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Christmas collection
Jan Collaert, Hanna, after Maerten de Vos, 1588-1595, engraving, 159 mm x 93 mm (cropped). Courtesy Rijksmusuem.

According to the biblical text, Shiloh served as a sacred site in ancient Israel. It was the place where the tent of meeting was established after the Israelites entered the land of Canaan. It also functioned as the primary cultic location until the time of the prophet Samuel.

What is the significance of Shiloh as a cultic site?

Judg 21:19 specifies the location of Shiloh, which has helped archaeologists identify the site with Khirbet Seilun in the West Bank. Archaeologists have also concluded that, in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, Shiloh was a walled city with a cult shrine.

Shiloh first appears as a place name in the biblical text in the book of Joshua, where “the whole congregation of the Israelites assembled at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there” (Josh 18:1). Joshua established Shiloh as a centralized location for the people to gather, first for the distribution of the land (Josh 18:1–10) and later for war (Josh 22:2). Shiloh was the first permanent site for the tent of meeting. The tent of meeting contained the ark of the covenant and was where the Lord’s presence would descend (Exod 33:7–11).

Shiloh became the first central cultic site in ancient Israel, which means it served as the location to which the Israelite people travel to perform acts of worship. The biblical text gives several examples of the various forms of worship at Shiloh. Young women of Shiloh “dance in the dances” at the yearly festival of the Lord (Judg 21:19–21), Israelites came to Shiloh to offer meat sacrifices (1Sam 2:14), and Elkanah and his wives Peninnah and Hannah “go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh” (1Sam 1:3–7).

Hannah also dedicated her son Samuel in service to the Lord at Shiloh. All Israel understood Samuel to be a trustworthy prophet because “the LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the LORD” (1Sam 3:20–21). Shiloh still contained the ark of God (1Sam 3:3) during these early days of Samuel’s time, and Shiloh was referred to as “the temple of the LORD” (1Sam 1:9, 1Sam 3:3), complete with doors (1Sam 3:15), likely indicating that it became a more permanent structure than the tent of meeting.

However, this structure and Shiloh do not last. In 1Sam 4:4, the Israelites decide to bring the ark of the covenant from Shiloh so they might defeat the Philistines, with whom they were at war. The ark was captured and never returned to Shiloh. Shiloh then largely disappears from the biblical text as an important site. When the ark of the covenant was returned by the Philistines, it did not reside in Shiloh (1Sam 7:1–2), and Shiloh was no longer a place where Samuel the prophet met with the people or judged them (see 1Sam 7:5–7, 1Sam 7:16–17). The fate of Shiloh is not detailed in the text, but its destruction is alluded to in later biblical texts (Ps 78:60, Jer 7:12–14, Jer 26:6–9).

What is the evaluation of Shiloh in the biblical text?

While Shiloh was presented as a sacred cultic site, it was also a place where some persons experienced great harm. The young women of Shiloh in Judg 19 are kidnapped and forced into marriage to the remaining members of the tribe of Benjamin. Hannah experienced distress and wept bitterly at Shiloh, only to be initially dismissed by the priest Eli (1Sam 1: 10–14). Moreover, Eli’s sons Phinehas and Hophni perverted the sacrificial system (1Sam 2:12–14) and used their power to abuse women serving at Shiloh (1Sam 2:22).

Shiloh then served as an example for later biblical authors about the dangers of not following the Lord. Ps 78 described the abandonment of Shiloh by God because the people “did not observe his decrees” (Ps 78:56–60). The prophet Jeremiah warned his listeners of the destruction that results from not heeding the words of the Lord, using Shiloh as an example of a city made desolate because of its wickedness (Jer 7:12–14, Jer 26:6–9).

  • Benjamin Bixler is a PhD candidate at Drew Theological School in Bible and Cultures, and teaches at Eastern Mennonite School in Harrisonburg, VA.