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Earliest depictions of biblical Deborah, Yael found at 5th-century Galilee synagogue

Mosaic uncovered by archeologists digging at the Huqoq site depicts Book of Judges story featuring the two heroines defeating the Canaanite commander Sisera

The Israelite commander Barak depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic. (Jim Haberman)
The Israelite commander Barak depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic. (Jim Haberman)

Archeologists working at a dig in the Galilean town of Huqoq have uncovered the earliest known depictions of the biblical heroines Deborah and Yael, in mosaics that are thought to be nearly 1,600 years old.

The find, announced by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Prof. Jodi Magness on Tuesday, joins a growing collection of ancient mosaics discovered over the past decade at the site of a former synagogue in the Lower Galilee.

Magness, a professor of religious studies at the university, has overseen a team of students and archeologists excavating the area for more than 10 years. Excavations at the site restarted earlier this year after they were halted for close to three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mosaics depict the biblical story in the Book of Judges when the prophetess Deborah told the Israelite military leader Barak to mobilize the troops of Naftali and Zevulun to fight against Canaan, whose forces were led by Sisera. Barak said he would only go to battle if Deborah joined him, and Deborah in turn prophesied that a woman would defeat Sisera’s army. Sisera, fleeing flooding, sought refuge in the tent of Yael, who drove a tent peg through his head, killing him.

“This is the first depiction of this episode and the first time we’ve seen a depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Yael in ancient Jewish art,” Magness said in a statement from the university. “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 Naftali and Zevulun.”

According to the university, the three-part mosaic shows Deborah looking at Barak in the first portion; Sisera seated in the middle section, of which only a small portion is preserved; and Sisera lying dead on the ground after Yael killed him in the bottom section. UNC-Chapel Hill only released photos showing Barak depicted in the mosaic; it is unclear how well preserved the images of the two women are.

Mosaic depicting a fox eating grapes in the ancient synagogue at Huqoq in the Lower Galilee. (Jim Haberman)

The team working at the ancient synagogue, which was built in the late fourth-early fifth century CE, also uncovered a mosaic depicting vases holding sprouting vines with four animals eating clusters of grapes: a hare, a fox, a leopard and a wild boar.

All of the newest mosaics have been removed from the site for conservation, the university said.

The latest discovery joins a long line of ancient mosaic depictions uncovered at the Huqoq synagogue site. In 2019, before the project was frozen due to COVID, archeologists uncovered mosaics of the earliest known artistic rendering of the little-known Exodus story of Elim, and a partially preserved depiction of the Book of Daniel’s grotesque four beasts, which signal the end of time.

In 2018, the mosaics unearthed at the late Roman-era synagogue included images of the biblical story of the Israelite spies in Canaan. A year earlier, the earliest known mosaic of Jonah and the whale was uncovered, and in 2016, mosaic floors showing the iconic scenes of Noah’s Ark and the parting of the Red Sea were revealed.

UNC-Chapel Hill participants on the Huqoq dig, including Prof. Jodi Magness (back row, second from left). (Jim Haberman)

Previous Huqoq excavations have led Magness to revise previously held conceptions of the practice of Judaism in the Byzantine era.

“The mosaics decorating the floor of the Huqoq synagogue revolutionize our understanding of Judaism in this period,” said Magness in a 2018 press release. “Ancient Jewish art is often thought to be aniconic, or lacking images. But these mosaics, colorful and filled with figured scenes, attest to a rich visual culture as well as to the dynamism and diversity of Judaism in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.”

In 2011, the relatively untouched and well-preserved Byzantine synagogue was discovered under the rubble of the modern Arab village of Yakuk that stood at the site until intentionally torched in 1948. Magness and her team began work there in 2012, and returned each summer until the COVID pandemic forced them to cancel for 2020 and 2021.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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