Fixing the Site of the Tabernacle at Shiloh
By Asher S. Kaufman
In a recent BAR article (January/February 1986), Israel Finkelstein, the director of the important new excavations at Shiloh, reported to BAR readers the exciting results of his efforts. The title of the article, “Shiloh Yields Some, But Not All, of Its Secrets,” BAR 12:01, accurately describes the contents. The added blurb, “Location of Tabernacle Still Uncertain,” indicates that the last word has not yet been said regarding this intriguing question.
As BAR readers will recall, it was at Shiloh that the Israelites set up the desert Tabernacle after crossing the Jordan River, arriving in the Land of Promise and taking possession of the land. In Joshua 18:1 we are told: “And the whole community of the children of Israel assembled at Shiloh, and set up the Tent of Meeting there. And the land was under their control.”
The Tent of Meeting was the portable structure erected by Moses after the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 40:17ff.) in fulfillment of the Biblical injunction: “And let them make Me a Temple and I shall dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). Its central feature was the Mishkan (usually translated Tabernacle). The Mishkan consisted of two covered chambers. The first was the Holy of Holies (Hebrew, Kodesh Ha-Kodashim), measuring 10 cubits by 10 cubits. Separated from the Holy of Holies by the “Veil” (Hebrew, Parochet), on its eastern side, was the second chamber of the Mishkan, the Holy Place (Hebrew, Kodesh), a rectangle 20 cubits long and 10 cubits wide (Exodus 26). The Ark of the Covenant, containing the two stone tablets of the Law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, was placed in the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26:34). The Tabernacle was set in an open rectangular court together with the Altar of Sacrifice on the east and the Laver (Exodus 40). The terminology can be a little confusing because sometimes the Tabernacle is named the Tent of Meeting (as, for example, in Exodus 40:7). I shall call the whole structure, including the surrounding court, the Tent of Meeting (as in Exodus 33:7). The Tent of Meeting was the prototype of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, especially the former.
The Tent of Meeting remained at Shiloh until the Philistines destroyed the city about 1050 B.C., after the famous battle of Eben-Ezer.a When the battle was going badly for the Israelites, the Ark of the Covenant was taken from the Tent of Meeting and brought to them, but to no avail. The Philistines won the battle, captured the Ark, and then marched on Shiloh, ultimately destroying the Tabernacle there (1 Samuel 4; Jeremiah 7:12–14, 26:6, 26:9; Psalms 78:60). Until that defeat, for many years, Shiloh had served as the religious center of the Israelite tribal confederation. Here the tribal territories were allotted (Joshua 18:10); here the people gathered in times of distress (Joshua 22:12); here they celebrated their annual religious pilgrimage (Judges 21:19–21; 1 Samuel 1).
Naturally, any excavator of the site would be interested in locating the site of the Tent of Meeting with the Tabernacle. Finkelstein is no exception. Although admitting that he has not found the building itself, Finkelstein speculates that it was probably on the summit of the tell. He rather cavalierly dismisses the suggestion made by Charles W. Wilson of the Palestine Exploration Fund in London more than a hundred years ago that the Tabernacle was located about 160 yards (150 meters) north of the tell center on a flat rock surface. Finkelstein tells us only that Wilson:
“suggested that the Tabernacle stood on a natural rock surface just north of the tell; he based his suggestion on the many indications of hewing discernible on this flat area … However, recent excavations in this area undertaken by Ze’ev Yeivin of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums turned up no remains whatsoever of the Iron I period [the period of the Judges].”
Finkelstein concedes that his own excavations have not “given an unequivocal answer to the question of the location of the Tabernacle [while at Shiloh].” He also notes that “Wilson’s proposal still finds some supporters today.”
In his recent book on the Israelite settlement in Canaan,b he cites as supporting Wilson’s proposal an unpublished lecture of mine delivered in 1981 to the Israel Biblical Research Society that was circulated privately and that I made available to Dr. (then Mr.) Finkelstein. Otherwise, he says no more about Wilson’s proposal in his book than he does in his BAR article.
I believe Wilson’s location and the arguments—both new and old—in support of it deserve a more extended treatment than Finkelstein has given it, for there is much to be said in its favor.
