Mosaics discovered in ancient synagogue depict biblical heroines

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

Mosaics discovered in ancient synagogue depict biblical heroines

The earliest known depiction of biblical heroines Jael and Deborah was discovered at an ancient synagogue in Israel, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced July 5.

A rendering of one figure driving a stake through the head of a military general was the initial clue that led the team to identify the figures, according to project director Jodi Magness.

“This is extremely rare,” Magness, an archaeologist and religion professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said. “I don’t know of any other ancient depictions of these heroines.”

The nearly 1,600-year-old mosaics were uncovered by a team of students and specialists as part of the Huqoq Excavation Project, which resumed its 10th season of excavations this summer at a synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq in Lower Galilee.

The project team unearthed a part of the synagogue’s floor decorated with a large mosaic panel that is divided into three horizontal strips called registers. The mosaic depicts the account from Judges 4 of the victory of the Israelite forces led by the prophetess and judge Deborah and the military commander Barak over the Canaanite army led by the general Sisera.


The Bible relates that after the battle Sisera took refuge in the tent of a Kenite woman named Jael (Yael) who killed him by driving a tent stake through his temple as he slept.

The uppermost register of the newly discovered Huqoq mosaic shows Deborah under a palm tree gazing at Barak, who is equipped with a shield. Only a small part of the middle register, which appears to show Sisera seated, is preserved.

The lowest register depicts Sisera lying deceased on the ground, bleeding from the head as Jael hammers a tent stake through his temple.

‘Special resonance’

“Looking at Joshua 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,” Magness said.

Mosaics were first discovered at the site in 2012, and Magness said the synagogue, which dates to the late fourth or early fifth century, is “unusually large and richly decorated.”

In addition to its extensive, relatively well-preserved mosaics, the site is adorned with wall paintings and carved architecture.

Other mosaics discovered at the site depict two of the spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes (Num. 13:23), the parting of the Red Sea, Noah’s ark, Jonah and the building of the Tower of Babel. (RNS, UNC News)