon have come to an end, for food was scarce—so scarce, indeed, that the strength of the fighting men could hardly be maintained by the insufficient rations which were doled out to them, while the few non-combatants received barely enough to keep body and soul together.
The condition of the Jewish population of the city was not as bad as might have been expected. The cruelties of the days of Apollonius and Philip were not repeated; for Lysias, who, as guardian of the boy-King, was practically supreme, favoured a policy of conciliation, and did his best to repress outrage. Indeed he sanctioned the establishment of what may be called a municipal guard or militia, which, while under obligation to give no assistance to the garrison of the Temple, was permitted to protect the peaceful inhabitants of the city. This guard was under the command of Seraiah.
There was much, of course, that it was difficult for those to bear who looked to Judas and his brothers as the hope of Israel. Menelaüs had returned, and with him a whole troop of renegade Jews, whose insolence and impiety sorely tried the patience of the faithful population. And the scarcity of food was only less severe in the city than it was in the fortress.
For some time Seraiah's own household continued to receive mysterious supplies from some unknown source, which made them far more comfortable than their neighbours. Once a week, or even oftener, they would find a bag of corn or flour, a basket of dried grapes or other fruits, a bundle of salt fish, a string of doves or wood-pigeons, put in an outhouse, nor could they guess who their benefactor could be. But when this had gone on for nearly two months, the secret came out. Seraiah, returning from his military duties at an early hour in the morning, and entering by a little postern gate in order to avoid disturbing the household, saw a man drop from the garden wall. He seized him by the arm, and the stranger, turning sharply round, revealed the well-known features of Benjamin.
"What do you here?" he asked.
"I am come on an errand of my own," answered the robber.
"But in my house?"
"Ask no more questions," said the man; "but take my word—and I would not lie to you for all the kingdom of Antiochus—that I mean no harm to you or yours."
A thought flashed across Seraiah's mind.
"It is you, then, who have been bringing us, week after week, these supplies of food?"
Benjamin said nothing.
"I adjure you by God that you answer me," said Seraiah.
"Well, if you will know it, it is I who have done it. Why should not God use a man's hands to feed His servants, as well as a raven's beak?"
"Tell me—how did you come by these things?"
"In various ways."
"Well, I can hardly say; you and I might not agree about the matter."
"Tell me—did you buy them with your money?"
"Nay; that is not my way. I do not buy or sell."
"Then you stole them."
"I told you that we should not agree. But this I know, that they to whom they belonged could do without them better than you and your children."
"Benjamin," said Seraiah, "you mean well, and I thank you. But after this bring no more of these gifts, for I cannot receive them. I would not have my Judge say to me, 'When thou sawest a thief, thou consentedst unto him.' I had sooner die of hunger—aye, and what is far worse, see my children die—than take that which has not been lawfully acquired."
"As you will have it," said Benjamin; "if there were more like you, mayhap I should have been a better man. But meanwhile, the world being what it is, you and yours will have a hard time of it;" and he turned to go away. "And the captain," he went on—"how does he fare? I hear that things are not going well with him. 'Tis a thousand pities, for a braver man never handled sword."
Seraiah told him briefly the story of recent events, and described the present condition of affairs, the other listening with an eager attention, and breaking in now and then with an exclamation of wonder and admiration.
"Come, Benjamin," he said, when he had finished, "why will you not throw in your lot with us? Things look dark just now; but they will brighten. He who has helped us so far will not desert us now."
"Sir," said the man, "I would gladly follow the captain, whether he led me to life or to death. No man could ask a better lot than to be his soldier. But I like not all that are with him. They are overstrict, and make no allowance for such as have not their zeal. Once they beat me; another time they had stoned me to death but that I slipped out of their hands; and both for some miserable trifles which no man of sense would care about. No, sir; Judas I honour and love, but these bigots who give a man no peace I cannot away with. And now the day is beginning to break, and I must go. I am sorry that you will not take my poor gifts."
The next moment he had disappeared.
