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Archaeologists discover ancient mosaics depicting biblical heroines Jael and Deborah

by Tola Mbakwe
Jim Haberman - Banner image
Left: The Israelite commander Barak depicted in the Huqoq synagogue mosaic. Right: Fox eating grapes depicted in Huqoq synagogue mosaics. Photos by: Jim Haberman

A team of US archaeology specialists and students have found the first-known depictions of Jael and Deborah from the book of Judges.

The team, led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Jodi Magness, recently returned to Israel’s Lower Galilee to continue unearthing nearly 1,600-year-old mosaics in an ancient Jewish synagogue at Huqoq.

The Huqoq Excavation Project is now in its 10th season after recent seasons were paused due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, the project focused on the southwest part of the synagogue, which was built in the late fourth-early fifth century C.E.

In the synagogue’s floor, the team found a large mosaic panel that is divided into three horizontal strips. called registers. They depict a portion from the book of Judges 4 where prophetess and judge, Deborah, defeated the Canaanite army with Israelite general Barak. After the battle, Caananite commander Sisera found safety in the tent of a Kenite woman named Jael. The passage described her killing him by driving a tent stake through his temple as he slept.

The uppermost register of the mosaic shows Deborah under a palm tree, looking at Barak, who has a shield. Only a small part of the middle register is preserved, which appears to show Sisera siting down.  The lowest register depicts Sisera lying dead on the ground, bleeding from the head as Jael hammers a tent stake through his temple.

Magness said: “This is the first depiction of this episode and the first time we’ve seen a depiction of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael in ancient Jewish art.

“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.”

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