This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Eleazar Died for Our Sins*

There is one exploit from the Hanukkah saga that has always captured my imagination with a special vividness. The heroic battle of Judah Maccabee against the Greek elephants at Beth Zechariah had all the vibrancy and spectacle of a technicolor epic.

As the story is related in the First Book of Maccabees (and copied verbatim into Josephus Flavius' "Jewish Antiquities"), King Antiochus V Eupator was encountering stubborn resistance in his siege of the town of Bethsura in what he expected to be a victorious march to Jerusalem. Judah and his forces were, at the time, besieging the citadel of Jerusalem striving to wrest it from the enemy forces; but he chose to withdraw for a while from that operation in order to confront the king at the mountain pass at Beth Zachariah.

At this point, Antiochus decided to pursue a strategy of shock and awe by commanding his forces to face Judah's encampment in their most imposing battle array. The most impressive equipment in the Greek army was the "armored corps" made up of elephants who were fed on grape and mulberry wine in order to heighten their aggressiveness. The beasts marched in single file, but the procession was orchestrated in such a way as to strike terror in the hearts of the ragged band of Jewish guerrillas. Each elephant was surrounded by a thousand heavily armored foot-soldiers and a troop of five hundred first-class horse-cavalry. The elephants carried on their backs skilled Indian drivers, as well as tall wooden turrets to house archers.

The soldiers were instructed to bear their shiniest gold and bronze shields that would flash dazzling light onto the surrounding hills, and to shout thunderously in the diresction of the resounding mountainsides. This was intended to enhance the frightening psychological impact, making the Seleucid Greek force appear indestructible and superhuman. As reported by the ancient Jewish chroniclers, Judah and his followers were not at all daunted by this vision, and initially they enjoyed considerable success against the enemy.

At this point, the focus of the narrative shifts to Judah's youngest brother, Eleazar. Eleazar noticed that one of the enemy elephants seemed to be more prominent than the others. It was taller than the rest and was decorated with regal armour, all of which seemed to indicate that the king himself was being conveyed inside the tower on its back. Eleazar reasoned that a succesful assault against that elephant and its rider might tip the scales of the battle or of the entire campaign.

In full swashbuckling form, he leaped into the fray and approached the imperial pachyderm, single-handedly slaughtering or putting to flight the dozens of enemy soldiers who stood in his way. Then, having positioned himself directly under the beast's soft underbelly, he plunged the blade of his sword into it, knowing that this heroic act would bring about his own demise. This was indeed the outcome of his attack: the animal's immense weight now collapsed onto Eleazar, fatally crushing him.

As it turned out, the king was not on that fatal elephant, and the Seleucid forces were able to continue their advance to Jerusalem and the Temple. A reprieve was eventually granted only because the Greeks had to withdraw their forces to deal with an attempted coup back home. Eleazar's self-sacrifice turned out to be in vain.

In recent years, some historians have called into question the veracity of the story, noting some problems with the geographical topography, and the fact that several details in the description of the Seleucid military strategy were well-known literary clichés in Greek writings of the time. The suspicion is that the author of 1 Maccabees, a propagandist for the Hasmonean regime, was trying to exaggerate the power of the Seleucid army in order to make the Jewish defeat more palatable to his readers.

At any rate, neither the Book of Maccabees nor the writings of Josephus Flavius were accepted into the ranks of canonical Jewish religious texts, and (unlike some of the other episodes in those works) the adventure of Eleazar and the elephant did not find its way into the Talmud or Midrash. Nevertheless, a brief account of the episode did survive in the "Scroll of Antiochus," a Hebrew paraphrase of Maccabees that was recited on Hanukkah in many medieval Jewish communities.

In the Scroll of Antiochus, unlike the Book of Maccabees, Eleazar did not charge against a particular elephant because of his suspicions about its illustrious passenger. Rather, he was conducting a campaign against all the enemy's elephants. When the battle was over, Eleazar's comrades were at first unable to find him, until eventually they discovered his corpse drowned in elephant dung.

If the memory of Eleazar elicited little interest in Jewish tradition, he did achieve remarkable prominence in medieval Christian tradition. The Books of Maccabees were counted among the Roman Catholic sacred scriptures, and the Jewish heroes of those works were elevated to the status of saints or holy martyrs.

Even by the inventive standards of medieval Catholic exegesis, it is hard not to be astonished by the role that was assigned to Eleazar: his readiness to sacrifice his life for his beliefs and for his nation was seen as a typological archetype of Jesus' crucifixion, in keeping with the time-honoured Christian belief that the stories in the Hebrew scriptures are to be read as "prefigurations" of the "new covenant."

However we may feel about the theological implications of this approach—and I am not aware that it was cultivated very much in Christian literature or art—we might be grateful that it opened the doors for the inclusion of Eleazar's story among the standard motifs of European art. On the whole, the artists seemed less interested in the story's allegorical significance than in the opportunites it offered them to draw exotic animals, architecturally complex fortresses and action-packed battles.

The Death of Eleazar according to the Speculum Humanae SalvationisThus, in the crude illuminations and woodcuts that accompanied the popular medieval encyclopedia Speculum Humanae Salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation) by Vincent of Beauvais, the artists provided a precise rendering of our story, with Eleazar in his knightly armour sitting rather serenely under the elephant's belly and stabbing it with his sword—except that the lean beast in question looks rather like a hybrid of a horse and camel with a stretched-out nose, in a style oddly reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. Presumably, we will have to forgive those European artists who never got to see an accurate picture of an elephant, let alone behold one in the flesh.

On the other hand, Eleazar's heroism also inspired more talented artists. Among the most memorable renderings of the story was Gustave Doré's unnerving etching in which the rampant trumpeting elephant, drawn with zoological precision, veritably leaps off the page as the archers perched on its back exchange missiles with the Jewish warriors.

And if your preference is for poetry and music rather than the visual arts, you might find inspiration in the grandiose tribute that Handel placed in the mouth of Judas Maccabaeus in the oratorio of that name: The Death of Eleazar according to Gustave Doré

But pause awhile: due obsequies prepare
To those who bravely fell in war.
To Eleazar special tribute pay;
Through slaughter'd troops he cut his way
To the distinguish'd elephant, and, whelm'd beneath
The stabbed monster, triumph'd in a glorious death.

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For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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