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Life Or Death






Source: Hebrew Heroes

"A spy! a traitor! cut him down--hew him to pieces!" such were the
cries, not loud but terrible, that, as thunder on flash, followed that
exclamation from Zarah. Cold steel gleamed in the moonlight; Lycidas,
who had scarcely before thought of his own personal danger, found
himself in a moment surrounded by a furious band with weapons upraised
to take his life. With the instinct of self-preservation the young
Athenian sprang forwards, clasped the knees of the leader, and
exclaimed, "No spy--no Syrian--no foe! as ye would find mercy in the
hour of death, only hear me!" Then, ashamed at having been betrayed
into showing what might look like cowardly fear, the Greek stood erect,
but gasping, expecting that ere he could draw another breath he should
feel the dagger in his side, or the sword at his throat.

"Hold--let him speak ere he die!" cried the leader; and, at his gesture
of command, uplifted blades were arrested in air, and like leopards
crouching in act to spring, the Hebrews surrounded their prisoner, to
prevent the possibility of his making his escape.

"What would you say in your defence, young man?" asked the leader, in
tones calm and stern. "Can you deny that you have been present as a
spy at a scene to have witnessed which places the lives of all here
assembled in your hands?"

"I am a Greek, an Athenian," said Lycidas, who had recovered his
self-possession, and who intuitively felt that he was at the mercy of
one who might be sternly just, but who would not be wantonly cruel. "I
am here, but not as a spy--not to look with prying eyes upon your
solemn and sacred rites. Led by chance to this spot, sleep overtook me
under this tree. I would forfeit my right hand, nay, my life, rather
than betray one engaged in the noble act which I have accidentally
witnessed tonight."

"Will you hear him, the heathen dog, the son of Belial, the lying
Gentile!" yelled out Abishai, his gleaming white teeth and flashing
eyes giving to him an almost wolf-like ferocity of aspect, that well
accorded with his cry for blood. "He was present--I know it--when our
martyred brethren were slain; ay, he looked on their dying pangs!--tear
him to pieces--set your heel on his neck--he has rejoiced at the
slaughter of the just."

"No!" cried Lycidas with vehemence; "I call to witness the--"

"Stop his blaspheming tongue with the steel!" exclaimed Abishai
furiously; "let him not profane our ears with the names of the demons
whom he worships. Cut him off from the face of the earth--that grave
will hold one body more--the blood of our brethren cries out for
vengeance!"

Several voices echoed the fierce appeal, but amongst the wild cries for
revenge, the ear of Lycidas, and the ear of the leader also, caught the
maiden's faint exclamation, "Oh, Judas, have mercy! spare him!"

Still the extended hand of the chief alone kept back the fierce band
who would have cut down their defenceless victim. But there was
painful doubt on the brow of the leader; not that he was influenced by
the demand for blood from Abishai and his fierce companions, but that
he was aware of the extreme risk of setting the captive free. Lycidas
felt that his fate hung on the lips of that calm princely man, and was
almost satisfied that so it should be; a thought rose in the mind of
the Greek, "If I must die, let it be by his hand."

"Stranger," began the son of Mattathias, and at the sound of his voice
the tumult was hushed, and all stood silent to listen; "I doubt not
your word, I thirst not for your blood--were my own life only at stake,
not a hair of your head should be harmed. But on your silence as to
what you have seen this night depends the safety of all here assembled,
even of these daughters of Zion, for the tyrant spares not our women.
We have no power to detain in captivity--we have but one way of
ensuring silence; would you yourself--with the grave of those martyrs
before you--be able to reproach us with cruelty should we decide on
taking that way?"

Lycidas met without blenching the calm sad eyes of the speaker, but he
could not answer the question. He knew that under like circumstances
neither Syrian nor Greek would feel hesitation before, or remorse
after, what would be deemed a stern deed of necessity. The eloquent
lips of the poet had no power to plead now for life.

"Why waste words!" exclaimed fierce Abishai; "why do you hesitate,
Judas? One would scarce deem you to be the descendant of that Phineas
who won deathless fame by smiting Zimri and Cosbi through with a dart.
'Thine eye shall not pity, nor thine hand spare.' Guilt lies on your
head if you let Agag go. Was not the Canaanite to be rooted out of the
land? Who dare bid us draw back when the Lord hath delivered the prey
to our swords?"

"I dare--I do," cried Hadassah, advancing with dignity to the edge of
the grove which separated her and her grand-daughter Zarah from the
Hebrew men and their captive. "Shame on you, Abishai, man of blood.
Yea, though you be the husband of my dead daughter, I repeat, shame on
you to bring the name of the Lord to sanction your own thirst for
vengeance! Hear me, son of Mattathias; ye men of Judah, hear me. The
Merciful bids me speak, and I cannot refrain from speaking the words
which He puts into my mouth."

The matron was evidently regarded with reverence by those who were
present. Judas was related to her by blood, Abishai by marriage; two
of the other five Hebrews had been her servants in her more prosperous
days. But it was chiefly the dignity of Hadassah's character that gave
weight to her speech; the widowed lady was regarded in Jerusalem almost
as a prophetess, as one endued with wisdom from on high. Her pleading
might not be effectual, but would at least be listened to with respect.

"The Canaanite was swept from the land," said Hadassah; "Zeba and
Zalmunna were slain; Cosbi and Zimri were smitten through with a dart;
but these were sinners whose cup of iniquity was full, and the swords
of Israel executed God's righteous vengeance upon them, even as the
waves of the sea overwhelmed Pharaoh, or the flood a world of
transgressors. But the God of justice is the God also of mercy, slow
to anger and plenteous in goodness. He calleth vengeance--though His
work--His _strange work_ (Isa. xxviii. 21). He hath given command, by
His servant the Preacher, _If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to
eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink_ (Prov. xxv. 21).
_Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth; and let not thine heart be glad
when he stumbleth_" (Prov. xxiv. 17).

