Erwin Goodenough, Symbolism in the Dura Synagogue (Princeton University Press)

Elijah upholds the law in these two scenes from the third-century C.E. synagogue at Dura-Europos, in modern Syria. Painted in tempera on dry plaster smeared over mud-brick walls, the scenes from the Dura synagogue are among the earliest known biblical images.

According to 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenged the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal to a contest to see whose god was more powerful. He proposed that both the foreign prophets and he lay a single bull on an altar and then pray to their respective deities to ignite the sacrificial animal. Whichever deity—Yahweh or Baal—responded would be deemed the one true God.

In this painting, the priests of Baal gather around their altar, crying out, “O, Baal, answer us” (1 Kings 18:26), but their sacrifice remains untouched (compare with painting depicting Elijah and his followers). (The small man standing inside the altar in this painting does not appear in the biblical story but rather in a later midrash, or rabbinic elaboration on the story. According to this midrash, when the prophets of Baal realized they would fail, a man named Hiel agreed to hide within the altar to ignite the heifer from below. The Israelite God foiled their plan by sending a poisonous snake, in the foreground, to bite Hiel, who died.)