Students on a hike in northern Israel were surprised to discover a basalt sculpture of a lioness. This group of students has been particularly lucky, stumbling across several ancient artifacts.
The students from Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee were hiking near Ein Nashut in the Golan when they happened upon the sculpture depicting a lioness nursing her cubs.
“Every day we go to a number of ancient villages, observe the ruins and examine what characterized the Jewish village, as opposed to Christian ones of the time,” Prof. Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College told Haaretz.
“Jews and non-Jews lived in similar homes, but there are some differences,” he said, explaining that one difference is the synagogue at the center of Jewish villages which contrasts with the church at the center of Christian villages. Every Jewish village also has a mikveh (ritual bath) whereas crosses used as ornamentation are indicative of Christian villages.
The professor sent the students to wander the fields at the site to record their general impressions.
“Afterward we sat together and students described what they had found,” Prof. Aviam said. “And one student said, ‘We found something that looks like a carving of an animal’.”
At over 60 pounds, it was too heavy to carry, the student had taken a photo of the lioness sculpture.
“My heart stopped,” the professor said.
They set out to find the sculpture.
“It was at the bottom of the hill below the synagogue,” Aviam says. “Maybe somebody tried to steal it or take it previously.”
The lioness is a popular element in ancient Jewish art and is frequently found in ancient synagogues from the Late Roman period in 200-300 CE, and continued during the Byzantine period through 500 CE, though not in ancient churches.
Israel is compared to a lioness in the blessings of Balaam.
Lo, a people that rises like a lion, Leaps up like the king of beasts, Rests not till it has feasted on prey And drunk the blood of the slain. Numbers 23:24
This comparison is used also by Ezekiel.
What a lioness was your mother Among the lions! Crouching among the great beasts, She reared her cubs. Ezekiel 19:2
“They probably had meaning, not just as lions or eagles, but it was symbolic,” said Aviam. “The Ein Nashut synagogue had the biggest collection of lion and lioness sculptures found so far,” Aviam said. “They had a place of honor in art during late Roman times and Byzantine times, as did the eagle.” But when the Land of Israel Studies students personally found this one, they roared with happiness, he observes. “The important thing is how excited the students were. It was a wonderful example of what our department at the college does.”
The students toured Khirbet Majdukiya last week, an archaeological dig that is also located in the Golan. Dr. Mechael Osband of the Kinneret College is leading an excavation of a Roman-era synagogue. While there, one student found a coin dating from 260 CE which featured an image of shows the profile of Emperor Gallienus who ruled from 253-268 CE.
This is the second lioness sculpture found in the region. The first, found in 2017, was much larger, weighing in at 1320 pounds. It was discovered at el-Araj which some believe may have been the New Testament site of Bethsaida. Archeologists dated it to the 4th to 6th century.