Third Maccabees 3-6 – The Incident with the Elephants

Image result for third maccabees elephantsThird Maccabees is perhaps best remembered for God’s dramatic actions rescuing the Jews from Ptolemy IV Philopater (221-205 B.C.). Josephus narrates a similar story, but dates it to the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon (169-116 B.C., Contra Apion, 2.52-55). The story narrated by 3 Maccabees is fanciful, but as Livia Capponi comments, the intention of the author was “to offer a testimony to the courage and firmness of the Egyptian Jews even in the face of death” (293).

Although he Jews maintain a respectful attitude toward the king, Philopater is enraged when the Jews refuse to obey his demands (3 Macc 3:1-10). Philopater commands that Jews be rounded up and arrested.  The Jews are not honest, Philopater argues, because “they accepted our presence by word, but insincerely by deed, because when we proposed to enter their inner temple and honor it with magnificent and most beautiful offerings, they were carried away by their traditional arrogance, and excluded us from entering; but they were spared the exercise of our power because of the benevolence that we have toward all” (3:17-18, NRSV).

The decree was read “to the heathens” at public feasts, but the Jews reacted with great mourning.  Jews are “dragged away” in iron bonds to Alexandria.  The chapter is filled with tragic descriptions of old men led off in chains and virgin brides are taken away from their bridal chambers. They are taken to Alexandria and brought to the hippodrome to be made a public example for those who might defy the king.

The king intends to kill the Jews he has taken captive by charging five hundred elephants (5:1-51).  He ordered the elephants to be driven into a frenzy with a mixture of wine and frankincense, but when the appointed hour came, God caused the king to fall asleep so that he never gave the order to kill the Jews. Philopater is enraged and intends to kill the Jews the next day. Again, the whole town turns out for the spectacle, but when the time comes for the king to give the order, the Lord made his mind go blank and he threatens to toss his friends to the elephants instead.  Finally the king himself drives the crazed elephants toward the Jews, who are praying, weeping and embracing one another in full expectation of their deaths.

At this moment, a priest named Eleazar prays to God, asking God’s will to be done (6:1-15).  If that means dying, then let it be, but God ought to act for his own glory and “let the Gentiles cower today in fear of your invincible might, O honored One, who have power to save the nation of Jacob” (verse 13, NRSV). As Eleazar finished his prayer the heavens open and two angels descend, visible to all but the Jews (6:16-29). So awesome was their appearance the king began to shudder and he repented of his plans to destroy the Jews.  He commands the guards to “release the children of the almighty and living God of heaven, who from the time of our ancestors until now has granted an unimpeded and notable stability to our government.”

These dramatic events are narrated as a kind of theological drama. The hand of the Lord is against Philopater and he cannot harm the Jews as he once intended. But like the three young men in Daniel 3, the Jews gathered in the hippodrome are more than willing to die rather than obey the orders of the king. Eleazar’s speech alludes to both the fiery furnace in Daniel 3 and Daniel’s refusal to pray to Darius in Daniel 6 (3 Macc 6:6-7). He also refers to God’s rescue of Jerusalem from Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:35) and God’s rescue of Jonah. In all four biblical cases, there is no human way for the person to be saved. They are only rescued by the “most high, all conquering God who governs all creation” (3 Macc 6:2).

As I suggested in a previous post, this book was written after Rome took control of Judea. The story of a large number of Jews resisting the king’s demand to give up their ancestral traditions may have encouraged those who sought to upset Roman rule in the years leading up to the first Jewish rebellion.


Bibliography. Livia Capponi, “‘Martyrs and Apostates: 3 Maccabees and the Temple of Leontopolis’”, in Hellenistic Judaism: Historical Aspects, Henoch 29.2 (2007), 288-306.

14 thoughts on “Third Maccabees 3-6 – The Incident with the Elephants

  1. This part of the narratives in Maccabees is such a gripping example of the persecution endured by the Hellenistic Jews. The story is thrilling, keeping the reader’s concern throughout. What really catches my attention is the attitude of Eleazar in the face of death. He calls on God not for his own safety or comfort, but for the will of God to be done. He asks prays “Let it be shown to the Gentiles that you are with us, O Lord” (3 Maccabees 6:15). Eleazar surrenders his own desire to live in favor of God’s power being made known to the Gentiles.
    Christians today so often call on God in situations of stress and discomfort for their own needs. We will readily ask for God’s deliverance or our relief from trials, but how often do believers pray instead for God’s will to be done? Do we surrender our wishes to the will of God when it might make us uncomfortable? I’m sure many contemporary believers can learn from the behavior of Eleazar in 3 Maccabees.

