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

The Patriot Army

Three days passed before Mattathias and his sons arrived; but when they came, they brought with them a considerable force. The news of the events at Modin had spread like wildfire through southern Judæa, and hundreds who had endured the rule of the heathen with ill-concealed impatience flocked to the standard of revolt. It was a strange array that might have been seen making its way up the mountain pass. A professional soldier would certainly at the first glance have thought meanly of its fighting capacities. Scarcely a score of the whole multitude was properly armed. Old weapons that had hung unused for a century or more had been taken down that they might strike another blow for the God of Israel. There had not been time to rub the rust from the sword-blades and the spear-heads, much less to hammer out upon the anvil the dents and notches left by the half-forgotten battles in which they had last been used. But it was only a few who had even these antiquated weapons. Most of the fighting men were armed as their fathers had been under the domination of the Canaanites in the days of Barak, or of the Philistines in the days of Saul. They carried mattocks and hoes, pruning-hooks and reaping-hooks tied to the ends of poles, or stakes shod with iron or even only hardened in the fire. But a nearer inspection would have changed the contempt of the military critic into something like admiration. These men had all that goes to the making of the soldier except the arms, and this want, after all, is the easiest to be supplied. They had on their faces the set, stern look of those who are fighting for a cause, and that a cause very near to their hearts. There were old men among them; but most were in the full vigour of youth and manhood. A real leader of men would have preferred to be followed by them than by the most handsomely equipped army of mercenaries.

At the head of the column walked the aged Mattathias. Two of his sons, John and Judas, were with him, the other two being busy with the multifarious duties which fell upon the leaders of a force as yet so imperfectly organized. The old man—he had passed the threescore years and ten which are more commonly the limit of human existence among the short-lived races of the East than among ourselves—had been carried in a litter for part of the way. This he had left at the entrance of the pass, being anxious not to give an impression of weakness. He now walked erect and with a firm step, his indomitable spirit supplying for the time all that was wanting in his physical strength. Nothing could be more enthusiastic than the reception which met him when he reached the little colony among the hills. He was the champion for whom they had been looking, and they received him as if he had been an "angel of God." Azariah and Seraiah, who had been hitherto informal leaders, gladly resigned their power into his hands, and from thenceforwards acted under his orders.

There was indeed much to do. The little post in the mountains was now to become a fortress, garrisoned by an army which was already considerable in numbers, and which daily increased in strength. Faithful Jews from all parts of the country flocked to the place which seemed the last refuge of patriotism and faith. Nor were there wanting less respectable adherents. There was not a few men who, like Benjamin and Shallum, had followed a life in which right and wrong, good motives and bad, were curiously mixed up and confounded. They were divided between patriotism and robbery—divided, of course, in very varying proportions. None were quite blameless, and none were quite bad. The most unprincipled had lurking somewhere in his heart a real regard for his country, and, to say the least, he found much more satisfaction in emptying the pockets of a heathen than in robbing his own people. The most honest, on the other hand, could not always guide his actions by any strict rule of integrity. He had to live, and if his enemies did not furnish him with the means, he must get them from his friends. Many of these men were genuinely attracted by the new movement, genuinely glad to lead a life which their consciences could heartily approve. Others found that their occupation was gone, and that they must enlist in the new patriot army or starve. The garrison thus gained a considerable number of recruits, but some of them were of a class that was likely to give no little trouble in the future.

In strong contrast with these doubtful adherents, and yet, in some respects, even more difficult to control, were the Chasidim—the "religious," "mighty men and voluntarily devoted to the Law"—the spiritual ancestors of the Pharisees of a later time, but actuated by a zeal far more sincere than what could commonly be found in their degenerate descendants. Men braver it would not have been possible to find; their courage amounted to something like recklessness; but they were enthusiasts, and held their tenets with a tenacity that sometimes made discipline almost impossible.

An incident that occurred soon after the arrival of Mattathias and his sons exhibited these difficulties in a striking way. The scene of it was the extreme right of the position, where Abiathar, one of the Chasidim, an able soldier but a most uncompromising zealot, was in chief command. The whole of the population had assembled to take part in a Sabbath service. They had listened to the great chapter in Deuteronomy which proclaims the blessings that will follow obedience, the curses that will fall on those who disobey. They had sung together that Psalm "for the Sons of Korah," which tells of triumph and of shame, in which Israel now thanks Him who has saved them from their enemies and now complains that He has made them a reproach to their neighbours' scorn, and a derision to them that are round about. And they were listening to a stirring exhortation to quit them like men and be strong, from the soldier-priest who was in chief command, when an alarm was raised that the enemy were at hand. Some of the younger men were on the point of running to fetch their weapons, for they were of course unarmed, when the stern voice of their leader called them back. "Have you so soon forgotten the blessing and the curse which the Lord your God hath set before you? Has He not commanded you to keep holy the Sabbath-day, and will you profane it by smiting with the sword?" They obeyed the command, though not without some murmurs from those who had not been thoroughly schooled in the stern tenets of the Chasidim. Meanwhile the enemy, a strong force that had been sent out from the garrison at Jerusalem, had come up. A herald from the officer in command approached, and delivered a message in these terms:—

"Philip the Governor, and Apollonius, captain of the King's army, bid you come forth from your hiding-place and deliver yourselves up. Let your former transgressions against the King suffice, and do now according to his commandment. So will he have mercy upon you, and admit you to his grace."

The answer of the Jewish commander was brief and decisive: "We will not come forth, neither will we do according to the King's commandment."

