Judas met the danger with his accustomed resolution. He waited in the city till he could be certain of the road which the invaders were taking. As soon as he knew that it was from the south that they were approaching, he collected all his available force, having for the purpose to raise the siege of the fortress, and marched forth to meet them.
The fortress of Beth-zur, which was intended to be the first line in the defence of the capital, was in danger of falling into the hands of the enemy. Micah had received, early in the year, a commission to revictual it, but had found the task one that was difficult, if not impossible, to execute. There was a positive scarcity of food, and the scarcity was aggravated as usual by the practice of hoarding. It was to little purpose that Micah scoured the country, making requisitions of grain and other supplies. Some few, strong in their faith, gave up what they had, and committed themselves and their children to the Lord, whose law they were seeking to obey. Others met the demand with a flat refusal, and at the same time taunted Micah with the folly of enforcing an impracticable law in times of such difficulty. Many met him with the plea of poverty, and their wasted forms and sunken faces were proof enough that this plea was genuine. The work, therefore, for all the zeal that Micah displayed, went on but very slowly, and, indeed, was not half finished when the advanced guard of the army of Lysias appeared. Beth-zur was immediately invested. The engines, of which Lysias had a large stock, played fiercely upon the walls, and preparations was made for an assault. Micah, on the other hand, saw no hope that he would be able to stand a long siege. The garrison under his command was not large enough adequately to man the walls, while it was too large for the stock of provisions which he had been able to collect.
Under these circumstances his resolution was soon taken. Before dawn on the second day of the investment the whole garrison made a desperate sally. Happily they had no non-combatants to care for, and as yet no sick or wounded. Fire was set to the engines. The besiegers, thinking that this was the object of the attack, and that the garrison would make their way back into the fortress, when this had been accomplished, occupied themselves chiefly in putting out the fire. But Micah had no intention of returning. He availed himself of the confusion caused by the burning of the camp, cut his way with desperate resolution through the enemy, and succeeded in reaching the camp of Judas with the larger part of his force. The rest were not able to follow him, but succeeded in regaining the fortress, which they continued to hold against the Greeks.
The camp was at Beth-Zachariah, about nine miles south from Jerusalem, and on an elevated position, not less than three thousand feet above the level of the sea, which commanded the whole of the neighbouring country. Behind, to the north, could be seen the towers of Jerusalem, with Bethlehem, the City of David, in the nearer foreground, nestling among its oliveyards and vineyards. To the west lay the plain of Philistia, with the white cliff of Gath clearly visible in the extreme distance; to the east could be seen the purple mountains of Moab. The road from Hebron, by which the Greek army would approach, crept along the eastern side of the mountains. From his elevated position Judas could see the movements of his adversaries while they were still at a considerable distance. Observing that they pitched their camp on the further side of a narrow defile, with the character of which he was intimately acquainted, he conceived the idea of an ambush.
He summoned Azariah to his tent and detailed his plan. Azariah also knew the place well, and entered into the scheme with enthusiasm—such enthusiasm, indeed, that Judas felt it necessary to give him a parting caution. "Remember," he said, "if this scheme fails, that you come back to me immediately. If the ambush should be discovered, retreat at once. There must be no attack. I cannot spare a man. We shall want all that we have, if not more than all, to make head against the thousands of Lysias."
Azariah promised obedience, and lost no time in setting out on his errand. Shortly after sunset he started, having with him a picked force of a thousand men. Before midnight he had reached the place fixed upon by Judas, and there, in a hollow half-way up the side of the hill that formed one side of the pass, he laid his ambush.
It was an anxious night for the little band. It was always an accepted maxim in ancient warfare that it was the most steadfast courage that was wanted for the ambush. Men who were brave enough when fighting in the open plain found their courage fail when they had to lie for hours watching for the moment of attack, crouched upon the ground, unable to move and scarcely venturing to talk. Azariah's men were brave—indeed they had been carefully chosen for this very service—but they were not altogether insensible of the dangers of their position. They knew, too, and even exaggerated the strength of the advancing army. As they talked in whispers during the night, for, as may be imagined, few could sleep, they spoke of the chances of the coming day. The elephants, which had never before been seen on Jewish soil, were mentioned with special awe.
"Strange and terrible beasts they are," said one man to his neighbour; "savage as lions, and many times larger and stronger."
"Is it so?" said the other. "I heard once from an Arab, who had been driver of one of these creatures, that they are marvellously gentle and tame."
"Maybe they are by nature; but their drivers have ways of rousing them to fury before the battle."
"They show them the blood of grapes and mulberries, and the creatures rage terribly. 'Tis said that one of them can tread down a whole company of men."
"Well, but 'tis possible, I know, to stand against them. King Antiochus, father to the madman whom the Lord smote for his sins, had an array of them in his army when he fought against the Romans at Magnesia, but they profited him little. So Simeon told me—you know the man, the old Benjamite who took service with the King. The Romans stood firm in their rank, and threw their javelins at the beasts' trunks, and in the end, so Simeon said, they did more damage to their own people than to the enemy."
"The Lord grant that it be so to-morrow."
