The Sabbatical Year
A time was now approaching to which the responsible leaders of the people looked forward, for the most part, with great anxiety. This was the Sabbatical year. During a whole twelve months it would not be lawful to carry on any offensive war, or, a far more serious matter, to till the ground. Debate ran high as to whether the Law could be observed in its strictness. There were many who asked, with no little show of reason, "Will it be possible in times so troublous to keep a year of rest? Moses, when he commanded it, thought of a people dwelling quietly in a land from which they had driven out all their enemies. As things are now, these enemies are about us, and even in the very midst of us. And then the harvest? Will it suffice to feed the people, already more than twice as numerous as in the previous year, and daily increasing?"
The answer of the Chasidim was peremptory. "For what," they asked, "have we suffered and fought? For what did the martyrs lay down their lives—Eleazar the priest, and the mother and her sons, and Hannah, the wife of Azariah, and others without number? For what did Mattathias wear out the remnant of his years? Was it not for the Law, that it might be kept whole and undefiled? Might we not have lived in peace, and stood high in favour with the King, if we had been content to forsake the law of the Lord our God? And now that He has given us the victory, and delivered us from the hand of the heathen, so that we may serve Him without fear, shall we cast His commandments behind our backs? Were we not few in number, and scarcely armed, and yet did He not give into our hands great armies, well equipped with shield and sword and spear? Were we not well-nigh perishing of hunger among the mountains, and did He not richly supply our needs? Surely the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, and, if He will, He can make that which it bringeth forth of itself to abound even as the fields which the sower has sowed and the reaper has reaped?"
And the Chasidim had their way, as zealous men are wont to have it, when they know exactly their own minds and what they want. The Sabbatical year was proclaimed. There was to be no labour, no ploughing or sowing, no tendance of oliveyards and vineyards. The people were to live simply and wholly on the bounty of the earth.
The first month of the Sabbatical year itself bore the name of the Sabbatical month. Into this were crowded three of the great feasts and celebrations of the year—the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. But the whole year was to be one round of religious celebrations. To the daily sacrifices in the Temple were added special services of intercession, praise, and thanksgiving. Nor did the Temple-worship alone satisfy the religious wants of the people. The synagogues were thronged, and that not on the Sabbath only but on every day of the week. The Law and the Prophets were read and expounded, not, we may be sure, without many stirring references to the events of the day.
All this religious enthusiasm was wanted to support the people under the hardships of the time. Provisions, if they did not actually run short, began to rise in price. Judas and his council did their best to prevent it; but the selfish instincts of the possessors of corn could not be overcome; stores were held back from the market, and the poorer class, swollen as it was in numbers by the great immigration of the preceding year from Gilead and Galilee, began to suffer seriously.
Meanwhile the insolence of the Greek garrison was increasing daily. The Jewish soldiers contented themselves, or endeavoured to content themselves, with repelling attack. This meant, of course, standing exposed to showers of missiles which they could not return, and it tried their patience to the uttermost. Even some of the Chasidim were heard to murmur that there must be some limits to this endurance; among the besiegers in general, who had not risen to the height of Chasidim zeal, a spirit of discontent was growing up that might well have become dangerous.
Before long, however, the evil worked its own cure. One sabbath-day, about the beginning of the month which we should call November, there was a great solemnity in the Temple, and the outposts of the besieging force had been more than usually weakened. Ruth, with her little Daniel and her two nieces, was going towards the Temple, escorted by her husband and Micah, when one of the lower gates of the fortress was suddenly thrown open, and a party of Greeks rushed out upon the party. Seraiah and Micah were both armed, but for some minutes they had to make head against their assailants alone. One of the soldiers who had seized Ruth was promptly felled to the earth by a blow from Micah's sword; and Seraiah did similar execution on another. But the odds were too great for them. Micah was brought to the ground, and it was only by desperate efforts that his brother-in-law could save him from being stabbed as he lay. Ruth, meanwhile, being left without help, was carried off to the very gates of the fortress. And then, just before it was too late, came the longed-for help. The two girls, who, with their little cousin, had been some distance behind, ran screaming towards the Temple, and happily met with their father, who was just about to change guard at one of the posts. He and his company ran at the top of their speed to the scene of the conflict, plunged recklessly through the missiles which were showered on them from the fortress, and reached the wall at the same moment with the ravishers, whose progress was impeded by the struggles of the captive, for, brave woman as she was, she never lost her presence of mind. A few of the party escaped into the fortress, the nearest gate of which was cautiously opened to receive them; but the greater number were instantly put to the sword. Ruth, whose strength broke down when she knew that she was safe, was carried home, sorely bruised and half-unconscious.
