Jehovah and the drug-crazed elephants

Today’s quiz question: From which book of the Bible does the following come?

Then the king, completely inflexible, was filled with overpowering anger and wrath; so he summoned Hermon, keeper of the elephants, and ordered him on the following day to drug all the elephants – five hundred in number – with large handfuls of frankincense and plenty of unmixed wine, and to drive them in, maddened by the lavish abundance of drink, so that the Jews might meet their doom.

As may be guessed, this is something of a trick question. The verse is from 3 Maccabees, which is in the Orthodox Christian Bible, but not Roman Catholic or Protestant versions. The persecutor of the Jews here is Ptolemy IV of Egypt (extending to cover Israel at that point), in about 217BC. In the end, the Jews are miraculously saved three times from the elephants, who end by turning on the king’s own forces. Ptolemy, frightened, passes a decree protecting the Jews, who inaugurate a new festival to celebrate. The whole book reads like a rather cruder version of the story of Esther. (Text is at

There are four books of Maccabees (which cover events between 217 BC-c 130 BC) and reading them gives you the curious impression of the Old Testament colliding with the classical world head-on. The Jewish people are still in the heroic age, fighting to maintain their religious purity in a hostile world. And yet at the same time they have diplomats making alliances with Rome (involved in the Punic Wars) and even Sparta. It brings home just how anomalous the Jewish people were in the period. Their refusal to assimilate was exceptional in its thoroughness (one of the complaints was that a gymnasium had been built in Jerusalem), and led to terrible acts of violence on both sides. (There were several massacres of the Jews; meanwhile, at one point, Mattathias, a heroic Jewish priest and his friends ‘forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel’). Yet without such die-hard (literally) refusal to compromise, Judaism at a religion (and the Jews as a distinct people) might not have survived and Christianity might never have developed. In a modern world where assimilation is seen as more and more as a citizen’s duty to the state, it’s a reminder that the distinctiveness and even isolation of some ethnic/religious groups does have something to be said in its favour.


2 thoughts on “Jehovah and the drug-crazed elephants

  1. There’s certainly something engaging about 500 tripping elephants although it would bring out the Animal Rights lobby today.

    You say that the distinctiveness and even isolation of some ethnic/religious groups has something to be said in its favour. I think about this as a biologist. We are all one species, ie a group potentially capable of interbreeding – although separated into ‘races’ with some distinctive features. Once there was an obvious advantage in this – at least so far as physical characteristics go – dark skin to protect from the sun, tall, thin bodyform from overheating, Innuit features to shield from the cold, etc, etc. However we have made ourselves so independent of the physical environment we hardly need this natural protection.

    I think that if the conditions arose for a group to isolate themselves either geographically or by some strong cultural barrier new ‘races’ would appear. We can merge or separate, we have either potential.


  2. BTW – on a different subject. Some time ago you made an entry on the failure of British myths and mentioned that the problem with affirming a common British identity is at least partly due to the collapse of belief in and even interest in a lot of national myths.

    Obviously this is from the point of view of an historian. As someone born and mostly resident in this country with an interest in art and the environment I see things differently. I tried to express some of this in a recent entry

    I’d value any thoughts you might have on this.


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