Article -

Ark and Temple in Dura Europos


Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman







Introduction


As early as 1872 there were archaeological hints of buried, painted buildings on a promontory overlooking a bend in the upper Euphrates River, half way between Beirut and Baghdad. In 1920, the site was identified conclusively as Dura, known also as Europos in Greek sources; a Roman garrison town, built on earlier Parthian and Hellenistic settlements. However, the fascinating excavation, that included more than fifteen temples scattered throughout the town, became a sensation in 1932, when a joint expedition of Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters uncovered a synagogue whose walls were daringly, brilliantly covered with frescoes, with human figures, dating to 244/5-256 CE.

Chance preserved these paintings. The town`s western wall was the only direction from which an enemy could attack. As the Sassanian threat increased, the Roman

defenders of Dura Europos filled in “Wall Street” and the buildings along it with dirt and debris in order to strengthen the town`s defenses. Among these buildings was the synagogue. Those sections of the painted walls which were covered by the fill were spared; exposed areas, not protected by the fill, were water damaged, sometimes beyond identification. The diagrams below show the relationship between the synagogue`s western wall to Wall Street and the city wall. In the upper picture, we

see the beginning of dirt fill in Wall Street. The second and third pictures show the increasing height of the fill in Wall Street and in the synagogue, almost entirely covering the western wall, with less and less coverage of the remaining walls.



Prior to the discovery of the Dura Europos synagogue paintings, there was no evidence of Jewish figurative art in ancient times. As a result, the paintings are of monumental importance for art history, the study of Judaism and its relationship to Christianity and the hybridism of West and East—Roman and Persian cultures. Extensive figural decoration of similar complexity does not appear in Christian art until the 5th century. Understandably, well established scholarly theories were seriously challenged: Were in fact the origins of Christian art rooted in an antecedent, but now lost, Jewish art?[1] Was rabbinic Judaism of the 3rd century really so rigidly iconoclastic as scholars had assumed? Was rabbinic Judaism normative Judaism? Some of the answers to these questions will be forthcoming in the discussion below.


[1] Weitzmann, K. and H. Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura synagogue and Christian Art. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990.








On entering the Synagogue


Imagine yourself, a Jewish traveler in the year 244, entering the newly decorated synagogue in the frontier town of Dura Europos on a Sabbath morning. You pass through an interior courtyard and a series of entry rooms to find yourself in a broad hall, 45 feet wide and 25 feet deep. The walls of the hall are entirely covered with life-size, brightly painted scenes from the Bible and at the center of the western wall, as expected, is the Holy Ark, in the form of a niche topped by a painted conch shell.



Immediately above the Ark is the image of the Temple, flanked by a menorah on one side and the Akeda on the other. On either side of the Ark you see images of your favorite stories of Moses, David, Elijah and Mordecai. Your overall impression is of astounding color, beauty, pride and prosperity. (See the exuberant description of the actual unearthing of the synagogue). You come closer to examine the details. What is the synagogue telling you? Gradually you see that the images are not random: there is an emphasis on the miraculous and the grand.

Archaeologists quickly realized that the synagogue`s motifs were biblical, but only subsequently did scholars understand that these figures and stories were seen through the prism of Midrash, sometimes known to us and sometimes obscure. But the Durenes always identified the biblical subjects with their own current reality, which is the way of Midrash.

Scholarship has also recognized two major themes in the Dura Europos synagogue paintings: physical restoration and spiritual continuity, merging and overlapping. In other parts of this site, we have treated the restoration theme by way of the rescue of the infant Moses, the Exodus and scenes from the Elijah saga; we have addressed the continuity theme by way of the Miraculous Desert Well and the Burning Bush, with the Akeda, the anointing of David and David as Messiah bridging the two themes.

Here we will treat an extended narrative band: the adventures of the Ark, whose image appears repeatedly over the entire length of the central register of the western and northern walls. Why is this narrative so prominent here?

We suggest that the images of the Ark narrative identify the current life of the Durenes with the biblical past. They are saying: the tabernacle/temple is like our synagogue, the Ark is like our ark, Moses is like our rabbi.








From Tabernacle to Temple to Synagogue

The congregation faces the Torah shrine on the western wall, the direction of Jerusalem. Just above the Torah niche and to either side, they see a band of paintings in which temples and their fixtures, including the Ark of the Covenant, appear over and over. Starting from the left, we recognize the painting of the Water Miracles, including one of the synagogue`s many Moseses; in the picture to its right, we see Aaron, an impressive figure identified in Greek, standing within a building complex, together with additional people and three animals. In the panel to its right, Moses stands beneath the sun, moon and stars. Continuing on the far right (actually on the northern wall), we see the battle of Even Ha-ezer (I Samuel 4), in which the Ark is captured by the Philistines. The narrative continues to the left, on to the western wall, with the miraculous return of the Ark to Israel; continuing further to the left, a mysterious, static, closed Temple confronts us. Finally we reach yet another Moses reading from a Torah scroll, with the Ark beside him. Notice that we are reading the paintings from the outside in, both sides move to the center, focusing on the synagogue`s own Torah shrine.

