Most people are aware of the two holy Temples that stood atop Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah, also known as the Temple Mount. The first was built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians after 410 years. The Jews were eventually permitted to return to Zion and rebuild the Temple under the Persian King Cyrus. This structure was further enlarged by King Herod who ruled over Israel, before being destroyed by the Romans 420 years after its erection.

What many people do not realize is that prior to the Temples in Jerusalem, a temple stood in Shiloh, an ancient town in Samaria, for a full 369 years. That is a very long time – far longer than the United States has been an independent country. While Shiloh’s fortunes varied over this time, it was the only place that served as a national religious center for the Jewish People during this period – the era of the Biblical Judges.

Such was its importance, that the ancient rabbis taught, “There is nothing differentiating between [the importance] of Shiloh and Jerusalem but … that the sanctity of Shiloh was released [once the temple was no longer there], while the sacredness of Jerusalem is everlasting.”1

Another way to gauge the importance of Shiloh is to consider whether it was permissible to establish altars (to offer up sacrifices) in any other place, which was prohibited any time there was a national temple. Such was the case when the Tabernacle was operating in the desert and when the temples stood in Jerusalem. The only other time that sacrifices were exclusive to just one location was when there was a temple at Shiloh.2

Strong evidence has identified ancient Shilo, where the Ark was housed, offerings were brought, and where Hannah offered her famous prayer.
Strong evidence has identified ancient Shilo, where the Ark was housed, offerings were brought, and where Hannah offered her famous prayer.

A Place of Fate and Destiny

When the Israelites settled the land during the days of Joshua, Shiloh was chosen as the site for the Tabernacle that traversed the desert with them for 40 years.3 There, the temporary boards that surrounded the structure were replaced with stone walls, giving the building a degree of permanence. The only other place that the House of G‑d and the Holy Ark ever enjoyed this degree of stability was in Jerusalem.

It is evident from several of the Biblical narratives that Shiloh served as a national location. Its centrality cannot be overstated. Here are some examples: When the Israelites met to apportion the land for the seven remaining tribes, they gathered at Shiloh.4 It was to Shiloh that the Levites came to demand their assigned cities.5 The tribes of Gad and Reuben departed from Shiloh to their territory on the Eastern side of the Jordan.6 When the Israelites sent a delegation to confront the tribes of Gad and Reuben for establishing a grand altar by the Jordan, the group left from Shiloh.7 These (and similar8 ) events occurred during the early years of the Israelite settlement in the land.

Shiloh’s Heyday

Skipping forward several hundred years, Eli the High Priest served with distinction in Shiloh as spiritual leader for the Israelites.9

People traveled significant distances to make their pilgrimage to Shiloh, which is how we famously encounter Elkanah and Chana.10 Chana’s heartfelt prayer for offspring at the temple in Shiloh is one of the most famous ever uttered. The son she was finally blessed with, who grew up to become the great prophet Samuel, was brought to Shiloh as a child and raised there by Eli.11

It was from the temple at Shiloh that the Ark of the Covenant was carried into war against the Philistines, who captured it.12 When word of the Ark’s capture was brought back to Eli in Shiloh, he fell back off his chair and died.13 Some claim to have identified the exact spot where Eli would sit and where he met his death.

The departure of the Ark from Shiloh was highly significant, as it did not return “home” for around 60 years, when David had it brought to Jerusalem.

Later Times

Even generations after the temple at Shiloh no longer stood, the city continued to be associated with significant historic events. The prophet Achiya of Shiloh warned that the Kingdom ruled by Solomon would be split into two.14 He was the key prophet when the Kingdom of Israel split from the Kingdom of Judah, and vociferously condemned the idol worship that was rampant at the time.15

The book of Jeremiah tells of the murder of a delegation to the Jewish leader of Judea, Gedaliah ben Achikam, after the Babylonian conquest, some of whom were from Shiloh.16

We also read how Jeremiah, a descendant of Eli, greatly lamented the destruction at Shiloh – an event clearly seared into the nation’s memory.17

