Death at the straits of Beth Zechariah
Naturally, no one believed it would last. How could it? Nevertheless, the nations around Judea began to feel uneasy about the victories of the Jews. They were concerned to such an extent that they resolved their own petty enmities and decided to join forces, and once and for all put a stop to Judah and his growing army. Judah fought them all, and won every time – and the list of his victories is
astounding. The Idumeans at Acrabattene lost many men and tremendous spoils. The Sons of Bean were besieged, their towers burned, and everyone inside the city was killed. The Ammonites’ commander, Timotheus, a man celebrated throughout his brilliant military career, was defeated, and Judas seized their city, Jazer, destroyed all the men, and took the women and children into captivity. He returned to Judea with the spoils.
The nations regrouped under Timotheus, and gathered around the area of the Gilead; they had an enormous army. They attacked the Jews that were on the borders, but many Jews managed to escape to the garrison of Dathema. Afraid for their lives, they sent an urgent message to Judah to come and save them since Timotheus was marching toward them. At the same time, more news arrived that the inhabitants of Ptolemais, Tyre, and Sidon banded together with renegade Jews and foreigners living in the Galilee and were ready to march on it as well. Judah had to save the Jews of the Galilee and the Gilead, but leaving Judea unattended was unthinkable. After much thought and consultations with his brothers and the other commanders, he decided that he had a big enough army to attempt fighting on both fronts, and still protect Judea, if he planned it carefully. First, he commanded his brother Simon to take three thousand chosen men, and go rescue the Jews of Galilee. Judah imself would go to the land of Gilead, accompanied by another brother, Jonathan, and eight thousand soldiers. He left Joseph ben Zacharias and Azarias, two commanders he trusted, to oversee the rest of his forces and keep Judea safe. One thing had to be clear – under no circumstances would Joseph and Azarias provoke a fight. They were allowed only defense.
Simon was successful in the Galilee. A fierce battle ended with the slaying of three thousand of the enemies on site and later pursued all the way to the city of Ptolemais. He freed all the Jewish captives, located and took an enormous amount of plunder, and returned home triumphantly. Judah and Jonathan crossed the Jordan and after a three days march in the wilderness came upon their peaceful allies, the Nabateans. Mysterious and not entirely understood to this day, they were a nation of legendary farmers who somehow succeeded in irrigating the desert. The description was that “they made the desert blossom.” There is much evidence for their highly developed irrigation system – but they kept many of their secrets. They told him about the cities and garrisons where the Jews were being besieged by the army of Timotheus.
Following their information and advice, Judah started a series of campaigns that are very difficult to understand. City after city fell before him, and the Book of Maccabee is sure to tell us that these were not tiny little settlements – the book describes them as “strong and great,” places that needed ladders and engines of war to take their fortresses. We hear of Bosor, Malle, Casphom, Alema, Casphor, and Maked, all defeated by him, and Timotheus’ soldiers fled from Judah’s army.
Timotheus increased his army by taking Arabian mercenaries, promising them large rewards. The fight was to take place in the city Raphon, and Timotheus warned his soldiers that they must prevent the Jews from crossing the brook near the city. According to the records, he told them honestly: “If they come over it, we shall be beaten.” Judah’s army passed over the brook. The terror Judah invoked in his enemies, as I have said before, bordered on the supernatural, and when they saw him crossing the brook, they threw their weapons and escaped. But there was no escape from the fury of the out of control Jews. They pursued the retreating army to a temple in the City of Carnaim, killed almost all of them, and burned the temple. On his way back Judah conquered another city, Ephron, where the inhabitants refused to open the gates to him when he offered them peace. He destroyed the city and its
entire population. The legends say that none of Judah’s soldiers was killed in those conquests. Of course it’s a poetic exaggeration, some must have been killed, but it is clear that their losses were very small by comparison to the number they killed. They returned to Judea singing hymns of victory.
Unfortunately, Joseph ben Zacharias and Azarias, the generals Judah left to guard Judea but commanded not to start a fight, disobeyed his orders. It seems they heard the news about the great success of Simon, Judah, and Jonathan, and they wanted a share in the glory. They took the army to the city of Jamnia, where the great general Gorgias was in command. Gorgias defeated them and killed two thousand soldiers, then pursued the remaining army to the borders of Judea. They paid a high price for disobeying Judah's commands.
The war went on, and Judah resumed his battles with Idumeans, and took from them Hebron, Marissa, and Ashdod, all good sized cities. But bad news came out of Jerusalem. The garrison in the Citadel of Jerusalem started a habit of rushing out and attacking the Jews who came to the Temple to offer their sacrifices, since the Citadel overlooked the Temple and the worshippers were easy targets. Judah had enough of that, and decided to finish the job of making Jerusalem a place of safety. He had engines of war made, erected bulwarks, and prepared for a siege.
Not everyone was pleased. There were many Jews who preferred to leave things as they were and be at peace with the Greek-Syrians. They made a delegation to Antiochus Eupator, who was a very young man, almost a child. They made it clear to him that they were not interested in the religion of their fathers, that they agreed when his late father, Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes requested that they should follow the Greek ways, and that religious zealots of their own nation were causing them great suffering because of it. They explained to the young king that Judah was getting ready to attack the Citadel’s garrison, and should he take it, all of the assimilated Jews would be killed by him.
The king became angry and gave his generals an order that they should assemble an army of mercenaries and such Jews as were willing to fight Judah Maccabee, and combine it with his own men. The resulting force was comprised of a hundred thousand footmen, twenty thousand horsemen, and
thirty-two elephants. The king, attended by Lysias as commander, and leading a huge army, went first to the city of Bethsura near Jerusalem, and besieged it, to prepare for his attack on Jerusalem. The opposition was fierce, and the inhabitants of Bethsura burned his engines of war. Some time was spent there until Judah heard about it, raised his own siege on the Citadel, and went to meet the king. He made his camp in the straits of Beth Zechariah. The king drew his forces and prepared to attack Judah. He put his men in battle array, and made the elephants follow one another through the narrow passes since they could not walk there side by side. One must remember that an elephant was a war machine, something like a tank. He could squash any soldier by simply stepping on him. The legends say that they could be provoked to fight if the saw the “blood” of grapes and mulberries. Each elephant was controlled by a specialist from India, and was surrounded by a thousand men, armed with coats of mail, and wearing helmets of brass on their heads. By their side rode five hundred horsemen. Moreover, each elephant had its own breast plates to protect it, and supported a tall, strong wooden tower where thirty archers rode comfortably, commanding the battlefield from their superior height. Part of the kings’ army was spread upon the high mountains, and part of the valley below. They marched in unison, in perfect order, and their gold and brass shields glistened under the strong sun, making the mountain glow like a wall of fire. They were told to shout and sound the trumpets, and the mountain echoed with the noise. It was a mighty army meant to intimidate Judah.
But neither Judah nor the rest of the Jews were intimidated. They fought with their usual fearless fury, and at one critical moment, Judah’s brother, Eleazar, faced the tallest elephant. The elephant wore the royal breastplate, and Eleazar thought he carried the king himself. He knew that he met his destiny and did not shirk it. Going into the wild mode that the Jews often displayed, when one soldier could whirl, a sword in his hand, and slay or scatter many enemy soldiers, he broke through the ranks and succeeded in getting close to the elephant. He leapt under the elephant’s belly and stabbed him with his sword. The huge animal collapsed, the wooden tower, the archers, rolling off his back. Under a mountain of blood-soaked flesh, weapons, fabric, and metal, Eleazar was crushed to death. The first of the Hasmonean brothers to lose his life for his cause. He would not be the last.
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