This central register of the synagogue`s paintings is the most extended treatment of a single subject—the adventures of the Ark. Why was this subject so central for the congregation? Why are no fewer than five arks illuminated here? In our quest for answers, we will examine various elements of the pictures in this register.

In the section of this site on the Desert Wanderings we discuss the first component of this register—the Water Miracles painting—a mysterious composite of visual Midrash. The adjacent painting containing Aaron`s image is equally mysterious and composite.




Aaron is elaborately costumed, unlike any other among the synagogue`s figures. Five other figures, dressed in typical Persian style, fill various parts of the painting – four of them hold trumpets and one wields an axe. Three animals are also on stage: a bull, a ram and a “red heifer”. Two structures occupy the center of the painting: at the bottom, a crenellated wall with three entrances and above, an edifice with Corinthian columns and a gabled roof. Despite the prominence of Aaron, it is not clear if this picture refers to a particular event, and if so, what event. The conventions of perspective and point of view established in the Renaissance are not employed here, complicating our understanding of the painting. In addition, the Durene painter(s) imaged biblical scenes in accordance with their own reality, which is often foreign to us. Nevertheless, scholars have concluded that the painting illustrates the holy precinct of the biblical desert sanctuary (the Mishkan) with the Tent of Meeting (ohel moed) at its center. The outer fence of this precinct, composed of goat skins, is represented here by three gates set into a stone wall at the lower part of the picture. A curtain partially covers the middle door, in accordance with Exodus 27:16. The three animals and one of the figures stand on either side of this wall, on a darker pink ground, indicating that they are outside the holy precinct. The upper part of the painting shows us the interior of the precinct.


The roofed temple is actually the Tent of Meeting. Although very similar to the way temples are pictured in all the synagogue`s paintings, it is relatively small, it has no foundation but is set directly on the ground, like a tent and its sides are painted brown, the color of the goat skins of which it was actually made.


The Tent`s furnishings (menorah, etc.) stand in front of it, since this is the only way for us to see what is inside. Within the Tent, we see a partially curtained object – comparison with other paintings in the synagogue clarifies that this is the Ark of the Covenant (see below).


While some scholars have concluded that the subject of this painting is the consecration of Aaron and his sons (Lev 8), others understand it as the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Exodus 40 and Numbers 7). We suggest that the subject of the painting is better understood in dialogue with its neighbor on the left—the painting of the Water Miracles—and that these two paintings are a unit, describing two alternate views of the desert Tabernacle. One—the Water Miracle painting—focuses on the Tabernacle`s legal and prophetic function, as the repository of the Torah, “the source of Living Water”. The other—the Aaron painting—portrays the Tabernacle`s ritual function, the site of Israel`s sacrifices and the domain of its priests.


Both paintings are composites of several biblical texts and have similar square structures, despite their apparent differences. The Tent of Meeting is a gabled building, at the center of both paintings. The Menorah is framed in both by the Tent`s opening, while other furniture of the Tent is seen alongside. In both, a large figure stands beside the Tent, while smaller figures populate the perimeter. But the two paintings also contain significant differences.


Whereas the Water Miracles painting portrays the Tent of Meeting within the square Israelite desert encampment, the Consecration scene focuses solely on the rectangular holy precinct with the Tent at its center. The miraculous water sources of Exodus and Numbers are understood midrashically as symbols of the Torah, whose streams lead from the Sanctuary to each individual tribe. Moses, wielding his staff, wears the Hellenistic himation, identifying him as teacher and Law giver. In the Tabernacle painting, Aaron wears the unique costume of the consecrated high priest (including his blossoming staff that merges with the central stripe of his costume) and inaugurates the Mishkan, focusing on its ritual aspect. The juxtaposition of Moses and Aaron is a common feature in both Jewish and Christian art through the ages.


Morris Hirshfield, Moses and Aaron,  1944

Morris Hirshfield, Moses and Aaron
1944


Moses and Aaron lead the Israelites of Israel out of Egypt, History Bible, ca. 1430

Moses and Aaron lead the Israelites of
Israel out of Egypt, History Bible, ca. 1430

Pictures of the Tabernacle, however, have opposing intentions: in Christian art, the Church supersedes the Tabernacle/Temple, while in Dura, the synagogue itself is the true heir of the Tabernacle – it and the Jewish community are the verus Israel.

Unlike the Water Miracles painting, here the Ark of the Covenant appears within the Tent`s interior. Instead of the twelve tribal chiefs and their tents in the Water Miracles painting, five Levites and three sacrificial animals frame the pictures center in the Mishkan scene. We propose that the three rose-clad figures represent the three clans of Levi: Gershon, Merari and Kehat; and that the blue/green figures are the two surviving sons of Aaron: Itamar accompanying his father and Elazar, at the left, overseeing the Red Heifer sacrifice (Numbers 19:3). The table of showbread next to the Menorah in the Water Miracles painting becomes the altar in the Mishkan scene.

Despite these similarities and contrasts, an iconographical question remains: why is the portable, collapsible Mishkan transformed here into a columned, roofed, i.e. permanent building? Such transformations are part of the magic of Midrash, which will keep you in suspense until we explicate below. In the meantime, we proceed to other paintings in the register.








