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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ghosts of enemy soldiers, local heroes... and elephants

Sitting out on the Mirpesset (balcony) behind my house, I constantly see ghosts. 

Okay, maybe not real ghosts. 

But our part of the country (Gush Etzion) is so saturated with history - from the passing of Biblical figures past neighboring communities, to entire invading/defending armies marching quite literally past my doorstep -  that the empty hillsides I see each day are always crowded with the ghosts of the past.

I see Bar Kochva's men running to the extensive cave system over the next hill where they hid out during the rebellion.  I see Roman soldiers marching in formation to control their domain all along the length and breadth of my morning commute.  I see Jewish pilgrims walking along the well-worn paths behind my house as they bring their festival sacrifices to the Holy Temple there.

But at this time of year when I stand behind my house and look across the valley, I see Judah Maccabbee's 20,000 Jewish Hasmonian warriors facing 50,000 Greek Seleucid troops, and the hillsides are awash in the deafening sound of marching feet, clanking armour and the occasional trumpet of the mounted war elephants.

Yes, elephants... right here in Gush Etzion!

You see, when most people think of the Hanukkah story, they only think of the Battle of Beit Zur where the Maccabees defeated the numerically superior Greeks and then went on to recapture /rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem. 

What few recall is that even after the Temple was rededicated, the Seleucid Greeks (along with many Hellenized Jews... human shields, in modern terms!), still held a small fortress, called the Acra, inside Jerusalem's city walls facing the Temple.

The Maccabees laid siege to the Acra fortress, but before long they got word that a strong force of Greek troops were approaching from the south, and broke off the siege in order to face them before they reached Jerusalem:

[From the 1 Maccabees 6]

The Battle at Beth-Zechariah (which took place between present day Elazar, Alon Shvut and Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim... partly visible from my house)

"Then Yehuda marched away from the citadel and encamped at Beth-zechariah, opposite the camp of the king.

Early in the morning the king set out and took his army by a forced march along the road to Beth-zechariah, and his troops made ready for battle and sounded their trumpets.

They offered the elephants the juice of grapes and mulberries, to arouse them for battle.

They distributed the animals among the phalanxes; with each elephant they stationed a thousand men armed with coats of mail, and with brass helmets on their heads; and five hundred picked horsemen were assigned to each beast.

These took their position beforehand wherever the animal was; wherever it went, they went with it, and they never left it.

On the elephants were wooden towers, strong and covered; they were fastened on each animal by special harness, and on each were four armed men who fought from there, and also its Indian driver.

The rest of the cavalry were stationed on either side, on the two flanks of the army, to harass the enemy while being themselves protected by the phalanxes.

When the sun shone on the shields of gold and brass, the hills were ablaze with them and gleamed like flaming torches."

This is what I picture as I look out towards the hills behind my house that were once carpeted in soldiers and war animals!

"Now a part of the king's army was spread out on the high hills, and some troops were on the plain, and they advanced steadily and in good order.

All who heard the noise made by their multitude, by the marching of the multitude and the clanking of their arms, trembled, for the army was very large and strong.

But Yehuda and his army advanced to the battle, and six hundred of the king's army fell.

Now Eleazar, called Avaran, saw that one of the animals [elephants] was equipped with royal armor. It was taller than all the others, and he supposed that the king was on it.

So he gave his life to save his people and to win for himself an everlasting name.

He courageously ran into the midst of the phalanx to reach it; he killed men right and left, and they parted before him on both sides.

He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it; but it fell to the ground upon him and he died.

[But] When the Jews saw the royal might and the fierce attack of the forces, they turned away in flight."

Present day Elazar, which is right across the narrow valley from us, is named for Judah Maccabee's son Elazar who died killing that war elephant.  According to Josephus, Elazar's Son Jason had a son and grandson; Antipater I & II respectively.  Antipater II's son was King Herod, the master builder who was responsible for building the Second Temple.

And just as an aside, to bring water to his Temple in Jerusalem, Herod built a complex aqueduct system that passed less than 50 meters behind my back house!

All this history... right behind my house!  Can you blame me for seeing ghosts?

I hope everyone has a wonderful Hanukkah!  Chag Urim Sameach!!!

Posted by David Bogner on December 21, 2008 | Permalink


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I understand Seleucid and (Syrian) Greeks, but where do "Assyrian troops" come into the picture?

Posted by: Mich | Dec 21, 2008 6:16:40 PM

Mich... Good catch. I was pretty groggy when I wrote this and had originally put 'Syrian' because my sleepy brain couldn't come up with Seleucid. Later when I'd googled the word for the correct spelling, I replaced all the instances but one; the one I'd misspelled. My spell checker helpfully changed that one to Assyrian.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 21, 2008 7:05:55 PM

Herod was the son of Antipater the Idumaean, who has no relations to Eleazar the Horanite.

