Samson Follows the Sun to Galilee

Local archaeologists have unearthed some seemingly out-of-place depictions of the sun god Helios in the mosaic floors of ancient synagogues. Can this be attributed to a link between the pagan god, the biblical hero Samson, and Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land?

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In the winter of 1929, a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem headed by Eleazar Lipa Sukenik unearthed the ancient synagogue in Beit Alfa, with its mosaic floor. The discovery of the mosaic caused great excitement among the Jewish populace of the Land of Israel and something of a sensation among experts, Jewish studies scholars in particular, which still reverberates.

The mosaic consists of three panels of unequal size. The southern panel, which faces Jerusalem, features an image of the Holy Ark, and the northern panel, near the entrance, depicts the sacrifice of Isaac. Between them, in the four corners of the square central panel that accounts for approximately half of the mosaic, are pictures of four women representing the "periods," the four seasons of the year. The panel is dominated by a large zodiac wheel whose center, which is also the geometric center of the synagogue, depicts a figure identified as Helios, the Greek sun god, riding on a chariot harnessed to four horses. It was he who stirred up the storm.

The discovery of the pagan god in the center of the synagogue floor revealed a deep, unexpected gap between the common perception of the Jewish community in the ancient Land of Israel as a community that conducted itself in accordance with Talmudic law and the reality apparently revealed on the synagogue floor at the margins of the Jewish population center in Galilee. More than 30 years later, another wheel of the zodiac was found with the pagan god at its center. This time it was not on the outskirts of the Jewish center of Galilee but rather right in its capital: Hamat Tiberias, a suburb of that city, near the study houses where the Jerusalem Talmud was being formulated at the very time of the mosaic’s creation.

After yet another 30 years, a third mosaic was discovered, this time at Zippori. Here, the image of the pagan god in the center of the wheel was replaced by a picture of a sun riding in a chariot harnessed to four horses. This seemed to be an abstraction of the visual image in the other two synagogues of the sun god and his chariots pulling the wheel of time. The supposedly pagan image, representational or abstract, appeared then in the two most important urban centers of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel at that time, Tiberias and Zippori.

The appearance of the sun god in the Galilean synagogues gave rise to a rich harvest of studies aimed at dealing with the gap between the image created by the literary sources and what was reflected on the synagogue floors. The main avenues of research since the question arose may be summed up like this: The depictions are indicative of the existence of a non-rabbinical trend in Judaism, not based on the teachings of the sages, which existed along with the Galilean houses of study, during the period when the Talmudic writings were being redacted. Thus, the researchers tried to reconcile and incorporate the apparently alien world of the newly discovered images with that of the study houses and the sages.

Within this fascinating struggle, part of which was also an expression of the researchers’ own cultural stances, one fact clearly implied by the mosaics was forgotten: the centrality of the sun in the religious and cultural world of the Galilean Jews, whatever the origins of its visual representation might be. It emerges from the mosaics and from other visual representations common in the Jewish art of Galilee, but also no less from literary texts, both homiletic and visionary, that the sun held a central position in the religious world of Galilean Jews as an image of the divine experience or some part of it.

What the mosaic floors are saying is first and foremost that God, or some aspect of God, is symbolized in Galilee and the surrounding area by the sun, and this is exactly what the image drawn at the center of the synagogue is conveying.

Why choose Samson?

Just a few months ago, at an archaeological excavation near Lake Kinneret, in the ruins of the village of Yaquq, the Talmudic Huqoq, a synagogue floor was discovered; next to the inscription of a blessing, there is a picture of two pairs of foxes with their tails tied together, holding a burning torch. Alongside the pairs of foxes, parts of a figure are intact, the dimensions of which left no room for doubt: The artist’s intention was to depict a giant, a hero. The meaning of the image was also unmistakable. It depicted the story in the Book of Judges 15:4-5: "And Samson went and caught 300 foxes, and took torches, and turned tail to tail, and put a torch in the midst between every two tails. And when he set the torches on fire, he let them go into the standing corn of the Philistines, and burnt up both the shocks and the standing corn, and also the oliveyards."

Archaeologists Prof. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina and Dr. David Amit of the Israel Antiquities Authority (one of the authors of this article), reported the discovery of the mosaic a few days after it was unearthed. But though the news aroused interest both in the media and among the general public, it has not kindled any debate among the researchers who in the past so heatedly discussed the cultural world of the Galilean Jews, the community that integrated the image of the sun god into the heart of its synagogues’ mosaic floors. Apparently they saw no connection between that and the new finding. Indeed, what is the uniqueness of yet another biblical scene on the floor of a synagogue in the Galilee?

