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Alfred J. Church

Wars and Rumours of Wars

The Feast of Dedication having been kept and made an ordinance in Israel for ever, Judas's next act was to fortify the restored Temple. It was exposed, even more than the rest of the city, to a sudden attack from the garrison of the fort, which might work irreparable mischief could it gain, even for an hour, possession of the sacred building. Accordingly a high wall, strengthened at intervals by towers, was now erected round it, and a force was told off from the army to watch it. This done, the patriot leader could attend without anxiety to other cares. At Beth-zur a fortress was erected and strongly garrisoned to guard the Eastern frontier especially against the attacks of the Idumeans, who, under their new name, inherited all the old Edomite jealousy of Israel. After personally superintending the erection of this stronghold, Judas marched against other tribes on the east and south, who had been taking advantage of the troublous times to plunder their Jewish neighbours. The Arabs of the Negeb, or South Country, were defeated at a pass near the Dead Sea, which bore the appropriate name of the Pass of the Scorpions; the Ammonites, another tribe whose kinship with the chosen people seems to have embittered their hereditary enmity, were defeated under their Greek leader, Timotheus.

Meanwhile life at Jerusalem had been settling down into a peaceful order. The younger of the two priests whom Eglah had befriended had found scope for his energies by joining the army; Shemaiah, the elder, was again an inmate in the house which had sheltered him, where Eglah, who had never forgotten the charity with which he had spoken of her husband, tended him with all the care of a daughter. The old man was never tired of hearing the story of the two dismal years during which he had been in hiding.

"Ah, father!" she said to him one day, "you were not so ill off in your poor prison after all. Had you had your liberty you would have seen altars to the false gods in every street. And it was not safe to pass them without showing some sign of reverence."

"And how did you fare, my daughter?" asked the old man.

"I could avoid them, knowing where they were, by passing by on the other side, and my good Glaucus—the Lord have mercy on him!—was always kind and helpful. He would fetch the water regularly from the fountain, where there was an altar to the Naiad, as they called the demon of the spring, which I could not have avoided. The people used to laugh at him for doing a woman's work, but he did not heed them. O why was he taken away before he could learn the truth? I think that he would have known it if he could have lived a little longer."

And the poor woman burst into a passion of tears. She was always haunted with this fear of her husband's fate, and reproached herself with not having been earnest enough in speaking of the truth to her husband.

"Peace, my daughter," said the old man, gently; "the mercies of the Lord are without end, and His ways past finding out. Be sure that He will not forget the kindness that was showed to a daughter of Abraham. But tell me," he went on, anxious to change the subject—"tell me how we came to find the courts of the Temple desolate and overgrown as though no one had entered them for months? Did you not say that there were sacrifices there, and feasts to the demons whom the Greeks worship?"

"Yes, father; it was so for a time. But soon there were few or none to make sacrifices, for the city was utterly impoverished. So the priests, whom Philip the Phrygian and Apollonius—the curse of the Lord be upon him!—brought in to serve at the altars, went elsewhere, for, of a truth, they would have died of hunger had they stayed here. O father, it was a mournful existence; of a truth we were fed with the bread of affliction and the water of affliction."

As they talked Ruth came in with a troubled face.

"O Eglah!" she cried, "I did hope that we should have peace and quiet, but there are wars and rumours of wars on every side. This morning letters came to the captain from our brethren in Gilead. That evil Timotheus—would to God he had not escaped out of the hand of Judas!—has gathered together a host of the Ammonites and slain some—a thousand, 'tis said, with their wives and children, and shut up the rest in the fortress of Dametha. And now my husband and my brother are in council with the captain, and I fear me much that they will be sent to the wars, for indeed," she added, with a touch of a woman's pride in those that are dear to her, "Judas esteems them highly, and will always have them in places of trust. Nor would I keep them back from helping the Lord's people. But hark! I hear his step."

As she spoke Seraiah came in from the council.

