Image: A Mosaic of an Elephant Attacking a Feline
An article published in the Jewish Week is reporting that excavations in an ancient synagogue in Israel have uncovered a mosaic with depictions of elephants.
Jerusalem – An ancient synagogue mosaic depicting nonbiblical themes – including elephants – has been removed for safekeeping, according to the lead archaeologist who discovered the three-part floor panel earlier this summer.
Jodi Magness, director of the excavations in the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq in the Lower Galilee, said the high-quality, 1,600-year-old mosaic panel, which depicts an array of nonbiblical themes, “has been removed for conservation” until the synagogue is fully excavated in several years’ time.
Magness, a professor of Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her team have been digging at the site every July for four years.
Until now, “all stories found decorating ancient synagogues have been taken from the Hebrew Bible,” Magness said.
The nonbiblical mosaic depicts a three-part story. The lower level contains a dying bull and a dying soldier. The center level depicts several armed men dressed in white and an elderly man carrying what appears to be a scroll. At the top is a Greek ruler flanked by soldiers and elephants in battle gear.
Elephants are not mentioned in the Bible.
Magness speculated that the Greek ruler could be Alexander the Great and the elderly man the Jewish high priest, but said much more research needs to be conducted.
The article says that “Elephants are not mentioned in the Bible.” However, there is a possible reference to elephants in the Bible.
The Bible says that Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion-geber and together with the sailors of Hiram, king of Tyre, Solomon’s ships went as far as Ophir from where they brought gold to Jerusalem (1 Kings 9:26-28).
These merchant ships also went to other lands from where they brought exotic products which Solomon used in trade and commerce: “Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10:22).
In a previous post I studied the Hebrew word for “peacocks” and asked whether the word should be translated peacocks or baboons. The present post will focus on the word “ivory” as it appears in 1 Kings 10:22.
The Hebrew word for “ivory” is šenhabbîm. This word appears only once in the Old Testament and its meaning is debatable by scholars. It seems that the word šenhabbîm is composed of two Hebrew words. The first word, šen appears in 1 Kings 10:18 and it is translated as “ivory”: “The king also made a great ivory (šen) throne.”
The second part of the word is debatable. Scholars believe that the word habbîm is a non-Semitic word used in the Old Testament and it means “elephant.”
The Jewish Encyclopedia accepts this understanding of the word:
It is now commonly agreed that the elephant (Elephas indicus) is indirectly mentioned in a passage of the Hebrew Bible. In I Kings x. 22 (II Chron. ix. 21), namely, it is said that Solomon had a navy which every three years brought gold, silver, ivory (“šenhabbîm“), apes, and peacocks. The word “šenhabbîm” is evidently a compound word, the first part of which is well known as meaning a tooth or ivory (I Kings x. 18; Cant. v. 14, vii. 14). The second element has long been a puzzle to etymologists; but now it is well-nigh certain that it means “elephant.”
The Douay-Rheims Version (American Edition 1899) also recognizes the compound nature of the Hebrew word. The Douay-Rheims translates the Hebrew word šenhabbîm as “elephants’ teeth.”
The possibility that Solomon’s traders brought elephants from their journeys is also accepted by the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. The article on “Animals” says that elephants were one of the animals Solomon’s sailors brought with them: “Novelty is a luxury the wealthy can afford, so Solomon imports exotic creatures from eastern and southern kingdoms. Apes, peacocks and perhaps elephants appeared as curiosities” (1998: 31).
Ivory is mentioned several times in the Old Testament:
Solomon had a throne inlaid with ivory: “The king also made a great ivory throne, and overlaid it with the finest gold” (1 Kings 10:18).
Ahab had a house where the furniture and the panelling were inlaid with ivory. 1 Kings 22:39 mentions “the ivory house that he built.” Psalm 45:8 speaks of “ivory palaces.”
In commerce between nations, at times, payments for trade were made with ivory: “they brought you in payment ivory tusks and ebony” (Ezekiel 27:15).
According to the prophet Amos, rich people lay down in beds inlaid with ivory: “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory” (Amos 6:4).
The wide use of ivory in ancient Israel shows that elephants were widely known in antiquity and that their tusks were highly prized as a luxury item among the upper class in Israelite society. This may explain why a mosaic depicting an elephant was found in a Jewish synagogue.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998.