Biblical-era mosaic found in the Galilee

“We’ve uncovered the first depiction of the episode of [the ancient city of] Elim ever found in ancient Jewish art,” said Dr. Jodi Magness of UNC-Chapel Hill.

By Joseph Wolkin

Dr. Jodi Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at UNC-Chapel Hill, has made a stunning discovery. This time, Magness and her group of excavators have found a 1,600-year-old biblical mosaic right in the heart of the Galilee.

The mosaic, she believes, is the first to explain the city of Elim, which is featured in the Book of Exodus 15:27, stating, “They came to Elim, and there were twelve water fountains and seventy palms, and they encamped there by the water.”

“We’ve uncovered the first depiction of the episode of Elim ever found in ancient Jewish art,” Magness said in a UNC press release. “The mosaic is divided into three horizontal strips, or registers. We see clusters of dates being harvested by male agricultural workers wearing loincloths, who are sliding the dates down ropes held by other men.

“The middle register shows a row of wells alternating with date palms. On the left side of the panel, a man in a short tunic is carrying a water jar and entering the arched gate of a city flanked by crenellated towers. An inscription above the gate reads, ‘And they came to Elim.’”

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This wasn’t the only recent discovery made by Magness’ group, which spends several weeks each summer researching the fifth century CE Jewish community of Huqoq in the lower Galilee and the artists who depicted biblical stories.

“Chapter 7 in the book of Daniel describes four beasts, which represent the four kingdoms leading up to the end of days,” she explained. “This year, our team discovered mosaics in the synagogue’s north aisle depicting these four beasts, as indicated by a fragmentary Aramaic inscription referring to the first beast: a lion with eagle’s wings.

“The lion itself is not preserved, nor is the third beast,” Magness said. “However, the second beast from Daniel 7:4 – a bear with three ribs protruding from its mouth – is preserved. So is most of the fourth beast, which is described in Daniel 7:7 as having iron teeth.”

Shua Kisilevitz, assistant director of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University, assisted Magness in her work, along with students from UNC.