SHILOH, West Bank — The twisted ram’s horn shofar sounded loudly through the hills at Shiloh, signaling the end to another day’s search for the biblical holy tabernacle. As elusive as the Ark of the Covenant that it housed during the Israelites’ travels from Egypt through their settlement in Canaan, the tabernacle is depicted in the Bible (Exodus 25:8-9) as the earthly home for God — God’s “dwelling place” among his people.
Repeated excavations have attempted to find earthly evidence of the godly home, here at Shiloh and elsewhere. Similarly, many archaeologists have sought artifacts and evidence tying Joshua’s biblical Israelite conquest of Shiloh to this site. None has succeeded.
In recent weeks here at Shiloh, where the Bible says the Ark and tabernacle were venerated for almost 400 years, this new group of American archaeologists and volunteers — Bible in one hand and shovel in the other — have set about proving the Holy Word is a history textbook.
This is no ragtag band of Indiana Jones wannabes. Led by Dr. Scott Stripling, the team leaders for the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) have apprenticed at Holy Land dig sites and are using the latest archaeological techniques — some of which are not yet in use by their Israeli contemporaries.
More than their metal detectors, digital technology and advanced techniques, however, what sets this team apart from most modern Israeli archaeologists is their religious faith that what they are looking for is indeed there to be found.
The excavation of Shiloh is one in a series of digs by Christian institutions currently taking place in the Holy Land with the goal of proving the historical veracity of the Bible. This was also a cornerstone of early Israeli archaeologists’ ethos. But as a broader evidential picture has crystallized with more sites being dug, modern Israeli academia has slowly abandoned this approach.
Any dig in biblical Israel is now an almost existential archaeological struggle between faith and reason. At the Shiloh site there is an almost impossible quest to marry both.
Stripling intends to continue excavating here for decades. Findings this summer at a second excavation are already encouraging, though not remotely definitive: 10 enormous pre-First Temple pottery jugs were discovered, archaeologists announced last week. Because of their intrinsic value, scholars say, these vessels could indicate the site was vacated in an abrupt manner, as described in the Bible. Additionally, the archaeologists found a kobaat, a goblet or ritual chalice, which could be linked to religious use.
To some, these discoveries indicate that archaeologists are closing in on the site of the tabernacle. To others, they’re noteworthy for broadening the scope of scientific research.
The last major dig at Shiloh was performed in 1981-84, led by prominent Israeli archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein. Finkelstein, who is on the forefront of the “radical” evidence-based revision of the history of Israel in the 10th and 9th centuries BCE (versus the biblical narrative), did not locate the tabernacle, nor did he expect to.
Unlike the current excavators at Shiloh, Finkelstein does not view the Bible as a blueprint.
“Biblical traditions should be read on the background of their time of composition, the ideology of the authors, etc. One cannot approach them in a simplistic manner,” said Finkelstein, the Jacob M. Alkow Professor of the Archaeology of Israel in the Bronze and Iron Ages at Tel Aviv University. “The story of the ark is fascinating; but it can teach us mainly about the world of the authors who lived centuries after the destruction of Iron I Shiloh.”
In stark contrast, Stripling told The Times of Israel, “There are some who say the Bible is unreliable. We have found it to be very reliable.”
“We’re taking the Bible as a serious historical document,” Stripling continued. He then qualified, “but the evidence is what the evidence is.”
The Times of Israel spoke with archaeologists who have excavated two of the four sites considered possible locations of the biblical tabernacle, along with the head of the Archaeological Unit of Israel’s Civil Administration (under whose purview the dig is taking place). We also joined the second day of the current dig operations, which ran for four weeks in May-June, spending the morning meeting with Associates for Biblical Research archaeologists and volunteers to discuss their new quest.
‘It’s the largest jigsaw puzzle in the world’
Standing on a sunny slope on the side of the ancient Shiloh hill, Stripling, wearing a brilliant blue button-down shirt and wide-brimmed khaki hat, surveys the progress made that morning. Good humor and joking abounds as volunteers and experts shovel dirt and ooh and aah over each other’s discoveries.
For some of the team, merely being on the field is enough. One volunteer digger said emphatically, “It’s worth every dollar. It’s something I’ve wanted to do all my life.” Another, Walt Pasedag, has volunteered with ABR for 30 years. This year he brought his 18-year-old grandson, too.