The adventures of the Ark of the Covenant – I Samuel 4 – 6




The narrative of the history of the Ark/Tabernacle continues on the northern wall. Unfortunately, the northeastern-most part of this wall was water damaged, making the identification of the first painting in the register uncertain. The first recognizable painting treats the rout of Israel at Eben Haezer, in which the Ark of the Covenant is carried off by the Philistines (I Sam 5:1). Soldiers and horsemen in destructive fury fill the right side of the panel. Oddly, both the biblical text and the painting focus on the defeat and the humiliating capture of the Ark, on the left. Why add insult to injury? Seeking an answer we focus on the next panel.



On the right, destruction and on the left an orderly procession of the Ark. As in the previous mural, two consecutive but contrasting events are framed in a single picture. As in the Mishkan paintings, we see a typical temple, but this time, it is the Temple of Dagon in Ashdod, where the Ark had been taken. It is a columned and gabled building, within which a pair of pedestals flank a table: one bears its idol, while the other, as if limping, has lost its deity. In fact, the fallen idol lies dismembered in front of the Temple, together with other cultic paraphernalia. A second dismembered idol represents the repeated upending of the same idol, emphasizing the defeat of the Philistine god by the God of Israel. The Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God`s presence, has zapped the pagan god.

How is God`s role evident in the second half of this painting?

On the left side of the painting are five figures representing the five Philistine cities—two in Persian dress representing their priestly function and three in Hellenistic costume. They banish the Ark of the Covenant, transported on a wagon pulled by two milk cows. Why isn`t the Ark being carried on poles, as in the preceding picture? The Philistine priests have set up a test using a wagon instead:
7 “Now therefore, prepare a new cart and two nursing cows on which there has never been a yoke; and hitch the cows to the cart and separate them from their calves. 8 Take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you return to Him as a guilt offering in a box by its side. Then send it on its way. 9 Watch, if it goes up directly to Beth-shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we will know that it was not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance.
(I Samuel 6)

Two different elements comprise the test: will the cows abandon their lowing calves and will they go unattended straight to Israelite territory?
Our picture shows the Ark at a crossroad, responding to the second element,

elaborated in a number of Midrashim:

Some of the wise men and diviners answered. “Let us not try only this, but let us set the cows at the head of the three roads that are by Ekron. The middle road goes straight to Ekron, the right-hand one to Judaea and the left-hand one to Samaria. If they set out on the right-hand road and go straight to Judaea, we will know that truly the God of the Jews has destroyed us. But if they go forth bythose other roads, we will know that a hard time has come upon us inasmuch as now we havedenied our own gods.”
(Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, Chapter 55)


The other element of the test—the separation of the milk cows from their calves—elicits a musical Midrash. The calves are lowing, but their mothers, the cows, having been programmed by God, cannot respond. Instead, the cows break into song, drowning out the voices of their calves:

Sing, O sing, acacia tree,
Ascend in all thy gracefulness.

With golden weave they cover thee,
The sanctuary-palace hears thy eulogy,

With divers jewels art thou adorned.
(Aboda Zara 24b)

This charming scene, however, is not illustrated at Dura, but like the Dura paintings, it comes about as a midrashic word play on the verb tisharna, literally “they went straight on”. But the midrashic imagination reads the root yashar (straight) as shir (song). We can imagine all kinds of fun with this in class.

Finally, in our painting, we see two colorful cushions (rather than a box) beside the Ark. The explanation of this detail is found in Josephus` Antiquities of the Jews, where the rare biblical word argaz ( meaning “box” or “crate” in modern Hebrew) is translated as “bag”. This is one of the many cases in which Midrash helps us understand the paintings of Dura.

In summary, the humiliating capture of the Ark is avenged by the humiliating fall of Dagon`s idols and makes a triumphal statement about the superiority of Judaism over paganism.

Why is this curious but marginal narrative of the capture and return of the Ark of the Covenant located so centrally in this particularly important part of the synagogue? Perhaps, the small Durene Jewish community sticks out its tongue at the folly of ancient pagans, as a way of disparaging their contemporary pagan neighbors. The broken sacra before the Temple of Dagon are modeled on Mithraic paraphernalia. The temple of Mithras down the block from the synagogue is identified with the pathetic temple of Dagon, in contrast with the glorious Temple. This leads us to one of the great puzzles of Dura.








The Temple



Obviously, this painting depicts a temple; but which temple is intended? Is it the Temple of Solomon, or the Second Temple or the future, messianic Temple? Or is it the celestial Temple of some mystical traditions? Past, future or visionary? All of these suggestions have been proposed by leading scholars.

We are still looking at the western wall of the synagogue. Having already found two parallel pairs of murals, we are not surprised to find another pair. The desert Tabernacle on the left parallels the Temple, on the right. Once again, their structures are remarkably similar: there are two levels in both – the lower level shows the three-gate entrance to the sacred precinct and the upper level is the holy building itself.

