Beth Alpha Synagogue Mosaic by Unknown artists (Marianos and his son Hanina)

Unknown artists (Marianos and his son Hanina)

Beth Alpha Synagogue Mosaic, 6th century, Mosaic, Beth Alpha, Israel, The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

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An Ironic Reproof

Commentary by

The Beth Alpha synagogue, just west of the Jordan River, houses an impressive array of mosaics, one of which—a zodiac circle—lies on the floor at the centre of the synagogue.

The mosaic’s hub displays the sun god, Helios, flanked by two horses on either side. Circling the image of Helios are depictions of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Each segment holds the zodiac sign together with its Hebrew name. Located in the four corners of the mosaic are personifications of the four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter.

Undoubtedly, the Jewish community at Beth Alpha was well versed in the sun’s and moon’s movements in the sky, and at least a thousand years earlier, the biblical figure Job clearly bore a similar knowledge of astral bodies and their courses.

In Job 38:31–33, God questions Job concerning his role, or lack thereof, in ordering the stars and constellations in the night sky. He questions Job concerning the Pleiades, a cluster of stars in the shoulder of Taurus the bull—the second segment moving clockwise from the top. Furthermore, God inquires whether Job can ‘loose the cords of Orion’, the hunter, depicted as the archer in the mosaic—the fifth segment of the zodiac mosaic, moving anti-clockwise.

The subtle irony of divine questioning in Job 38:31–32 is that God reuses Job’s own words to rebuke him. Earlier, in Job’s lengthy and heated discussion with his three friends—and to illustrate God’s omnipotence—Job reminds them of God’s magnificent work in creating and ordering the stars in the night sky. In doing so, he declares, ‘Who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south?’ (9:9). Ironically, God recalls these same constellations—and the very words of Job—to reprove him and remind him of his humble position.

 

References

Talgam, Rina (ed.). 2014. Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press), pp. 298–302


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