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The Women of the Hebrews. Huldah. Judith. Under the Persian
To the dark and direful, but grand character of Athaliah, succeeded the lives and deeds of better, and brighter women-of Huldah, the spiritual and the learned, of Judith, the brave and the devoted, of Esther, the wise and patriotic !
In the reign of Josiah, king of Judah, the king having flung down the idols which had long profaned the altars of the temple, a volume of great antiquity was discovered, in repairing that sacred edifice, so often sacrilegiously defaced. It had been buried under the rubbish of ages, and to the High Priest, Hilkiah, it was a sealed volume : its mysteries were beyond the powers of his elucidation.
It appears, indeed, that, among the learned and the holy, the priests and wise men of Jerusalem, there was not one who could expound the text, which excited alarm, as containing dreadful denunciations of God's wrath. The king then bethought him of a woman--of Huldah—the prophetess who “ dwelt in Jerusalem, in the college :” the wife, says Josephus, of a man of great quality. He sent to her, because he feared that, to punish the crimes of the kings, his predecessors, and their transgressions of God's laws, he should be driven from his country, with all his people, to end miserably their days in a strange land. The prophetess told them that no prayers were efficient to obtain from God a revocation of his sentence; that the people would be driven from their country, because they had violated its laws without repentance, though they had so much time, and though the prophets had so plainly foretold what was to come.
Consulted on the book by the king, Huldah ascribed it to Moses. It contained the books of the law, traced by the hand of the legislator of the people of God; and she expounded them, to the terror of the faithless and idola. trous generation, which Josias was endeavouring to bring back to the altar of their fathers. She announced all the evils which the wrath of the Lord could heap on the heads of his people; but she added that, since Josias had humbled himself before the Lord, those evils should not overtake the people over which he reigned, till after his death.
* Josephus, book x, chap. a.
Josias fell gloriously in a national war, at the foot of Mount Carmel ; and Jeremiah composed a funeral canticle in his praise. The predictions of Huldah, the prophetess, were fulfilled in after-times to the letter; and the confi. dence of the wise king of Judah in the power of woman's mind and forethought, was justified by the event.
Judith, whose agency in her country's cause has been the subject of much controversy, and whose life has been supposed by some of the learned to have been written by herself* — Judith, the deliverer of her nation, “ seeing the evil that had come upon her people,” starts forth in her patriot championship against their enemies, “to break down their stateliness by the hand of a woman.” The rich, the young, the beautiful widow of Bethula is described as first conquering, by her charms and her wit, the formidable conqueror of the Jews, the general of Ne. buchadnezzar, the greatest of the great captains of the warlike Assyria. If she followed up this moral sorcery by a deed of violence, and sealed her devotedness to the holy cause of national emancipation by an act more heroic than womanly, it is some extenuation, that the high priest of Jerusalem consecrated that act by his gratitude and benediction. That Judith herself believed that the motive hallowed the deed, is testified in every inspired stanza of her own beautiful canticle.
* Scaliger and Grotius assert that the book of Judith is but a parable, composed in order to console the Jews at the time when Antiochus Epiphanes came into Judah. Although the authenticity of the book of Judith, has been much contested, the Council of Trent acknowledged it; and St. Jerome insisted that it had also been acknowledged by the Council of Nice. It was originally written in Hebrew, and was translated into Greek by the Septuagint. Some were of opinion that it was written by Judith herself; others that it was composed by the High Priest, who is mentioned in this book : but there is no proof of either. We have not even the original text, but a Latin version by St. Jerome only. This Father says in his preface that “ he has given the sense without holding to the letter; and that he had extracted what he considered essential, from the repetitions and faulty variations in the different copies of it, and given it in his translation.” Besides his version, there are two others, one in Greek, and one in Syriac, which contain circumstances that are not detailed by St. Jerome, and that appear to be what he mentions as having rejected.
Nebuchadnezzar having taken Jerusalem, razed its walls, pillaged its temples, and destroyed its priests, and having carried the Israelites into captivity, died a natural death, in the midst of his own great works at Babylon, which all profane writers cite as equalling those of Semiramis, as his labours were likened to those of Hercules. But his greatness died with him; and the conquest of Babylon, after his death, by Cyrus, threw the captive Israelites into the power of one of those great examples of wisdom, which are found brightening the darkest times, and anticipating the policy of the most enlightened. Seventy years after the tribes of Judah and Benjamin had been led captive into Babylon, Cyrus sent a mandate throughout Asia, declaratory of his intention of rebuilding the temple of Jerusalem, and restoring the captive Jews to the ruined capital of Solomon.* The chiefs of the tribes of Judah and of Benjamin, the high priests, or sacrificers, and the Levites, and all that imaged the once spiritual and powerful theocracy of the Hebrews, returned to Jerusalem.
