Deborah and Jael in Full Color

New Mosaics from the Huqoq Synagogue

The Israelite commander Barak depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic of Deborah and Jael. Photo by Jim Haberman.

The fifth-century CE Huqoq synagogue, excavated in the village of Huqoq in the Lower Galilee, is renowned for its impressive mosaics of various biblical scenes. Recently, the repertoire of the Huqoq mosaics grew yet again, when archaeologists revealed impressive panels depicting Deborah and Jael (also spelled Yael), the heroines of Judges 4–5. Predating the next earliest depictions of these figures by about a thousand years, these mosaic panels reflect the importance of biblical women leaders in the first few centuries of the Common Era. We are treated to a close examination of these new mosaics in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, in Karen Britt and Ra‘anan Boustan’s article “Warrior Women.”

The biblical record offers two accounts of the episode involving Deborah and Jael: a prose narrative in Judges 4, followed by a poetic rendering in Judges 5. The poem is the older of the two accounts, and constitutes one of the oldest pieces of literature in the biblical corpus. There are incongruities between the two versions of the story, but in essence they present the same tale. The version in Judges 4 begins with the oppression of the Israelites by Jabin, king of Hazor, and his general, Sisera. Deborah, a prophet and judge, summons a man named Barak and directs him to lead an uprising against Sisera’s army. Deborah and Barak proceed together to Mt. Tabor with a group of Israelites, where, with God’s help, they win a great victory over the Canaanite force.

At this point, the story turns to Jael and Sisera. Sisera flees the battle at Mt. Tabor, and finds himself passing near the camp of Heber, Jael’s husband. Jael invites him into her tent, promising rest and comfort. But once he falls asleep, she kills him by driving a tent peg through his head. For this, she is lauded as a great hero for the Israelite cause.

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The Huqoq mosaics hew most closely to the narrative account in Judges 4, as opposed to the poetic rendering in the following chapter. In total, remnants of three distinct panels or registers are visible, the contents of which suggest that they be “read” in a sequential, narrative fashion that closely parallels the biblical text. The first panel depicts Deborah and Barak. Deborah is seated beneath a date palm, as described in Judges 4:5, while Barak approaches her for counsel (pictured above; see Judges 4:6–9). Very little is preserved of the second register, but what is visible indicates that it shows a figure seated and relaxing; this appears to represent Sisera in Jael’s tent (Judges 4:18–20). Jael and Sisera occupy the third register, which shows the climactic moment: Jael stands over her reclining victim, tent peg driven into his head, which bleeds profusely (compare Judges 4:21).

Britt and Boustan write that “the image of a commanding Israelite woman seated beneath a palm on the eve of battle would have been particularly potent” for visitors to the Huqoq synagogue. In response to some of the anti-Judean imagery produced by the Romans in the years following the First Jewish Revolt (66–73 CE), including the Iudaea capta coins that depicted a woman seated in mourning beneath a palm tree, this portrayal of Deborah as a stately and wise leader may have resonated powerfully and subversively.

Minted during the reign of Emperor Vespasian to commemorate the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, this coin depicts Judea as a mourning woman and bound male captive, both shown beneath a palm tree.
Image by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The gruesome scene in the final mosaic panel is equally evocative. Britt and Boustan write that Sisera is presented as a gigantic figure compared to the diminutive Jael, “perhaps reminiscent of Goliath in contemporary representations of his famous defeat at the hands of David.” Sisera’s equipment lies strewn around him: he wears a sheathed sword and grips a spear shaft, and his helmet and shield rest near him on the ground.

Britt and Boustan write that against the backdrop of prevailing rabbinic tradition, which had a “pronounced tendency to undermine the authority and stature of Deborah and to impugn the character and motivations of Yael,” the decision to include Deborah and Jael in the mosaics at the Huqoq synagogue would have represented a significant point of tension with the discomfort that some contemporary Jews may have felt about the elevation of these women leaders. These women’s stories—and their depiction in the Huqoq mosaics—raise complicated questions regarding the intersection of gender, power, and violence.

For a deeper dive into the Huqoq mosaics, and the depictions of Deborah and Jael specifically, read Karen Britt and Ra‘anan Boustan’s article “Warrior Women: Deborah and Yael Found at Huqoq,” published in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Subscribers: Read the full article “Warrior Women: Deborah and Yael Found at Huqoq” by Karen Britt and Ra‘anan Boustan in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Further Reading in Bible History Daily:

The Huqoq Synagogue Mosaics

Huqoq 2015: New Mosaics Unearthed at Huqoq Synagogue

Deborah in the Bible

Deborah the Judge Identified in Huqoq Mosaics

Hazor Excavations’ Amnon Ben-Tor Reveals Who Conquered Biblical Canaanites

The Ancient People of Tel Hazor

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