  2. I think that it is interesting how this story has a such a similar concept / plot as the Old Testament stories like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnance. Both of these stories show of God’s deliverance of His people and those who have faith and trust in Him. I do like how humble Eleazar’s prayer is, what ever God’s will may be he has accepted it and is willing to die for God’s glory. I think that this book may have been written as an encouragement to those who were resisting the Romans and their views, so that the Jews would stand firm in their faith of God regardless of the punishment or persecution they might have faced.

  3. If 3 Maccabees was written under the new Roman regime in Judea to encourage against militant resistance against them, then the authors may have thought that any militant resistance would not be from the hand of God. Perhaps, the author presumed that the hand of God would never lead the Jews to rise up against their oppressors, based off God’s commands to Israel under Babylonian rule. Maybe according to the author of 3 Maccabees, it was okay for them to respectfully refuse to obey the foreign rulers, but not to strike out against them in an attempt at liberation; the former was reliance upon God’s salvation and the latter was dependent on human strength which would eventually fail.

  4. It is definitely interesting how the drama of this story unfolds. After reading, I wonder why God had first allowed the King to fall asleep, and then for his mind to go blank, and then for the angels to descend. Why would these dramatic details of the story happen, if God was going to save them in the end anyway? Regardless, it is an example of the mighty power of God, and His will for the timing of things to occur.
    I like what Nate had said in reference to classic Christian prayers in today’s church…we often pray for a solution that looks appealing to us, rather than the will of God. If Christians today were to reflect Eleazar’s motives in their prayers, I am sure they would see a significant difference in their reverence and relationship to God.

  5. This book by far is one of the funniest books i have read. At one point the king decides to drug the elephants and wants to crush the Jews in Egypt, and God keeps the elephants from doing so. Through out the years being crushed by elephant wasnt a unique thing to the Egyptians but the drugging of the elephants was. The elements of the story do however fit into a narratives of the old testament style things. You see the Israelite’s in trouble and unable to save them selves and at the end God saves them from destruction. It is a picture i love because it is a picture of us, we are dead to sin and when we die thats it with nothing we can do, and God steps in to save the day.

  6. While I believe that the books of Maccabees are all useful in they own ways with the stories and text they have to offer, as far as showing how the works of God bows to no ordinary mean, this story takes the cake. It really does appear that there is a great struggle between the Jews and Philopater (& co), and that the Jews so are so faithfully willing to die for their faith. We see several examples of this, but I have to imagine that death by elephants in the name of their religious belief was not something they had prepared themselves for. Eleazar’s prayer was indeed powerful, and I find it interesting that the angels did not appear to them specifically. If anything, I think the story says a lot about lengths of faith. Would you take an elephant for God?

  7. This story would give credibility to the thought that if you are following God and what he desires and instructs you to do, then he will protect you from anything, even situations that should be certain death. This happens several times in the Old Testament too. God instructed Noah how to escape the flood, rescuing Lot and his family from Sodom and Gomorrah, Shadrack, Meshack, and Abendigo in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lion’s den, are all example of stories in which characters escape certain death because God chose to spare them for their righteousness and desire to follow his will. In 3 Maccabees, Jews refuse to obey the king’s demands, and as a result, the king is furious and intends to kill many Jews that he took captive. Through the prayer of a priest, God is petitioned to rescue those who chose to follow him from the herd of 500 elephants charging towards them. And just like the stories in the Old Testament, God intervenes for those who trust him, this time sending two angels, who all but the jews could see, to release those who followed and honored him, his decrees, and his laws. This story is an example of how God can not only provide protection from life-threatening circumstances, but also of how he can work to prevent such circumstances from ever happening. This is evident through God’s work to make the king fall asleep or make his mind blank so he cannot and does not remember or know how to attack the Jews. These acts of prevention and God’s show-stopping acts that protect the Jews are evidence that they must come from God since they are not something any human could ever achieve. This story still shows God’s power and how he protects those who obey him.

