Unprecedented depictions of the biblical Jonah and the whale have been found at a fifth-century Roman synagogue in Israel’s lower Galilee. In the recently discovered mosaic, Jonah’s legs are shown dangling from the mouth of a large fish, which is being swallowed by a larger fish, which is being consumed by a third, even larger fish.
According to the team of specialists and students led by University of North Carolina, this is the first known depiction of the story of Jonah in an ancient synagogue in Israel.
This is the team’s seventh season at the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq. Beginning in 2012, a series of other prominent biblical scenes, including Noah’s ark and the splitting of the Red Sea, in which Pharaoh’s soldiers are swallowed by large fish similar to the fish swallowing Jonah in the mosaic uncovered this summer, were previously found at the archaeological dig.
In addition to the Roman synagogue, the site also houses remains of what is possibly a Medieval synagogue as well.
According to UNC Prof. Jodi Magness, “The Huqoq mosaics are unusually rich and diverse. In addition, they display variations on biblical stories which must represent oral traditions that circulated among the local Jewish population.”
“These scenes are very rare in ancient synagogues,” said Magness. The director of the excavations continued, “The only other examples that have been found are at Gerasa/Jerash in Jordan and Mopsuestia/Misis in Turkey, and at Khirbet Wadi Hamam in Israel and Dura Europos in Syria.”
The excavation is co-directed by Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority and sponsored by UNC-Chapel Hill, Baylor University, Brigham Young University, the University of Toronto and others. There are plans to continue work in 2018.
Among the other rich mosaic finds this season was a detailed scene of men at work constructing a stone tower, which the team hypothesizes is a depiction of the building of the Tower of Babel. Also, a mosaic medallion shows the Greco-Roman sun god Helios in a four-horse chariot. He is surrounded by personifications of the months, the signs of the zodiac, and personifications of the four seasons.
Other notable mosaic scenes found at the Huqoq site include the story of Samson and the foxes (Judges 15:4), which was found in the synagogue in 2012. In 2013, a nearby mosaic was found which depicts Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3).
Interestingly, the synagogue also housed a mosaic without a biblical tie. The 2013 and 2014 dig seasons uncovered what could be the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest.
“One of the distinguishing features of the Huqoq mosaics is the incorporation of numerous classical [Greco-Roman] elements such as putti, winged personifications of the seasons, and — in the Jonah scene — harpies [large birds with female heads and torsos] representing storm winds,” said Magness.
In addition to their artistic value, the mosaics are a window into the lifestyles and craft techniques used some 1,500 years ago.
“The mosaics also provide a great deal of information about ancient daily life, such as the construction techniques shown in the Tower of Babel scene uncovered this summer,” said Magness.