But on the left, the building is open, displaying the Ark of the Covenant and other Tabernacle furnishings, while on the right, the Temple is closed. While the Tabernacle has no foundations (because it is the Tent of Meeting), the Temple has four tiers of stonework below its massive columns. While the Tabernacle is surrounded by the hubbub of officiants and animals, the Temple, in stark contrast, is surrounded by seven multi-colored, silent walls. Some have seen this edifice as the celestial Temple at the center of the planetary spheres.

We suggest that this closed Temple is a composite of the Jerusalem temples of the past, in their pristine sanctity and monumentality. But for the Durenes, as we have been suggesting throughout, it is their shul, because the Jewish community of Dura Europos was mainly concerned with strengthening its own identity by associating itself with its biblical ancestors and by paralleling its synagogue to the ancient Tabernacle and Temples. There is no sacrificial activity around the Temple because the Temple is analogous to the Dura synagogue.








The Ark

We have now reached the focus of the second register, where the Ark of the Covenant appears five times.

The Torah Niche

The Torah Niche

The Tabernacle Consecration

The Tabernacle Consecration

The return from from Philistia

The return from from Philistia

 

The captured Ark

The captured Ark

The covered Ark

The covered Ark

 

The architect`s plans appear in the book of Exodus:

 

10 They shall construct an ark of acacia wood two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out …13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them 17 You shall make a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide. 18 You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the cover… 21 You shall put the cover on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. 22 There I will meet with you; and from above the cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the Ark of the Testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the children of Israel.
(Exodus 25)

According to this dense text, the Ark of the Covenant (aka Ark of the Testimony) was an open rectangular box, its height and width equal and its length 1.7 times longer. On top of this gold-coated wooden box was a solid gold cover, upon which stood two statuettes of the cherubim at either end. The Ark was carried using long, gold-covered poles inserted into rings on its sides.

 

 

None of the five representations of the Ark bear any resemblance to the specifications in Exodus:

 

They stand vertically rather than horizontally
Their upper sections are rounded (or gabled, in other ancient sources)
There are no cherubim in evidence
The poles are occasionally shown
The façades of the Arks are prominently decorated, unlike the Exodus description

 

Obviously, the biblical description was available to the people of Dura Europos; why did they ignore this description and portray the Ark so differently?

Similar upright arks appear in Jewish art, from Israel and the Diaspora, during the Mishnaic and Talmudic period, contemporary with the Dura Europos paintings.

Gold glass, Israel Museum, 4th century

Gold glass, Israel Museum, 4th century

Tetradrachma coin of the Bar-Kochba revolt, 130

Tetradrachma coin of the Bar-Kochba revolt, 130

 

It turns out that this is the Torah Ark, central to every synagogue. It is indeed an upright closet, with shelves for the scrolls. In general, in the Diaspora , this ark was shown open, so that the foreshortened scrolls appear as small circles or squares; in Israel, the ark is usually closed. The top of the ark is either rounded or gabled. We suggest that it is modeled on the Roman bookcase, variously known as a scrinium—deriving from the word “scribere“, “to write” and the source of the word shrine—or as an armarium, a closed bookcase.

 

"Temple of Diana", Nimes, 1st century

“Temple of Diana”
Nimes, 1st century

Sarcophagus with a Greek physician, Ostia, early 4th century

Sarcophagus with a Greek physician
Ostia, early 4th century

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, 5th century

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Ravenna, 5th century

On the left, in the courtyard of the “Temple of Diana” we see the frames of armaria as niches, alternately crowned by gables and arches. In the center, the detail from a 4th century sarcophagus shows an armarium containing scrolls. And on the right, a large, open armarium displays the books of the New Testament. The ubiquitous rounded and triangular ornaments found above entrances (closets, windows, doors) in classical architecture, appear repeatedly, even in the White House.

 

 

Thus, the artists at Dura picture the Ark of the Covenant not according to the account from Exodus, but on the model of their own Torah ark. By contrast, Christian artists relied on the Exodus account, having no similar object in their church experience.

Oratory of Germigny des Pres, c. 806

Oratory of Germigny des Pres, c. 806

St. Maria Maggiore, Rome, 5th century

St. Maria Maggiore, Rome, 5th century

 

The message of the shape of the Ark of the Covenant at Dura is continuity: as if they were saying, “Our Torah ark and the ancient Ark of the Covenant are one.”

 

The Ark of the Covenant was destroyed with the First Temple in 586 BCE. Even in First Temple times, the Ark was usually hidden from popular view. Its image had not, therefore, been accessible for the 800 years prior to Dura. Needing to actualize the ancient Ark, the Durenes portrayed scenes from the Tanakh `dressed` in contemporary Hellenistic and Persian style, creating visual Midrash, which closes the gap between the past and the present.








The Wing Panels

The last component of this register, at the very center of the synagogue`s western wall, is a group of four vertical portraits, framing an obscure central panel. The portrait on the upper right is certainly the younger Moses` first encounter with God at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3. The upper left portrait, although damaged, seems to be Moses reaching up to receive the Tablets of the Law, Exodus 20.





While there has been much debate about the identity of the two lower portraits,






we suggest that all four are Moses, our Teacher. Our suggestion is based on a careful viewing of each portrait, consideration of the four portraits as a unit, and connection of the two lower portraits with the horizontal register dealing with the Tabernacle/Temple and the Ark. In any event, how does the centrality of these four portraits correlate with the Second Commandment, generally understood to prohibit images? In a pagan temple, the god`s image would appear in exactly this location. But in the Dura synagogue, Moses is not an object of worship, but of reverence. Indeed, some Jewish and Christian opinions of the period read the Second Commandment not as a prohibition of all images, but only of their worship. Finally , Dura`s visual culture significantly changed the way we formerly understood the Judaism of late antiquity, through literary sources alone.








Scroll and Ark




The lower right portrait shows a bearded figure wearing the teacher`s himation and holding an uplifted, open scroll. A diminutive Ark of the Covenant, almost entirely covered, appears at his feet on the left side of the painting. The painting reflects the well-known passage from Exodus:

He took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people, who responded,

“All that the Lord has said, we will perform and obey.” (Exodus 24:7)


The nuanced Hebrew text emphasizes orality/aurality: Moses reads the Law literally “into the ears” of the assembly; they respond by saying literally, “we will do and we will hear”. The painting shows Moses and the scroll, but where are the people of Israel? They are standing in the Dura shul, listening to the lesson!


But how can the Ark of the Covenant appear in a painting of Exodus 24, since it was not built until Exodus 37? As we have already discussed, the Durenes equated the Ark of the Covenant with the Torah ark. It therefore made perfect sense to them to show it in association with the reading of the Torah, especially in the context of the register which deals with the history of the Tabernacle/Temple and Ark. In each of its appearances in the register, the Ark wears a different hat: enthroned in the Tabernacle, embattled at Eben Ha-ezer, a treasure returned at Ashdod, a symbol of hope in association with the Akedah. Only in this portrait of Moses, is it simply the container of the Torah, shown in miniature in contrast to the large scroll of the Law being taught.








Sun, moon and stars


Each of the three preceding portraits follows the sequence of Moses` life: the first encounter with God, receiving the Law at Sinai, and the first public reading of the Torah. What is this fourth panel about?




A man wearing a himation has wrapped his hands within his cloak. His hair and beard are white, against a black background. Sun, moon and stars are arrayed above him. Who is this and what text is illustrated? Suggestions range from Abraham counting the stars (Genesis 15), Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28), Joshua stopping the sun and moon (Joshua 10) and Moses. If this is Moses, what is he doing? In view of the fact that the other three portraits sequence his life, this must be the final scene.
But in Moses` final act in Deuteronomy 44, he views the Land of Israel (that he will never enter) from Mt. Nebo – no mention is made of the heavens or wrapped hands. Midrash, however, is unwilling to let him die like ordinary people. Instead, God takes him on a tour of the future world, the finale of which is Moses`s ascension to the divine realm.
The source of this painting then is a midrashic interpretation of the biblical declaration that no one knew the site of Moses` grave, suggesting that there was no grave! The covered hands are a Roman convention: Roman soldiers presented their covered hands to the Emperor in order to receive their reward for services rendered. In other words, Moses` covered hands indicate that he is receiving a gift from his emperor, God.


In the past, scholars have observed the four portraits as a unit, but have not considered the two lower portraits in the horizontal context of the register in which they stand. If we consider this context, both lower portraits should have something to do with the history of the cult (Ark, Mishkan, temple). On the right, Moses reads from the Torah with the Ark at his feet. On the left, Moses ascends to the heavens. Having toured the Land of Israel in Deuteronomy, prior to his death, he gets an upgrade in the
Midrash, when the Messiah guides him through the celestial and terrestrial Temples.


The black square behind Moses` head would then indicate that he is deceased, as in the Midrash, which identifies him as משה רבנו עליו השלום, Moses our Teacher of blessed memory.


In summary, all temples are our shul, the Ark is our ark and Moses is our rabbi. There is no gap between the ancient sources and ourselves. This is the essence of midrashic thinking. The Jews of Dura are not afraid of portraying their biblical heroes, they are not lost in grief for the past nor obsessed with thoughts of the future or the cosmic. They declare in their art that they feel completely comfortable and at one with their Judaism.








Suggestions for classes based on this register

  • Redecorate your synagogue with images of your favorite bible figures and events, in modern dress.
  • Re-enact the travels of the singing cows
  • David brought the Ark to Jerusalem (II Samuel 7). Before reading the biblical account, write a short paragraph on what you see as a spectator.  Next, draw a picture of what it looked like.   How does the picture broaden your understanding of what you wrote? Now, read the biblical account and view some pictures of the scene. How are these renditions similar and different to your own? What is the connection between words and pictures?


