Two ancient depictions of female heroes in the Bible have been found by a BYU professor and seven students in an ancient synagogue near the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.

A BYU release said these are believed to be the first known depictions of the women.

Since 2011, BYU students and faculty have traveled to excavate the synagogue in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq. These students and faculty joined different universities led by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to excavate the site, and this summer their work yielded amazing results.

As the students brushed away dirt from the synagogue floor, they found an odd image in the mosaic tiles. After uncovering the tile from the late fourth to early fifth century A.D., they found the mosaic depicted the Bible heroine Jael and the prophetess Deborah.

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BYU News reported that the mosaic was found in the southwest corner of the building to the left of the entrance. The mosaic depicted Deborah sitting under a palm tree, giving guidance to the Israelite general Barak before leading her people into battle.

Below that part of the mosaic, the tile depicts Jael driving a tent stake through the Canaanite general to help Israel defeat their enemy as told in Judges 4.

“We realized we were looking at the story of Jael pounding the stake through the head of Sisera the Canaanite,” BYU ancient scripture professor Matthew Grey said. “We brought out a phone and pulled up Judges 4 to read the story while we uncovered the scene.”

Experts are still in the beginning stages of analyzing the mosaics and their importance so their findings have not been published yet, according to BYU News.

“It’s a fascinating choice of scenes to depict, but this synagogue congregation clearly found significant meaning in the stories of Deborah and Jael,” Grey said.

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The mosaics aligned with other discoveries the team found as they’ve worked through the mosaic. They found depictions of Samson helping Israel escape from the Philistines, Noah’s Ark when the Earth was flooded and Pharaoh’s army drowning in the red sea.

“This is a Jewish community apparently looking back on biblical episodes in which the God of Israel showed his power to deliver Israel from bondage. It may be that as a minority group in the Byzantine Empire, they wanted to remember those episodes in their past to nurture hope that in the future, God would again deliver them from what they perceived as foreign occupation,” Grey said.

The seven students who participated in the project developed archaeological skills and experienced learning opportunities through the excavation.

“Every day we were unearthing what had been forgotten so long ago,” BYU archaeology student Lea Schade said. “Someday people will be reading about Huqoq and visiting the site as tourists.”

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BYU communications student Isaac Richards said that one of the amazing aspects of the project was helping uncover a part of Israel that will become a tourist spot.

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“It’s one thing to visit ancient sites in the Holy Land, but it is another thing to dig up a place that will become a national historic site. It really was a physical, intellectual, spiritual and historical adventure of gigantic proportions,” Richards said.

This discovery comes nearly 10 years after Grey and a graduate student discovered a mosaic in the same Jewish village which depicted the biblical story of Samson in an act of retribution against the Philistines that is told in Judges 15. Despite the years separating the discoveries, Richards said there isn’t an experience that can compare to his summer in the Holy Land.

“There is nothing like waking up at 4 a.m., putting on a wide-brimmed hat and hiking boots, and marching through the darkness to the excavation site as the sun rises over the Sea of Galilee,” Richards said.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported the mosaic was from the fourth or fifth century B.C. instead of A.D.

BYU communications student Isaac Richards helps uncover mosaics while working on the Huqoq Excavation Project in June 2022 in Huqoq, a Jewish village by the Sea of Galilee. | Jim Haberman, University of North Carolina
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