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Earliest known images of biblical heroines discovered in Israel


© Public domaine

Deborah par Gustave Doré.

Daniel Esparza - published on 07/19/22

An excavation team has unearthed the first known depictions of Deborah and Jael.

Mosaics that are nearly 1,600 years old have been unearthed in an ancient synagogue at Huqoq, in lower Galilee, Israel. Led by archaeologist Jodi Magness and assistant director Dennis Mizzi, the team of students and specialists worked for more than a decade in the dig, known as the Huqoq Excavation Project.

After an interruption of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, the Huqoq Excavation Project went back to the site for a tenth time. As they focused on the southwest part of the synagogue, believed to be built in the late 4th century AD, they discovered a large mosaic panel divided in three horizontal strips. Each strip tells a story from the biblical book of Judges.

The Christian Post describes the stories told in the mosaics, showing that they correspond to the fourth chapter of the book of Judges. In this chapter, the prophetess and judge Deborah leads the Israelite army against the Canaanites, led by general Sisera. According to the biblical text, Sisera ends up fleeing to the tent of Jael, who slays him in his sleep.

Part of the mosaic depicts Deborah under a palm tree gazing at the Israelite commander Barak, who is equipped with a shield. The lower strip includes an image of Sisera bleeding, lying on the ground.

Deborah is one of the five prophetesses in the Hebrew Bible and the only female judge mentioned in the Old Testament.

A portrait of Alexander

The Smithsonian Magazine explains that existing rabbinic literature from the time does not describe the designs and decorations that could be found inside synagogues. That is why this kind of archaeological finding is critical.  

In an interview with Religion News Service, Magness explained that “the value of archaeology is that it helps fill in the gaps in our information about, in this case, Jews and Judaism in this particular period […] It shows that there was a very rich and diverse range of views among Jews.”

In this dig, Huqoq Excavation Projectalso found an image of Alexander the Great. This finding would be the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue.

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