The Faith and the World

Ralph W. Klein, Christ Seminary--Seminex Professor of Old Testament and Editor of Currents in Theology and Mission

Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Philip Hefner, like his mentors Paul Tillich and Joseph Sittler, has built bridges of correlation and understanding between nature and grace and between religion and science. However crucial issues of revelation and salvation history are to our own faith, believers who would speak meaningfully in and to our age, at the beginning of the third Christian millennium, need to recognize and acknowledge that truth is also found in nature and in science. Religious practices and beliefs do not preclude a relationship to the universe and its truth, but these two belong together.

I would like to pursue this line of inquiry by looking into the history of ancient synagogues and their use of artistic symbolism, not only for what they embody about the correlation of Israel's history with the order of the cosmos, but also for the light they shed on what is known as the "genealogical vestibule" in the first nine chapters of the book of 1 Chronicles.

Zodiacs in Ancient Synagogues

It has long been considered a truism that ancient Israel was aniconic, that it did not make images of its God, let alone worship them, in obedience to what is known in Protestantism as the second commandment: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." (KJV) Aniconism would seem to rule out any depiction of a human form in a worship setting. But the myth of a totally consistent Jewish aniconism was shattered in the 20s and 30s of the last century when archaeologists excavated synagogues at Beth Alpha in Palestine and at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates River. The latter dated from the third century of the Common Era and was lavishly decorated with frescoes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Samuel, Elijah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Solomon. Already in the second century rabbis had debated whether all images were prohibited for Jews or just the worship of images. Despite all the rich treasures of Jewish art preserved at Dura-Europos, it is the use of the zodiac and of pictures of Helios the sun god in Palestinian synagogues of the fourth to sixth centuries, such as that of Beth Alpha, that will be the focus of our attention in this article.

The Zodiac at Beth Alpha

 

 

 

 

 

 

The synagogue at Beth Alpha, dated to the sixth century, was excavated by E. L. Sukenik and N. Avigad in 1929. It measures 46 by 92 feet, and its apse, at its southern end is oriented toward Jerusalem. The floor of the building is covered with mosaics, with those in the courtyard, aisles, and narthex being geometric in design. The nave of the synagogue, however, has three scenes. At the northern end is depicted the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham points a knife at Isaac, who is tied up near an altar. Behind Abraham stands a ram tied to a tree with a Hebrew inscription "Behold a ram." God's hand reaches out toward Abraham, adorned with the biblical quotation, "Do not lay [your hand on the boy]." To the left of this scene are Abraham's two servants and a donkey (Gen 22:5). Until the excavation at Beth Alpha, many art historians would have doubted that such human figures would appear in a synagogue or that the hand of God would be included in a synagogue floor where it could be stepped on. The sacrifice of Isaac itself, of course, is central to the identity of Jews and often considered the basis of God's everlasting relation to the Jewish people (Gen 22:16-18).

At the southern end of the synagogue floor at Beth Alpha is a mosaic depiction of a Torah ark, in which the Scriptures are kept in Jewish synagogues to this day. In the gable above the ark is an eternal light and seven-branched menorahs stand on each side. Palm branches, citrons, a shofar, and incense shovels--the paraphenalia of worship and festival--are arranged around the Torah shrine. At either end of the synagogue floor, therefore, are conventional pictures of Judaism: the Akedah (the Hebrew word for the "binding" [of Isaac]) and the Torah/Pentateuch/Law, the most sacred part of the Jewish canon.

Nestled between these two conventional symbols of the faith is a zodiac! Eleven of the twelve signs are almost perfectly preserved and the Hebrew names replace the Latin ones with which we are familiar. Instead of the bull Taurus, for example, there is rwv, instead of the virgin Virgo there is hlwtb, and instead of the archer Sagittarius (my sign) there is tvq, the word for "bow." In the center of the Beth Alpha zodiac is a young man riding in a chariot drawn by four horses. The young man is Helios, the sun god, putting night to flight. Hi head is surrounded by an orb of light, branching out into seven rays. Only a few stars remain in the sky; most have already fallen. The four seasons are depicted as winged busts of women at the corners of the zodiac.

What is this zodiac and its picture of Helios doing in a synagogue? Was it the prettiest pattern the local mosaicist had in his catalog? Was it an indication of the importance of time and the seasonal Jewish festivals? Were some Jews syncretists or even idolators? All of these suggestions have appeared in scholarly literature. No one knows the answer to the riddle of this use of the zodiac/Helios in a synagogue with any certainty. Though a number of rabbis were strongly opposed to the use of figural art, the synagogue was a popular institution over which the rabbis may have had limited control.