Then followed one of the strangest scenes recorded in history. The peremptory refusal of the proffered terms was followed in a few minutes by a shower of missiles from the hostile force. The crowd at which they were aimed made no attempt at resistance, or even at escape. They fell where they stood, without lifting a hand, almost without uttering a cry. There is no greater trial of an army's discipline than to make it stand and see its ranks thinned without being able to strike a blow in return. But the soldiers who endure this trial endure it in the hope of an hour that cannot be long delayed, when they shall reap the reward of their patience in an assured victory. The Chasidim who followed Abiathar had no such support in their endurance. They stood like sheep for the slaughter, strong men as they were, and conscious that they could save themselves if they would. Not a stone did they throw in reply to the missiles that were showered upon them; and when the hostile ranks closed in, not till after some wondering delay, and began to finish the bloody work with their swords, they still held their ground with the same passive, unresisting courage.

To one man at least the sword of the heathen brought that day a welcome release from his troubles. Shallum, the wine-seller of Jerusalem, had been consumed with remorse for the part which he had taken on the day when he followed "Bacchus and his reeling train." The words haunted his mind with maddening repetition. The stern doctrines of the Chasidim had exercised a singular attraction for him, and though, stained as he was with sins for which he could scarcely hope purification, he did not even propose to join their ranks, he was a diligent attendant at their services and an attentive listener to their teaching. This day he had stood on the outskirts of the crowd, hearing with a rapt attention the promises and denunciations of the Law, and listening to, though not daring to join in, the chanted psalms. "Perhaps," he said to himself, "the sound of the holy music will rid me of that accursed Bacchic chant which rings for ever in my ears." For a moment, when the massacre began, that love of life which even the most miserable scarcely ever loses rose up strong in his heart. But he crushed it down. "I have transgressed too often," he thought to himself, "the commandment of the Lord; let me obey it at least this once, though I die." The next moment the stroke of a Greek sword levelled him to the ground, and the Bacchic chant vexed him no more.

Not a single man of all that company—so strong was the contagion of enthusiasm among them—made any effort to escape the fate that overtook his companions. Still there was left a survivor to carry to Mattathias the news, at once so terrible and so glorious, of that day's doings. One of the men had been felled to the ground by the blow of a stone at the first discharge of the enemy's missiles, and had been left for dead upon the field. When he came to himself, late in the night, he found himself the only living being among masses of the slain. His first duty was obviously to carry tidings of the events to the commander-in-chief, and he made his way to head-quarters as quickly as his enfeebled condition permitted.

Mattathias saw that this question of the Sabbath must be settled at once, and, if the war was to be carried on with any prospect of success, settled on the side of freedom. He called a council in the early morning of the next day—the news had reached him about two hours after midnight. His five sons were present, as were Azariah, and Seraiah, with others who held command in the patriot army. A long debate followed, for some of the Chasidim still clung to their rigid opinions, even in the face of the disaster which had happened, and the manifest probability, even certainty, of its happening again. They answered with stern iteration to each appeal that was made to them by the advocates of reason and moderation, "Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath-day." It was impossible to yield to them, and yet, such was their courage and devotion, almost equally impossible to break with them.

Mattathias, who presided at the assembly, had left the debate to other speakers, and had contented himself with keeping the peace between them, as far as he could. At last he rose and delivered his opinion.

"Brethren," he said, "let us take heed that we break not the Law while we seem to keep it. The Lord hath commanded us that we shall not work our own works or do our own pleasure upon His day. Shall we take occasion thereby to neglect His work and leave undone His pleasure? The heathen have come into His inheritance and devoured it. Shall we suffer them to usurp it for ever? Say, too, ye that will not stretch out a finger to save the people of the Lord from destruction because it is the Sabbath, do ye not reach out your hand to save a brother or a sister or a neighbour, yea, even a stranger upon that day, if it so chance that they be overtaken by some instant need? Nay, more; do ye not pull out an ox or an ass, if it be fallen on that day into a pit? and will ye not pull out the Lord's people from the pit which the malice of their enemies shall have digged for them? Listen, therefore, to my sentence. If the enemy come upon us upon the Sabbath we will beat him back, God helping. Nevertheless, if it may be so without damage to the Lord's cause, we will not march against him on that day. If there be sin in this matter let it be upon me and my children."

And as he spoke the five young men, his sons, rose up in their places, and answered, Amen.

The decision was generally accepted and acted upon, though to the last some of the more determined of the Chasidim avoided, as far as was possible, all military action on the Sabbath.

The rule of Sabbath observance was, however, still very strictly kept. It was two or three days after the council described above had been held, when one of the half-bandit, half-patriot recruits was discovered busily employed in cleaning his armour on the Lord's day. He was kept in confinement till sunset, when the Sabbath was considered to end; a council of war was hastily summoned to hear the case. The man pleaded the recent decision of Mattathias, which had, he said, relaxed the law of the Sabbath. It was answered to him that the cleaning of armour was no necessary work, and that the distinction must now be kept more strictly than before, lest the people should fall into sin. He then urged that his offence was an error, and might be atoned for by a sin-offering.

"Alas! my son," said Mattathias, "the Temple is profaned; nor can there be any more either sin-offering or peace-offering till it be purified. You must bear your iniquity yourself."

John the soldier, who was unwilling that the army should lose one whose offence, after all, had only been an excess of military zeal, and Simon, whose gentle soul always was inclined to the milder course, voted for a lighter punishment than death, but they were overruled. Even Judas voted against them, knowing that such an army as theirs could only be held together by the bond of an enthusiastic faith.

"Give the glory to God," said the aged president of the Court, when he had communicated his sentence to the prisoner, "and take your death patiently, knowing that though you be judged according to men in the flesh, you shall live according to God in the spirit." The man bowed his head in submission, and repeated the confession of faith, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord."

"The Lord bless thee, my son," said Mattathias, "and take thee into Abraham's bosom."

So the transgressor died. And they buried him under a heap of stones to which every passer-by made it his duty to add his tribute.

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