Saturday, October 1, 2022

Earliest depictions of two biblical heroines uncovered in Israel

Ancient mosaics depicting the prophet and judge Deborah and the killing of the Canaanite general Sisera by Jael have been uncovered in Israel.

The mosaics, from the late Roman period, are the earliest known depictions of Deborah and Jael and among the earliest known depictions of any biblical heroines.

Huqoq is an ancient Jewish village about three miles west of Capernaum in Galilee. Since 2011, excavations led by Professor Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been uncovering a monumental early 5th century synagogue paved with fine mosaics. The 65ft x 50ft synagogue has a rectangular basilica layout with a central nave and aisles.

Jael killing Sisera, by James Tissot. Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This season, the team unearthed part of the synagogue’s floor decorated with a large mosaic panel divided into three horizontal strips. It depicts an episode from Judges 4: the victory of Israelite forces led by Deborah and the military commander Barak over a Canaanite army led by Sisera. The Bible relates that after the Canaanites’ defeat, Sisera took refuge in the tent of a woman named Jael, who killed him after telling him to “fear not”, covering him with a mantle and giving him milk to drink.

In the King James Version translation, Jael “took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.” Deborah had earlier prophesied that God would “sell Sisera into the hands of a woman”.

The uppermost strip of the mosaic shows Deborah under a palm tree, gazing at Barak, who is equipped with a shield. Only a small part of the middle section is preserved, which appears to show Sisera seated. The lower strip depicts Sisera lying dead on the ground, bleeding from the head as Jael hammers a peg through his temple.

“The richness of the synagogue sheds light on the diversity of Judaism in late antiquity”

Professor Jodi Magness

Magness said, “This is the first depiction of this episode and the first time we’ve seen a depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael in ancient Jewish art. Looking at Joshua 19, we can see how the story might have had special resonance for the Jewish community at Huqoq, as it is described as taking place in the same geographical region — the territory of the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon.”

Also among the newly discovered mosaics is a fragmentary Hebrew inscription inside a wreath, flanked by panels showing vases that hold sprouting vines. The vines form medallions that frame four animals eating clusters of grapes: a hare, a fox, a leopard and a wild boar.

Fox eating grapes, Huqoq synagogue. Photo: Jim Haberman

The archaeologists released images of Barak and of the fox eating grapes, but won’t share other pictures of the newly discovered mosaics until they have studied them further and published findings. Magness said that, while parts of the mosaic showing Judges 4 were missing, “we have most of the figure of Deborah and the palm tree; the top part of Barak; and pretty much all of Jael and Sisera.”

She added that, although depictions of figures such as Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Aaron, were not uncommon in ancient synagogues in the region, the new-found mosaics were among the earliest of any depictions of biblical heroines. “The only other examples with which I am familiar is a panel depicting the story of Esther, but not Esther herself, at Dura Europos [in Syria] – and, if you include it, Pharaoh’s daughter rescuing the baby Moses from the river in another painting in that same synagogue.”

Mosaics were first discovered at the Huqoq site in 2012, and work continued each summer until the Covid pandemic paused work after the dig in 2019. Mosaics exposed in the last ten active seasons include depictions of Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea and stories of Samson. One mosaic appears to depict the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest — the first non-biblical story found decorating an ancient synagogue — and another shows the zodiac cycle.

A figure that may depict Alexander the Great meeting the Jewish high priest, discovered at Huqoq in 2014. Photo: Jim Haberman

Magness said: “Until our excavations, relatively little was known about Huqoq’s Jewish community. It was a village, similar to other ancient Jewish villages in Lower Eastern Galilee. It appears that Huqoq was a larger and more prosperous village than anyone would have imagined, although we do not know the basis for its prosperity — presumably its economy was based on agriculture, fishing, and crafts, like other villages in the area.

“The richness of the synagogue, including the extensive mosaic programme, sheds light on the diversity of Judaism in late antiquity, as nearly all our information about Jews and Judaism in this period comes from the writings of a relatively small and elite group of men (rabbinic literature), and, to a lesser degree, the negative attacks of Church Fathers on Jews and hostile later Roman legislation.”

Excavations at the site are scheduled to continue next summer. Magness has stated in an interim excavation report that, before the 4th century, synagogues in Palestine were modest structures. She said the appearance of monumental synagogues such as that of Huqoq from the 4th century was a response to the rise of Christianity under emperor Constantine. “In other words, Jews began building monumental synagogues around the same time that Christians began building monumental churches.”

The synagogue was rebuilt and enlarged during the 14th century when the region was under the control of Muslim Mamluk rulers. “The 14th century building appears to be the first Mamluk period synagogue ever discovered in Israel, making it no less important than the earlier building,” Magness said.

A fish swallowing one of Pharaoh’s soldiers in the mosaic depicting the parting of the Red Sea, Huqoq, Israel. Photo: Jim Haberman

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