Aerial view of the ABR excavation site (credit: Greg Gulbrandsen)
Then the whole congregation of the people of Israel assembled at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them.– Joshua 18:1 (ESV)
Amazing new finds are happening this year in Israel at Shiloh, a site that was very important in Biblical history. Shiloh is where Joshua and the Israelites erected the Tabernacle, the portable temple where God’s presence was said to be seen and that included the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. This would be Israel’s center of worship for hundreds of years during the Judges Period until Solomon’s Temple was built. The site has seen some excavation in the past, but now another group has embarked on the arduous task of uncovering evidence at Shiloh.
The new team at Shiloh hopes to discover the exact location of the biblical Tabernacle and other evidence that confirms the Biblical account. The group excavating the site (ABR – Associates for Biblical Research) was headed by Bryant Wood. You may remember Bryant from our film, Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus. He is now passing the baton to Dr. Scott Stripling who is the new head of the organization. Stripling is director of excavations at Shiloh and provost at The Bible Seminary in Houston, Texas.
So they said, “Behold, there is the yearly feast of the LORD at Shiloh, which is north of Bethel, on the east of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.”– Judges 21:9 (ESV)
Already in their first season they have found some artifacts that could point towards the Biblical account. An article published by the Jewish News Source, announced the discovery of 10 ancient jugs at the ancient city of Shiloh. Some were broken, but some were largely intact and have been dated to the period when some think the Israelites first entered the land of Israel. Hanina Hizami, coordination officer for archaeology at the Civil Administration, said, “This is a very exciting find. The destruction could have been caused by the Philistine invasion and the fire that raged [at Shiloh].” However, this view is based on the popular Ramesses Exodus Theory that holds that the Israelite Conquest of Canaan occurred around 1200 BC. The strongest pattern of evidence, in contrast, appears to be at the earlier 1450 BC date for the Exodus, which would place the Conquest in the decade prior to 1400 BC.
According to the JNS article, among the ancient jugs they also found “a goblet known as a kobaat, a type of ritual chalice. The discovery of the kobaat ties in with the stone altar that was unearthed in a previous dig, and could indicate that researchers are closing in on the precise location of the Shiloh tabernacle.”
Dr. Stripling has a different viewpoint than most archaeologists – not only in favoring the earlier Exodus date, but in how he regards the Bible. Stripling told The Times of Israel, “There are some who say the Bible is unreliable. We have found it to be very reliable.” He continued, “We’re taking the Bible as a serious historical document,” Stripling stated. He then qualified, “but the evidence is what the evidence is.”
Stripling’s team is using new archaeological techniques learned by him and other members of the team while working at another dig site. His dig at Shiloh, according to The Times of Israel, “is the first outside of Jerusalem to use the wet sifting techniques he picked up while working at the Temple Mount Sifting Project some years ago. For Stripling, the simple process of sifting over a net while spraying water on the tray is yet another way not to leave any proverbial or literal stone unturned. So is the onsite digital recording system being piloted this summer.”
In the Bible, Moses was a conduit for the exact specifications for building the Tabernacle. And while the Tabernacle itself may have been stored after the building of the Temple, it is hoped that some of the materials associated with ritual sacrifices and other activities have survived.
Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.– Exodus 35:30-35 (ESV)
The first large-scale dig at Shiloh was conducted by a Danish team in the 1920s and 30s. A second excavation of the site was led by Professor Israel Finkelstein from Tel Aviv University in the 1980s. He is a renowned archaeologist and researcher who has advanced views that sometimes challenge popular conclusions as well as the historical accuracy of the biblical account. But while their worldviews may differ, Stripling still seems to respect his work stating, “After the north face, we’ll go to the summit and excavate under the Byzantine buildings. We can’t rule out where the mishkan [tabernacle] was, but if I say what’s in my gut, I think maybe on the summit,” he said, concurring with an untested 1980s hypothesis from Finkelstein.
After working many seasons at a site they propose to be the biblical city of Ai, the ABR team has now closed that location and shifted their efforts to Shiloh. They expect the work to continue there for another ten to twenty years.
