Many years ago, I was the turkey mascot for the National Home Brewing Association. The next year, I wore the same turkey costume to ride an elephant. Yes, I rode an elephant named Stoney in a turkey costume. According to Chazal, a Talmudic sage, “When we are lucky enough to see an elephant we should bless God and say, “Blessed is the One who varies the creatures.” I was very blessed to not only see Stoney, but to have the privilege to sit on his back.
Elephants really are unique creatures. Apart from being massively large and inordinately smart, they are social, gentle, and loyal. Stoney was trained to kneel down, almost lying flat, on the ground so I could climb on him. His gait was gentle as he lumbered slowly from side to side. I grabbed onto his nect to stay secure and felt tiny stiff hairs all over his body. And social? He loved the attention he received from the awe-struck crowd. Sometimes he would try to ‘hug’ with his trunk.
Throughout history, elephants were used like military tanks in Asian warfare. Though they were not native to the Middle East, the Seleucids rode elephants to terrify the Jewish fighters during the Maccabean Revolt.
“His [Antiochus’] army numbered a hundred thousand foot soldiers, twenty thousand cavalry, and thirty-two elephants trained for war” (1 Maccabees 6:30).
“Each elephant was outfitted with a strong wooden tower, fastened to it by a harness; each tower held three soldiers who fought from it, besides the Indian driver” (1 Maccabees 6:37).
“All who heard the noise of their numbers, the tramp of their marching, and the clanging of the arms, trembled; for the army was very great and strong” (1 Maccabees 6:41).
At their first encounter, Judah Maccabee and his men defeated 500 men and killed one elephant, but had to retreat. They were not expecting elephants in their battle plans. Perhaps it was at this juncture that the Maccabees began to say ‘stronger and smarter than an elephant’ as they prepared for further military encounters with these massive animals.
Sometime later, “a Greek army of one hundred and ten thousand foot soldiers, fifty-three hundred cavalry, twenty-two elephants, and three hundred chariots armed with scythes” came to the Judean village of Moedin (2 Maccabees 13:2).
At this second encounter Judah left “the outcome to the Creator of the world, and exhort[ed] his followers to fight nobly to death for the laws [Torah], the temple, the city, the country, and the government…. Giving his troops the battle cry “God’s Victory,” he made a night attack on the king’s pavilion with a picked force of the bravest young men and killed about two thousand in the camp. He also stabbed the lead elephant and its rider. Finally they withdrew in triumph, having filled the camp with terror and confusion. Day was just breaking when this was accomplished with the help and protection of the LORD” (2 Maccabees 13:14-17).
There are those who say these elephant stories never happened or were embellished. Others say they were a metaphor for God’s Hand in the battles.
Hebrew Word Picture
Elephant – pil – פיל
פ Peh – A Mouth means ‘speak’ or ‘source.’
י Yod – Closed Hand means ‘finished work.’
ל Lamed – Shepherd’s Staff means ‘leader who urges forward.’
The Hebrew word picture for elephant: source of the finished work of the one who urges forward.
This meaning suggests that these mighty elephants were God’s trumpeting mouthpiece.
Bring on the elephants!
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