In fact, we suggest taking the content of the mosaic and its significance a bit more seriously both its depiction of the Samson story and its location, which doesn’t conform to the expected. It is worth asking why, in fact, the farmers of Huqoq during the Talmudic period chose the somewhat problematic figure of Samson to adorn the mosaic of their new synagogue. Had the sacrifice of Isaac the scene chosen by the worshipers at Beit Alfa to decorate their place of prayer lost its charm? And what about other foundational scenes: the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the law, the crossing of the Jordan, the building of the Temple? And where is David playing his harp? And in fact, what is Samson doing in the Galilee at all? His place is in Judea, between Tzora and Eshtaol, among the vineyards of Timnath.

And yet, it turns out that the Samson mosaic in Huqoq is not alone. In excavations conducted a few years ago at another Galilee synagogue, in a thus far unidentified Jewish village in Wadi Hamam at the foot of the Arbel cliff, on the boundary of the Ginosar Valley, a mosaic was found with a scene in which the figure of a large hero appears, with two much smaller soldiers lying beside him, their heads bleeding. The hero’s hand is outstretched toward the heads of three more soldiers, who remain standing.

After suggesting a number of alternatives, Dr. Uzi Leibner, the dig’s lead archaeologist, proposed identifying the giant as Samson smiting the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass: "And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and smote a thousand men therewith" (Judges 15:15) This identification has now been confirmed by the discovery of the synagogue floor at nearby Huqoq. Now that the figure of Samson has been found in two nearly contemporaneous synagogues in close proximity, each with a distinct scene whose interpretation is difficult to doubt, it seems that the ancient hero’s appearance in the region is not a matter of chance. Nor must its significance be narrowed down only to the places archaeologists have found it so far.

It appears that the figure of Samson should be viewed as part of the local culture of Galilee, whether as a whole or in part. So what led the inhabitants of the villages of the lower Galilee, at the foot of the Arbel and a bit north of there, in Huqoq and perhaps in other places waiting to be discovered to put a portrait of Samson in their synagogue, the community’s central building, despite the ostensible inappropriateness of the biblical story. To get to the bottom of this, we must try to interpret the place of Samson and similar figures in the Jewish culture of Galilee in the first centuries of the Common Era and try to understand the thinking of those who placed him in such a key position.

We start with the basic assumption that the artistic representations appearing in an environment of this sort, at that time and under those circumstances, are a direct, simple, unmediated expression of the cultural world of those who made them that is, of the beliefs and opinions held by those who placed these images in their synagogues. A second assumption is that depictions integrated into the floor of a synagogue are chapters, usually central ones, in a constitutive story of the immediate environment; thus, the viewer was supposed to identify them easily and attribute them to that story. The image symbolizes one tradition within a cluster of interdependent traditions, and the cluster as a whole is ultimately the overarching local tradition, the foundation story of the Galilee Jewish community, the constitutive story of their environment.

Local hero

The figures of Samson at Huqoq and Wadi Hamam therefore represent a single local tradition shared by all the inhabitants of the surrounding area, a tradition that in various ways, which are currently unknown, connects Samson to the place to Galilee or to a specific location within it, which we cannot yet identity. The Samson tradition in Galilee is, therefore, a Galilean interpretation of the biblical story of Samson.

Hence this is an opportunity to learn about the ways in which the Jews of Galilee internalized the biblical story, which of course is not simply history, an event that happened at some time in the past, a supposedly objective recounting from one part of the country or another.

The biblical story is an identity. It interprets the experience, the reality of which is a "meaning." Its heroes are allegories or symbols, and they are constitutive of a myth that by definition is timeless and bound to no specific place. As such, it conducts a close dialogue with the Midrash with the mythical element of the interpretive genre whose foundations were being laid at that very time and in that very place, and that has since then been a foundation of Jewish culture. The way in which the story is interpreted is a kind of midrash, a homily of place.

The adoption of the biblical character and its relocation to another place did not entail detaching the figure from its geographical context. Just as they transferred the character, they also relocated its setting. They read their own setting as though it were that described in the particular chapter of the Bible, in this case Samson’s surroundings, as though "Timnath is here." In their understanding, Samson was exactly where he was supposed to be. Here is where he acted and these are his landscapes.

When the inhabitants of Huqoq identified the story of Samson in the environment where they were living, they did not ask where the things "truly" happened. That was their truth. The story had indeed happened to them and in their place, had become a part of their experience and was interpreted by the environment in which they lived. From their perspective, the synagogue mosaic is located in the very arena of the events it describes. Therefore Samson became a local hero, present in his rightful place. The Samson story is thus metaphorically and physically set off to the side, not in the central part of the synagogue. Perhaps that location reflects the relative weight of one tradition vis-a-vis other local traditions, such as that centering around Joshua and the entry into the land.

