Shiloh Discovery Matches Biblical Altar
SUMMARY: Critics have dismissed the validity of the Shiloh archaeological park in Israel due to the preference of its administrators for the biblical narrative. Previous findings have been subject to varying interpretations. However, the discovery of three stone horns used in ritual sacrifice at the area have bolstered the case for this being ancient Israel’s site for sacrifices and worship.
And Adonijah feared Solomon. So he arose and went and took hold of the horns of the altar. – 1 Kings 1:50 (ESV)
The Horns of an Altar Linked to Ancient Sacrifices
As early as the third chapter of Genesis, the idea and language of sacrifice is introduced in the Bible. Now, horns from an altar matching the sacrificial system of ancient Israel have been discovered at the site of ancient Shiloh. This adds weight to the identification of this site as Israel’s primary worship center for centuries.
The Bible and Ancient Sacrifice
From the very beginning, sacrifice was a provision created by God in order to allow guilty people to be put in right relationship with himself. Though not stated explicitly, allusion to sacrifice appears in Genesis 3 when God provided coverings for Adam and his wife.
In this scenario, the pair had estranged themselves from God by violating his command and subsequently hiding themselves out of shame (3:9, 10). To restore the couple, God approached them in their isolated condition and began addressing their guilt. Several realities are immediately clear. First, God took the initiative in pursuing and restoring the man and his wife (3:8, 9). Second, He made a provision that addressed their shame. Third, that provision involved coverings that were made from animal skins (3:21).
The issue of sacrifice intensifies and becomes more explicit in chapter 4. Here, the issue surfaces when Cain and Abel each present an offering to the Lord. Cain presented an offering of produce from the ground, whereas Abel presented a sacrifice of the firstlings of his flock. The result was that the sacrifice offered by Abel was appropriate and accepted by the Lord. However, the offering presented by Cain was not appropriate and was not accepted.
Cain had presented an offering of produce, which was insufficient to atone for guilt. Furthermore, his reaction was one of anger, and even after counsel from God, he was committed to choosing his own path. Subsequently, he rejected God’s counsel and took his brother’s life in an episode of murderous outrage. The whole event raises clear questions. The most obvious of these is, why wasn’t Cain’s offering acceptable in the first place?
It would seem clear that he lacked the attitude of a legitimate worshipper. However, the Torah provides more help in its instruction related to sacrifices. In Leviticus, we learn that the consequences of sin are serious. In fact, they are deadly serious. The result is that a sacrifice is required to effectively take away guilt. Here is the reason:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” – Leviticus 17:11 (ESV)
The offering of sacrifice was an institution inaugurated by God, and the idea, language, and practice of sacrifice is pervasive throughout the rest of the Scripture. Because of the seriousness of sin, with its deadly and alienating consequences, the Bible gives a lot of attention to the issue of approaching God properly. Early on, the reader learns in Genesis 3 that sin kills, destroys, and alienates. In chapter 4, the reader learns that a person’s attempts to worship God on his own terms, whether sincere or not, are an expression of illicit spirituality and are off limits.
The pages of Scripture are filled with examples of presumptuous worshippers who crafted their own styles and approaches to worship. This sometimes entailed worshipping the right God in the wrong way, or worshipping the wrong god altogether.
Of the sacrifices that were offered, not all offerings were animal sacrifices, and not all animal sacrifices were sin or guilt offerings. However, with more than 580 references in the Hebrew Bible to the wrath of God, it was clear that Israel’s God was opposed to evil in all of its forms. However, it was the love and kindness of God that created a means for sinners to have their sin forgiven and their guilt removed.
The Horns of the Altar and Shiloh
With all of this emphasis on propriety in approaching God, extensive instructions for the altar’s design and use were carefully provided in Exodus 27-29. A prominent feature of the altar was its four horns depicting the horns of a bull. These were carefully constructed and used in a special way during the sacrifice. The text states:
“You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad. The altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze.” – Exodus 27:1-2 (ESV)
“[A]nd [you] shall take part of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar.” – Exodus 29:12 (ESV)
Later, at the time of the conquest, during the administration of Joshua, the tabernacle was finally established in a relatively permanent location. This new home was a remote site called Shiloh. It was here that the Ark of the Covenant and associated altars remained throughout the entirety of the period of the Judges.
Shiloh served as an early sanctuary for over three centuries, until the Ark of the Covenant fell into Philistines hands. The sad story of how this happened was connected to priests that had desecrated the worship of God. As an expression of judgement against them, the offending priests and their family were permanently removed from service.
Shiloh’s Biblical Connections Meet Politics
Today, Shiloh is home to both a modern Jewish community as well as the Tel Shiloh archaeological park. As would be expected, the area is of great significance to those interested in biblical history. After all, it is the site where the LORD was worshipped for centuries. It was the location where Hannah prayed for a son, where Eli’s family forfeited the priestly office, and where the boy Samuel was commissioned as a prophet.
