Biblical 'Spies' Revealed in 1,500-Year-Old Mosaic

An ancient depiction of Moses' scouts in Canaan has been discovered in an "unparalleled" house of worship in Israel.

Noah's ark, the splitting of the Red Sea, perhaps even a visit from Alexander the Great: Since 2012, these colorful scenes have slowly emerged as archaeologists excavate the elaborate mosaic floor of a 1,500-year-old synagogue in Israel's Lower Galilee region.

The latest scene-stealer? Moses' spies.

The mosaic scene, which depicts two men carrying a pole laden with grapes, was recently discovered during the ongoing investigations at Huqoq, the site of the synagogue excavation, according a release issued today by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. An inscription in Hebrew above the men reads “a pole between two”—a reference to the biblical passage Numbers 13:23.

In the Book of Numbers, Moses sends scouts up into the land of Canaan following the Exodus from Egypt. The spies returned with tales of an abundant land of milk and honey—with bunches of grapes so large they required two men to carry. Most of the scouts, however, were uncertain that they could conquer Canaan and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years as a result.

The “unparalleled” finds at Huqoq contradict the idea that Jewish settlements in Galilee suffered as the influence of Christianity grew in the region, says archaeologist Jodi Magness, director of the Huqoq excavations. Not only is the artwork in the synagogue of exceptional quality, but it also highlights a rich visual culture at a time when Jewish art is believed to have shunned images.

The Huqoq mosaics, which have been excavated with support from the National Geographic Society, even contain a nonbiblical scene that Magness believes represents a fabled visit to the region by Alexander the Great.

“This just enriches what we know about Judaism in late antiquity—how vibrant and dynamic and diverse it is,” she says.

While excavations at Huqoq will continue in 2019, Magness is reluctant to speculate what may be uncovered next: “I can't say what we expect to find, because everything we're finding is unexpected.”

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