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.

9 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?


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