"An enemy born of the house of Israel, not a vile Gentile," muttered
one of the men who were present.

"Is the Lord the Maker only of the Jew; made He not the Gentile also?"
cried Hadassah. "_Thou shalt not oppress a stranger_, saith the Lord,
_seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt_ (Ex. xxiii. 9). Did
not Hobab the Midianite dwell among the people of Israel; was not
Achior the Ammonite welcomed by the elders of Bethura; was not the
blood of the Hittite required at the hand of David, and Ittai the
Gittite found faithful when Israelites fell away from their king? God
said of Cyrus the Persian, _He is my shepherd_ (Isa. xliv. 28), and
Alexander of Macedon was suffered to offer sacrifices to the Lord God
of Jacob. Yea, hath not Isaiah the prophet declared that He, the Holy
One, the Messiah, for whose coming we look, _shall bring forth judgment
to the Gentiles_ (Isa. xlii. 1), shall be _a light of the Gentiles_
(Isa. xlii. 6), that He will lift up His hand to the Gentiles (Isa.
xlix. 22), so that their kings shall be nursing-fathers, and their
queens nursing-mothers to His people (Isa. xlix. 23)? Ay, a time is
coming--may it speedily come!--when the _idols He shall utterly
abolish_ (Isa. ii. 18), when the Lord's house shall be established, and
all nations shall flow unto it (Isa. ii. 2), when _the earth shall be
filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover
the sea_" (Hab. ii. 14).

The noble features of the aged matron kindled as with inspiration, and
as she raised her hand towards heaven, she seemed to call the Deity to
confirm His glorious promises of mercy to the people yet walking in
darkness.

A confused murmur rose amongst the listeners; if Hadassah's appeal had
impressed some, it had stirred up in others the fierce jealousy which
made so many Jews unwilling that the Gentiles should ever share the
privileges of Abraham's race. The captive's life hung upon a slender
thread, and he knew it.

"Hadassah," said the chief, addressing the widow with respect, "do you
then require that we should trust this stranger, when--if he prove
false--so many Hebrew lives will be the forfeit of confidence
misplaced?"

"I require that you should trust Him who hath said, _Thou shalt do no
murder_; who hath ordained that _whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man
shall his blood be shed_. We show little faith when we think to find
safety in transgressing the law of our God."

Again rose a fierce, angry murmur. Lycidas heard the words, "folly,
madness, tempting Providence," mingled with imprecations on "dogs of
heathen," "idolaters," "the polluted, the worshippers of graven images."

Judas laid hold on his javelin, which he had placed against the trunk
of the olive when he had exchanged the weapon for the spade. The heart
of Lycidas throbbed faster, he read his own death-warrant in the
movement, but he braced his spirit to fall bravely, as became a
fellow-citizen of Miltiades. Again there was profound silence, all
awaiting what should follow that simple action of the leader.

"Time passes, every minute that we linger here is fraught with peril,
our decision must be prompt," said Judas, and he motioned to Hadassah
and Zarah to join the company of men on the side of the grave nearest
to the stem of the tree. When they had done so, the son of Mattathias
cast his javelin down on the ground. "Let those who would let the
captive go free, those who would trust his gratitude and honour, pass
over my javelin," cried Judas. "If the greater number cross it, we
spare; if they remain here, we slay. Are you content?" he inquired.

There was a murmured "Content" from most of those present. The chief
then turned his glance on Lycidas, and with stern courtesy repeated his
question to the Greek. The young captive bowed his head, folded his
arms, and answered "Content."

"The women shall not vote!" exclaimed Abishai. "They shall vote," said
the chief, with decision; "their peril is equal to ours, and so shall
their privilege be."

It was with strangely mingled emotions that Lycidas beheld, as it were,
the balance raised, one of the scales of which was weighted with his
freedom and life! Fear was scarcely the predominating feeling. A
cloud for a few moments darkened the face of the moon, but through the
shadow he could see the stately dark figure of Hadassah as she crossed
over the javelin, and the flutter of Zarah's white veil. As the silver
orb emerged from the cloud, the women were followed by the two Hebrews
who had once been servants to Hadassah.

"Four on that side--five on this--he dies!" cried Abishai eagerly; but
even as the exclamation was on his lips, Judas with a bound sprang over
the javelin, and stood at the side of Zarah.

"He lives--the Merciful be praised!" cried Hadassah. Abishai, with a
muttered curse, thrust back his thirsty blade into its sheath.

"Captive, depart in peace," said the son of Mattathias; "but ere you
quit this spot, solemnly vow silence as to what you have witnessed
here."

Lycidas instantly obeyed. "May I share the torments of those whose
grave--but for your mercy--I should have shared, if I ever prove false
to my oath," cried the Greek.

The chief waved his hand to bid him depart, and leave the Hebrews to
complete the solemn work which his appearance had interrupted.

Lycidas, however, showed no haste to escape. He glanced towards
Hadassah and Zarah. "May I not speak my gratitude," he began,
advancing one step towards them; but the widow by a gesture forbade his
nearer approach.

"Live your gratitude, speak it not, stranger," said she. "If ever you
see son or daughter of Abraham in peril, remember this night; if ever
your enemy stand defenceless before you, remember this night. And when
next you would bow down before an idol, and pray--as your people
pray--to the deaf wood and the senseless stone, pause and reflect first
upon what you have learned on this sacred spot of the faith of the
Hebrews," Hadassah pointed to the open grave as she spoke, "how it can
nerve the weak to suffer, and induce the strong to spare!"





Next: Following Behind

Previous: The Midnight Burial



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