"How is it?" cried Ruth, with trembling voice, her fears again getting the upper hand. "Do you go? and Azariah?"

"Yes, my dearest, I go, and next in command to the captain and his brothers."

Ruth flung her arms round her husband's neck. "Oh! I am proud of you; but yet if you could have stayed, for our little Daniel is so young——"

And she could say no more.

"Nay, wife, be of good cheer, and do not grudge us to the Lord's service, for indeed there is need of us all. Even while the letters from Gilead were being read there came messengers from Galilee with their clothes rent. From them we heard that the men of Ptolemais and of Tyre and Sidon and all Galilee of the Gentiles were gathered together. Then it was determined that Simon should go to Galilee with three thousand men, and Judas and Jonathan to Gilead.

"And what of Azariah?"

"He and Joseph, the son of Zachariah, are to be left in the city with the remnant of the army as captains of the people. They are to have the Governor's house, and you, with our little Daniel, will live there while I am away. This will be well for you, and for Miriam and Judith also, for there will be many coming and going, and Miriam is a fair maiden, as she should be, being kin to you."

Ruth smiled through her tears at the lover-like compliment.

"Come now," Seraiah went on, "and get ready what I shall want for my journey, for we set out at sunset."

The two women kissed each other, and the old priest blessed Seraiah. "The Lord give thee strength in the day of battle, and deliver thee out of the hand of the enemy, and bring thee back to the house of thy fathers."

At sunset exactly—for Judas was one of the commanders who are exactly and punctually obeyed—the two expeditions set forth.

Their departure was, of course, observed by the garrison of the fort, who were encouraged by it to make some fierce sallies on the diminished forces of the patriots. These were as fiercely repelled, and in a few days things settled down again into the virtual truce which had existed for some time between besiegers and besieged.

Eight days after the departure of the expeditions tidings of victory came from the main army under Judas. The captain of the host had taken Borzah, in Edom. The place lay at least a hundred miles to the east; but the patriots had covered the distance with unexpected rapidity, and, reaching the place before there had been any notion of their approach, had taken it almost without resistance. The messenger had left, he said, as soon as the place was taken, but Judas had marched the same night to Dametha, which was in urgent need of relief.

The next day came in tidings of further success. Dametha and its garrison, with the crowd of helpless fugitives which had sought shelter within its walls, was safe. The night march from Bozrah had been made just in time. Had it been delayed till morning it might well have been too late. The Ammonites had chosen that very day for a fierce assault upon the place. Just as the day was dawning and the assailants were close under the walls Judas had appeared. His approach had been observed by the besieged, who had watched it from the citadel, but the assailants were taken by surprise. Hemmed in between two attacking forces, the garrison who made a sortie from the town and the army of the patriots in the rear, they had been utterly routed. Timotheus had barely escaped with his life, and had fled northward, followed by Judas in hot pursuit. A few days afterwards came the news that the campaign was at an end—begun and finished within the space of two weeks. This time the captain had found time to write a despatch. It ran thus:

"Judas, Captain of the Lord's host, to Azariah, greeting. Know that the Lord has delivered the enemy into our hands. Timotheus, having suffered defeat at Dametha, fled northward to a temple where the heathen worship the 'Two-horned Ashtaroth,' a strong place by nature and skilfully fortified. I judged it better that I should not spill the blood of the people of the Lord in assaulting it, and so, having cleared the walls of defenders by help of my slingers, I surrounded it with great quantities of faggots. To these I caused fire to be set, nor did my slingers suffer the Ammonites to approach to put out the flames. In the end the whole was consumed, and Timotheus perished in the fire. The Lord has rewarded him according to his deeds. So much for what has been done: now for what remains to do. This country is not as yet a safe dwelling-place, and will not be till the heathen shall be more thoroughly subdued. It is my purpose, therefore, to bring the people of this land to Jerusalem. Provide, to the best of your ability, for their food and lodging. Farewell!"

