David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
In the heart of the town of Magdala stood its main synagogue with a mysterious sacred stone standing in the midst of its sanctuary. Discovered in 2009, this stone has depths to it that researchers are still searching out.
Symbol of the Temple
Scholars are still studying and thinking about the meaning of the Magdala Stone. As I searched for explanations, I turned to the Biblical Archaeology Society’s article written in 2021, as well as a few other sources, and it seems Dr. Rina Talgam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is currently the leading researcher in deciphering the symbology of the stones. The following suggestions come from the above sources as well as some of my own thoughts.
A while ago I gave a talk on the widow’s mite, for church, and turned it into a twenty-minute video where I describe the temple of Jesus’s day.
Synagogues were oriented towards Jerusalem, and when the Magdala stone was uncovered, it stood in the middle of the central hall, positioned so that
if a rabbi stood in front of the stone, facing the menorah, he would set his gaze south toward Jerusalem, as though entering the Temple itself.Jennifer Ristine, The Magdala Stone: The Jerusalem Temple Embodied, Biblical Archaeology Society
The front of the stone has an arch supported by two pillars, reminiscent of the entry to the Temple. Under the arch is a seven-branched menorah standing on a pedestal. One either side are two-handled jars, which also seem to be on stands of some sort.
- The menorah is iconic of Israel, but also of the Holy Place, and of God’s Spirit, both in the oil flowing through the menorah, and the flames shedding light.
- The jars may represent oil for the menorah, or stone jars filled with living water meant for ritual cleansing.
- The pedestal might be the golden altar also in the Holy Place where the incense of Israel’s prayers were burned every morning and every evening. Or, it might be the altar of sacrifice, in the outer court.
Movement Through The Sanctuary
Both sides of the stone are the same, showing a hall the length of the stone made of four arches. Within three of the arches are sheaves of grain, most likely wheat. The fourth arch seems to have an oil lamp hanging in it.
- The arches are similar to the great Solomon’s Colonnade at the temple, where rabbis, including Jesus, would teach the people. Or, perhaps they represent the wall around the sanctuary, as though entering into the temple in one’s mind and spirit.
- The sheaves of grain seem to indicate both the wave offerings as described in the Book of Leviticus, and the Feast of Firstfruits.
- The oil lamp is one of the lesser-known symbols. Today it is seen in both churches and synagogues as a chancel lamp, to be kept burning night and day as a sign of God’s eternality and continual presence, available always to the people.
You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn continually.
In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by the Israelites.Exodus 27:20-21 (NRSV)
Manifestation of the Holy Place
The top of the stone It took me a while, but if you look closely you will see two clusters of three hearts for a total of six. On both sides of one of the clusters are images that could represent tables. There is also a six-petalled rosette flanked by what look like palm trees, or are perhaps columns with palmette capitals.
- The six hearts, with their two lobes apiece, may represent the showbread in the Holy Place, which was placed in two sets of six bread loaves on a table meant for that purpose. The twelve loaves symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel.
- The two squares would then represent the table on which the showbread was placed.
- Columns with palmette capitals actually did mark the way into the Holy of Holies in the second temple, as described by Josephus.
- The six-petalled flower would then represent the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. According to Josephus, this veil was decorated with flowers.
Interestingly, this six-petalled rosette was a popular funerary motif, possibly symbolizing the veil between physical life and life beyond the grave, with God.
Mysterious Presence of God
The back of the stone has three columns, two with ionic capitals, supporting two arches. Suspended in each arch is a six-spiked wheel with rays beneath them evocative of the sun, or of fire.
- Columns and arches signal this is a new room, the Holy of Holies.
- Two wheels seem to indicate the throne, or perhaps chariot of God.
- Fire combined with the wheels hearkens to Ezekiel’s vision of God’s presence.
As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them.
As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl, and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel.
When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. Their rims were tall and awesome, for the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them, and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose.
Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for a living spirit was in the wheels.
When they moved, the others moved; when they stopped, the others stopped; and when they rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for a living spirit was in the wheels.
And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire, and seated above the likeness of the throne was something that seemed like a human form.
Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around, and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire,
and there was a splendor all around.
Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.Ezekiel 1:15-21, 26-28 (NRSV)
The Magdala Stone seems to represent the temple.
A bimah is a raised platform with a reading table from which the Torah and the prophets are read on the Sabbath and festivals. The Magdala Stone’s height is tall enough for a person to read from it while sitting and may have been the bimah for this synagogue. But because of its carvings—wrought by an artist who, scholars agree, had seen these things with their own eyes—this bimah was much more, for in a spiritual sense it connected the rabbi and the worshippers to the temple.
It was placed in the center of worship, where everyone would be reminded of the temple. It faced Jerusalem. Its imagery came from the Holy Place, with visual cues for the temple’s appearance, as well as the festivals celebrated and sacrifices offered at the temple. For many who could not afford the time or expense of journeying to Jerusalem, it provided a mystical connection to God’s holy habitation.
In a sense all those who love and follow Jesus are something like Magdala Stones, bearing the image of our Savior, and experiencing real connection to the Lord.