Article Sources:

1 Samuel 6
1 Now the ark of the Lord had been in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we shall send it to its place. 3 They said, If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but you shall surely return to Him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed and it will be known to you why His hand is not removed from you. 4 Then they said, What shall be the guilt offering which we shall return to Him? And they said, Five golden tumors and five golden mice accordingto the number of the lords of the Philistines, for one plague was on all of you and on your Lords. 5 So you shall make likenesses of your tumors and likenesses of your mice that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will ease His hand from you, your gods, and your land. 6 Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He had severely dealt with them, did they not allow the people to go, and they departed? 7 Now therefore, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never been a yoke; and hitch the cows to the cart and take their calves home, away from them. 8 Take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you return to Him as a guilt offering in a box by its side. Then send it away that it may go. 9 Watch, if it goes up by the way of its own territory to Beth Shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we will know that it was not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance. 10 Then the men did so, and took two milk cows and hitched them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. 11 They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the box with the golden mice and the likenesses of their tumors. 12 And the cows took the straight way in the direction of Beth Shemesh; they went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right or to the left. And the Lords of the Philistines followed them to the border of Beth Shemesh.
Antiquities of the Bible, Pseudo-philo, Chapter 55
3. When the Philistines had set up the captured ark of the Lord in the temple of Dagon, their god, and when they had come to inquire of Dagon concerning their fate, they found that he had fallen on his face and his hands and feet were lying before the ark. Early in the morning they went out and crucified his priests. The next day they came and found it as the day before and there was very much destruction among them. 4. The Philistines gathered in Ekron and said to each other, "Behold now we see that destruction is great among us, and the fruit of our womb will perish because the creeping things that have been sent upon us will destroy pregnant women and sucklings and those who give suck." They said, "Let us see why the hand of the lord has been strong upon us. Is it not because of the ark, for our god is found daily falling on his face before the ark? And we have killed the priests more than once on no avail."
 
