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The First Struggle

Source: Hebrew Heroes

The arrival of Apelles, the emissary of Antiochus Epiphanes, had thrown
the town of Modin into a state of great excitement. A proclamation was
made in the morning of the following day, that all the inhabitants,
men, women, and children, should assemble in the market-place at noon,
to obey the mandate of the king, by worshipping at an altar of Bacchus,
which was erected at that spot. "Curses, not loud but deep," were
muttered in many a Hebrew home. Some of the Syrian soldiers had been
quartered for the night with the inhabitants of Modin. The fatted calf
had to be killed, the best wine poured out, for idolatrous guests whose
very presence polluted a banquet. The Syrians repaid the reluctant
hospitality of their hosts by recital of all the horrors of the
persecution in Jerusalem. They told of the barbarities perpetrated on
Solomona and her sons; shuddering women clasped their children closer
to their bosoms as they heard how two mothers had been flung from the
battlements at the south side of the Temple, with their infants hung
round their necks, because they had dedicated those martyr babes to God
in the way commanded by Moses. Such examples of cruelty struck terror
into the hearts of all whose faith and courage were not strong. It was
evident that Antiochus was terribly in earnest, and that if his wrath
were aroused by opposition, the horrors which had been witnessed at
Jerusalem might be repeated at Modin. The plea of terrible necessity
half silenced the consciences of many Hebrews who secretly abhorred the
rites of the heathen. A quantity of ivy was gathered, and twined by
unwilling hands, to be worn in honour of the false deity whose worship
was to be forced upon a reluctant people.

A lofty shrine on which was raised a marble image of the god of wine,
with his temples crowned with ivy, a bunch of grapes in his hand, and
sensuality stamped on every feature, was erected in the centre of the
market-place. Before it was the altar of sacrifice, and around this,
as the hour of noon approached, collected a motley crowd. There were
the white-robed priests of Bacchus, with the victims chosen for
sacrifice. Men of war, both on foot and on horseback, formed a
semicircle about the shrine, to enforce, if necessary, compliance with
the decree of the Syrian monarch. Apelles himself, magnificently
attired, with tunic of Tyrian purple, jewelled sandals, and fringes of
gold, sat on a lofty seat on the right side of the altar, awaiting the
appointed time when the sun should reach his meridian height. Numbers
of people filled the market-place, of both sexes, and of every age, for
the soldiery had swept through Modin, forcing all the inhabitants to
quit their dwellings and assemble to offer sacrifice upon the altar of

Directly opposite to the altar there was one group of Hebrews
conspicuous above all the rest, and towards this group the eyes of the
assembled people were frequently turned. There stood Mattathias, with
snowy beard descending to his girdle--a venerable patriarch, surrounded
by his five stalwart sons. There appeared Johannan, the first-born;
Simon, with his calm intellectual brow; Eleazar, with his quick glance
of fire; Jonathan; and Judas, third in order of birth, but amongst
those illustrious brethren already first in fame. In stern silence the
Asmonean family watched the preparations made by the Syrian priests to
celebrate their unhallowed rites. Not a word escaped the lips of the
Hebrews; they stood almost as motionless as statues, only their glances
betraying the secret indignation of their souls.

Mattathias, as a direct descendant of Aaron through Phineas, and a man
of great wisdom and spotless integrity, possessed great influence
within his native city of Modin. Disputes were referred to his
decision, his judgment was appealed to in cases of difficulty, and his
example was likely to carry with it greater weight than that of any
other man in Judaea. Apelles was perfectly aware of this. "Mattathias
once gained, all is gained," the Syrian courtier had said to the king
before departing on his mission to Modin; "the old man's sons have no
law but his will, and if the Asmoneans bow their heads in worship, all
Judaea will join in offering sacrifice to your gods."

Anxious to win over by soft persuasions the only Hebrews whose
opposition could cause any difficulty in the execution of the king's
commands, when the hour for offering sacrifice had almost arrived,
Apelles descended from his seat of state, and approached the Asmonean
group. This unexpected movement of the Syrian awakened eager attention
amongst the assembled crowds.

