Remembering Ancient Shiloh

Archaeologists are uncovering biblical Shiloh and bringing to life some of the Bible’s greatest history.
ABR team excavates the northern area of Tel Shiloh
Michael Luddeni
From the May-June 2022 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

Over the years, archaeologists, including Prof. Israel Finkelstein, Dr. Scott Stripling and others, have conducted a number of important excavations at ancient Shiloh. These excavations have uncovered numerous ruins and artifacts that support much of the history of Shiloh recorded in the Bible.

Discoveries such as a ceramic pomegranate (a fruit associated with the tabernacle, as well as priestly garments), thousands of animal bones related to the sacrificial service at the tabernacle, and a trio of rare altar horns are most likely dated to the time period when the tabernacle was in Shiloh.

Dr. Stripling has also partially uncovered a large building or platform. This edifice has remarkably similar dimensions to the tabernacle, it is dated to the same period as the tabernacle, and it is oriented east to west, just as the tabernacle was. In June, Mr. Stripling will begin the next phase of his Shiloh excavation and further excavate this large platform. Be sure to keep abreast of Dr. Stripling’s work: He might be on the cusp of uncovering something truly sensational!

As these scientists resurrect the archaeological history of ancient Shiloh, it is a good time to also remember the biblical history of this important city. The history of Shiloh contains a lot of calamity and despair. But it also contains a lot of hope—much more than most people know. In fact, some of the greatest messages God has ever inspired were delivered to people in Shiloh!

Israel’s Spiritual Headquarters

Shiloh is situated 43 kilometers north of Jerusalem. It is spoken about several times in the books of Joshua and Judges. After the Israelites conquered the Promised Land and divided the territory according to the tribes, Shiloh became Israel’s capital and the location of the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant.

The ark symbolized God’s presence in Israel. Inside it were three objects: the two tables of stone with the Ten Commandments; Aaron’s rod, symbolizing the government to apply, implement and enforce the Ten Commandments; and the golden pot of manna, representing spiritual food from God. All three items were crucial to Israel’s religion.

Because it hosted the ark of the covenant, Shiloh was also the religious and spiritual headquarters of the nation. Unger’s Bible Dictionary calls it “the site of Israel’s early sanctuary in the time of the judges,” and says, “It was the focal point of Israel’s tribal organization before the establishment of the kingdom.”

The “time of the judges” occurred after Joshua and the elders who served under him died. The book of Judges starts out with Israel being strong and courageous. But conditions deteriorated quickly: The nation got away from God’s law and descended into terrible idolatry and other sins. What followed was the bloodiest period in Israel’s history.

Let the Stones Speak

Compromising With the Law

Judges 1:19 gives the first sign of trouble. It says that Judah “could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.” This shows a certain faithlessness. If they had relied on God, no weapons of the enemy would have stopped them.

In verse 21, we read, “And the children of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites that inhabited Jerusalem; but the Jebusites dwelt with the children of Benjamin in Jerusalem, unto this day.” That was a serious mistake. When David came along some years later, the Jebusites were still there creating problems. But David handled the situation very differently (2 Samuel 5).

Israel’s behavior during the period of the judges shows that it is very difficult for human beings to simply do as God commands. Humans lack faith and tend to reason for themselves how things should be handled. During that awful period, there were a few good judges, like Jephthah and Samson. Yet even they had major sins.

God used the judge Gideon in a powerful way (Judges 6-8). That is a particularly interesting story because Gideon was such a coward. Through Gideon, we see that God works with the lowly of the world and turns them into courageous warriors.

Another notable judgeship was that of Deborah (Judges 4). She was a prophetess, and the Israelites could see that God was using her and revealing truths to her (verses 4-5). God wanted to use Barak to deliver Israel. Deborah gave him God’s instructions on how to do so. But Barak was so weak that he wouldn’t do it unless Deborah went with him and held him by the hand! (verse 8). Deborah chided him for his lack of manliness (verse 9). Israel had 10,000 soldiers, yet here was a woman running everything, and she was apparently the only one capable of doing it!

After God gave Israel the victory in this battle, Deborah and Barak sang a victory song. It is beautiful poetry describing God’s power!

The overarching point of the book of Judges is repeated for emphasis: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25; see also Judges 18:1). This history vividly shows the terrible results of such lawlessness. When God’s government isn’t in place and when His law is being ignored—when everyone is doing whatever is right in their own eyes—you have miserable anarchy.

The most wonderful thing about this biblical history is to see how God set Israel back on track. The priesthood was degenerate, but God determined to make some changes. The government was in disarray, but God was going to establish a king. It’s remarkable how God began the process of turning things around anciently. It started with one family—and it all centered around Shiloh.

The Solution

The transition from the period of the judges to the period of the united monarchy is recorded in 1 Samuel. In 1 Samuel 1, we are introduced to a man named Elkanah, who had two wives. Each year, Elkanah would “sacrifice unto the Lord of hosts in Shiloh” (verse 3). Verse 5 records that God had shut the womb of one of Elkanah’s wives, Hannah. To a woman who passionately desires children, that is a real crisis. It certainly was to Hannah. But God did it for a purpose, and this trial motivated her far more than it would most women.

Hannah cried about this affliction. “And Elkanah her husband said unto her: ‘Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?’” (verse 8). Elkanah realized that the foundation of a family is the husband and the wife. Still, Hannah was grieved because she didn’t have children; although it appears she had a wonderful husband.

Hannah went to the tabernacle in Shiloh and prayed there, imploring God to give her a man child. During that heartfelt prayer in Shiloh, Hannah made a crucial vow. She told God that if He answered her prayer, she would give that child to God “all the days of his life” (verses 9-11). Hannah was a woman of faith, and when she left, she knew that her prayer was answered (verse 18).