  8. This story is one that doesn’t surprise me, by now the Jews have been captured and threatened so many times at this point. But out of all the stories I think this one has to be the more normal stories mentioned in the Apocrypha. But one thing that does stand out is that once Philopater was going to give the command to his men to kill the Jews, God totally wiped his mind; I was intrigued because I cannot recall a time in the cannon where the Lord took away someone’s thoughts to distract him / make him do something else. Just as the king regained control and the Jews were now facing death God sent one of his own to intercede (Elazar). Eventually the Jews were saved and Philopater repented right away. You mentioned many cannon stories that are in comparison to this one; I think there can be a common theme seen here. That God always shows up in the nic of time to save His people to show the ones around them just how powerful He is. When He shows up in Daniel 3 during the fiery furnace story, amongst many people the three believers didn’t die rather they were protected by God and those around them were in awe of what had happened. As in this story Philopater was in awe of how God just showed up and saved His people in an instant.

  9. The story with the elephants sounds very similar to some of the way we see God’s favor on his people in the earlier Old Testament. Whether it’s his favor on David in the hundreds of battles, his favor on Gideon and their small army, his favor on Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or many other examples, they all are situations where God’s people are in the oppressed or minority group but he supernaturally intervened and prevailed in the battle they faced. The story here would be an encouragement to them as they are currently a minority group yet again, this time under Roman rule. This would encourage them to stay faithful to God and to even have hope in what he may still do for them and how God would remain faithful to them if they were to uprise against the majority power, as they believe in the same God in this story, as well as the same God we see in the other Old Testament stories. We see the pinnacle of their rescue when it says, “These then were the things he said; and the Jews, immediately released, praised their holy God and Savior, since they now had escaped death” (3 Macc 6:28).

  10. This story is heavily reminiscent of the story of Balaam; God intervenes to directly affect someone’s actions, despite their intentions. I wonder how much the author was inspired by this story and how much was “wishful thinking.” The Jews had been without a prophet for so long that their desire to be led by God or see divine intervention likely informed (to some degree) their stories. I wonder if the author saw Balaam as an example of what he thought they needed: a radical move of God to protect the Jews from persecution. We see similar things today; Christian bookstores are full of feel-good novels where miracles abound and the good guys win in the end. I wouldn’t say that the church in America is experiencing the same sort of persecution as the Jews in the Second Temple Period, but I do believe that the American church (as a generalized, homogenized entity, especially in regards to megachurches) has become spiritually stagnant. It’s hard to say that we have the kind of faith that moves mountains when there really are no mountains that need moving. We have it so easy here. Faith is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and we’ve had no need to do so because we don’t face persecution. As a result, when we do feel spiritual turmoil, we turn to God as we should, but rather than relying on His timing and His faithfulness, we expect a miraculous event. I think that something similar was going on with the Jews, but they didn’t have a strong foundation in faith as much as a foundation in following the Law. They were persecuted, but because they based their reliance on God in how well they were willing to follow the Law rather than faith, they couldn’t understand why God would be silent when they apostatized and followed the gods of other nations. Then, when they finally did turn back to God, they expected Him to work a miracle to deliver them instead of having faith and trusting in His timing.

  11. This story is not surprising at all when it comes to God’s amazing power and glory. God has shown countless times within the Old Testament of His power and divine ability to protect His people. This is evident with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the Lion’s den, David and his numerous battles, Gideon with the small army, Noah escaping the flood, saving Lot and his family from Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. This story with the elephants is just another example of God proving His divine power and protection of His people. We see in 3 Maccabees; the Jews refuse to obey the king’s demands. As a result, the king is furious and plans to kill the disobedient Jews that he took captive. We see through the humble prayer of a priest; God is petitioned to rescue those who chose to follow him from the deadly herd of 500 elephants Philopater had planned to trample them with. However, we see God intervene for the Jews, by sending two angels that everyone except the Jews could see, to release them. This story is an example of how God can provide protection to those who follow Him and prevent humanly impossible situations from occurring. This is evident through God’s work to make Philopater fall asleep or make his mind blank so that he forgets and does not remember or know how to attack the Jews. With this we can see God protect the Jews in a manner that can only be made possible by our great God since they are not something any human could ever achieve. Overall, this story is a great example of how God uses His power to protect those who obey him.

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