Plunking himself down on the earth in the midst of a roped-off square, Stripling shows off some of the rare finds already accumulated in the past day. He says offhandedly while holding up a chunk of nondescript shaped rock that it’s likely a handle from a stone vessel used for ritual purity, probably around the first century CE.
On this, the second day of excavations, they’ve already found 20 coins and numerous other small discoveries that are carefully separated into envelopes to be taken back to Jerusalem. They’ll be catalogued and stored — some with the Archaeological Unit of Israel’s Civil Administration — and some will go back to the United States for ongoing research.
“It’s the largest jigsaw puzzle in the world,” says Stripling with a faint southern twang.
In addition to leading excavations for ABR, Stripling is also adjunct professor at Houston Baptist University (Bible) and The Bible Seminary (Church History). He has a D.Min., with an emphasis in Ancient Near Eastern archaeology, and was a pastor for two decades.
His enthusiasm is evident as he boasts that his dig 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 archaeology we get one bite of the apple. We are destroying [as we dig] and have one chance to do it right,” he says.
A brilliant, multicolored tent
Biblical Shiloh was the 369-year home of the elusive Ark of the Covenant, which was housed in the equally elusive tabernacle. The site is most associated with the Priest Eli and the Prophet Samuel. It is also the location of Hannah’s prayer, in which she thanks God for her child, Samuel, whom she dedicates to work in the tabernacle.
In Psalms and in the Book of Jeremiah, the Bible tells of a destroyed Shiloh. The Israelites were defeated by the Philistines, who reportedly razed the town while they stole the Ark of the Covenant. As attested in Jeremiah, later settlement occurred during the reign of Jeroboam I (928–907 BCE), king of the northern Kingdom of Israel through the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.
Biblical accounts give a depiction of the tabernacle’s appearance: it would have been a brilliant, multi-colored tent, embellished with glittering precious metals. In Exodus 26, Moses is given extremely detailed instructions from God on how to build the tent, and from which materials the curtains should be made.
While curtains are clearly biodegradable, God also instructed the use of 50 gold clasps, 50 bronze clasps, 40 silver bases and other utensils made out of metals, leading some budding archaeologists to wonder: Could it still be possible to find even one of these items?
Each day in its four-week dig season, the ABR team processed some 2,000 pieces of pottery. Over 700 additional objects were registered in sum, including jewelry, tools, and metal or stone weapons. The ABR team found 15 pieces of Jewish ritual stone vessels, two almost complete pottery vessels, and 250 coins, but nothing conclusively indicating the tabernacle.
For Stripling, the author of “The Trowel and the Truth,” however, working at the biblical site is the irresistible fulfillment of a 25-year dream, and he is anything but deterred.
Ahead of this summer’s dig, Stripping wrote to donors about walking on the field for the first time: “A sense of awe came upon me as I contemplated how God had set before us an open door at Shiloh which will have a direct impact on how people read their Bibles in the future.
“I saw the stakes that I drove into the ground back in May and envisioned the 100 volunteers and staff who will work with us in Season One. I thought of the first words ever sent via Morse code — ‘Behold what wonders God has wrought!'”
The ‘other’ archaeologist in the room
Previous digs have also sought, and failed to find, a clear and binding tie between the early Israelites as they entered the land of Israel — following the Exodus from Egypt and their sojourn in the desert — and the archaeological record presented at Shiloh.
The site was first excavated in 1922 by a Danish expedition, and then by a subsequent Danish team in three campaigns between 1926 and 1932. The most extensive Israeli excavation was performed under Finkelstein, then of Bar-Ilan University, who dug there for four seasons, 1981-84.
Finkelstein, in many ways, is always the “other” archaeologist in the room when discussing Shiloh.
Unlike Stripling’s enthusiastic optimism in the historicity of the biblical text, Finkelstein tends to see the Hebrew Bible as the nationalist mythology of a people attempting to centralize its power and faith.
“I strongly believe that one needs to conduct archaeological research in the best of methods and carry out biblical exegesis in the best of methods. There is no need to start from a perspective of either confirming or dismissing the historicity of a given biblical text,” Finkelstein told The Times of Israel.