5 `The wise men of the Philistines said. "Behold now we can de­termine this, whether the Lord has sent destruction upon us on ac­count of his ark or a fitting power has come upon us in a timely fashion.
6 Now because all pregnant and nursing women die, and those: who nurse are made childless and those who are nursed perish, let us take cows that give suck and yoke them to a new cart and put the ark on it and shut up the cows` young. If the cows will go forth in such a way as not to run back to their young we will know that we have suffered these things on account of the ark. But if they refuse to go forth out of longing for their calves we will know that the time of ruin has come upon us."
7 Some of the wise men and diviners answered. "Let us not try only this, but let us set the cows at the head of the three roads that are by Ekron. The middle road goes straight to Ekron, the right-hand one to Judaea and the left-hand one to Samaria. If they set out on the right-hand road and go straight to Judaea, we will know that truly the God of the Jews has destroyed us. But if they go forth by those other roads, we will know that a hard time has come upon us inasmuch as now we have denied our own gods."
8 The Philistines took cows that were nursing and yoked them to a new cart and put the ark on it and set them at the head of the three roads and shut up their calves at home, The cows, although they lowed and yearned for their calves, nevertheless went forth on the right-hand road leading to Judaea. Then they knew they were being destroyed because of the ark
9 All the Philistines gathered together and returned the ark to Shiloh with timbrels and pipes and dances, Because of the savage creeping things that destroyed them they made golden hemorrhoids and they consecrated the ark.
10 Through it the destruction of the Philistines took place. The number of pregnant women who died was seventy-five thousand, sucklings sixty-five thousand, nursing women fifty-five thousand, and men twenty-five thousand. And the land was quiet for seven years.
Josephus, Antiquities.6.1.1-4
When the Philistines had taken the ark of the Hebrews captive, as I said a little before, they carried it to the city of Ashdod, and put it by their own god, who was called Dagon, (1) as one of their spoils; but when they went into his temple the next morning to worship their god, they found him paying the same worship to the ark, for he lay along, as having fallen down from the basis whereon he had stood: so they took him up, and set him on his basis again, and were much troubled at what had happened; and as they frequently came to Dagon and found him still lying along, in a posture of adoration to the ark, they were in very great distress and confusion. At length God sent a very destructive disease upon the city and country of Ashdod, for they died of the dysentery or flux, a sore distemper, that brought death upon them very suddenly; for before the soul could, as usual in easy deaths, be well loosed from the body, they brought up their entrails, and vomited up what they had eaten, and what was entirely corrupted by the disease. And as to the fruits of their country, a great multitude of mice arose out of the earth and hurt them, and spared neither the plants nor the fruits. Now while the people of Ashdod were under these misfortunes, and were not able to support themselves under their calamities, they perceived that they suffered thus because of the ark, and that the victory they had gotten, and their having taken the ark captive, had not happened for their good; they therefore sent to the people of Ashkelon, and desired that they would receive the ark among them. This desire of the people of Ashdod was not disagreeable to those of Ashkelon, so they granted them that favor. But when they had gotten the ark, they were in the same miserable condition; for the ark carried along with it the disasters that the people of Ashdod had suffered, to those who received it from them. Those of Ashkelon also sent it away from themselves to others: nor did it stay among those others neither; for since they were pursued by the same disasters, they still sent it to the neighboring cities; so that the ark went round, after this manner, to the five cities of the Philistines, as though it exacted these disasters as a tribute to be paid it for its coming among them. When those that had experienced these miseries were tired out with them, and when those that heard of them were taught thereby not to admit the ark among them, since they paid so dear a tribute for it, at length they sought for some contrivance and method how they might get free from it: so the governors of the five cities, Gath, and Ekron, and Ashkelon, as also of Gaza, and Ashdod, met together, and considered what was fit to be done; and at first they thought proper to send the ark back to its own people, as allowing that God had avenged its cause; that the miseries they had undergone came along with it, and that these were sent on their cities upon its account, and together with it. However, there were those that said they should not do so, nor suffer themselves to be deluded, as ascribing the cause of their miseries to it, because it could not have such power and force upon them; for, had God had such a regard to it, it would not have been delivered into the hands of men. So they exhorted them to be quiet, and to take patiently what had befallen them, and to suppose there was no other cause of it but nature, which, at certain revolutions of time, produces such mutations in the bodies of men, in the earth, in plants, and in all things that grow out of the earth. But the counsel that prevailed over those already described, was that of certain men, who were believed to have distinguished themselves in former times for their understanding and prudence, and who, in their present circumstances, seemed above all the rest to speak properly. These men said it was not right either to send the ark away, or to retain it, but to dedicate five golden images, one for every city, as a thank-offering to God, on account of his having taken care of their preservation, and having kept them alive when their lives were likely to be taken away by such distempers as they were not able to bear up against. They also would have them make five golden mice like to those that devoured and destroyed their country (2) to put them in a bag, and lay them upon the ark; to make them a new cart also for it, and to yoke mile cows to it (3) but to shut up their calves, and keep them from them, lest, by following after them, they should prove a hinderance to their mothers, and that the dams might return the faster out of a desire of those calves; then to drive these milk cows that carried the ark, and leave it at a place where three ways met, and So leave it to the cows to go along which of those ways they pleased; that in case they went the way to the Hebrews, and ascended to their country, they should suppose that the ark was the cause of their misfortunes; but if they turned into another road, they said, "We will pursue after it, and conclude that it has no such force in it." So they determined that these men spoke well; and they immediately confirmed their opinion by doing accordingly. And when they had done as has been already described, they brought the cart to a place where three ways met, and left it there and went their ways; but the cows went the right way, and as if some persons had driven them, while the rulers of the Philistines followed after them, as desirous to know where they would stand still, and to whom they would go. Now there was a certain village of the tribe of Judah, the name of which was Beth Shemesh, and to that village did the cows go; and though there was a great and good plain before them to proceed in, they went no farther, but stopped the cart there. This was a sight to those of that village, and they were very glad; for it being then summer-time, and all the inhabitants being then in the fields gathering in their fruits, they left off the labors of their hands for joy, as soon as they saw the ark, and ran to the cart, and taking the ark down, and the vessel that had the images in it, and the mice, they set them upon a certain rock which was in the plain; and when they had offered a splendid sacrifice to God, and feasted, they offered the cart and the cows as a burnt-offering: and when the Lords of the Philistines saw this, they returned back. But now it was that the wrath of God overtook them, and struck seventy persons of the village of Beth Shemesh dead, who, not being priests, and so not worthy to touch the ark, had approached to it. Those of that village wept for these that had thus suffered, and made such a lamentation as was naturally to be expected on so great a misfortune that was sent from God; and every one mourned for his own relation. And since they acknowledged themselves unworthy of the ark`s abode with them, they sent to the public senate of the Israelites, and informed them that the ark was restored by the Philistines; which when they knew, they brought it away to Kiriath Yearim, a city in the neighborhood of Beth Shemesh. In this city lived one Abinadab, by birth a Levite, and who was greatly commended for his righteous and religious course of life; so they brought the ark to his house, as to a place fit for God himself to abide in, since therein did inhabit a righteous man. His sons also ministered to the Divine service at the ark, and were the principal curators of it for twenty years; for so many years it continued in Kiriath Yearim, having been but four months with the Philistines
Babylonian Talmud Aboda Zara 24b
And the kine took the straight way [wa-yishsharnah] by the way to Beth Shemesh etc.  What is the meaning of the word `wa-yishsharnah`? — Said R. Johanan in the name of R. Meir: They rendered song. R. Zutra b. Tobiah said in the name of Rab: They directed their faces towards the Ark and rendered song.  And what did they sing? — It was stated in the name of R. Johanan on behalf of R. Meir: [The song beginning with] Then sang Moses and the Children of Israel.  R. Johanan, however, gave it as his own opinion that they sang: And in that day shall you say, Give thanks unto the Lord, call upon His name, make known His doings among the peoples etc.  R. Simeon b. Lakish said: [They sang] the `Orphaned` Psalm: A Psalm. O sing unto the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous things; His right hand, and His holy arm, have wrought salvation for Him. R. Eliezer said: The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble.  R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: The Lord reigns; He is clothed with majesty. R. Isaac Nappaha said: [They sang:]
Sing, O sing, acacia tree,
Ascend in all your gracefulness.
With golden weave they cover you,
The sanctuary-palace hears your eulogy,
With diverse jewels are you adorned.
R. Ashi connected this [song cited] by R. Isaac with the following: [Scripture says,] And it came to pass, when the Ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, O Lord etc.  What did the Israelites say? — Said R. Isaac: `Sing, O sing, acacia tree, etc.`