The sun had just risen when the approach of the Greek army became visible. And now the vanguard was almost within striking distance of the ambush which, to all appearance, was still undiscovered. Another few steps and they would be immediately below, at a point where they might be assailed with disastrous effect. Behind a little rock which was within a few yards of the pass Azariah knelt, sword in hand, waiting to give the signal to his men. Their fears had mostly vanished in the morning light, and the dreaded elephants did not form part of the advanced guard.
But just as Azariah was about to give the signal to charge his quick ear caught the sound of tramping feet, which seemed to come from some place above his own position. The next moment he caught sight, in the slanting rays of the early sun, of the glitter of helmets and shields. A Greek force, fully equal in number to his own, was marching in a direction parallel to the pass but higher up the mountain-side. Lysias had learnt wisdom from experience. He no longer despised his enemy, but credited him with the military skill which, indeed, he had more than once proved himself to possess. He had foreseen the ambush, and had sent a force to guard against the danger. Azariah's force, though out of sight of the road, could be seen from the higher ground, and the Greeks greeted their appearance with shouts of laughter. For one moment a wild desire to charge swept through the mind of the Jewish captain. He had hoped to blot out by some brilliant service the remembrance of his former disaster, and now he had failed again. True, it was not by his own fault; yet he had failed, and he would have to go back to Judas empty-handed. A single word would have sent his men in furious onset against the foe. Should he say it? Then there came back to his recollection the gentleness and forbearance of Judas. He could not disobey such a leader a second time. He gave the signal to retreat. His men heard it with disgust; but they knew that he was acting against his own desire as much as against theirs, and they obeyed without a murmur, or, if some of the youngest and fiercest among them complained of the order, it was only under their breath that they spoke.
Azariah now made his way to Judas with all the haste that he could use.
"I have failed," he said. "The heathen seemed to know of our design beforehand. There could be no surprise, so I did not attack, but came back to you at once."
"You have done well," said Judas, who knew what a sacrifice the fiery soldier had made. "A chance victory won by disobeying orders is worse than a defeat."
But Judas, though, as always, he did full justice to his lieutenant, was much depressed by the failure of the attempt, and he looked with a gloomy brow at the approaching host, as it came on in all the pomp and circumstance of war, the sunlight gleaming on the banners, the helmets of brass and gold, and on the long, slanting lines of spear-heads. As it came nearer the regular tread of the columns and the clang of arms, with now and then the shrill voice of a clarion or the deep note of a trumpet heard above the roar, moved even the stoutest warrior to something like fear.
Judas followed once more the tactics which he had so often found successful. To stand on the defensive was hopeless; his few thousands would inevitably be trodden down under the feet of this huge multitude. His only hope was in attack. If he could but break the line at a single point his success might be again, as it had been before, the beginning of a panic, and the great host of Lysias might melt away as the host of Apollonius had melted; but the attack must be made while the enemy were yet upon ground where they had not space to make full use of their numbers. He charged with his accustomed fury before the vanguard of the enemy had emerged into the open. For a time it seemed as if his audacity was to be successful. The hostile army reeled under the shock of the patriots' furious charge. In two or three places it broke. But there was in reserve a second line of veterans, the steadiest and best troops that could be found in the Syrian armies, for Lysias knew by this time that none but the very best could stand against Judas and his Ironsides. And then the numbers were overpowering. Step by step the Jewish column was forced back. They left six hundred of the enemy dead on the field behind them; but the attack had failed.
Then, as the Greek army deployed upon the open ground which the retreat of the Jews left open to them, the elephants came upon the scene—the "huge, earth-shaking beasts," which even the hardiest warrior could hardly see for the first time without some sinking of heart. Each animal was accompanied by picked bodies of horse and foot. Each carried a tower from which skilful marksmen, whose accurate aim was greatly helped by their elevated position, hurled missiles upon the ranks of the foe. The creatures themselves seemed to share in all the fury of the battle. They trumpeted loudly and furiously; at the bidding of the Indian drivers who were perched upon their necks they seized soldiers from among the Jewish ranks with their trunks, whirled them aloft, and then dashed them down, mangled and lifeless corpses, upon the ground.
Then was done one of the heroic acts which stand out conspicuously on the pages of history. Eleazar, one of the Maccabee brothers, saw how his countrymen were being demoralized by the terror of these strange adversaries, and felt that it was a crisis that called for personal devotion. One of the elephants was conspicuous among the rest, not only for its superior size but for the splendour of its equipment. He felt sure that it must be the one that carried the boy-King himself. Immediately his resolve was taken. He made his way, striking furiously right and left, and dealing death with every blow, through the Syrian ranks, crept under the huge beast, and dealt him a mortal wound. Like another Samson, he perished by his own success. The creature fell with a suddenness that gave him no opportunity of escape, and he was crushed to death by its weight.
The hero did not accomplish his object, to rally his countrymen. One might rather say that their panic was heightened by the fall of one of the heroic brothers, a son of the great house to which they owed their liberty. But his deed was not forgotten. The fourth of the Maccabee brothers lived in the history of his people as Eleazar Avaran—Eleazar "the Beast Slayer."
But the battle was lost beyond all hope. The only thing left for Judas was to save as much as he could out of the wreck. He sounded the signal for retreat, drew off his men in good order, and, making his way back as rapidly as possible to Jerusalem, threw himself into the Temple fortress, resolved to stand a siege.