Many hundreds of years later, in the Talmudic era, Shiloh hosted a house of study, and Talmudic literature cites the conduct and teachings of the Shilonites. Even centuries after there had been a temple there, the halo of holiness remained. This is how we may understand the report from the illustrious Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha (a leading second-century sage) who cited the words of an elder: “Once I went to Shiloh, where I smelled the aroma of incense [from the temple which had stood a thousand years earlier] emanating from its walls.”18

The Mystery of the End of Shiloh

So, what happened to Shiloh, one of the most important places in Jewish history? The Bible does not tell us explicitly, meaning that we shall have to do some detective work to piece the story together. But why are we not told what occurred? After all, this was a place of immense sacredness for the better part of four centuries. Indeed, the termination of Shiloh led to 60 years in which the Holy Ark of the Covenant lacked a proper home and the Israelites lacked a true national place of worship. The loss of Shiloh was massive, yet we are left guessing what took place. Shouldn’t we be informed about an event of such magnitude?

Perhaps even more difficult to understand is why there is no day of commemoration or mourning for the loss of the temple at Shiloh. Each year on the Ninth of Av, the Jewish people have a fast day to observe the destruction of the two Holy Temples in Jerusalem.19 The Ninth of Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, during which we sit on the ground and weep, mourning the fall of Jerusalem and the demolition of G‑d’s sanctuary. What is the day that we mark the destruction of the temple in Shiloh after standing for an entire 369 years? You guessed it, there isn’t one! So how come it gets no recognition?

What End Did Shiloh Meet?

It would be nice if there was a simple answer to how and why this happened. Some20 take the view that if the Bible doesn’t state that the Temple in Shiloh was destroyed, that suggests it was not. So what happened? We know from the book of 1 Samuel21 that the Ark of the Covenant was taken into a decisive battle and captured by the Philistines.

If the Ark was removed, it is reasonable to say that the Temple was taken apart and re-established elsewhere. According to this view, the temple in Shiloh was never destroyed but dismantled.

Another view22 is that the temple was destroyed, but not through an act of violence by the Philistines. Rather, as the Ark was captured and the temple was defiled, it lost its sanctity. It then became permissible for people to use the materials from the structure for their own mundane purposes. According to this view, most likely the city of Shiloh was attacked and destroyed, so the temple there was abandoned.

The most common rabbinic view is that the temple in Shiloh was indeed destroyed. These sources23 refer to the “destruction of Shiloh” in the same vein that they refer to the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. Some go so far as to claim explicitly that the temple was burned to the ground as were the temples in Jerusalem.24 Recently, archeologists found evidence of a terrible fire in Shiloh around the time that the temple stood, which fits the narrative that it was attacked.

From the words of the prophet Jeremiah, scion to Eli the High Priest, the religious leader who presided over the sanctuary in Shiloh for 40 years, it seems clear that something rather bad was involved in Shiloh’s demise. In warning about the looming fate of Jerusalem, he has these stern words of caution: “For go now to My place that is in Shiloh, where I caused My name to rest at first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel.”25

Likewise, the book of Psalms hints at dark times when G‑d “abandoned his dwelling in Shiloh.”26 The Psalmist portrays an occasion replete with swords, fire, and loss. It certainly gives the impression that something terrible transpired. The Talmudic literature likewise makes several references to the “destruction of Shiloh.”27

Is it possible to figure out what really happened?

Did Shiloh Even Have a Temple?

The Rebbe28 offers a key insight that helps greatly in unraveling this mystery. He draws an important distinction between the houses of G‑d in Shiloh and Jerusalem. The structures in Jerusalem were temples, whereas Shiloh and the portable sanctuary the Israelites had during their sojourn in the desert were tabernacles. While the temples in Jerusalem are repeatedly referred to as a “house,”29 the place of worship erected in Shiloh is described as a “tent.”30 Similarly, the Bible calls the portable sanctuary in the desert a “tent” no less than 106 times! What is the difference?

It turns out that the distinction is significant. A temple, like a house, is designed to be permanent, whereas a tabernacle, like a tent, is inherently intended to be temporary. A house would only be destroyed if something went terribly wrong. A tent, on the other hand, would be taken down when it is no longer needed. When a house is taken down it is a big deal; when a tent gets taken down it is nothing significant, because it was never meant to be permanent.

