Two biblical scenes recently uncovered at a fifth-century synagogue
point to a preoccupation with the end of days, and perhaps a
By AMANDA BORSCHEL-DAN
Two new technicolor biblical mosaics were recently uncovered at a
1,600-year-old synagogue in the Galilean town of Huqoq, joining a
growing collection of art, announced UNC-Chapel Hill’s Prof. Jodi
Magness on Monday.
The newly unearthed mosaics include 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. Images of Daniel’s beasts have not yet
been released to the media, however, a detail from a mosaic depicting
the story of Elim was cleared for publication.
“We’ve uncovered the first depiction of the episode of Elim ever found
in ancient Jewish art,” said Magness.
The two new mosaics are part of a growing panoply of dazzling sacred
and secular art formed from tiny colorful stones or tesserae that have
been uncovered since 2012 by Magness, assistant director Shua
Kisilevitz, and a team of archaeologists and volunteers.
Until now, biblical scenes have included well-known stories: Jonah and
the whale, the construction of the Tower of Babel, the first spies in
Canaan, Noah’s ark, and Pharaoh’s soldiers being swept up in the Red
Sea and swallowed up by dozens of fish. Extra-biblical frames on the
synagogue floor include a myriad of secular themes, including a
zodiac, as well as a portrayal of what is arguably the first purely
historical scene in a synagogue.
And now, joining the greatest hits of biblical tales is a brief
narrative describing an oasis found at Elim, as described in Exodus
A subliminal tile message?
The story of Elim, largely overlooked in Jewish art until today,
occurs shortly after the Israelites fled Egypt, but prior to their
long wander in the desert. Elim is described as an oasis, with 12
springs of water and 70 date palms. After a short stay in Marah (a
place of bitter water made miraculously sweet), the Elim campsite
would have offered a welcome respite.
The mosaic discovered at Huqoq is divided into three horizontal
strips, or registers, said Magness.
“We see clusters of dates being harvested by male agricultural workers
wearing loincloths, who are sliding the dates down ropes held by other
men. The middle register shows a row of wells alternating with date
palms. On the left side of the panel, a man in a short tunic is
carrying a water jar and entering the arched gate of a city flanked by
crenellated towers,” she said.
The identification of Elim in the depiction is confirmed with an
inscription above the gate, which reads, “And they came to Elim.”
The Elim panel is interesting to Magness, as it is generally
considered a fairly minor episode in the Israelites’ desert wanderings
– which raises the question of why it was significant to this Jewish
congregation in Lower Galilee,” she said.
According to the biblical commentary of the French rabbinical scholar
Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105), who quoted earlier rabbinical
sources, the 12 springs of water correspond with the 12 tribes of
Israel and the 70 palms are the 70 elders.
As the synagogue is thought to have been constructed in the early
fifth century, could the mosaic, assembled in the fifth century, be a
subliminal message, harkening to the waning powers of the Great
Sanhedrin, disbanded by the Byzantine Empire in 425 CE?
Magness told The Times of Israel that she does not reject this
hypothesis, however, scholars Ra’anan Boustan and Karen Britt have yet
to fully research and publish their conclusions.
A beast of a mosaic
A second surprising mosaic was uncovered in the synagogue’s north
aisle, with panels depicting beasts that are described in chapter 7 of
the Book of Daniel. There, the Babylonian-captive prophet uses the
creatures to represent the four kingdoms leading up to the end of
days, explained Magness. The identification of the beasts was
confirmed through a fragmentary Aramaic inscription referring to the
first beast: a lion with eagle’s wings.
“The lion itself is not preserved, nor is the third beast,” she said.
“However, the second beast from Daniel 7:4 – a bear with three ribs
protruding from its mouth – is preserved. So is most of the fourth
beast, which is described in Daniel 7:7 as having iron teeth,” said
For Magness, the synagogue’s inclusion of the newly discovered panels
is thought-provoking, in terms of what they signified to the residents
of Huqoq during that era.
“The Daniel panel is interesting because it points to eschatological,
or end of day, expectations among this congregation,” she said.
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.”
An accidental treasure
Initially, Magness’s excavations of the fifth century synagogue in the
small ancient Galilee village of Huqoq were driven by a desire to put
to rest a decades-long debate among scholars surrounding the dating of
ancient Jewish houses of worship.
Huqoq mosaic depicting the parting of the Red Sea. (Jim Haberman)
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 put to fire in
1948. Magness explained in a previous interview with The Times of
Israel that her goal was to be able to excavate her own untouched
synagogue and methodically analyze the related artifacts to put the
site into a clear timeline.
“My hope was to find the building and date it according the
archaeological material,” she said. Magness chose to excavate Huqoq,
she wrote in a BASOR report, “to clarify the chronology of
Galilean-type synagogues, which she believes date to the 4th century
CE and later, and thus contemporary with Transitional- and
Within the first year, her team found ample evidence that dates the
site’s synagogue to the early 5th century, which was then confirmed
through carbon dating. The first mosaic was uncovered in the dig’s
second year and more have been found each year since.
According to Magness, in addition to the mosaics’ artistic worth and
beauty, they are a historical record of the concerns and hopes of the
Jews living in the Galilee 1,600 years ago.
“Our work sheds light on a period when our only written sources about
Judaism are rabbinic literature from the Jewish sages of this period
and references in early Christian literature. The full scope of
rabbinic literature is huge and diverse, but it represents the
viewpoint of the group of men who wrote it,” she said.
The work of other groups of Jews have been lost. The rabbis recorded
in literature were a “fairly elite” group, she said. Likewise, in the
quest to differentiate themselves from their Jewish roots, the
writings of early Christians are “generally hostile to Jews and
Judaism,” she said.
“So, archaeology fills this gap by shedding light on aspects of
Judaism between the fourth to sixth centuries CE – about which we
would know nothing otherwise. Our discoveries indicate Judaism
continued to be diverse and dynamic long after the destruction of the
second Jerusalem temple in 70 CE,” said Magness.
The archaeologist emphasized that all discovered mosaics have been
removed for preservation and the site is backfilled. She confirmed
that there is a scheduled excavation for the summer of 2020.