The First Struggle

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.

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