"Venerable Mattathias," said Apelles, saluting the old man with stately
courtesy, "your high position, your wide-spread fame, entitle you to
the place of leader in performing the solemn act by which Modin at once
declares her fealty to our mighty monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes, and her
devotion to the worship of Bacchus. Now, therefore, come you first and
fulfil the king's commandment, like as all the heathen have done, yea,
and the men of Judah also, and such as remain at Jerusalem; so shall
you and your house be in the number of the king's friends, and you and
your children shall be honoured with silver and gold and many rewards."
When the Syrian had ceased speaking, the silence amongst the expectant
people was so profound that the roll of the billows on the beach, and
the scream of a white-winged sea-bird, could be distinctly heard.

Sternly the old man had heard Apelles to the end; then fixing upon him
the keen eyes which flashed under the white overhanging brows, like
volcano fire bursting from beneath a mountain crest of snow, he
replied, in tones so loud that they rang all over the market-place,
"Though all the nations that are under the king's dominion obey him,
and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give
consent to his commandments, yet will I and my sons and my brethren
walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake
the law and the ordinances! We will not hearken to the king's words to
go from our religion, either on the right hand or the left."

Hardly had the brave words died on the ears of those who heard them,
when, in strange contrast, there sounded a hymn in honour of Bacchus,
and, gaily dressed and crowned with ivy, a wretched apostate Jew, eager
to win the king's favour by being the first to obey his will, came
forward singing towards the altar. All the blood of Phineas boiled in
the veins of his descendant; was the Lord of Hosts to be thus openly
insulted, His judgments thus impiously defied! Forward sprang the old
Asmonean, as if once more endowed with youth, one moment his dagger
glittered in the sunlight, the next moment the apostate groaned out his
soul upon the altar of Bacchus!

To execute justice in this summary manner, and before all the people,
was indeed to draw the sword and throw the scabbard away. A fierce
shout for vengeance arose from the Syrian soldiers, and their ranks
closed around Mattathias, but not around him alone. Not for a minute
had his sons deserted his side, and now, like lions at bay, they united
in the defence of their father. Nor were they to maintain the struggle
unaided. There were Hebrews amongst the assembled crowds to whom the
voice of Mattathias had been as the trumpet-call to the war-horse;
there were men who counted their holy faith as dearer than life.
These, with shouts, rushed to the rescue, and the market-place of Modin
became the scene of a hand-to-hand desperate struggle, where discipline
and numbers on the one side, devotion, heroism, and a good cause on the
other, maintained a fearful strife. Though sharp, it was but a brief
one. The fight was thickest near the altar--around it flowed the blood
of human victims; there the powerful arm of Judas laid Apelles lifeless
in the dust. This was the crisis of the struggle, for at the fall of
their leader the Syrians were seized with sudden panic. The horses,
whose trappings had glittered so gaily, were either urged by their
riders to frantic speed, or dashed with emptied saddles through the
throng, to carry afar the news of defeat. Flight was all that was left
to the troops of Antiochus or the priests of Bacchus, and few succeeded
in making their escape, for many Jews who had stood aloof from the
struggle joined in the pursuit. The very women caught up stones from
the path to fling at the flying foe; children's voices swelled the loud
shout of triumph. The altar of Bacchus was thrown down with wild
exultation; the idol was broken to pieces, and its fragments were
rolled in the blood-stained dust. Those Jews who had shown most fear
an hour before, now by more furious zeal tried to efface from other
minds and their own the memory of their former submission. One spirit
seemed to animate all--the spirit of freedom! Modin had arisen like
Samson, when he snapped the green withes and went forth to the fight
with the strength of a giant.

But this was an ebullition of zeal likely to be more fiery than
lasting. Mattathias little trusted that courage which only follows in
the train of success. The old man knew that the struggle with the
power of Syria was only commencing; that it would probably be long
protracted, and that it would be impracticable to defend Modin against
the hosts which would soon be sent to assail it. The patriarch stood
in the centre of the market-place, with his foot on the fragments of
the broken altar, and once more his loud clear voice rang far and wide.
"Whosoever is zealous of the law, and maintaineth the Covenant, let him
follow me! Let us away to the mountains, ye men of Judah!"

How many of the inhabitants of Modin obeyed the call? how many resolved
to leave city and home, to dwell with the beasts in the caves of the
mountains? History relates that but a little band of ten, inclusive of
the Asmoneans, by retiring to the fastnesses of the mountains, formed
the nucleus of that brotherhood of heroes who were to wrest victory
after victory from the hosts of Syria, and win that unsullied fame
which belongs only to those who display firm endurance and devoted
courage in a righteous and holy cause.

Next: Hadassah's Guest

Previous: The Journey Home

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