Posted by: aschoichet | Dec 21, 2008 8:42:59 PM

I am not surprised that a man who goes to wine tastings at 10 a.m. sees ghosts.Or elephants, Assyrian or otherwise. What color ARE those elephants, Trep? :-)

Posted by: Marsha in Englewood | Dec 21, 2008 9:10:25 PM

Oh and by the way...

Antipater II's son was King Herod, the master builder who was responsible for building the Second Temple.

The Second Temple was built 500 years before Herod.

Posted by: ashoichet | Dec 21, 2008 11:30:36 PM

What's the difference between an elephant and a plum?

The elephant is grey.

OK, I admit it, I am really still five years old!

For more classic elephant jokes:

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Dec 22, 2008 1:20:15 AM

ashoichet... Nobody likes a know-it-all (or at last someone who thinks they know it all). Did you notice where I wrote "According to Josephus..." Argue with him, not me. And yes, I should have written 'expanded' the Second Temple rather than 'built'... but his expansion was an entirely new structure. It wasn't the third Temple... so why argue semantics???

Posted by: David Bogner | Dec 22, 2008 6:38:33 AM

Quite a view you have there Trep, amazing how much history its tapped.

Posted by: Rami | Dec 22, 2008 10:16:39 AM

From what I've read, the story of Herod's supposed descent from the Hasmonean family was spread by none other than Herod himself, who had actually wiped out the Hasmonean family and was looking for some legitimacy as King of the Jews. Belief in this story was further encouraged by the Romans, who controlled Herod. Finally, Josephus (who was the Benedict Arnold of the Judean Revolt) had a vested interest in presenting the Roman-approved version of history in general. IOW, ingest story of Herod's Hasmonean roots with a large quantity of salt.

Posted by: psachya | Dec 22, 2008 10:43:20 AM

See ashoichet... read Psachya's well written comment. He also offered an alternate scenario to the historical line of descent I had quoted... but he did so in such a way that we all learned something and nobody felt like they were being called 'wrong'. History is full of conflicting accounts and politically charged 'versions'. Go back and read his comment. It contains everything you need to know for your future forays into trying to show that you are smarter than the rest of us (which you probably are, BTW). :-)

Posted by: treppwntitz | Dec 22, 2008 10:53:10 AM

And BTW, when I look for ghosts of soldiers outside my window, the best I can come up with is George Washington and his terrified army running away from a bunch of Redcoats to regroup across the river in New Brunswick. Not one of his better moments. Let's just say that no one will ever comission a painting of "Washington Crossing the Raritan."

Posted by: psachya | Dec 22, 2008 11:03:00 AM

Chag Urim Sameach right back atcha! Great post, too.

Posted by: Elisson | Dec 22, 2008 5:29:31 PM

"Naked bathing in the Raritan River??"

Posted by: Nachum | Dec 22, 2008 7:40:39 PM

Enjoy the Chag!

Posted by: Jack | Dec 22, 2008 9:04:59 PM

David Bogner:

Nobody likes a know-it-all (or at last someone who thinks they know it all).

You're reading too much into my comment. I didn't mean to be snarky or to belittle what you wrote. It's important to not obfuscate Jewish history. We have a very rich historical record which shouldn't treated in an off-hand manner.

so why argue semantics???

It's not semantics. Herod was not "responsible for building the second temple."


Josephus doesn't claim anywhere that Herod was a descendant of the Hasmoneans. The Wikipedia article confuses two unrelated people named Antipater. Josephus does mention a claim that Herod was a descendant of Jewish notables from Babylonia. This claim is based on the writings of Nikolaus of Damascus, Herod's court historian from whom Josephus draws most of his information about Herod and the Hasmoneans. Josephus dismisses this claim however, and makes clear that the truth is that Herod was the grandson of Antipater, an Idumean. His father was also named Antipater (or Antipas). Herod's ancestors, according to Josephus, converted to Judaism when John Hyrcanus conquered Edom (around 108 BCE).

Again, Josephus did not state or imply that Herod was a descendant of Eleazar the Horanite.

Posted by: aschoichet | Dec 23, 2008 10:14:19 PM

There were battles up her near Shiloh, too. We used to take our 2nd grade classes for "mock battles" on the mountain cliffs.
My ancestors must have come from the Shiloh area. I see Chana, Eli and Elkana here. It's an added bonus to living in Shiloh.

Posted by: Batya | Dec 24, 2008 8:36:46 AM

Great Post. One correction. Elazar was Judah's brother.

Posted by: Jeffrey Woolf | Dec 24, 2008 12:42:32 PM

the living history in Israel is great if you know where to look. you obviously do!

Like Psachya unfortunately, all i have here in Upper Manhattan is Washington and his troops running away and abandoning NYC to the British. «sarcasm»thanks a lot, guys!!!!«/sarcasm»

Posted by: Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) | Dec 25, 2008 6:29:58 AM

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