Wilson seems to have been the first person in modern times to suggest a possible location of the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Wilson became acquainted with Palestine as a captain in the Royal Engineers of the British Army when he led the first scientific survey of Jerusalem in 1864–1865. This survey—conducted for the purpose of improving the sanitary state of the city—paved the way for the establishment in 1865 of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), which conducted an ordnance survey of Palestine and promoted the scientific exploration of the country. Eventually, Sir Charles Wilson (he was knighted) became an influential figure on the Executive Committee of the PEF.
The ruins of the Arab village Seilun had previously been identified as ancient Shiloh by the American explorer, geographer and Biblical scholar Edward Robinson, who passed by there in 1838. Robinson, it should be noted, was the first to identify Shiloh in modern times. In 1322, the Jewish scholar and geographer Rabbi Ish Tori Happatchi correctly identified the place:1
“Shiloh is directly south of Shechem, although a little to the east, [at a distance of] about three hours’ [travel]. And it is on the way in going up to Jerusalem, with Shiloh placed on the left of the highway ascending from Shechem to Jerusalem. It is at the end of the first third [of this journey] and it is called Seilun. And realize that just as it is identified at the end of the book of Judges [21:19], so it is today, in that first of all you locate on your right Lebonah which is called [today] Lubin. Ascend further for about 1000 cubits and you will find on your left a spring of water; and from there take [the] path pointing south east for about an hour and there is Shiloh. There was still there a cupola which is named the Dome of the Shechinah [Divine Presence; Dome of the Shechinah is the translation of the Arabic phrase given in Hebrew characters.] …
Here is Wilson’s description of the spot he identified as the site of the Tabernacle:2
“Northwards the ‘Tell’ [of Seilun] slopes down to a broad shoulder, across which a sort of level court, 77 ft. wide and 412 ft. long, has been cut. The rock is in places scarped to a height of 5 ft., and along the sides are several excavations, and a few small cisterns. The level portion of the rock is covered by a few inches of soil. It is not improbable that the place was thus prepared to receive the Tabernacle … At any rate, there is no other level space on the ‘Tell’ sufficiently large to receive a tent of the dimensions of the Tabernacle.”
In 1926, a Danish expedition under the direction of Hans Kjaer excavated at Shiloh. A second expedition was mounted by the Danes in 1929. Their “chief aim [in this second expedition] was to find the very place of the old sanctuary,” but they readily admitted that they had failed to do so.3
While Wilson placed the sanctuary north of the tell (and, as we have seen, Finkelstein places it on the summit of the tell), the late Professor Michael Avi-Yonah of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in his short survey of the location of the sanctuary at Shiloh placed it south of the tell, with some qualification. According to Avi-Yonah:4
“The area south of the mound, … seems a much more likely spot for an open-air sanctuary around a Tabernacle; … Nonetheless, it is not impossible that the sanctuary stood inside the city proper.”
Obviously no definitive answer to the question is possible at this time. So we must deal in likelihoods and probabilities.
The first factor that favors Wilson’s site is that it conforms to the dimensions of the Tent of Meeting as described in the Bible.
According to the description in Exodus 26, the Tabernacle was 30 cubits long and 10 cubits wide. At that time, the cubit was six handbreadths long—16.9 inches (42.8 centimeters).c Accordingly, the Tabernacle was approximately 42.2 feet (12.84 meters) long and 14.1 feet (4.28 meters) wide.
A much larger space was needed, however, because the Tabernacle was enclosed within a court of much larger dimensions. The surrounding court was 100 cubits long and 50 cubits wide (Exodus 27:18). This translates into a court 140 feet (42.8 meters) long and 70 feet (21.4 meters) wide.
It appears that during its long stay at Shiloh, the Tent of Meeting was converted from its fully portable form to a semi-permanent structure. The Bible refers to the Tabernacle as a bayit, or house, in 1 Samuel 1:24, the same word used with reference to Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 6:1 and elsewhere. The Mishnah,d which was compiled about 200 A.D., tells us: “They came to Shiloh … and [the Tabernacle] there was not roofed but [was] a house (bayit) of masonry in the lower [part] and curtains in the upper [part] … ” (Zevachim 14:6). This stone foundation wall would have added a few feet to the area needed for the Tabernacle and its enclosing courtyard, that is, the Temple compound.
All in all the Temple at Shiloh, including the Mishkan (Tabernacle) enclosed in a courtyard with a wall, was a rectangle a few feet more than 140 feet long and a few feet more than 70 feet wide—say 145 feet by 75 feet.
The site just north of the tell on which Wilson placed the Tabernacle allows for a complex of this size. Wilson located the Temple complex on a flat, hewn rock terrace north of the tell that is about 50 feet lower than the summit. This terrace can be divided into three areas; I call these areas A (in the middle), B (to the east) and C (to the west), as seen in aerial photographs of the site in the sidebar (Past and Present Efforts to Solve the Puzzle).
The length of area A alone is about 180 feet, which is more than adequate to accommodate the length of the court of the Tent of Meeting. The limiting dimension is the width. The narrowest part of area A is 78 feet, as measured on a map belonging to Ze’ev Yeivin.5 This width is sufficient for a stone-wall foundation for the courtyard 2 ½ cubits (over 3 feet) thick, with some room to spare.
A topographical map of the tell adapted from Kjaer’s excavation report appears in the sidebar. It seems impossible to fit an approximately level courtyard of the dimensions described in the Bible on the summit of the tell (where Finkelstein proposes to place the Tabernacle) or even in its close proximity. Again, the dimensions of this courtyard would be 145 feet by 75 feet.
The Tent of Meeting in the wilderness was aligned east-west (Exodus 26:22; Numbers 3:23, 38). This brings into play another element in identifying the location of the Temple compound at Shiloh. Surely, an attempt would have been made to align the Temple at Shiloh along an east-west axis, in accordance with the Biblical description of the Tent of Meeting. (Both the First and Second Temples were also aligned east-west, the latter precisely so and the former with a deviation of 6 1/8–3/8.e) The aerial photograph shows quite clearly that the site identified by Wilson as the location of the Temple compound (essentially areas A and B, according to the author) is indeed aligned approximately east-west. I have myself confirmed this by rough compass measurements on some of the rock cuttings on the site.
There are several other factors that tend to support Wilson’s identification of the site. As can be seen from the topographical map in the sidebar, Wilson’s site is protected by steep slopes on all sides, except on the south, the side facing the tell. Even today, the sole approach by road to the tell—and to the site Wilson proposed for the Tabernacle compound—is from the south. Finkelstein’s excavations confirm that the town of Shiloh lay on the tell, south of Wilson’s site. This location would provide further security to the sacred place to the north, if indeed it was located on Wilson’s site. When combined with the site’s natural defenses created by the steep fall-off on the north, east, and west, offering ready-made protection from a potential enemy, the site becomes particularly attractive from a strictly topological viewpoint.
A location north of the city for the Temple compound may even be indicated in the Biblical text itself. A young friend of mine, Dr. Samuel Gillis, originally made this suggestion to me. When the Israelites were losing the battle of Eben-Ezer, they sent to Shiloh for the Ark of the Covenant to be carried in battle against the Philistines. Even this failed to turn the tide, and the Philistines captured the Ark. The Philistines also slew the two sons of Eli, the high priest at the Shiloh Temple. A man from the tribe of Benjamin was then sent from the battlefield to Shiloh to report the tragic events. A careful reading of the text seems to indicate that the messenger had to pass through the town before reaching Eli and the Temple. Since the only entrance to the town, then as now, was no doubt from the south, this indicates that the Temple compound was just north of the city—precisely where Wilson’s site is located.
Here is the Biblical text:
“A man of Benjamin ran from the battle lines, and came to Shiloh the same day, with his uniform rent, and earth upon his head. And he came, and now Eli was sitting on the chair by the way-side waiting,6 because his heart trembled for the Ark of God; and the man came to tell [about the defeat, the fate of the Ark and the death of Eli’s sons] in the town, and the whole town cried out. And Eli heard the sound of the shouting, and said ‘What [is the meaning of] the sound of this tumult?’ And the man hastened, and came and told Eli” (1 Samuel 4:12–14).
From this, it seems that Eli was sitting on a seat by the wayside, near the Temple (see also 1 Samuel 1:9); that is, north of the city, according to Wilson’s site. The messenger, coming from the south, came first to the town and gave his report to the townspeople. Eli does not hear the contents of the report, but he does hear the people crying out at the news. Then the messenger goes to Eli and tells him as well. Wilson’s site conforms precisely to this scenario.
