Todays 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 kings 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 http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Rsv3Mac.html).
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 citizens duty to the state, its a reminder that the distinctiveness and even isolation of some ethnic/religious groups does have something to be said in its favour.