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The Hammer by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

NICANOR

[339] THE complaints which Alcimus carried to the Syrian King at Antioch were eagerly listened to. Demetrius was eager, as new rulers frequently are, to reverse the policy of his predecessor. Eupator had yielded to the persistency of these obstinate Jews, but he would show them that it was he and not they who was master. A new expedition should be sent, and this pestilent rebel, who, after all, had been shown not to be invincible, should be extinguished for ever. There was some doubt as to who should be put in command; but ultimately the King's choice fell upon Nicanor, the same that had been associated with Gorgias in an earlier campaign. He had been since promoted to the exalted office of "Commander of the Elephants," and was in high favour with Demetrius.

Once more Judas found himself obliged to retire from Jerusalem, where he could not command the [340] liberty of movement that was necessary for his safety; but he remained in the neighbourhood, and watched the development of events.

Nicanor's first idea was to repeat the treachery of Bacchides, and to get Judas and his brothers into his power. A letter, written in studiously friendly terms, was sent to the Jewish captain, suggesting a conference, at which the matters in dispute might easily be settled. Judas was not likely, especially after recent experience, to fall into the trap; but nevertheless he did not refuse the invitation. He came to the conference, but he came with a strong guard, and not till he had secured such conditions as seemed to make a treacherous surprise impossible. The meeting took place. Side by side, on two chairs of state, sat the two generals, each with their armed guard within call. On either side was a barrier, beyond which no one that did not belong to the stipulated number of attendants was allowed to pass. The conversation between the two was friendly and animated. Nicanor's treacherous purpose did not prevent him from having a genuine admiration for the character and achievements of his great adversary; and the praises which he heaped upon him were perfectly sincere. But this feeling did not make him at all less anxious to get this formidable hero into his power.

Negotiations had not proceeded very far, in fact had not got beyond the initial stage, when a pre- [341] concerted signal warned Judas that there was danger at hand. Self-possessed as ever, he showed no sign of having penetrated his companion's intention. A point of some importance was raised by Nicanor, and Judas intimated that he could not deal with it until he had consulted his council. Rising from his seat, without allowing the least indication of disturbance to be seen in his manner, he bade the Greek general a courteous farewell, rejoined his guard, and was soon out of the reach of danger. But when he was again among his friends, he did not conceal his feelings. "He is a false liar," he said, "and, so long as he lives, I will see his face again no more." The words were to have a singularly close fulfilment.

Nicanor, finding his attempted fraud unsuccessful, resolved to try force. He marched against Judas, who, for military reasons, had retired as far as Samaria, and gave him battle at Capharsalama. But the plans of Nicanor were conceived with more haste than prudence. He delivered his attack under unfavourable conditions, and received a crushing defeat in which he lost fully five thousand men.

Thus baffled for a second time, he returned to Jerusalem in a frenzy of rage. On the day after his arrival he went, followed by an armed guard, to the Temple, and forced his way into the Great Court. It was the time of the morning sacrifice, and the trembling priests came down from the altar to salute him.

[342] "Rebels," he cried, "you are praying to your God that the enemies of the King may prosper."

"Not so, my lord," said the presiding priest, "we have but this moment offered the customary sacrifice for the health and welfare of the most excellent Demetrius."

"These are but words, and I ask for deeds. Let this pestilent fellow, this Judas, be delivered into my hands. Thus and thus only shall I know that you are faithful to my lord the King."

"But, my lord, you ask that which is impossible. How can we, that are men of peace, have power to lay hands upon this man of war?"

"Ask me not how, but do the thing that I command, or it shall go ill with you and your city."

"Nay, my lord, speak not so. Ask that which is possible, and it shall be done to the uttermost of our power."

"Fair words! fair words! But I know well that, after the manner of your race, for you are the enemies of all men, you curse me behind my back. Now listen unto me. You will not deliver this traitor into my hands——"

The priests attempted to speak, but he silenced them with an imperious gesture.

"So be it. Then I will take him by force. And when I have taken him, and dealt with him after his deserts, then—" he paused for a moment, and held out his right hand with a threatening gesture [343] towards the altar—"then I will burn this house with fire; even as the Chaldmans burnt it in the days of your fathers, so will I burn it. All the gods of heaven and hell confound me, if I do not burn it, as a man burns a brand in the fire."

So speaking he turned away, and without deigning to salute the terrified priests, quitted the precincts of the Temple.