When her son was born, Hannah called him Samuel, which means heard of God. God really did respond to Hannah. It’s amazing what He did for this woman. Hannah had to be quite a mom because she delivered on that vow. She looked after Samuel diligently and was determined that when the time came to bring him back to the tabernacle in Shiloh, she would leave him there—“that he may appear before the Lord, and there abide for ever” (verse 22). That is exactly what Hannah did—Samuel was just a toddler when his mother kept her promise to God and left him with Eli the priest in Shiloh (verses 26-28). What a mother!

Hannah’s Prophecy

Right there in Shiloh, Hannah delivered a prayerful psalm, which is one of the most profound prophecies in the Bible. You can read it in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. “The Lord killeth, and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up” (verse 6). Hannah knew that God has power over life.

She continued: “He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, He lifteth up the needy from the dung-hill, To make them sit with princes, And inherit the throne of glory; For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, And He hath set the world upon them” (verse 8). Here, Hannah is prophesying about the Messiah, who will come and set up his government on Earth.

The end of verse 10 reads, “The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; And He will give strength unto His king, And exalt the horn of His anointed.” What was Hannah talking about here? This was a direct, specific prophecy about King David!

David hadn’t come on the scene yet. But God began revealing His plan for King David, and for the throne and house of David, right here in Shiloh many decades before David was even born. As it happened, Hannah’s son, the toddler who became the great Prophet Samuel, ended up anointing David as king!

Gary Dorning/AIBA

A Faithful Priest

Hannah prophesied all this in Shiloh right at the end of the period of the judges. Hannah lived through a disastrous time. Yet in the middle of all this tragedy, one woman came on the scene and began to change the course of history in Israel. What a lady!

During this time, a man of God came and delivered God’s judgment to Eli. In that message, God said this: “And I will raise Me up a faithful priest, that shall do according to that which is in My heart and in My mind; and I will build him a sure house; and he shall walk before Mine anointed for ever” (1 Samuel 2:35).

This is a prophecy about Zadok, the warrior priest who remained loyal to King David. When David’s son Adonijah rebelled, Abiathar, the chief priest, joined that revolution. Zadok, however, remained faithful. He stayed loyal to David’s throne throughout David’s life!

That occurred about 100 years after Eli died; yet this man of God prophesied about the priest who would replace Abiathar. God looked beyond Abiathar and his rebellion all the way to Zadok, and He said, I will raise me up a faithful priest—one who will be loyal to David and that throne forever!

This is incredible history, and so much of it happened in Shiloh, which is now being uncovered stone by stone!

Destruction at Shiloh

Samuel was raised in Shiloh and educated in the tabernacle. While Samuel was in Shiloh, God appeared to him twice (1 Samuel 3:10, 21). This is one reason these archaeological excavations in Shiloh are so inspiring: Dr. Stripling is uncovering the place where young Samuel lived and worked!

In 1 Samuel 4, the Philistines went on the attack, and the Israelites—without consulting God—decided to grab the ark from Shiloh and bring it with them into battle, as if that physical object would save them. In the ensuing battle, the Philistines seized the ark. Unger’s Bible Dictionary says, “Shiloh was destroyed … presumably at the hands of the Philistines when the ark was carried away (1 Samuel 4).”

Evidence of this event has been found in Shiloh. Archaeologists have uncovered a burn layer—evidence that Shiloh was destroyed—that was dated to this time period.

Shiloh was desolate, and the ark was gone. This was deeply depressing to Samuel. “The overthrow of Shiloh marked a turning point in the history of that period,” Unger’s continues. It was a watershed event for Israel. And after the Philistines brought the ark back, it was never set up again in Shiloh. Shiloh continued to be inhabited, but was never again the seat of Israel’s government.

God Is King!

After the period of the judges, when everyone was doing things their own way, God used Samuel to start building a headquarters work that everybody in Israel would focus on. The Bible says Samuel built a college. At this school, he educated many of Israel’s leaders and institutionalized the truth of God (1 Samuel 7:16; 10:5; 19:18-20).

Sadly, Samuel’s own sons didn’t turn out well (1 Samuel 8:1-3). The people of Israel held this against Samuel, and it soured their attitude against God’s government. They told Samuel that they wanted to be ruled by a king rather than by God through His prophet.

The people felt justified in asking Samuel to step aside and wanting a king to lead them. But God, though He was upset at what Samuel’s sons were doing, disagreed with the people. He told Samuel, “[T]hey have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them” (verse 7). That was the reality! The people didn’t want the law and government of God!

This was Israel’s cardinal sin! They rejected God as their King!

Israel rejected God and followed Saul—a physically impressive individual to whom they could look instead of God—into the depths of ignominy.

After Saul, God made David Israel’s king—and in that moment, the great prophecy made by Hannah in Shiloh was fulfilled. Together, God and David established Israel as a regional powerhouse. God gave “strength unto His king, And exalt[ed] the horn of His anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10).

Imagine how special it would have been for Samuel to anoint David king! In that moment, the prophecy spoken by his mother was fulfilled: God used Samuel to anoint David king and begin this eternal royal dynasty. And it all began in the city of Shiloh!

When you understand this history, you can really appreciate and understand why the archaeological excavations now underway in Shiloh are so important. At Shiloh, Prof. Finkelstein, Dr. Stripling and all the others who have dug this tel are not just unearthing old animal bones, decayed walls or paltry clay artifacts: They are unearthing some of the most powerful biblical history you could ever read!

Let the Stones Speak