When the remains of the Huqoq synagogue mosaic are uncovered in full, we will likely know more about the status of the story in the overall tradition of Galilee. The transfer of Samson to Galilee is therefore a mythical reading of the Scriptures, a placement of the biblical story in the Galileans’ own experience. This is the act of myth. Thus the Scriptures were given a local reading by the inhabitants of the Galilee. Therefore the graves of the tribes become identified with the Arbel, the Sea of Galilee becomes the Jordan River the Children of Israel crossed and in it reposes Miriam’s well, which marks the border between the wilderness and the fertile land. In this way the Galilean terrain on the western side of the Jordan was shaped as the essence of the Land of Israel experience in the eyes of its inhabitants.

The mystery of Joshua’s tomb

In this way, too, the grave of Joshua, the conqueror and settler of the land, was identified as overlooking the Arbel Valley. Joshua is the primary hero of the myth, of the constitutive story with which we are dealing. Hundreds of years later, Petahya of Regensburg, a 12th-century pilgrim, cites the early Galilean tradition thus: "And a very high volcano ... and far from it Nitai Ha’arbeli in the Arbel ... and in the middle of the mountain Joshua Bin Nun is buried."

Joshua’s burial is mentioned twice in the Bible, at the end of the Book of Joshua and again at the beginning of the Book of Judges. It’s the same description, word for word, with one exception. The name of the place where he is buried in Judges is Timnath-heres, whereas in Joshua the consonants are reversed: Timnath-serah, and with good reason. Whoever reversed the letters knew very well what he was doing and why he did so. However, the first part of the place name, Timnath, is the same in both formulations. The identification of Joshua’s grave in the Galilee, in the Arbel Valley, means the identification of Timnath in that same place, in the very area of the two early synagogues that located the figure of another biblical hero in its midst, the figure of Samson.

And thus the mythical-geographical space in which Samson acted was created. And thus Timnath, Joshua’s Galilean Timnath-heres, becomes the same Timnath where Samson carried out one of his most famous acts of heroism: "Then went Samson down, and his father and his mother, to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done" (Judges 14:5-6). Here the figure of Joshua in Timnath comes close to the figure of Samson. They almost became one. Heres is a synonym of the more common Hebrew word shemesh and means "sun," as in Job 9:7: "Which commandeth the sun, and it riseth not." Thus Timnath-heres is Timnath-sun.

And the sun stood still

The character of Joshua is connected to the sun not in his burial but rather in his life, in his cry "Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon" (Joshua 10:12) and the results of stopping the sun in its course: " ... the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord harkened unto the voice of a man" (Joshua 10:13-14). This event granted Joshua a divine dimension, the only man whose bidding God did.
Hence Joshua was interpreted as someone who controlled the sun, and centuries later his power had not diminished. "After all, at his hand the sun stood still," writes Ben Sira and it is not hard to see a certain resemblance between those words, penned at the end of the third century B.C.E, and the figure depicted by the artist at Hamat Tiberias at the turn of the third century C.E. And indeed in the Galilean images of Joshua, in those aspects concerning the sun, there is something of the character of that same sun god. Of Timnath-heres, in the Arbel Valley, apparently Timnath-sun, a late Midrash says the following: "It is called Timnath-heres because they put a picture of the sun on his grave, to say: ‘The one who made the sun stand still.’" Thus the meaning of Timnath-heres is tmunat-heres a picture [tmuna] of the sun, the place where literally a picture of the sun was positioned.

Most probably out of the expectation that this local tradition would be questioned, other homilies already make a conscious connection between Samson’s Timnath and Joshua’s Timnath-heres and conflate them, and thereby also conflate Joshua and Samson themselves. Thus these two suns are found to be intertwined, Joshua who controls the sun and Samson in whose name the sun shines (Samson in Hebrew is Shimshon, derived from shemesh, sun).

The two mosaic images of Samson bookend the Arbel Valley. If indeed the mythical figure of him is connected to Galilean culture, then it, like the figure of Joshua, is connected mainly to the area of the Arbel Valley, at Timnath-heres, the site of Joshua’s burial "with a picture of the sun on his grave." Thus Joshua and Samson embody different mythical aspects of the image of the sun. To a certain extent, both of them are different degrees of anthropomorphization of the sun and manifest a central motif in the religious world of Galilean Jews, which has not yet been accorded the attention it merits.

Instead of past researchers’ prevailing view of a dichotomy between the world of the sages and the world of those who worshiped in the Galilean synagogues that have been excavated, we propose viewing the Galilean experience described here, from Beit Alfa to Huqoq, as different interpretations of a single ancient religious idea. Perhaps it is an experience that began in a myth being interpreted in different ways while preserving the strands connecting it to its roots, encompassing the entire spectrum between the world of the synagogue, with its pictures, and the world of the study house, with its sages and a people present in both of those worlds.

Samson striking the Philistines in an early third century C.E. mosaic in a synagogue in Wadi Hamam.Credit: Courtesy of G. Laron, Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology