The fifth battle, the Battle of Beit Zecharia, is one that Judah Maccabeus does not win.  It took place between Beit Tzur and Jerusalem in the area of today’s Gush Etzion, but the political and religious picture stretches from Jerusalem to Antioch.

Upon seizing the Temple Mount after the Battle of Beit Tzur, Judah Maccabeus fortified it so that Jews could come and worship there.  Overlooking the entrance path to the Temple, however, stood the Greek Hakra fortress upon which stood soldiers who harassed Jews on their way to the Temple.  In the power vacuum left by the death of Antiochus IV, Judah sought to take control of this important station in Jerusalem.

Lysias used Judah’s advance to flex his muscles and try to reassert his power in the larger Seleucid Empire.  He amassed a huge army including elephants (the tanks of the day) to march against Jerusalem via the southern watershed route – Route 60 of today between Hebron and Jerusalem.  The Greeks attacked the fortifications of Beit Tzur along that route.

When Judah heard of the threat to Beit Tzur, he brought his troops to a staging area between Jerusalem and Beit Tzur known as Beit Zecharia.  There, they were surprised by Lysias.  Judah’s brother, Elazar Avaran, seeking to become famous, attacked the largest elephant, mistakenly assuming it carried the king.  He killed the elephant and its riders and the elephant fell on Elazar crushing him to death.  The town of Elazar south of Jerusalem is named for him and is located in the approximate place of the battle itself.

elazar avaran death elephant - 15th century
Death of Elazar Avaran, 15th century monastic drawing – note that the artist obviously never saw an elephant

The shock of the loss of one of Judah’s brothers sent the remaining Jewish troops scurrying into the hills.  With the path open, the Greek troops turned to try to wrest the Temple Mount from Judah Maccabeus’ faithful Jews guarding it.

Just at that fateful moment, the focus zooms out to the larger Greek political scene with Philip, a contender to Antiochus’ throne, returning to Antioch.  In order to protect his status in the royal court, Lysias wants to leave Judea but he realizes that he must not leave this situation without some closure.  He makes a pact with the Jews that they should be able to “live by their [Jewish] laws as they did before”. I Maccabees 6:59  This was more than acceptable to the Jews as the denial of their Jewish expression had been one of the main causes for the war in the first place.

In a style reminiscent of Pharaoh’s going back on his word to Moses, Lysias changes his mind when he realizes how powerful the Jews are, and orders his troops to breach the fortifications around the Temple Mount.

The massive high which came as a result of re-dedicating the Temple after the 4th battle, the Battle of Beit Tzur, is dashed to the ground by the defeat in the Battle of Beit Zecharia, the death of Elazar, and the threat that the Temple will once again fall into Hellenist hands.

When we light Hanukkah candles, we focus on the light, on the good.  But in the Hanukkah story and in life, the light, the victory can only be fully appreciated if we also understand the failure and the loss.

The fifth day of Hanukkah is the anniversary of my father’s death.  Roger Arner Erskine 1935-2015.  May his memory be for a blessing.

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