Earliest Known Images of Two Biblical Heroines Unearthed in Israel

Found in an ancient synagogue, the 1,600-year-old mosaics tell the stories of Deborah and Jael

The Israelite commander Barak depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic
The Israelite commander Barak depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic Photo by Jim Haberman

In the Old Testament’s Book of Judges, two women—Deborah and Jael—help defeat the Canaanite general Sisera. Now, archaeologists in Israel’s Lower Galilee have unearthed 1,600-year-old mosaics depicting their stories, according to a statement from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Led by archaeologist Jodi Magness, the team discovered the ancient art in Huqoq, at the site of a Jewish synagogue built between the fourth and fifth centuries.

“This is extremely rare,” Magness tells Religion News Service’s Kathryn Post. “I don’t know of any other ancient depictions of these heroines.”

The biblical stories portrayed in the mosaics begin when Deborah summons the leader Barak to fight the Canaanites. Barak and his army succeed, defeating all of the Caaanites but Sisera, who flees the scene to escape being captured by Israelite forces. He seeks refuge in the tent of Jael. She feeds him until he falls asleep; then, she picks up a hammer and drives a tent peg into his head, killing him.

The mosaics are divided into three parts, per the statement. The uppermost part depicts Deborah under a palm tree, gazing at the warrior Barak. The next image, only partially preserved, displays Sisera seated, while the lowest section shows Sisera bleeding on the ground with Jael above him. In addition to the mosaic, the floor also revealed a Hebrew inscription inside a wreath, along with images of four animals eating grapes.

The work is part of the Huquq Excavation Project, which is now in its 10th season. The team first discovered mosaics at this site in 2012, and apart from pandemic-related disruptions, they have returned every summer since, according to the statement. 

Elsewhere in the ancient synagogue, other mosaics depict scenes from the Book of Judges, Magness tells Religion News Service. Because existing rabbinic literature from the time doesn’t describe the designs inside synagogues, the archaeological record is critical. 

“The value of our discoveries, 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,” Magness adds. “It shows that there was a very rich and diverse range of views among Jews.”

Over the years, the researchers have unearthed mosaics of Moses’ spies exploring Canaan, a depiction of Noah’s Ark, and the parting of the Red Sea, among others. The team also found an image of Alexander the Great, which they say is “the first non-biblical story ever found decorating an ancient synagogue.”

While the mosaics have been removed from the site, excavations are scheduled to continue next summer.  

Fox eating grapes mosaic in Huqoq synagogue mosaic
Fox eating grapes mosaic in Huqoq synagogue mosaic Photo by Jim Haberman

The Huquq Excavation Project is in its 10th season after recent seasons were paused due to COVID-19. Located in Israel’s Galilee, the team first discovered mosaics in 2012, and have continued to expose the synagogue’s main hall and aisles. National Geographic reports that each action to uncover the finds must be meticulously recorded. Data is then entered into a computer database via iPad, which can then assemble a visualization in three dimensions.

The mosaics “have been removed from the site for conservation, and the excavated areas have been backfilled,” states the press release. Further excavations are scheduled to continue in summer 2023.