That, says the Rebbe, is why the reason given for the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem was “because of our sins”31 and “due to the sins of Israel.”32 Without a clear reason, a permanent structure would be expected to remain standing. If instead it was destroyed, this calls for an explanation. On the other hand, that the tabernacle in Shiloh came down does not demand an explanation, as it was only ever intended to stand on a temporary basis.

Indeed, the Talmud33 refers to the period that a house of G‑d stood in Shiloh as “a state of rest,” while the temple in Jerusalem is called “an ancestral home.” Shiloh was but a resting stop on the path to the ultimate “chosen place of G‑d”.34

What gave Shiloh its importance was the fact that the Ark of the Covenant resided there. The structure itself was temporary, but the Ark was permanent. Since the Ark was situated at Shiloh, it attained its unique sacred status. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that once the Ark was captured, the building that had housed it lost its importance, and could be abandoned. After all, the building was only ever a temporary solution for housing the Ark. With the Ark gone, the structure held little continued value.

Now we understand the difference in attitude towards the destruction in Shiloh and those in Jerusalem: Shiloh may have hosted an important place of worship for several centuries, but from the outset it was never meant to be forever. It was definitely sad that this illustrious run came to an end, but it had to happen at some point. By contrast, the Temples in Jerusalem were built with the intention that they would remain forever. Their destruction was not inevitable; it was avoidable and should have been avoided. That they came crashing down was therefore a much greater loss and triggered a much more intense reaction.

All of the Above

Based on this, we can say all the opinions about what happened in Shiloh could possibly be correct. Clearly there was fire in Shiloh at the time in question. What exactly this fire was is unclear. Most likely it was not the burning of the sanctuary in particular, but of the town of Shiloh in general. In all likelihood, the coverings of the tabernacle and the sacred vessels were removed before the marauding Philistines got to the town. As to the remaining walls of the structure, it is entirely possible that those were gradually repurposed by the locals for their own needs. Once those stones no longer formed the enclosure of the sanctuary, there was little reason for them not to repurpose the stones for private use.

Although the Philistines most likely did not directly tear down the sanctuary in Shiloh, their capture of the Ark meant that they had ultimately brought about its demise. It is therefore not unfair to assume that Shiloh was destroyed. Yet, because it was not destroyed by a thunderous act of violence, the fall of the tabernacle into disuse did not carry the same resonance. Coupled with the fact that Shiloh was never intended as the final destination for the Ark, nor as the permanent location of the “House of the L‑rd,”35 its sad end never gave rise to mourning and lamentation.

Bearing in mind that the capture of the Ark had robbed Shiloh of its importance, and the story of the capture of the Ark is related in scripture, it may now also be said that the Bible is not silent on the destruction of the tabernacle of Shiloh. The loss of the Ark was its destruction! The actual building may not have been attacked—there was no need for it, because the Ark had been taken and all other essential elements were removed before the Philistines could get there.

Shiloh Today

Modern Shilo built its synagogue to resemble the ancient Mishkan (tabernacle).
Modern Shilo built its synagogue to resemble the ancient Mishkan (tabernacle).

Shiloh lay in ruins for many centuries. Jewish life was reestablished there in 1978 (formally recognized in 1979), and now boasts a population of around 5,000 residents. Incredibly, the ruins of ancient Shiloh have begun to be discovered. One can now see where this ancient temple stood all those generations ago. It was easy to identify the site because the Book of Judges36 provides a fairly detailed description of its location. Shiloh was one of the most important sites in all Jewish history, in and around which occurred many of the most seminal events in the Bible, and it is surely amazing to be able to reconnect with a place of such awesome history.

While it is difficult to know for sure, it seems that parts of the original walls of this highly significant Jewish temple have been discovered, as well as many utensils and artifacts used there.

In Shiloh today, ancient tales of the Bible, including many of the most significant and beloved stories, come to life. We rightly get excited and inspired at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Holy Temple complex in Jerusalem. But there is also plenty to be inspired and excited about a temple that was established more than a thousand years before the Kotel was built, and which stood for the best part of four centuries.