Judas was profoundly moved when he heard of this outrage. He had long been chafing under the restrictions imposed upon his action by his rigid supporters, and this determined him to break through them. He had a great affection for Azariah and his kindred. The men were known to him for their loyalty and courage, and Ruth as an indefatigable worker among the sick and wounded. His resolution was taken, but with the prudence and soundness of judgment that were habitual to him he was careful to avoid any appearance of being peremptory or self-willed. He called to him one of his lieutenants, who was reputed to be a leader among the Chasidim.
"Micaiah," he said, you remember when a thousand of our brethren were slain by the heathen, helpless and unarmed, because it was the sabbath?"
"I remember," replied the man.
"And that it was determined by my father, as captain of the host, with full consent of all the princes and priests, that such a thing should happen no more?"
"It was so determined."
"Think you, then, that there is one law for the seventh day, and another for the seventh year?"
"I know nothing, save what I find in the traditions of the fathers."
"Our fathers had no such experience as we have had. No, Micaiah, we will not reap nor sow, trusting that the Lord will feed us. But I see not that the Law forbids us to strike with the sword when the heathen seek to carry our wives and our children into captivity, nor will I lay upon the people a burden that the Lord has not laid upon them. If I sin in this matter, let the punishment fall upon me and upon my father's house."
Micaiah was not altogether content, but he did not feel sufficiently convinced to resist. And, indeed, the character and the exploits of Judas gave an overpowering weight to any conclusion at which he arrived.
The next day an assembly of the soldiers was held, and Judas informed them that operations would be more vigorously conducted for the future. The announcement was received with great satisfaction, even by the stricter partisans of the Law. The insolence of the garrison was summarily checked. The sallies on which it ventured were repulsed so fiercely that they were soon discontinued, while relays of archers and slingers, succeeding each other without intermission from earliest dawn to nightfall, kept the walls clear.
But though this difficulty was surmounted others not less serious remained. The privations resulting from the observance of the Sabbatical year were such as to overtask the endurance of all but enthusiasts. And, of course, under these circumstances it was inevitable that the regulations should be evaded. Huldah, with the children, was wandering one day among the gardens in the neighbourhood of the city. They were searching for some fruit for Ruth who was now making a very slow recovery from the injuries which she had received. They were at liberty to go where they pleased, for all right of property was at an end, at least for the time. But others had been before them, and it seemed as if everything had been gathered, even before it was ripe. They were returning home with but the scantiest results from this toil when they witnessed a scene of uproar. Some men had been discovered by the officers of the chief priests in the unlawful act of cultivating the ground. They had been sowing the seeds of some quick-growing plants, doing it in such an irregular fashion that what came up might seem to have been chance-sown, but they had been detected, and were now being led off in custody, angry and defiant, and loudly condemning the bigoted folly which, as they said, to carry out an obsolete enactment, condemned a whole people to starvation.
A crowd speedily gathered and followed the officers and their prisoners to the house of one of the chief priests. Huldah and the children went with it. The case was tried, in Eastern fashion, in the open air and in public. The process was short, for the offenders had been caught in the act, and the law which they had transgressed was plain. The defence which they attempted on the plea of necessity was cut short by the judge. "The Word of God," said he, "is of more account than meat and drink. Take these men," he went on, speaking to an officer whom we should call the provost-marshal, "and see that they suffer each forty stripes save one. And you," he added, turning to the prisoners, "know that if you offend again in this matter you shall be stoned with stones till you die."
The men were bound and flogged. That was a sight which Huldah and the children did not wait to see; but just as they were reaching their home the men passed them, furious at the indignity which they had suffered, and loudly proclaiming their determination to be revenged.
The next morning they were missing from the city. A porter at one of the smaller gates was found tied and gagged. He said that he had been attacked by a party of men, some of whom could be identified by his description with the sufferers of the day before. The others were Greeks, apparently belonging to the garrison. They had surprised him, taken his keys from him, and had gone—so he judged from something that he had overheard—on the road to Antioch. This gave a serious aspect to the affair. The men had evidently deserted, and would put all the information that they had at the service of the enemy. Judas immediately ordered a pursuit. But though the party that he sent out was more than once close upon the tracks of the fugitives it did not succeed in overtaking them.
Time went on. The Feast of the Dedication came round, and was kept with as much cheerfulness as the depressed spirits and scanty means of the people permitted. Spring succeeded winter, bringing with it in its milder temperature and in the abundance of its natural growths some alleviations of the common suffering. But the prospect, as a whole, was scarcely brighter. It was almost a relief when tidings reached the city that a struggle was at hand. It was better, thought many, to die on the field of battle than to sit still and starve. And, indeed, death on the battle-field seemed a likely prospect. Lysias, who had been making his preparations during the whole of the winter, was now, it was said, about to set forth. The force which he had under his command was reported to be overwhelmingly strong, numbering not less than 120,000 men. It was also said that he had with him thirty-two war-elephants. The boy-King—Eupator was not more than nine years old—was also said to be with him.