The exultation felt by the people at Jerusalem when the tidings of their final victory reached them passes description. The times of David, they were sure, were about to return. The promise was once again to be fulfilled—"He shall reign from the flood [the Euphrates], unto the world's end." In the Temple chant of the day the words went—"I will not be afraid of ten thousands of the people that have set themselves against me round about. Up, Lord, and help me, O my God, for Thou smitest all Thine enemies upon the cheek-bone. Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly."

But when tidings of still further victories, won by Simon in Galilee, came in to swell the popular enthusiasm, there was a certain change of feeling, something of the jealousy that almost inevitably springs up when great deeds are done. Joseph and Azariah chafed at the life of inaction which they were forced to live at Jerusalem, and what they thought in their hearts the soldiers did not hesitate to express openly. "Let us also," so ran the common talk—"let us also get for ourselves a name, and go and fight against the enemies of the Lord."

On the day after the tidings of Simon's victories came in the two captains were waited upon by a deputation of soldiers, who came to urge that they might be relieved from the inaction to which they were condemned, an inaction made all the more hard to bear by the glories that were being won elsewhere. Azariah and Joseph listened with attention, and, indeed, were at no pains to hide their sympathy.

"The men are right," said Joseph, when the deputation had withdrawn. "They will lose all heart if we keep them idling here."

"In my heart I am inclined to agree with you," answered his colleague; "but what did the captain say?—'Watch the garrison of the heathen that they do no hurt to the city and the Holy Place while we are away.' But he said nothing of going elsewhere, and I should be unwilling to disobey him, for, beyond all doubt, the Lord is with him."

"Nay, brother, you are too narrow in your thoughts of obeying. We obey him best if we do the best that we can for the cause of the Lord. And though I honour Judas greatly, yet he is but a captain in the Lord's host, even as we are. Why should we not do as he has done? And tell me, Azariah," he went on, "do you think that the vision which you saw when the angel of the Lord brought you a sword with the Name written on it has been altogether fulfilled? Shall this sword which he bade you use for the Lord always abide in the scabbard? Is this the life to which you are called?"

"You speak truly," said Azariah. "I can scarcely be faithful to my trust if I suffer the sword of the Lord to rust. But tell me, what think you we had best do?"

"Gorgias," said Joseph, "is encamped at Jamnia, and does great mischief to the land and the people; if we can drive him out we shall earn great thanks both from the captain and from our brethren."

The resolution of the commanders was heard with unmingled delight by their men, and with almost equal pleasure by the inhabitants of the city. Some of the more cautious disapproved, and Shemaiah even made his way to the Governor's house—no easy task for his scanty strength—and remonstrated with Azariah. "My son," said he, "your strength is to sit still. Make not too much speed, and be not over-bold." He was listened to with respect, and even with some compunction on Azariah's part. But it seemed too late to retreat. To hold back now would infallibly give rise to the charge of cowardice, and Azariah, brave as a lion against all outward danger, had not the rare moral courage which would have enabled him to face such an accusation.

At sunrise on the day after the resolution had been taken, the expedition set out with confident expectation of victory, and watched from the walls by an eager multitude. At sunset a miserable remnant came straggling back into the city. They had fared, as their fathers had fared many centuries before, when, with the like unauthorized daring, they had assaulted the hill fortress of Ai, and had returned, bringing discouragement with them. Gorgias had sallied out from his hill fortress, had charged the Jewish force with full advantage of the ground, and had driven them in headlong flight before them. Azariah and Joseph had done all that leaders could do to turn the tide of battle, but their efforts had been in vain. Two thousand men had fallen, the wounded being, perforce, left to the mercy or cruelty of the enemy.

The city was filled with mourning for the dead; and, of course, there was a rapid revulsion of feeling against the leaders whose rash action had ended in such disaster. "Who are these men," was the general cry, "who have caused the people of the Lord to perish? They are not of the seed of those by whose hand deliverance is given to Israel."