The synagogue at Dura-Europos—an ancient city in what is now eastern Syria and was then the frontier between the Roman and Sassanian empires—is thought to have been built in the 2nd or 3rd century CE and is one of the oldest synagogues ever discovered, as well as one of the best preserved. Although the synagogue itself has reportedly been destroyed by Islamic State, its elaborate wall paintings of biblical scenes, arranged in three rows (or “registers”) are in a Damascus museum and have been photographed extensively. Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman explicate a series of these paintings drawn from the book of Ezekiel, which they understand as an artistic “midrash” on the corresponding passages:
Unlike the middle register of paintings in the Dura Europos synagogue, all of whose pictures deal with the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple, the lower register contains a variety of separate scenes whose unifying theme is elusive. The paintings that have survived include: scenes from the life of Elijah, the Purim story, the anointing of David, the saving of the infant Moses, and episodes from the book of Ezekiel.
Some have suggested that miraculous survival is the central theme of the register; others have mentioned rebirth and resurrection. But in each case, the suggestions do not account for all the paintings. As a result, we propose that the underlying motif of this register is “unexpected reversal of fortune that leads to triumph,” in which God’s presence is sometimes overt and at other times implied. It is significant that this register is at the congregation’s eye level, and therefore serves as a continuous subliminal message.
We have here two examples of children, destined for greatness, who are saved from imminent death (baby Moses and the son of the widow of Zarefat [revived by Elijah in I Kings 17]). We have examples of the defeat of the many idolaters by the few faithful (Elijah against the prophets of Baal and the fall of Jerusalem’s apostates [Ezekiel 9]). We have the startling choice of David, Jesse’s youngest son, over his older brothers and in place of Saul, as the new king of Israel; and we have Mordecai’s triumphant parade led by the foiled Haman through the streets of Shushan. And finally, we have the vision of the valley of dry bones.
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