In June of 2017, Patterns of Evidence sent a team to the Shiloh site to document the significant finds being made at this largest dig going on in Israel. This material will be included in future productions. Scott Stripling excitedly commented on the foundational level that has been uncovered as he gave a tour of the site, which features a huge wall made of stone that appears to be a defensive fortification dating to the Middle Bronze Age. “Look at the size of this megalithic stone,” Stripling exclaimed, “It’s a massive platform that they’ve built here.” On top of the platform, mudbrick walls seem to have been constructed, perhaps similar to what was found at Jericho.
While much more study is needed to verify the preliminary findings, the most interesting aspect is that this eight acre location was likely both a defensive system and a center for ritual sacrifices. This is because so many animal bones have been unearthed. “We’ve excavated at other sites, and I’m getting about four times as much bone at Shiloh than I’ve seen at any other site. Our pails are just full of animal bone. We’ve only just excavated it, so we’ll of course take it to our zooarchaeologist at the end of the season, and she’ll do a complete reading on it. We’ll know the age of the animals and the type of animal – were they young animals, in other words of sacrificial age, and were they biblically prescribed animals, which is what Finkelstein found… Leviticus outlines the animals that were part of the [sacrificial] system. When these bones, or this massive bone deposit was analyzed, it was almost entirely bones from that [Israelite] sacrificial system… that’s what I believe that the evidence points toward.”
Finkelstein believed that the bone dump site can be attributed to Canaanites that began late in the Middle Bronze Age and then the bones were cleaned up and discarded at one time around 1200 BC after the Israelites came in. Stripling comes to a different conclusion, “I think it’s his presupposition, which leads him to believe that it was a cleanup of the Canaanite sacrificial system. I see it more as a gradual deposit over a couple of hundred years.” Broken vessels mixed in with the bones will be restored to confirm if they were used in pouring out libations and in what period this occurred. “We’ve sectioned it [the area in the oldest layer] and all of the pottery coming out of here is Bronze Age pottery,” Stripling added.
Another important find at Shiloh has been several Egyptian scarabs. One had been found just an hour prior to the Patterns of Evidence interview. These will help date the different layers that represent periods from First century Roman remains back to the Middle Bronze Age. Speaking of the scarab from the earliest layer, Stripling said, “It hasn’t seen the light of day for 3,700 years or so.”
There are many questions at Shiloh waiting to be answered. Some of these include, where was the location of the Tabernacle itself, when did the early Israelites arrive, was there a shift in material culture, was this site also a city, and if so, when? So far, the pottery mixed with the bones appears to be from the Late Bronze Age, but the foundations of the site are Middle Bronze. This means the debate over the potential dating shift is yet to be resolved.
Stripling explained, “Well, there are three basic approaches that we can take to this chronologically. We can take the straightforward Biblical reading based on 1 King 6:1 and then synchronized by Judges 11:26 and other passages, which puts us at 1446 thereabouts for an exodus from Egypt and 1406 for a beginning of the conquest, give or take a few years… Those who are taking a later date, i.e., in the 13th century [The Ramesses Exodus Theory], are essentially following Albright and Callaway and this school of thought that there was not archeological evidence to support the conquest in the 15th century, so they began to work sort of honorifically with numbers, and there were sort of plastic numbers that they imagined as generations… The third option is the New Chronology and David Rohl is a leading advocate of that. And the advocates of the New Chronology see a Middle Bronze Exodus and conquest and believe that they’re seeing evidence for that, and that Egyptian history should be recalibrated, resynchronized, and that the [biblical] events are there. You have believers in all three groups – those that see it early, late, and later, But I would fall in the middle group that would see traditional dating of 1446 for the Exodus and 1406 for the conquest.”
So far this season the ABR team has processed hundreds of objects from Roman times back to the foundation level of the site, including jewelry, coins, tools, and metal or stone weapons. They have nearly met their goal of connecting the area dug by the Danish team with what was excavated by Finkelstein. A bigger goal is to uncover the southern wall and a city gate.
When asked how these new excavations will contribute to the exciting new era of biblical archeology, Stripling replied, “Well, I might be a little bit biased, but I see the excavations at Shiloh as critical to this very thing. Shiloh will be on the forefront for the next decade or so in answering some of the questions as far as when these biblical events took place. I think we’ve really, in the last decade, we’ve turned a corner. I think we’re in the golden age of biblical archeology and while some may say that the term is passe, I think it’s just now beginning to have its renaissance.