One thing is certain, however: this is no local aberration. Similar zodiacs have shown up at synagogues at Hammath Tiberias (on the shore of the Sea of Galilee), Naaran (near Jericho), Sepphoris (a bit north of Nazareth), En-Gedi (on the Dead Sea), Huseifa (on Mt. Carmel), and Susiya (twenty miles or so west of the Dead Sea). The synagogue at Hammath Tiberias, built in the fourth century, next to hot springs that still bubble out of the ground at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, is particularly impressive. Helios again appears in the center of the zodiac, this time giving a wave of his hand. In his hands are a globe and a scepter, both of which images were expressly forbidden in the Mishnah. The figure of Helios also appears in Christian and Greco-Roman artwork in the fourth century. The zodiac sign Libra is depicted as a naked--and uncircumcised!--little boy. Right next to the zodiac originally was again a Torah shrine, with menorahs, palm branches, and shofars. Some centuries later another synagogue was built on top of this one at Hammath Tiberias and an ugly black basalt wall now cuts through the beautifully executed zodiac.

The zodiacs at the synagogues of Sepphoris (5th to 7th century) and Naaran (5th-6th century) are similar, except that they were mutilated during the iconoclastic controversy that swept across Palestine in the seventh to ninth centuries. The Sepphoris synagogue was long and narrow (68 feet by 28 feet), with the zodiac in the center of the floor. To the east of the zodiac--this synagogue is not oriented toward Jerusalem--are fragmentary pictures, representing the visit of the three "men"/angels who appeared to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18) and the sacrifice of Isaac (both Abraham and Isaac have removed their shoes because they are standing on holy ground). The zodiac itself resembles those at Beth Alpha and Hammath Tiberias except that Helios is not pictured as a human being, but only as a sun disk and a chariot. Ten rays radiate from the sun, and the bottom one connects to the chariot, giving the impression that the sun is actually riding in the chariot. West of the zodiac are ritual objects related to the wilderness tabernacle and the daily sacrifices in the temple at Jerusalem. Zeev Weiss sees the Abraham scenes as connoting God's promise, the zodiac as a reminder to the viewer of the cyclical pattern of nature controlled by God's omnipotence, and the ritual objects as symbolizing the hope of redemption. He is as puzzled as the rest of us by the implicit reference to Helios. At Naaran, just north of Jericho, the signs of the zodiac and of Daniel in the lions' den are mutilated, as a result of the iconoclastic controversy, but not the images of the menorah and the Torah shrine.

The Synagogue Inscription at En-Gedi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The effects of this iconoclastic controversy may be seen in the final synagogue to be discussed, the one at En-Gedi, from the sixth century. It still records the names of the zodiac figures, but without any depicting of human forms let alone any reference at all to Helios. What it does contain is a long mosaic inscription that illustrates what may be implicit in a number of the other synagogues discussed so far and which is crucial to the argument of this article. The inscription reads as follows:

1. Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared,

2. Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

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3. Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo,

4. Libra, Scoprio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, and Aquarius, Pisces.

5. Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul,

6. Tishrei, Marheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat

7. and Adar. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Peace.

8. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Peace unto Israel.

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9. May they be remembered for good: Yose and Ezron and Hiziqiyu the sons of Hilfi.

10. Anyone causing a controversy between a man and his friend, or whoever

11. slanders his friend before the Gentiles, or whoever steals

12. the property of his friend, or whoever reveals the secret of the town

13. to the Gentiles--He whose eyes range through the whole earth

14. and who sees hidden things, he will set his face on that

15. man and on his seed and will uproot him from under the heavens.

16. And all the people said: Amen and Amen. Selah.

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17. Rabbi Yose the son of Hilfi, Hiziqiyu the son of Hilfi, may they be remembered for good,

18. for they did a great deal in the name of the Merciful One. Peace.

The first eight lines are written in Hebrew and the last ten in Aramaic. Single and double lines divide the inscription into sections, as indicated in the translation. We will first describe the content of this inscription and then attempt to interpret its significance.

The first two lines are a citation of 1 Chr 1:1-4 and are a list of the pre-flood patriarchs, from Adam to the sons of Noah. The Chronicler took this material from Gen 5:1-32, where it is presented in genealogical form, but changed it into a simple list of names. The reader has to infer the genealogical connections! The Chronicler did the same thing in 1 Chr 1:24-27, which is dependent on Gen 11:10-26. As a result of this practice of the Chronicler, we can see that the En-Gedi mosaic was quoting Chronicles and not Genesis.

Lines three and four are the names of the signs of the Zodiac, presented in our translation in their characteristic forms rather than in their Hebrew names as in the inscription.

