9. Eleazar Maccabeus Had an Elephant Fall on Top of Him
Eleazar Maccabeus (died 162 BC) was the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus, leader of the 167 – 160 BC Maccabean Revolt against the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. The revolt stemmed from a ban on Jewish religious practices by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who ordered Jews to worship Zeus instead. The rebellion began when Eleazar’s and Judas’ father killed a Hellenized Jew who sacrificed to Greek idols, then fled into the wilderness with his five sons and launched a guerrilla campaign. Judah took over the revolt after the father died, and in 164 BC, he entered Jerusalem and restored Jewish worship at its temple – an event commemorated in the feast of Hanukah.
Eleazar’s bizarre death came at the Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162 BC, two years after his older brother Judas had captured Jerusalem. The conquest was incomplete, however, as a Seleucid garrison retained control of a fortress inside the city. Judas besieged the fortress, but a Seleucid army of about 50,000 men, accompanied by 30 war elephants, marched to its relief. Judas lifted the siege and marched out at the head of 20,000 men to meet the Seleucids.
Judas formed his men to meet the enemy in formal battle, abandoning the guerrilla tactics that had won him victories and served him well until then. It was a mistake, as Judas’ forces proved no match for the Seleucid heavy infantry phalanx, professional cavalry, and armored war elephants. The latter in particular unnerved the Jewish defenders, who began to panic and break in fear of the pachyderms.
Eleazar sought to encourage his comrades by demonstrating the elephants’ vulnerability. So he charged at the biggest elephant, got beneath it, and thrust his spear into its unarmored belly. He killed the beast, but did not get to savor his success for long: the dying elephant collapsed on top of Eleazar, and crushed him to death. His comrades did not rush in to emulate him, and the demonstration did not keep the Jewish army from breaking apart and fleeing soon thereafter.