Herodotus, The Persian Wars,
Book 1, 98
98. It followed to determine who should be chosen to the office. When this debate began the claims of Deioces and his praises were at once in every mouth; so that presently all agreed that he should be king. Upon this he required a palace to be built for him suitable to his rank, and a guard to be given him for his person. The Medes complied, and built him a strong and large palace, on a spot which he himself pointed out, and likewise gave him liberty to choose himself a body-guard from the whole nation. Thus settled upon the throne, he further required them to build a single great city, and, disregarding the petty towns in which they had formerly dwelt, make the new capital the object of their chief attention. The Medes were again obedient, and built the city now called Agbatana, the walls of which are of great size and strength, rising in circles one within the other. The plan of the place is, that each of the walls should out-top the one beyond it by the battlements. The nature of the ground, which is a gentle hill, favors this arrangement in some degree, but it was mainly effected by art. The number of the circles is seven, the royal palace and the treasuries standing within the last. The circuit of the outer wall is very nearly the same with that of Athens. Of this wall the battlements are white, of the next black, of the third scarlet, of the fourth blue, of the fifth orange; all these are colored with paint. The two last have their battlements coated respectively with silver and gold.

Beit Hamidrash III - Pirkei Mashiach

The future Jerusalem will contain 3000 towers and each tower will have 7000 stories. And it will sit atop three mountains: Sinai, Tabor and Carmel. And (each) story will be 7000 measures high, and a measure will be 62 cubits.  They will sit atop 33 side chambers and the Temple will sit atop them all. How will anyone ascend these towers? Like clouds and doves they take off and fly, as it is said, Who are these that fly like a cloud and (come) like doves to their cotes (Isaiah 60). And the Temple will reach to Damascus, as it is said, A pronouncement, The word of the Lord: In the land of Hadrach and Damascus is His resting place. Seven walls will encompass Jerusalem: of silver and of gold and of precious stones, of  antimony and of sapphire, of rubies and of fire and their brilliance will cast light from one end of the world to the other.
Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, based on BHM VI, Introduction 22 and Eldad Hadani, 67 - 70. 
Moses received still another special distinction on the day of his death, for on that day God permitted him to ascend to the lofty place of heaven, and showed him the reward that awaited him in heaven, and the future. The Divine attribute of Mercy appeared there before him and said to him: "I bring glad tidings to thee, at which thou wilt rejoice. Turn to the Throne of Mercy and behold!" Moses turned to the Throne of Mercy and saw God build the Temple of jewels and pearls, while between the separate gems and pearls shimmered the radiance of the Shekinah, brighter than all jewels. And in this Temple he beheld the Messiah, David`s son, and his own brother Aaron, standing erect, and dressed in the robe of the high priest. Aaron then said to Moses: "Do not draw near, for this is the place where the Shekinah dwells, and know that no one may enter here before he have tasted of death and his soul have been delivered to the Angel of Death."

Moses now fell upon his face before God, saying, "Permit me to speak to Thy Messiah before I die." God then said to Moses: "Come, I shall teach thee My great name, that the flames of the Shekinah consume thee not." When the Messiah, David`s son, and Aaron beheld Moses approach them, they knew that God had taught him the great name, so they went to meet him and saluted him with the greeting: "Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord." Moses thereupon said to Messiah: "God told me that Israel was to erect a Temple to Him upon earth, and I now see Him build His own Temple, and that, too, in heaven!" The Messiah replied: "Thy father Jacob saw the Temple that will be erected on earth, and also the Temple that God rears with His own hand in heaven, and he clearly understood that it was the Temple God constructed with His own hand in heaven as house of jewels, of pearls, and of the light of the Shekinah, that was to be preserved for Israel to all eternity, to the end of all generations. This was in the night when Jacob slept upon a stone, and in his dream beheld one Jerusalem upon earth, and another in heaven. God then said to Jacob, `My son Jacob, to-day I stand above thee as in the future thy children will stand before Me.` At the sight of these two Jerusalems, the earthly and the heavenly, Jacob said: `The Jerusalem on earth is nothing, this is not the house that will be preserved for my children in all generations, but in truth that other house of God, that He builds with His own hands.` But if thou sayest," continued the Messiah, "that God with His own hands builds Himself a Temple in heaven, know then that with His hands also He will build the Temple upon earth."
 
Numbers Rabba 13:6 (Ginzburg translation)
The first day of Nisan was an eventful day, "a day that was distinguished by ten crowns." It was the day on which the princes of the tribes began to bring their offerings; it was the first day on which Shekinah came to dwell among Israel; the first day on which sacrifice on any but the appointed place was forbidden; the first day on which priests bestowed their blessing upon Israel; the first day for regular sacrificial service; the first day on which the priests partook of certain portions of the offering; the first day on which the heavenly fire was seen on the altar; it was besides the first day of the week, a Sunday, the first day of the first month of the year. [376]

Exodus 25
10 They shall construct an ark of acacia wood two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and you shall make a gold molding around it. 12 You shall cast four gold rings for it and fasten them on its four feet, and two rings shall be on one side of it and two rings on the other side of it. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark with them. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be removed from it. 16 You shall put into the ark the testimony which I shall give you. 17 You shall make a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide. 18 You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the cover. 19 Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the cover at its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, shielding the cover with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the cover. 21 You shall put the cover on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. 22 There I will meet with you; and from above the cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the Ark of the Testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the children of Israel.