And now came a time of grievous trouble for Ruth and her young charges, for she had naturally taken charge of Azariah's two daughters. She did not question her husband's refusal to share any longer the illicit gains of Benjamin, but she could not shut her eyes to the fact that the children were suffering grievously. For herself she could endure, as women can; the girls, too, were old enough to understand the cause of their suffering, though they could not enter into the reasons of what seemed so strange an observance—the Sabbatical year; but little Daniel was too young to know much beyond the fact that he was always terribly hungry, and though he was often brave enough to check his crying when he saw how it distressed his mother, there were times when the pangs of hunger were more than he could bear in silence. Poor Ruth denied herself everything but the few scraps that were absolutely necessary to keep body and soul together, and her physical weakness did not make it easier to keep up her hope and courage. Her hardest task, perhaps, was to hide, as far as it was possible, the true state of things from her husband. His strength must be kept up, for so much depended upon it; but the children, not to speak of herself, had to have their scanty share diminished that it might be so. This, of course, he was not allowed to know, and Ruth was at her wits' end again and again to keep it from him.
Within the Temple fortress, meanwhile, things had become almost desperate. A few shekels' weight of flour was given out to each man daily, for Judas insisted that all should share alike. That even this scanty allowance might hold out the longer, numbers of the garrison made their escape every night under the cover of darkness that the remainder might prolong their resistance for yet a few days more.
Before long came a time when absolutely nothing was left. "Their vessels were without victuals," and Judas and the few that still remained with him met to hold a final deliberation.
"My friends," said the great captain, "you see the straits into which we are brought. There is no need to tell you of them, or to prove by words what we all know too well in fact. What, then, shall we do? Shall we stay here and perish slowly by hunger, or shall we fall upon our swords, or shall we sally forth from the gates, and, having slain as many of the heathen as we may, so perish ourselves? I had hoped that the Lord would give deliverance to Israel by my hand, and by the hand of my brothers. But if it be not so, His will be done. For He is not shut up to do that which it pleaseth Him by one man or another. He can call whomsoever He will, and give him strength for the work."
He paused for a moment, and Azariah broke in, "It is well said, O captain of the host. The Lord hath helped His people hitherto, and He will help them to the end. Only let us trust in Him, for"—and here, with an impetuous gesture, he struck his foot upon the rock—"they that put their trust in the Lord shall be even as this mountain, which may not be removed, but standeth fast for ever."
Judas was just rising to announce his resolve when the sound of a trumpet was heard at the gate of the fortress. It was a herald bringing a message from the young King.
"Have you aught to say to me in private?" asked Judas, when the man was brought in.
"Nay," he answered; "my message is one that all may hear."
He then delivered it, reading the words from a parchment which he carried in his hand, and which bore the sign-manual (an impression of the seal-ring dipped in ink) of Antiochus Eupator, as well as that of Lysias. They ran thus:
"Antiochus, surnamed Eupator, King of Syria and Egypt, offers to the people of the Jews peace and friendship. He permits them to worship God after the manners and customs of their fathers, and he hereby revokes all the edicts which the King, his father, having been misinformed by unfaithful advisers, issued against the said nation of the Jews."
Never was there a more surprising, a more unexpected change in the position of affairs. But it might have been foreseen by those who had watched with a full knowledge of the truth, the recent course of events.
Despatches had reached Lysias from Antioch which convinced him that he and his young charge had enemies to reckon with who would be far more formidable than Judas and his followers. Philip had returned from Persia with the host of Epiphanes, and had assumed the management of affairs, and Philip was a dangerous rival. Were he to prevail, his own position as the chief adviser of the King would be untenable; and the King himself would very probably be dispossessed by some other claimant to the throne.
He laid the case, or at least so much as it was necessary to explain, before the boy-King. The lad, who was indeed intelligent beyond his years, at once acquiesced in the advice, that easy conditions of peace should be offered to the garrison.
Then an assembly of the soldiers was summoned. All the officers were invited by name, and, after the usual fashion of such gatherings, as many of the men as could crowd into the chambers were also present. To them Lysias said nothing about the news from Antioch, which it would be better, he thought, to conceal as long as possible; but he dwelt on the useless hardships which they were all enduring.
"Famine and the pestilence are upon us," he said, "and we decay daily. But the place to which we lay siege is strong, and we are no nearer to the taking of it than we were six months since. Now, therefore, let us offer to these men, who are neither robbers nor murderers, peace and liberty, that they may worship God after their own fashion, and live by their own laws. For, of a truth, it is far better, as many of yourselves know, that they should be our friends than our enemies."
An unanimous shout of approval was the answer; and hence the message which came so opportunely to Judas and his followers in the very crisis of their despair.