An archaeologist has recently discovered a rare ancient mosaic of biblical Samson inside a synagogue in the Galilee.
Excavations in a late Roman era synagogue at Huqoq in Israel’s eastern lower Galilee have uncovered a new mosaic depicting the biblical hero and judge, Samson. Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has been conducting archaeological excavations at Huqoq since 2011, notes that while scenes from the Bible are not uncommon in ancient synagogues, mosaics featuring Samson are. In the summer of 2012, excavations in the Huqoq synagogue brought to light a scene depicting Samson and the foxes (Judges 15:4). This summer, another section of the mosaic floor was discovered which shows Samson carrying the gate of Gaza (Judges 16:1-3).
Wadi Hamam is the only other ancient synagogue in Israel which has a mosaic with a scene of Samson, while outside of Israel only one ancient building in Turkey which may be a synagogue has a Samson mosaic. However, the Samson mosaics are not the only unusual aspect about the excavations at Huqoq. Magness states, “In most ancient synagogues in Israel with a decorated floor featuring figured designs such as people and animals, the figured decoration is in the center of the synagogue and the aisles have geometric patterns.” However, at Huqoq, there are mosaics with figured scenes in the aisles.”
Magness noted that mosaics of Samson depict him as a giant figure, even though Samson was not described as such in the Tanakh. However, Magness referenced that some rabbinic literature describes Samson as a giant. Depicting Samson as a giant accords with traditions that considered Samson as a redeemer of the Jewish people. Adjacent to Samson carrying the gate of Gaza on his shoulders are riders with horses, who apparently represent Philistines. According to Magness, “In the Bible, they have chariots; they are not riding horses. In later Aramaic translations (Targumim), there are descriptions of Philistines riding horses. It is a reflection again of something that doesn’t occur in the biblical account, but in later traditions.”
DEMISE OF THE HUQOQ JEWISH COMMUNITY
Magness is unsure how the Huqoq synagogue met its demise. Within the synagogue archaeologists found a pile of stones mixed with ash which it is speculated was left from looters. Above the synagogue, a medieval structure was built. There are no signs that the synagogue suffered a violent or sudden destruction. Although the synagogue was built in the 5th century, Huqoq is mentioned in the Tanakh in connection with the settlement of the tribes of Asher and Naphtali, and it was a Jewish village in the late Second Temple period and in the time of the Mishna and Talmud. Medieval Jewish geographer Ishtori Haparchi (1280-1355) mentions a synagogue in Huqoq in his time, perhaps referring to the medieval building above the late Roman synagogue.
By Rachel Avraham, staff writer for United with Israel