Earliest depiction of biblical judge in ancient Jewish art
Excavations at the site of Huqoq in northern Israel continue to amaze with the discovery of the earliest known depiction of Deborah the Judge. Uncovered by a team led by archaeologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the depiction forms part of a three-part section of the expansive Huqoq synagogue mosaic. The section depicts the victory of the Israelites over the Canaanite general Sisera (Judges 4), in which the Kenite woman Jael kills Sisera by driving a tent peg through his head.
The Huqoq mosaic, which covers the entire floor of an ancient Galilean synagogue, dates to the late fourth or early fifth century C.E. Since their discovery, these mosaics have revealed many firsts in the history of ancient Jewish art, including the earliest non-biblical scene in synagogue art. The newly discovered scenes, however, have provided archaeologists with the only known depiction of Deborah the Judge as well as Jael, the story’s Kenite hero. While women were occasionally depicted in synagogue mosaics, depictions of biblical stories with female heroes like Deborah and Jael are very rare.
The scenes consist of three horizontal registers, which make up the narrative story of Judges 4. The upper register depicts Deborah the Judge under a palm tree, gazing at the Israelite general Barak, who is equipped with a shield. The middle register shows Sisera, the Canaanite general. The final register depicts Sisera lying on the ground, bleeding from his head, as Jael hammers a tent peg through his temple. “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 Zebulon,” said Jodi Magness, director of the Huqoq Excavation Project.
The Huqoq mosaic depicts several other scenes from the Book of Judges, including Samson and the foxes (Judges 15:4) and Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders (Judges 16:3). It is not yet clear if there is an intended relationship between the scenes of Deborah the Judge and those of Samson.
Another newly uncovered section of the Huqoq mosaic features a fragmentary dedicatory inscription (in Hebrew) written inside a wreath, flanked by elongated panels. The panels show two vases that hold sprouting vines. The vines form medallions that frame four animals—a hare, a fox, a leopard, and a wild boar—eating bunches of grapes.
With the discovery of scenes that tell the story of Deborah and Jael, the Huqoq mosaics continue to offer unprecedented views into the themes and motifs of early Jewish art. Due to their incredible preservation and diverse content, the Huqoq mosaics were named one of National Geographic’s “100 Archaeological Treasures of the Past.” The mosaics include vivid depictions of several famous biblical stories, including the Tower of Babel, Jonah and the Fish, Samson and the foxes, Noah’s ark, the Exodus, and the four beasts from the apocalyptic vision in Daniel 7. Also featured are scenes that originate from stories and traditions outside the Bible, including a depiction of the aftermath of a battle involving elephants, and an image of the Helios-zodiac cycle.
During the Byzantine period (324–634 C.E.), Huqoq, like many villages in the Galilee, was large and prosperous. Its impressive synagogue was built in the late fourth century but was in use for only a short time before being completely abandoned. In the 14th century, the synagogue was rebuilt and expanded, perhaps in connection with the rise of a tradition that the Tomb of Habakkuk was located nearby. “The 14th-century C.E. building appears to be the first Mamluk period synagogue ever discovered in Israel, making it no less important than the earlier building,” said Magness.
Ed. Note: Jodi Magness is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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