Wednesday, December 2, 2009

From Promise to Redemption

In the early 1990s, Mom took us kids with her when she volunteered for the summer at the Sepphoris dig. Sepphoris was a large town just north of Nazareth and during New Testament times was the capital of the Galilee and one of the wealthiest, busiest centers of the north. One of the ways of gauging how prosperous the town was is the large amount of high quality mosaics found in the town.
Mosaics were an expensive affair. First, the right kinds of stone had to be found, then broken down into tiny pieces and shaped into squares. This, naturally, was a laborious process.
The pieces then had to be glued to the floor or wall according to the pattern. It took a good eye and an active imagination in order to design the pattern, if more than mere geometrical designs.
One of the most interesting mosaics discovered in Sepphoris was that of the synagogue floor. In a far more sophisticated form, it resembled a subject matter in synagogue mosaics found elswhere in the Galilee. It dates to the Byzantine period, between the 5th or 6th centuries.
The archaeologists at the site dubbed it From Promise to Redemption.
Lets see why.
The bottom panel, most of which, sadly, did not survive, depicts the angels promising Sarah a child, which represents the promise given to Abraham that he would be a great nation. The next two panels are of the Akedah- Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac(technically, however, akedah means the binding). The only part that has been preserved in any detail is a depiction of the two servants and the ass. Valuable pictorial data, of course, but one dearly wishes that we could have seen how they pictured Abraham (in priestly vestments, no doubt).
The Akedah- a central theme in Jewish thought- provides the ultimate example of faith and obedience, the two concepts being inseperable in Judaism.
The middle panel depicts the four seasons (as four maidens), the zodiac and the chariot of the sun. These represent life, but also fate.
Hellenistic astrology exerted a great influence on Jews in general and the sages in particular. It held that the course of one's life was already known, and that through studying the signs and the stars and natal charts derived from them, could be foreseen and predicted. The term horoscope, in fact is a Greek term meaning hour marker.
This science (ths it was considered then) was immensely popular among all strata of society. The sages, like the true philosophers that they were, found it fascinating, but made some changes to fit in with their worldview. Whilst the course of a man's life was predetermined, it could be lengthened or shortened according to the choices he makes. One's life is in one's own hands. Rabbinical literature has many accounts of the sages interacting with astrologers, the latter making predictions of sudden death, the former foiling them by their piety.
In Midrash Tanhuma, an early collection of midrashic material (a midrash is an excursus on a scriptural or theological theme) there is an interesting midrash on the zodiac, contained within the chapter dealing with Deuteronomy 32.

A man is like the twelve mazalot (signs of the zodiac). When he is first born he is like the lamb, but grows in might as the bull (or ox) does. When he grows up he becomes twins, that is complete, and the evil urge grows within him. At first he is as weak as a crab, but later, as he grows, becomes mighty like the lion. And if he sins he becomes as the virgin, and if he continues to sin, is weighed in the balance (the scales). If he holds fast in his rebellion he is brought down to the lowermost Sheol (Hell), Sheol and Gehennom, as a scorpion is flung to the ground and to the deep ditches. And if he returns (that is, repents) he is shot out [of Sheol] as an arrow from the bow...
Immediately he becomes soft and clean as a baby goat, and is purified as in the hour of his birth, and is washed with pure water from a bucket, and increases in happiness as a fish is happy in water, thus he immerses himself at all times in rivers of balsam, and in milk and oil and honey, and eats of the fruit of the tree of life.

Midrash Tanhuma, Haazinu A.

The upper panels depict temple worship, sacrifice and offerings.
The second-to-last panel shows the door into the temple, flanked by symbols of Israel- the menorah, the citron, the lulav (palm leaves) and the shofar, or ram's horn. Not only are these symbols religious, they are also symbols of sovereignity.
In the uppermost panel are two lions flanking a wreath. I'm going to speculate that the wreath represents God, and the lions his power, or by extension, his messengers. They each hold a decapitated bull's head, a symbol of power and triumph. They also appear to be on some sort of cloud.
What the mosaic to me seems to represent is that the fulfilment of a promise is based on our own actions.
Granted, these interpretations are but one possibility of many, and we may never know for sure what was the original intent of those who designed the sepphoris synagogue mosaic.

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