Nothing was wanting to this solemn and magnanimous restoration by the “ great king ;" all the sacred vessels of the temple (carried off by Nebuchadnezzar from the temple) were restored. Offerings from all the tribute nations of Persia were brought to the great work of rebuilding the city of David. Mithridates, the great treasurer of Persia was sent with the treasures and consecrated utensils,t to assist Zerobabel, a Jewish prince, who was to lay the foundation of a temple, which was to rival that of Solomon.
† Josephus gives a curious inventory of this most magnificent vaisselle. In the representation made to Cambyses by the Samaritans and other nations against restoring the Jews to Jerusalem, they urged that the first political act of the Jews would be to become independent of himself, and to resist obedience to his government; “ because the Israelites were always prompt to resist kingly power, from a peculiarity of temperament which led them ever to command, and never to obey."-Josephus. This is a curious admission from their own historian, of the poetical pertinacities of these conservative republicans.
The number of Jews who returned under the protection of Cyrus to Palestine, amounted to forty-two thousand four hundred and sixty persons. According to their own historians, Darius and Xerxes, the successors and descendants of Cyrus, seconded the great views of their great and wise progenitor; and, in spite of the opposition offered by the surrounding nations against the return of neighbours so restless and so dangerous, the protection afforded by the Persian monarchs to the scattered descen. dants of Abraham continued to the time of Artaxerxes.
Under his reign, a sanguinary persecution was undertaken : through the influence of Haman, the chief minister of the Persian government, the Israelites were accused of conspiracy and resistance to the laws throughout the provinces ; and Artaxerxes issued a command for little less than the extermination of the entire people. It was then that a young woman, an orphan of the tribe of Benjamin, became the saviour of her people, the avenger of their wrongs, and the destroyer of one of the most powerful of their enemies : “ for to Esther, under God," says Josephus, “we owe our salvation.”
Esther, however, worked out the preservation and triumph of her people by far other and wiser means, than those resorted to by the brave and impetuous Judith ; for if by her personal charms she captivated the senses of the mighty master of her nation's destiny, and laid the “ sovereign of one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to the Euphrates,” at the feet of a proscribed captive, it was by her intellectual influence, and her adroit discretion, that she overpowered his volitions, frustrated his designs, and converted the intended exterminator of her people into their protector and friend.
Artaxerxes, King of Persia, the Ahasuerus of scriptural story, having given a royal feast in the capital of his empire to the representatives of many strange nations, his beautiful and beloved queen Vashti refused to attend, on the plea that the law of Persia forbade women to show themselves before strangers. Her disobedience became a subject of state inquiry; the seven magi, the interpreters of
the Persian laws, were summoned and their decisions taken. The queen was pronounced guilty of a greater crime than violating the laws of the land, of a violation of the law of nature, by the resistance of woman to the divine-righted power of man! “The Magi urged (says the Jewish historian) the danger of Vashti's example to the women of Persia, and the domestic insubordination and public evil it might produce."* Vashti was,
consequence, repudiated ; and the magi counselled the king to send forth emissaries through the Persian empire in search of youthful beauties, one of whom might be deemed worthy to take the high place va. cated by the rebel queen.
six hundred candidates (the assembled loveliness of the East), the king's preference fell on a young orphan, a Jewess, who had resided in great obscurity with her aged kinsmant in Babylon. The king, in taking to his arms and raising to his throne the beautiful and adroit Esther, knew not that the queen he had placed over his fire-worshipping subjects was of a sect merciless to all who were not of their own faith, a descendant of the royal house of Israel, whose people had been destined to extermination under his own despotic laws.
Esther was the agent chosen to accomplish the emancipation of her people; and her secret intelligence with her politic kinsman, Mordecai, her control over her own feelings, and the finesse and ability by which she consum. mated her vengeance, executed her high mission, and “ covered her people with gladness, and with joy and honour,” (“s so that many of the nations of the land be. came Jews, for the fear of the Jews came upon them”) prove that this Hebrew queen of Persia possessed all the qualities of a profound stateswoman, and all the zeal of a devoted patriot.
† Esther, chap. i. verse 2, 3. | It is in allusion to her quality of stateswoman, that Racine has chosen to represent the virtues and talents of another great stateswoman, the Esther of her day, under her character.
“O spectacle, O triomphe, admirable à mes yeux,
Et le Persan superbe est aux pieds d'une Juive."