On a tour of Israel in June 2023, my wife Sherry and I had the opportunity to visit several archaeological sites. For example, at Bet Alfa Synagogue National Park, we saw the mosaic floor of a synagogue from the sixth century AD.
The Bet Alfa mosaic, uncovered in 1928-29, has three sections. The south section shows objects used in worship, including menorahs and an ark for Torah scrolls. The north section illustrates the Akedah, the binding of Isaac from Genesis 22.
In between is a square containing two concentric circles. In the four corners of the square are representations of the four seasons of the year. The area between the circles is divided into twelve parts containing pictures for each of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Inside the inner circle is a picture of the sun, represented by the Greek sun god Helios riding in a chariot driven by four horses.
Bet Alfa is not the only synagogue mosaic with pictures of the zodiac and Helios in a chariot. We now know of nine such synagogue mosaics in Israel from the early Byzantine period. Like many people, I was initially surprised to learn about them.
What were the zodiac and a sun god doing in synagogues?
In considering such questions, we should avoid jumping to conclusions. An episode from Israel’s history comes to mind. In the days of Joshua, after Israel had established itself in the land of Canaan, Joshua released the men from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh to return to their allotted territory east of the Jordan. As those men headed east, they stopped near the banks of the Jordan and built an altar of imposing size (Jos 22:10).
When the other tribes saw this altar, they initially assumed that the eastern tribes had abandoned the God of Israel and the Tabernacle at Shiloh and were establishing a rival worship center. They prepared for a military confrontation (vv 11-12). Before attacking, however, they sent a delegation to talk with the eastern tribes.
The men from Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh explained that the large altar was not meant for worship. Instead, it was intended as an expression of Israelite solidarity. The eastern tribes were going to be separated from the rest of the nation by the Jordan River, and they wanted their countrymen west of the Jordan to understand that all twelve tribes were united in following the true God.
The meaning of the large altar, in other words, was the opposite of what the western tribes had feared. By meeting to talk about the question and get more information, the tribes avoided an unnecessary confrontation (vv 13-34).
Joshua 22 illustrates the wisdom of Proverbs 18:13: If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. This chapter should remind us of the words of Jesus: Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment (Jn 7:24).
We cannot send a delegation to ask the leaders of the Bet Alfa synagogue about their mosaic, but we can use our knowledge of history to guess what they might have told us. Their synagogue was built during the reign of the Christian emperor Justinian. By this time Jews had been staunch monotheists for centuries, and both Christians and Jews avoided paganism. So, we know that the mosaic was not part of some mixture of Judaism and paganism.
For Jews in the early Byzantine period, the zodiac and sun representations portrayed, in images familiar to that culture, the order and beauty of the Universe designed by a sovereign Creator. The mosaic expressed their thanks for abundant crops and the regular cycle of the seasons. It may have reminded them of Psalm 19:1-6, a poetic passage that praises God for his creation and pictures the sun traveling on its daily circuit across the sky.
The Bible teaches that the appropriateness of a given worship symbol depends upon the context.
Shortly before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses warned, You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God that you shall make. And you shall not set up a pillar, which the Lord your God hates (Dt 16:21-22). An Asherah was a sacred pole dedicated to the goddess Asherah, and pillars were associated with the Canaanite god Ba’al (see 2 Ki 3:2; 10:26-27). Ba’al and Asherah were a “couple” in the Canaanite pantheon (1 Ki 18:19; 2 Ki 23:4), and Moses was concerned that the Israelites would be drawn to these pagan deities.
We see elsewhere in the Bible, though, that the use of poles and pillars was not wrong in and of itself. The patriarchs sometimes used these symbols in worship or in making covenants (Gen 21:33; 28:18-22; 31:43-54; 35:14). But for the later Israelites entering Canaan, these symbols were part of the worship of Ba’al and Asherah and were therefore to be avoided.
A key factor here is the intent of the worshipers. What is in their heart?
For the patriarchs, a pole or pillar symbolized the presence of God and was an appropriate symbol. In contrast, for later Israelites, these were part of syncretistic worship that included Canaanite deities (2 Ki 21:1-9). For the worshipers at the Bet Alfa synagogue, the zodiac and sun imagery were meant to praise the God of Israel, not honor Helios. Their mosaic was not pagan.
There is a lesson here for a controversy that arises in some Christian circles each December. What about the celebration of Christmas, and in particular the use of certain symbols (like Christmas trees), given their possible associations with paganism? Since those who celebrate Christmas do so to honor Jesus, not follow pagan deities, one should not condemn their practices as pagan. Again, in worship, it is the intent that matters.