Giant fish and soldiers…oh my!

I see at least ten stories a week like this – the “just discovered at…” kind of archaeological announcement. I fell in love with the lure of the ancient long ago, starting my academic career as a history major and ending it with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies. This story was different, though. There, on my screen, was an image made of tiny little pieces of beautiful glass, an image like I had never seen before, with a headline that shouted “Earliest Mosaic of Jonah and the Whale Found in Galilee Synagogue (The Times of Israel, July 7, 2017). This is my kind of click-bait.
And so I read it, and shared it, and went on with whatever task I was procrastinating about that led me to social media as an avoidance strategy. But that image just wouldn’t go away

Horavat Huqoq is a small village along the sea of Galilee, not far from Magdala (yes, as in Mary Magdalene). Since 2010, an excavation led by a team from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, has worked to uncover the site. There, they found a 5th century CE synagogue in Roman style, decorated with columns. The crown of the discovery has been a series of mosaics, including an inscription of a prayer in Hebrew, portrayals of biblical stories, and a scene showing a ruler and his general meeting with the High Priest. Oh yes, and lots of pictures of elephants.
The picture in the article, however, is not the mosaic of Jonah, which has just been uncovered in 2017. The picture that grabbed my attention was, instead, a pictorial representation of an Egyptian soldier consumed by a giant fish as the waters of the Reed Sea returned to their normal level, after the Israelites had safely crossed out of Egypt.

I have long been taught that Judaism, along with Islam, did not allow the presence of pictorial art in the worship space because of the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Ex. 20:4).” As my own knowledge of Jewish art has grown, I have begun to question this teaching as yet another Christian oversimplification and realize that there is controversy over the interpretation of that commandment. The amazing mosaics found at

Hebrew Inscription from the Huqoq Synagogue Excavations, University of North-Carolina

Huqoq (alongside those already known from Dura-Europas and Gaza),and other examples we have of the art of illumination in the medieval period (such as the Sarajevo Haggadah) make me wonder if the commandment Moses offered to the people in the book of Deuteronomy might change the interpretation of that command.  After all, Moses also said:  “Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth (Dt 11:19-20 NRSV).” Mosaics like these made teachable moments for all who saw them (then, and now).

We forget that we live in a context blessed with wide-spread literacy, both blessed by it and plagued by its misdirection and misuse. In the 5th century at Huqoq, how many people who worshiped there were what we would call literate? Not so many, probably. Faith transmission has long depended on the storytellers and the artists as much as it has on the writers and the translators, also now as then. Without pictures of the parting of the Red Sea and Samson at the gates like we have in Huqoq, or the frescoes of the life of Jesus that we see in the Scrovegni Chapel of Padua and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise in Florence, how would our faith survive? Without those who took to heart the words of Moses – teach it to your children – and memorized every word of every story to share with all who would listen, where would we be?

Today’s state of low literacy in matters of faith and tradition take us right back to the desperate need of the culture that existed at the time of those mosaics in Huqoq. The world that we thought we knew is shifting and changing around us. The institutions that served us so well for so long are locked in a cycle of death and transfiguration. It is nearly impossible to know what is true and what is not in all that goes on around us – with one exception.

You know, when that artist so many years ago spent his (sorry, probably his) days piecing together picture after picture with tiny pieces of glass, he most likely did not say to himself, “I can’t wait to hear what those people in the 21st century will think when they find this!” He did not live in a world that looked so far down the path of time, and yet, here I sit, marveling at his handiwork and thinking about my obligation to continue to tell the story.

We have the stories, the stories of Moses, and Jonah, and Samson, and Jesus and Muhammed and Buda and so many more, stories that tell us what it means to be human, what it means to embodied, what it means to live in community. Tell them, my friends, however you can. Paint a picture, make a video, write a poem, weave a tapestry, sing a song – but tell them. Tell them as if your life depended on it, because it does.  Well, at least mine does.  You have to answer that question for yourself.

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