Teeming With Riddles, Israel's Most Beautiful Mosaic Reveals Ancient Liberal Judaism

The artwork covers the entire floor of a synagogue’s sanctuary, and every year, as each new section is unearthed, new figures and biblical scenes are being discovered

Mosaic depicting Jonah being swallowed by a fish, Huqoq synagogue.
Jim Haberman

For seven years now, archaeologists have been gradually exposing the mosaic floor of a synagogue in Huqoq in the lower Galilee. Each new excavation season reveals another bit of Israel’s richest and most beautiful floor.

Still, questions remain about the identity of the community that built this synagogue. And this year, the riddle has gotten even more puzzling. The latest dig reveals scenes from the mysterious prophecies of the prophet Daniel and a little-known episode from the Book of Exodus.

Since 2011, the Huqoq synagogue has been excavated by a group from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, headed by Prof. Jodi Magness, assisted by Shua Kisilevitz. During the second season, portions of an exceptional mosaic were discovered in the floor. 

The synagogue was built in the early fifth century, apparently when the local Jewish community was at its height. Mosaics have been found in other Galilee synagogues from the same era, including the ones in Tzippori, Beit Alfa and Hamat Tiberias. But it soon became clear that the mosaic in Huqoq was exceptional.

A mosaic depicting a fish swallowing an Egyptian soldier at the Red Sea, in Huqoq.
Jim Haberman

First, it contains a wealth of human figures. Whereas in the other mosaics humans are rare – usually found only at the center of the montage if at all – at Huqoq they’re everywhere. The mosaic covers the entire floor of the sanctuary, and every year, as each new section is unearthed, new figures and biblical scenes have been discovered.

One panel shows Samson carrying the gates of Gaza on his back, as well as the scene of Samson and the foxes with burning torches on their tails. Another panel depicts the construction of the Tower of Babel, with ancient building techniques depicted in unusual detail. Noah’s Ark is shown at the moment the animals enter it, with pairs of donkeys, elephants, bears, camels and lions, to name just some.  

Some of the scenes are depicted a bit differently from the stories familiar to modern Jews. For instance, the parting of the Red Sea shows Pharaoh’s soldiers – who are dressed like Roman soldiers – being attacked by giant fish. The story of the prophet Jonah, rather than showing him being swallowed by a single fish, shows three fish, each devouring the other, with the last fish swallowing Jonah.

And that isn’t even the strangest thing about the Jonah segment. In the water above Jonah, the mosaic shows the tempest-tossed ship. But the storm is represented by three harpies – naked women with tails and wings, which are familiar from Greek and Roman art. Moreover, the fact that one of the sailors is pointing at them indicates that they are not just harpies, but also sirens, who in Greek mythology can lure ships with their singing.

Mosaic showing Samson carrying the gate of Gaza, from the Huqoq excavations, directed by Jodi Magness.
Jim Haberman

One mysterious section of the mosaic shows a meeting between two men. One seems to be a Greek army commander accompanied by soldiers and war elephants. The other looks like a Jewish priest; he is accompanied by men in tunics carrying swords.

Magness believes this is meant to depict the legendary meeting between Alexander the Great and the high priest during Alexander’s journey to the east. But other scholars think this is a scene from the wars of the Maccabees. And unlike the other panels, this one has no inscription that would help interpret the picture.

As at other synagogues in the Galilee, the Huqoq mosaic also has a zodiac wheel with the sun god, Helios, at its center.

One panel uncovered during last year’s excavation shows a boy leading an animal with a rope, and the caption leaves no room for doubt. “And a little child shall lead them,” it says, quoting the final section of the famous line from Isaiah’s prophecy that begins: “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.”

More panels were uncovered this year, including one divided into four squares. The figure in the first one hasn’t survived, but the caption above it leaves no doubt about what it showed. The Aramaic line from the Book of Daniel (which was written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew) reads: “The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings.” That’s a description of the first beast from Daniel’s prophecy of the four beasts, which are metaphors for the four kingdoms that will rule the world until the end of days.

A mosaic in the eastern aisle of the Huqoq synagogue.
Jim Haberman

The second beast is a bear “with three ribs in its mouth between its teeth,” which is depicted in the mosaic. The third, a leopard with “four wings of a fowl,” also hasn’t survived. But the fourth and most mysterious – which has been called the first description of a monster from science fiction – did survive. Daniel describes it as “dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly,” with “great iron teeth.”

Unfortunately, Magness’ team refuses to release photographs of the new panels before they are published in academic journals, so as to maintain copyright on the initial interpretation of the findings. But in another few months, the latest pictures will be published.

Still, a photo of another section of the mosaic uncovered this year has been released for publication. That scene shows men high up in the branches of date palms; they are harvesting the fruit and lowering it to the ground via something like a zip line. In the background is a row of wells, a large city and a man carrying a jug of water.

Magness admitted that without the caption, she would have had trouble identifying this scene. It’s a small episode from the Book of Exodus, when the Children of Israel were wandering in the desert. They arrived at a place with bitter water, and Moses performed a miracle to sweeten it. They then came to a place called Elim, “where were twelve springs of water, and three score and ten palm trees; and they encamped there by the waters.” 

A surviving portion of that verse pointed the researchers to the description of Elim. But for some reason, the mosaic maker decided to depict this small desert locale as a large fortified city.

Magness and the other researchers have no explanation for why the mosaic contains such an unusual collection of scenes, including biblical events, historical events and spiritual symbols like the zodiac wheel. It seems inexplicably eclectic. 

It begins with foundational events in the Bible – Noah’s Ark, the exodus from Egypt, the Tower of Babel. Then it moves on to things that were important to Christians, like the Jonah story and Daniel’s vision. And then there are the esoteric bits, like the depiction of Elim.

“We still can’t provide an answer about whether there’s something that unifies all this,” Magness said. “Even if we think we have an answer, we’ll never know for sure because we’ll never know what the people who created this thought.” And that describes the limits of archaeological research in a nutshell.

Still, she pointed out a number of recurring motifs – fish swallowing people, a lot of scenes of water, seas and sailors, and anticipation of the end of days.

The site is not open to the public, and the mosaics have been removed for conservation and the excavated areas have been backfilled.

Asked about what seems like the synagogue builders’ liberalism, as reflected in the figures of Greek gods and naked women, Magness said the problem lies with neither the synagogue builders nor us. Rather, it’s that over time, the narrative of Jewish history has erased Jewish groups with different beliefs who were active in the Land of Israel in those days. 

“The problem is that if we want to learn about this period, all we have is the rabbinic literature,” she said. “We don’t have Josephus or other people who wrote.” And though the rabbis of the Talmudic era left a lot of literature, “it’s all from their point of view. It’s a little like writing the history of Israel from the standpoint of the ultra-Orthodox.” 

Archaeology uncovers remnants of groups that weren’t necessarily part of the rabbis’ circles, she explained. 

“These people were part of a much larger world. Take, for instance, the harpy-sirens. Anyone who lived in that world and thought about how a storm at sea looks thought of harpies. Anyone who imagined what the sun looked like thought about a man who rides in his chariot every morning,” she said. 

“If you were Greek or Roman, you thought he was a god. Jews didn’t think that, but that’s how they described the sun to themselves. This shouldn’t surprise us.”