During the excavations in the 1980s, Finkelstein did not find evidence that supported the biblical narrative.
“In a site like this – to differ, e.g., from the desert fringe – one can expect to find built remains. In my own excavation, the only finds from the Late Bronze Age came from a pit which included what seemed to be cultic refuse,” said Finkelstein.
He said that archaeology has gone through a significant revolution in recent years, including the introduction of methods from the exact and life sciences to field research. For example, one of his interdisciplinary teams from Tel Aviv University recently discovered never-before-seen Hebrew inscriptions on a First Temple-era shard using a modified household digital camera and a revolutionary new technique for performing multispectral imaging.
‘In my own excavation the only finds from the Late Bronze Age came from a pit which included what seemed to be cultic refuse’
“Had I known these methods 35 years ago, I would have used them: radiocarbon dating, molecular analysis of the content of vessels, geo-archaeology and the like,” said Finkelstein.
In fact, two decades after his Shiloh dig, Finkelstein did attempt to employ new techniques to date his scant organic-based finds.
“Twenty years or so after the excavations, I sent short-lived botanical remains, which were kept at the university, to radiocarbon dating. They originated from Iron I contexts and provided dates in the second half of the 11th century BCE. This was the only radiometric study of finds from Shiloh,” he said. “Note that animal bones are tricky if they don’t come from clean and secure context – especially decorated items which may have been kept by people for decades.”
Shiloh’s longtime lure
Shiloh has long been a draw for those interested in biblical archaeology. According to a 1986 article by Finkelstein in Biblical Archaeology Review, British minister of the colonies Winston Churchill was reportedly taken with the idea of excavating the site. Other interested notaries were British General Edmund Allenby, who captured Jerusalem from the Turks in 1917, and Lord Arthur Balfour, whose eponymous Balfour Declaration that same year was an important step in the process toward a revived Jewish state.
Several churches have memorialized the story of Shiloh at the site. In 2006-7, archaeologist Yevgeny Aharonovitch dug up the floor from under one square building, known as Weli Yetaim, which had several layers of churches. It is considered another of the possible locations of the tabernacle.
Aharonovitch told The Times of Israel that what was interesting at this site, one of the earliest churches at Shiloh, is the discovery of a Greek inscription bearing the name “Shiloh.”
“Because it is one the earliest churches in Shiloh… there is a chance that it came to memorialize the place of the tabernacle,” he said. “I can’t sign on to it 100%, but there is a chance.”
In a brief face-to-face with The Times of Israel, Hanina Hizami, coordination officer for archaeology at the Civil Administration and Aharonovitch’s supervisor, put forth another possibility for the location of the tabernacle — next to the gates of the city. He said his overarching goal in allowing Stripling’s ABR team to excavate at Shiloh is to complete the uncovering of another section of the city walls.
In completing the outline of the walls, a job Hizami projects will take several years, he is hopeful to find the gate and there, he hypothesizes, one could find typical cultic altars — and hopefully the site of the Israelite tabernacle.
By the end of its four-week dig season last month, three of the ABR’s teams had excavated along the north face of Shiloh’s massive 5.5-meter (18 foot) wide Middle Bronze Age (Canaanite period) perimeter wall, with some reaching bedrock after digging down over four meters.
Civil Administration archaeologists this summer also found storerooms where the 10 vessels were discovered in situ among evident destruction, which are connected to rooms previously noted during Danish digs.
As reported in Israel Hayom, the discovery of the 10 pottery jars has given Hizami hope of substantiating the biblical account of the destruction of Shiloh. “This is a very exciting find. The destruction could have been caused by the Philistine invasion and the fire that raged [at Shiloh],” he said.
Stripling, speaking with The Times of Israel early in this summer’s excavation, said the ABR team plans to spend decades uncovering the mysteries buried under Shiloh. The association’s previous two digs have lasted 21 years each. He wouldn’t be surprised if this one takes as long.
“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 hypothesis from the skeptical Finkelstein in the 1980s.
Answering what motivates him, Stripling takes off his archaeologist’s gloves and dons his pastor hat.
“People want to connect with the past and answer the essential questions: who am I, why am I here, where am I going? The basic questions of humanity,” he said. “Artifacts tap into that very meaningfully. Knowing that Joshua was here… You kind of have to step back and take a deep breath.”