Wilson’s site is not within the city itself, and this too lends plausibility to his suggestion. In their desert wanderings, the Israelites positioned the Tent of Meeting outside the camp and far from it (Exodus 33:7). This relative location was no doubt preserved at Shiloh, with the town (centered on the tell) replacing the Israelite camp in this arrangement.
Archaeologists usually anticipate cultic centers on high places, as Finkelstein does. However, in the Torah (Deuteronomy 12:2, 4), the Israelites were warned not to follow this practice. Wilson’s court is nearly 50 feet lower than the summit of the tell.
Finally, the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah, chapter 1, Halakhah 12) refers to two distinct places—Shiloh (presumably the town), and the Tabernacle (Mishkan) of Shiloh. Although this text is nearly 1,500 years later than the event, it may well preserve an accurate historical memory that the Tabernacle was located apart from the settlement.
I return now to a factor referred to above only glancingly—the fact that Wilson’s site has been worked. Wilson noted that a “level court” had been “cut.” He also found “a few small cisterns” on this apparently manmade rock terrace. In some places he found that the terrace had been scarped to a height of 5 feet. My own brief examination of the site has confirmed extensive evidence of manmade hewing. The question is, when did this occur?
Part of Wilson’s site was excavated recently (1976, 1981, 1982) by Ze’ev Yeivin. On the basis of Yeivin’s results, Finkelstein dismisses Wilson’s site: “However, recent excavations in this area undertaken by Ze’ev Yeivin of the Israel Department of Antiquities turned up no remains whatsoever of the Iron I period.” All of Yeivin’s material was from later periods.
But this is not as devastating an argument as Finkelstein suggests. The aerial photograph in the sidebar was taken on February 23, 1983, shortly after Yeivin completed his trial excavation of this area. As the photograph reveals, Yeivin excavated only a fraction of Wilson’s site. Remains of the temple could easily have been missed, especially bearing in mind its semipermanent character.
Moreover, it could well be that little remains of the Temple compound. After all, it was built on a rock terrace. And, as Yeivin’s excavations reveal, there was subsequent occupation of the site. Finkelstein himself explains the absence of earlier remains on the summit of the tell:
“[because] construction in all periods attempts to lay building foundations directly on bedrock, the building activity of later periods … caused extensive damage to earlier strata. Older buildings had often been destroyed and sometimes even eradicated.”
This situation is, a fortiori, true of the rock terrace that is Wilson’s site. Subsequent construction could easily have removed all traces of earlier construction.
Finkelstein has never really addressed the arguments in favor of Wilson’s site. Instead, he speculates that the Temple compound once stood on the summit of the tell and has now been completely eroded away. This is possible, although, as I previously suggested, it would be difficult to find a flat area on the summit large enough to accommodate the Temple compound. By contrast, Wilson’s site is an artificially created terrace with a level rock floor that is sufficiently large to accept the Shiloh Temple.
The final question is whether any further research can be undertaken to determine whether Wilson’s site may still bear traces of the Temple compound that once stood there—if it did. I believe the answer is yes. The same method I have used for the Temple of Jerusalem should be tried. Aerial and ground surveys of the rock cuttings on Wilson’s site on a scale of 1:100 should be made to determine their alignment and dimensions. Are they aligned on an east-west (and perpendicular) axis, indicating that a wall or building was once aligned on this same axis? Are their dimensions fractions or multiples of the cubit used in the Settlement period? Further excavation in Wilson’s site (Yeivin’s excavations here were only trial squares) might also help to piece together this jigsaw puzzle. All it takes is time and money.
If I might conclude with my own cautious suggestion, I would speculate that the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, was situated on area A of Wilson’s site and that the wall enclosing the Tabernacle and creating the courtyard extended on to area B of Wilson’s site. I base this suggestion on the fact that adjacent sections of area A and area B are straddled on the north by a fairly straight rock cutting, thereby connecting them and possibly indicating that this part of the site was used for a special purpose. I add to this the fact that area A is higher than area B. As we know from both the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, one ascends in sanctity.