It was also the place where the tabernacle structure was stationed along with the Ark of the Covenant and the aforementioned altar. If evidence of this latter consideration can be discovered, and it is consistent with what was described in Exodus and Leviticus, just think of the implications.
However, as things currently stand, the site resides in the middle of a complicated geopolitical-religious mash-up. First, it lies within the boundaries of the West Bank and has been growing as a major tourist site in recent years among Bible enthusiasts. By promoting the biblical image of Shiloh as a major religious center inhabited for centuries by ancient Israelites, competing political interests are naturally at play.
In fact, the official Visitor’s center describes it as a site where visitors can see the place where the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant existed for 369 years. Besides the religious connotations, that means that it was in continuous use as an Israelite religious center for longer than the United States has been in existence. (See this past Thinker Update on the search for the site of the biblical tabernacle.)
In response, an Israeli NGO known as the Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights filed a petition to have the management of the park transferred to the Civil Administration earlier this year. As reported by the Jerusalem Post, Emek Shaveh said in a release that, “The visitors’ experience in Tel Shiloh is primarily based on the biblical account and establishes without any archaeological evidence that the Tabernacle and ancient Jewish community were located here.”
The goal was to move oversight of the park from the pro-biblical narrative management currently in charge to a more neutral governance. This is because the park’s theme promotes the biblical narrative as well as bolsters its ancient connection to Israel.
Keep in mind that this promotes the reliability of the biblical record to a period between the conquest and the establishment of the first monarchy. If the right kind of archaeological evidence is discovered, commonly held critical theories of the Bible’s composition history could be challenged.
Discovery of Altar Horns at Shiloh, Israel
Despite the claims that no “archaeological evidence that the Tabernacle and ancient Jewish community were located here,” several very exciting discoveries were made over the past dig season. What’s more, these discoveries just happen to align with the biblical narrative.
A team of around 200 archaeologists, scientists, historians, biblical specialists and volunteers, representing 11 universities, and managed by the Associates for Biblical Research have been working in the field of ancient Shiloh. The group has worked under the direction of past Thinker Update contributor, Scott Stripling. (See Stripling’s article on anti-biblical bias.)
On August 12, 2019, the group published a report that “three altar horns were discovered during ABR’s excavations at Shiloh, Israel this season.” The first was 38 cm long and 23.5 cm wide. The second was 18 cm long and 12.5 cm wide. The third was 38 cm long and 20 cm wide.”
Of interest is that these altar horns were made of stone and so were able to survive. Although this is different than the composition of the original altar horns described in Exodus, when combined with other artifacts discovered at the dig site, an interesting picture begins to emerge. What is known for sure, is that horned altars were present in Shiloh during the period before Israel’s kings.
Assessment of the Biblical Site of Shiloh
In the past, critics have been eager to point to the absence of identified archaeological evidence. Part of the difficulty has been that the tabernacle was a portable structure and so lacked the kinds of materials that would have been able to survive long term. When items have been discovered, they have been subject to alternative interpretations.
For example, in the early 1980s, Tel Aviv University Professor Israel Finkelstein made a discovery in the area of a large quantity of bones. His conclusion was that they pointed to ancient Canaanite ritual sacrifice. When evaluated by Stripling, however, the significance was more revealing. He observed that, “These were kosher and young animals, many with signs of burn or butcher marks on them, and they were mostly from the right side of the animal.” He explained further, “This did not mean much to Finkelstein. For me it was Leviticus Chapter 7: The right side of the animal was the priest’s portion, which would have been consumed at Shiloh. It would have been sacrificed, eaten by the priest and the bones disposed.”
Other items previously discovered include a number of collar-rimmed jars (useful for transporting dry offerings), a ritual chalice, and a ceramic pomegranate, similar to those attached to the rim of the high priest’s robe and exclusive to liturgical sites.
“On its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, around its hem, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, around the hem of the robe.” – Exodus 28:33-34 (ESV)
For varying reasons, critics have previously dismissed the validity of the Shiloh site. This is, in part, due to scanty archaeological evidence. However, in light of recent discoveries, the biblical narrative is being confirmed. It can now be conclusively stated that archaeological evidence supports both the presence of Israelites in the ancient city of Shiloh, as well as the presence of religious, cultic, or ritual items consistent with what readers see in the text of Scripture.
As noted by Scott Stripling, “The Bible and other ancient religious texts is what has driven archeology in this region.” Further, he stated, “We have to recognize the validity of the Bible… I am comfortable with the biblical story – and now we have proof of that story, really.” How this plays out and whether additional discoveries at Shiloh come to light will be something sure to Keep us Thinking!
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