Ancient mosaics of biblical heroines found in lower Galilee

These are the earliest known depictions of Jael and Deborah, in the Book of Judges, to have been discovered.

 The biblical scene of Jael and Sisera by ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI (Illustrative). (photo credit: Lluís Ribes Mateu/Flickr)
The biblical scene of Jael and Sisera by ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI (Illustrative).
(photo credit: Lluís Ribes Mateu/Flickr)

Ancient mosaics dating back nearly 1,600 years have been unearthed in the Lower Galilee, with some of the latest findings being the first-known depictions of the biblical heroines Deborah and Jael, as announced by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The findings were made in a 14th-century Mameluke synagogue in the ancient village of Huqoq as part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Huqoq Excavation Project and led by Prof. Jodi Magness.

The project itself is an ongoing initiative in the area, currently in its 10th season after having a brief hiatus due to COVID-19. The ninth season was back in 2019.

“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.”

Prof. Jodi Magness

Deborah and Jael: Biblical heroines

The characters of Deborah and Jael both feature in the Book of Judges chapter 4. 

As the story recounts, this was a time period when a Canaanite King Jabin had sent his general Sisera to conquer the Land of Israel.

 Jael shows Barak the dead body of Sisera, as told in the Book of Judges (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Jael shows Barak the dead body of Sisera, as told in the Book of Judges (Illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

However, at the time there was a woman, Deborah, who acted as a judge — essentially a leadership figure. She was a prophetess, famously associated with being underneath palm trees as she worked, and who helped military leader Barak raise an army, composed of the Israelite tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon, to defeat Sisera in battle.

However, Sisera would flee the battlefield rather than be captured by the Israelite forces. He instead went to the tent of Hever the Kenite for refuge. Hever was not there but his wife Jael was. 

There, Jael supposedly fed him until he fell asleep, after which she took a hammer and drove a tent peg into his skull, killing him.

It is these two scenes, Deborah under a palm tree with a battle-ready Barak and Jael driving the tent peg into Sisera's head that is preserved in these mosaics.

The mosaics found on the floor of an ancient synagogue are divided into three registers (three horizontal stripes). One depicts Deborah and Barak. The middle, which isn't fully preserved, seems to show Sisera sitting. The last shows Sisera dead, blood coming out of his head after Jael killed him.

“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,” Magness said in a statement. 

“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.”

Previous finds

These are not the first biblical scenes found in Huqoq. In addition to this, they also found scenes of Samson, the spies sent by Moses to explore Canaan, Noah's Ark, the splitting of the Red Sea, the Tower of Bable and many more.

But research is still ongoing, with more excavations set to begin in the summer of 2023.

Marcy Oster/JTA contributed to this report.