Oldest Images of Wildly Misunderstood Biblical Heroines Found

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Jim Haberman
Jim Haberman

Archeologists recently announced the discovery of previously unseen mosaics on the floor of an ancient synagogue in Huqoq, Israel. The discovery is important, not only because the mosaics themselves are so striking, but also because they contain the earliest known images of biblical heroines Deborah and Jael in ancient Jewish art. These women appear in the biblical book of Judges, where they play pivotal roles in the military success of Israel. Recent biblical scholarship suggests that these women have been wildly misunderstood.

The excavations into the late fourth-early fifth century synagogue, which are in their tenth season, have been progressively uncovering the remarkable mosaic that adorned the floor of the structure. This season’s excavations focused on the southwest portion of the building. The archeologists, led by Jodi Magness the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, have previously discovered mosaics showing Samson, Alexander the Great, Jonah and the large fish, the parting of the Red Sea, the construction of the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, and a Zodiac cycle.

The newly discovered floor mosaic shows an episode from Judges 4, in which the Israelite forces are led to (eventual) victory over the Canaanite army by Deborah, a prophetess and one of the Judges for which the book is named, and Barak, an Israelite military commander. According to the story, Deborah summons Barak and tells him that God plans for him to meet the Canaanite’s in battle. Barak accepts God’s call, put only on the condition that Deborah accompany him. Deborah agrees, but prophesies that it will be a woman, and not Barak, who will defeat the Canaanite general Sisera. After the battle, the Canaanite general Sisera sought refuge in the tent of Jael (or Yael), a Kenite woman who was married but whose husband is absent from the story. Sisera did not find it: after inviting him into her tent, Jael killed him by hammering a tent peg through his temple as he slept.

Though the mosaics are fragmentary, the story is "told" in three registers (horizontal strips of mosaic) on the floor. The uppermost register shows Deborah, under a palm tree (Judges 4:4), looking at Barak, who holds a shield. In the Bible this is an uncomfortable scene. Dr. Karen Britt, of Northwest Missouri State University, and Dr. Ra‘anan Boustan, of Princeton University the historians producing the official publications and initial interpretations of the mosaics, told The Daily Beast that the top register “beautifully [captures] this tense encounter” (Judges 4:5). The middle register is damaged, but may show Sisera seated. The final, lowest register shows Sisera’s bleeding on the ground as Jael drives the stake into his head.

Britt and Boustan told me that the sequence parallels another set of panels in the southeast portion of the synagogue, which shows scenes from the Samson cycle (Judges 13-16). Essentially the two sets of stories from Judges mirror one another on the synagogue floor. “This kind of contrapuntal symmetry between thematically related panels” they said “is characteristic of the Huqoq mosaics.” Whoever was involved in conceptualizing and making the mosaics produced a thoughtful and richly complex artistic program.

While there’s no single theme dominating the mosaic program, Britt and Boustan said that one element of the new mosaics that “fits with others in the synagogue” is the “explicitly violent” nature of the lower register. “In the case of the Deborah narrative,” they said, “the violence is committed against the Canaanites, a ‘foreign’ enemy of the people of Israel.” In a recent publication on this subject, Britt and Boustan discussed the fact that, “many of the mosaics in the synagogue seem to reflect an interest on the part of the synagogue community in the long history of foreign threats faced by the Israelite or Jewish people—and their ultimate victory over these enemies (implicitly or explicitly with the aid of their God).”

The discovery is sure to be of interest to biblical scholars, who have been discussing the violent nature of these stories for some time. In assessing these women, we have to read between the lines. Dr. Rhiannon Graybill, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis and the author of several important books on gender and sexual violence, told me, “It’s easy to portray Jael as a femme fatale or to slot her into the ‘women who kill’ plot,” but it’s more complicated than that. Sisera the general, comes in from war having killed many people already. Jael is vulnerable. She is married but her husband is nowhere to be seen. Sisera, said Graybill, “is probably a rapist — both because rape is common in warfare, and because his mother says he is late to return home because he is out capturing women.” The language Sisera’s mother uses, says Graybill, is a more “vulgar term, something like ‘wombs,’ which makes clear these women are intended for sexual abuse.”

When Jael invites Sisera into her tent she is at risk and we fear the worst for her, but then in a shocking reversal she stabs him to death with a remarkably phallic object. If you saw that coming, it’s only because Deborah tipped you off. It’s a subversion of the more typical stories of sexual violence we encounter in the Bible. The story, said Graybill, “resembles a horror film.”

For readers of the story in Hebrew, other elements are also startling. Jael, said Graybill, is a “highly unusual biblical heroine.” The text identifies her as a “wife,” but she has no husband. Moreover, she has a masculine name and Sisera addresses her using a masculine pronoun. Some scholars, like Dr. Deryn Guest, an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham, UK, and the author of When Deborah Met Jael: Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics, have suggested that Jael is a queer, trans, or nonbinary character. “Jael,” writes Guest, “is a figure who unsettles and destabilizes… Jael’s gender is not-man/not-woman.”

Whatever else we can imagine about their relationship and genders, writes Guest in the Queer Bible Commentary, the story is typical of the way women are represented in the Bible. The two have been deliberately kept separate to suppress the “excess of anxiety” about the powerful “results that can accrue when two women act in harness with each other.” In other words, the narrators of the Bible “suppress the reality of female intimate friendship” to promote the more conventional idea of women as wives, mothers, and competitors with one another. Ultimately, said Graybill, “the story fails the Bechdel Test,” but it was disquieting to later readers.

However we interpret the biblical narrative, it’s intriguing that the Huqoq mosaic decided to celebrate female heroism alongside panels that celebrate the military valor of men. Britt and Boustan noted that inclusion of Deborah and Jael is “highly significant” in light of the fact that (roughly contemporaneous) rabbinic sources “were by and large uncomfortable with the figure of Deborah as a prophet and leader and sometimes undercut her status and authority.” In including Deborah perhaps those responsible for the mosaics were bucking a trend? It’s too soon to draw conclusions. Britt and Boustan cautioned that “we are still a long way from understanding what this contrast between the Deborah panel and the rabbinic textual tradition can tell us about the religious profile of the Huqoq community.”

What we can and should recognize, they told me, is how much the Huqoq mosaics “challenge and enrich what we thought we knew about Jewish visual culture in late antiquity and about late ancient Jews and Judaism more generally. We should be humbled by how much new discoveries can change our knowledge and understanding of the past.”

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