BYU team discovers first known images of Jewish heroines in former synagogue

PROVO, Utah — Brigham Young University professors and students digging up an ancient synagogue near the Sea of ​​Galilee have made an exciting discovery; as they cleaned dirt from a mosaic section of the floor, they saw images of biblical heroines Deborah and Jael, the first time these women were seen in ancient Jewish art.

For more than a decade, BYU has joined a consortium of universities excavating the synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq in Israel, with this summer’s project focusing on the mosaic floor, which dates from the late 4th to beginning of the 5th century AD.

On the panels depicting these women are depicted Deborah seated under a palm tree, giving instructions to the Israelite general Barak to lead her people into battle, and Jael leading a tent peg through the temple of Sisera, eliminating the Canaanite general to aid Israel in defeat their enemy. of the Book of Judges in the Bible.

Other floor mosaics also feature biblical themes, such as Samson delivering Israel from the Philistines, Noah’s Ark, and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.

“It’s about a Jewish community apparently looking back on biblical episodes in which the God of Israel showed his power to deliver Israel from slavery,” Gray added.

“It may be that as a minority group in the Byzantine Empire, they wanted to remember these episodes of their past to harbor the hope that in the future God would deliver them again from what they perceived as a foreign occupation.”

These finds are particularly unexpected, according to the BYU team, because art depicting biblical figures is relatively rare in synagogues during this period, which scholars believe may be due to interpretations of the second commandment prohibiting “engraved images”.

A “cultural fusion” of Roman and Greek mythology was also depicted in the artistic styles featured in the mosaic scenes, which shows “a fascinating diversity within the Jewish community of the time” according to Gray.

Work on the site is being led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which shares BYU’s enthusiasm for the discovery.

“There’s nothing quite like waking up at 4 a.m., putting on a wide-brimmed hat and hiking boots, and walking in darkness to the dig site as the sun sets. rising over the Sea of ​​Galilee,” said Isaac Richards, a communications student at BYU.

“It’s one thing to visit ancient sites in the Holy Land, but it’s another to unearth a place that will become a national historic site. It was truly a physical, intellectual, spiritual and historical adventure of gigantic proportions.

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