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archaeology

Galilee excavations find first mosaics of biblical heroines Deborah, Jael

Other panels discovered depict Samson from the book of Judges, Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea and Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish

Mosaics uncovered the Huqoq synagogue in the Galilee: (Left) The Israelite commander Barak, (Right:) A fox eating grapes. (Photos: Jim Haberman via UNC)

A team of archaeologists at an excavation site in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq in the Lower Galilee are the first to find depictions of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael. 

A team of specialists and students led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness, excavated the mosaics, which are believed to be nearly 1,600 years old. 

The team has been working on the excavation project of an ancient Jewish synagogue, known as the Huqoq Excavation Project, since 2011. The project was paused for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and was only recently taken up again.

The uncovered mosaics portray the story of Deborah the prophetess who went up to war against the Canaanite armies alongside Barak, as written in the book of Judges. Together, they defeated the armies of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin. 

Barak had said he would only go to battle if Deborah joined him, and Deborah had prophesied in turn that a woman would defeat Sisera’s army. When facing defeat at the hand of the Israelites, the Canaanite commander would flee the battle and hide in the tent of a Jewish woman named Jael (Yael in Hebrew), who would kill him by hitting a tent peg into his head. 

“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,” Magness said

“Looking at the book of Joshua, chapter 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 Zebulun,” she said.

The newly-found mosaics are in three sections; the first shows Deborah looking at Barak, the second shows a seated Sisera and the third shows Sisera lying on the ground after Jael has killed him.  

According to the website of the Huqoq Excavation Project, the findings “have been bringing to light a monumental, Late Roman [early fifth century A.D.] synagogue paved with stunning mosaics depicting a variety of biblical scenes and the first non-biblical story ever discovered decorating an ancient synagogue.” 

Among the newly-found mosaics was a fragmentary Hebrew inscription inside a wreath flanked by panels. The panels feature two vases that hold sprouting vines in the shape of medallions; these frame four animals that are eating clusters of grapes—a hare, a fox, a leopard and a wild boar. 

The archaeological revealing of the ancient Jewish synagogue has extracted a large variety of findings over the years. 

The excavations have brought the synagogue’s aisles and main hall into view. Other panels discovered depict Samson from the book of Judges, Noah’s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah being swallowed by three successive fish, the building of the Tower of Babel and animals identified as the four beasts representing the four kingdoms in the book of Daniel.

“The synagogue just keeps producing mosaics that there’s just nothing like and is enriching our understanding of the Judaism of the period,” said Magness in 2018, following the finding of a depiction of the 12 spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan. In the mosaic, the spies carry a pole bearing a cluster of grapes, an image in the book of Numbers, which is also used in the logo of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

“Every village has its own synagogue,” Magness said at the time. “In Huqoq, there’s a feeling that the villagers said, ‘We’re going to build the biggest and best.’ It’s as if they decided to throw everything into it.”

Read more: ARCHAEOLOGY

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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