Lines five, six, and the first word in seven are the names of the Hebrew months. Then come the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, followed by Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, the three friends of Daniel, who are better known by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The two sets of names are followed by twin blessings: "Peace" and "Peace unto Israel."

The Aramaic section begins in line 9 with a blessing for three individuals who may have given the funds for this inscription. Lines 10-16 pronounce curses on anyone who commits any one of four cardinal offenses: causing a division in the community, slandering a person before the Gentiles, stealing the property of a friend, or revealing the secret of the town of En-Gedi to the Gentiles. No one knows exactly what the secret of En-Gedi is all about. Either it refers to the recipe for the perfume for which En-Gedi was famous, or the curse worked, and no one did reveal En-Gedi's secret! The curses, beginning in line 13b, are full of biblical allusions. The final lines of the inscription repeat a blessing for two of the three men mentioned in line 9. These lines may either have been added after Ezron had died and Yose had become a Rabbi, or perhaps Yose and Hizikiyu contributed to the community in other ways than just in giving the donation for the mosaic.

As with any other piece of literature, the context of the lines would seem to determine their meaning. Hence the list of pre-Flood ancestors, drawn from Chronicles, are to be taken as pillars of the world from a universal perspective, just as the two sets of biblical heroes in lines 7-8 are pillars of the world from a distinctly Jewish perspective. A rabbinic tradition clarifies the reason for these two pairs of three names: "Upon whom does the world rest? Upon three pillars. Some say (that they are) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; others say Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and still others say the three sons of Korah." Both sets of three biblical leaders are considered people of prayer in Jewish tradition. The zodiac signs and the months of the year, representing the solar and lunar years respectively, reflect the structure and order of the universe as a whole. The ancestors of the world, the zodiac signs, the months of the year, and the biblical figures from Genesis and Daniel altogether may serve as witnesses to an oath taken by members of the community and encourage members to stand fast in their vows. The twelve months of the year and the twelve zodiac animals might represent also the twelve tribes of Israel. These zodiac signs and months in any case are surrounded by the thirteen primeval heroes and the two sets of heroes from Jewish history. This inscription in short shows that the structure of the universe, represented by zodiac and calendar and by the pre-Flood ancestors, and the specifically Jewish figures and their practices do not exclude each other, but belong integrally together. The bridge that Philip Hefner has been building between science and religion and between nature and grace has an antecedent in a synagogue floor and a Jewish universal vision that is fifteen hundred years old.

The Structure of the Universe in Chronicles

What the donors and the mosaicists were proposing in the synagogue inscription at En-Gedi may have been anticipated by the Chronicler, who preceded them by a full millennium. Chapters 2-9 of 1 Chronicles are a detailed listing of the genealogies of the twelve tribes of Israel (chaps 2-8) and a list of the post-exilic inhabitants of Jerusalem (chap 9). These two groups are in continuity with each other, and the citizens of the tiny and precarious Persian province called Yehud are assured by the massive "genealogical vestibule" that, despite their small geographic and demographic size, they really are all Israel, symbolized by the massive genealogies of all the tribes.

And 1 Chr 1:1-2:2 adds one more nuance to the message. Israel itself is introduced in a listing of the sons of Israel in 1 Chr 2:1-2, but this listing is preceded by a genealogy extending all the way from Adam to Israel. After enumerating the pre- Flood ancestors in 1 Chr 1:1-4 (Gen 5:1-32), the Chronicler rehearses the Table of Nations from Genesis 10 in 1 Chr 1:5-23 and the linear genealogy of Abraham himself in 1 Chr 1:24-27 (Gen 11:10-26). Then in vv 28-54 he gives a description of all the descendants of Abraham--through the side lines of Ishmael (vv 29-31, based on Gen 25:12-16) and Keturah (vv 32-33, based on Gen 25:1-4). In 1 Chr 1:34 (based on Gen 25:19), he introduces the final part of this genealogy by noting: "Abraham engendered Isaac. The descendants of Isaac: Esau and Israel." Then before enumerating the tribes of Israel, he lists all the descendants of Abraham through Esau the brother of Israel (vv 35-54, based on Genesis 36). Thus in 1 Chr 2:1-2 the Chronicler presents Israel as standing amid the nations--amid the pillars of the world who preceded the flood, amid the nations of the Table of Nations, and amid all the nations that call Abraham father. 1 Chr 1:1-2:2 shows there is no radical discontinuity between Israel and the nations, between the people of grace and the world of the nations.

Whether at En-Gedi or in the first nine chapters of Chronicles--a relationship between the structure of the universe and the specific people of God is not a contradiction; both belong integrally together.