When he was gone the priests stood weeping and praying before the altar. "O Lord," they said, "for the blasphemies wherewith Thine enemies blaspheme Thee, reward Thou them sevenfold into their bosom. Thou didst choose this house to be called by Thy name, and to be a house of prayer for Thy people. Avenge Thyself, therefore, of this man and his host, and cause them to fall by the sword."

Nicanor had sent to Antioch for reinforcements, for he would not fail again for lack of strength or due preparation, and marching out of Jerusalem, he awaited their arrival at the western end of the Pass of Beth-horon. Judas, who, after his victory near Samaria, had followed his beaten enemy, took up his position at Adasa, an elevated position about four miles to the north of Jerusalem. He thus put himself between Nicanor and the Holy City. But he had only three thousand men to match against a force three times as numerous.

The fate of the Sanctuary of Israel now seemed [344] to be trembling in the balance. If Nicanor was victorious its doom was sealed. He had vowed, with all the emphasis of an awful curse upon himself, that if he came again in peace he would utterly destroy it. Day after day the women and the old men left behind were continually in the Temple, which, perhaps, they might in a few days see destroyed before their eyes. And when at night the Temple gates were shut they sought their homes to fast and to renew in private their prayers for the deliverance of the Holy Place, and the victory of the armies of the Lord.

By a notable coincidence the anniversary of a great danger and a great deliverance was approaching. Within a few days the Feast of Purim would be celebrated. Would the time bring with it a fresh cause for thanksgiving, or a disaster so terrible that all the deliverances of the past would seem to be of no avail?"

"Tell us, mother," said little Daniel, one evening when they had returned from their daily visit to the Temple—"tell us about Mordecai and the wicked Haman." He knew the story well, but, after the manner of children, liked it better the oftener he heard it.

So Ruth told the familiar tale again—how the wicked Haman, wroth that the honest Mordecai would not pay him reverence, slandered the whole nation to the King till he obtained a decree for their [345] slaughter, how Mordecai went to Esther the Queen, a Jewess herself, and bade her save her people, though she risked her own life to do it, how the wicked Haman was hanged on the gallows which he had made for his enemy, and the Jews had license given them by the King to slay their adversaries in every city of the kingdom of Persia.

"And this Nicanor," she went on, when she had finished her story—"this Nicanor is a new Haman. May the God against whom he has uttered his blasphemies cast him down and destroy him."

Meanwhile the hour of battle was drawing near. Judas and his little army were bivouacking on the hills of Adasa. It was the 12th day of the month Adar—about equivalent to the beginning of March—and on that high ground the night air was cold and piercing. Seraiah, Azariah, and Micah were sitting by a camp-fire, and talking over the chances of the coming struggle.

It was the eve of the great Purim feast—the memorial which had been kept now for three hundred years of the great deliverance which God had wrought for His people by the hands of Mordecai and Esther. The thoughts of the comrades naturally turned to this memorable day.

"Where and how," said Micah to his companions, "shall we keep the Purim feast?

"Shall we keep it at all?" said Azariah, always somewhat disposed to take a gloomy view of their [346] prospects. "A Mordecai we have, none more steadfast; and there is a Haman against us even more cruel and wicked than he of Persia. But Ahasuerus is against us, nor do I see who shall turn him from his purpose."

"Well," said Seraiah, with a smile, "at least we can use our swords without his license."

While they were talking they observed a figure emerge from out the darkness into the circle of light made by the flames. They rose to their feet, for it was the captain himself.

"Sit down, my friends," he said, "we shall be on our feet enough to-morrow." And as he spoke, he took his seat on the ground by their side.

He went on, after a few minutes of silence, "So Azariah doubts what sort of a Purim festival we shall keep. As for myself I doubt not. But I have been thinking not so much of Mordecai and Haman—though it seems to me a happy thing that we shall fight on the day of that deliverance—as of Hezekiah and Rabshakeh. Did not the king his master send him to blaspheme the Holy City? And did not Hezekiah lay the letter before the Lord? And what was the end? In one night the host of the Assyrians was as if it had not been. So shall it be, I am persuaded in my heart, with this blaspheming Nicanor and his host. He and they shall be utterly destroyed. Yes, Azariah we shall keep our Purim right joyously, after the manner of our fathers. [347] But as for our enemies, the wine that they shall drink will be the wine of the wrath of God."

He rose with these words, and passed away to spend the rest of the night in meditation and prayer. His face next morning, when in the early dawn he stood in front of his slender line, was as the face of one who has talked face to face with God. Not less rapt than his look was the tone of his voice as he poured out the words of his prayer—"O Lord, when they that were sent from the King of the Assyrians blasphemed, Thine angel went out and smote an hundred fourscore and five thousand of them. Even so destroy Thou this host before us this day, that the rest may know that he hath spoken blasphemously against Thy Sanctuary, and judge Thou him according to his wickedness."

A murmur of assent passed through the little army as he uttered these words in that clear, thrilling voice which was one of his many gifts as a born leader of men. The next moment the line advanced, for Judas followed again the successful tactic of attack. Never had his Ironsides advanced with a more determined courage; never did they deal fiercer blows. The enemy were scattered by their impetuous onset, as the dust is scattered before the wind. For all his brutality and falsehood, Nicanor was no coward. He stood in the very van of his army, [348] giving such cheer as he could to his men, and though the lines behind him reeled and shook with that movement which is the sure presage of defeat to a soldier's eye, at the approach of the Chasidim, he stood his ground with a dauntless courage. He was almost the first to fall, Azariah striking him to the ground with a sweeping blow of his sword. It was an appropriate ending to the blasphemer that he should receive his death-stroke from the weapon that bore the talisman of the Holy Name.

The Greek line had been already beginning to break, but the death of the leader completed the rout.

It was no common victory that Judas won that day. The pursuit was long and bloody. The beaten army fled in wild disorder over the country, only to find enemies on every hand. Before the sun set it was simply annihilated. The tradition of that awful slaughter still lingers in the place, and the valley is called "The Valley of Blood."

Their work done, the conquerors entered the city. The news of the great deliverance had already reached it, and the Feast of Purim was being kept in earnest. During the earlier part of the day the suspense and anxiety had been too great to admit of anything more than formal rejoicing. The customary sacrifices were offered, the customary prayers put up; but the thoughts of all were with Judas and [349] his men on the battle-field of Adasa. Then came rumours, at first wholly vague and even fictitious—rumours first of victory, then of defeat, then of victory again. An hour or so after noon a swift runner came in with some authentic tidings. But he could not tell of all that happened. This was gradually learnt, and then, long after the darkness had closed in, came the advanced guard of the conquering army, and, close upon midnight, Judas himself. In spite of the darkness, multitudes thronged to meet him. With extravagant manifestations of delight, with shouting and singing, with mingled tears and laughter, they welcomed him home, the deliverer of the city and the Temple. Never before had he been so enthusiastically received. And it was well that it should be so, for this was his last return as a conqueror.

The feast was continued with yet more hearty rejoicing into the next day. And indeed from thenceforth the two deliverances were to be celebrated together—the salvation which Judas had wrought for his people on the battle-field of Adasa, and that which Esther and Mordecai had accomplished in the presence-chamber of the Persian King.

Ruth would gladly have stayed at home and expressed thankfulness in private, but the children were urgent with her that she should take them into the streets that they might see the people [350] keep holiday. It was a request that, as the wife and sister of patriots, she could not refuse; and in the depth of her mother's heart was the proud thought that the little Daniel was not an unworthy scion of the race, and that not a few would look with admiration on the son of Seraiah, the nephew of Azariah. And indeed she did hear as she passed along not a few whispered praises, which made her pulses beat quick with thankfulness and joy.

As they came in their rambling into the neighbourhood of the Temple, they found their way blocked by a dense crowd, which seemed eagerly pressing forward to see some spectacle of surpassing interest. "What is it?" she asked of one who had been, it seemed, successful in the struggle for a glimpse of this interesting sight, and was now turning away. She could not help shuddering at his answer, and called to the children to come away. But the quick ears of little Daniel had also caught the man's reply, and he loudly objected.

"Nay, mother," he said, "I must see. Such things are not for women to see"—the little fellow of five or six had already caught the masculine tone of superiority—"but I am a soldier's son, and shall not be afraid to look. And when I am a man I shall fight for God and for His Holy Temple."

"You are a brave lad, and if I mistake not, and you are the nephew of Azariah, there is no one here [351] that has a better right to look at yonder sight than you. For 'twas your brave uncle, I am told, that slew that son of Belial with his sword."

So saying he lifted the child from the ground, and raised him till he could stand upon his shoulders. And what did the little Daniel see that made him shout and clap his hands? It was the head and hand of Nicanor nailed against the Temple wall. There were the pallid, distorted lips that had uttered such proud blasphemies against the Sanctuary of the Lord; there was the shrunken, bloodless hand that had been lifted up with threats and scorn against His Holy Place. The Lord had indeed punished the proud doer.


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