What was Israel’s ‘Capital’ Before the Monarchy?

Quick… off the top of your head, name 5 of the most important biblical cities.

No doubt Jerusalem is on your list? Go ahead and stretch it to 10 important biblical cities.

Perhaps your list has cities such as Bethlehem (a city of judges, kings and Jesus),  or Jericho. Maybe your list includes Samaria, Dan, Jezreel, even Antioch, Ephesus or Rome.

Does the list include Shiloh? Shiloh was Israel’s most important city for several hundred years. Its occupation by Israelites and its destruction centuries later marked the beginning and end of an important era. I imagine many of us would not list Shiloh as a ‘Top 5’ city, perhaps not even a ‘Top 10’. Pity, because Shiloh was central to early Israel.

Shiloh is not so famous among Christians. This is understandable. The city of Shiloh was prominent in the time of the Judges, a centuries-long period of which we know relatively little. Shiloh usually serves as a backdrop to famous stories and people.

  • The tabernacle was erected at Shiloh following Joshua’s conquest of Canaan (Joshua 18:1) and was Israel’s religious center for several hundred years.
  • Joshua was at Shiloh when he divided the land among the twelve tribes (Josh. 18:8-10)
  • Israelite tribes gathered here to consider war against the Transjordan tribes when they suspected a large memorial altar might have been set up as a rival to the tabernacle. (Josh. 22:10ff)
  • Shiloh and its tabernacle were located in the territory of Ephraim. This illuminates the Ephraimites’ sense of primacy when they confronted Gideon and Jephthah for not including them in battle plans. (Judges 8:1-3; 12:1-6)
  • Benjamite men who survived the slaughter of the Benjamite War “stole” wives for themselves during a festival at Shiloh in order to reconstitute their tribe. (Judges 20-21)
  • Hannah prayed for a son at the tabernacle in Shiloh. (1 Samuel 1)
  • Her son, Samuel, was sent to the High Priest as a child and grew up in Shiloh.

Archaeological evidence suggests Shiloh was destroyed around the late 12th century B.C. This coincides with a biblical battle against the Philistines at Aphek in 1 Samuel 4. Israel carried the Ark from Shiloh to the battlefield for divine help in the fight, but lost anyway. It was an unparalleled disaster. The Philistines captured the Ark, Eli’s sons (and High Priestly successors) were killed, and Eli himself died upon learning of the Ark’s capture. The Philistines apparently went on to destroy Shiloh, though this event is not directly recorded in the Bible. Israel’s religious institutions were destroyed in a single battle. Shiloh is never again mentioned as a center for Israelite leaders or events, though a prophet lived there during the early divided kingdom period.

There are allusions to Shiloh’s destruction in Jeremiah and the Psalms.

“Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel… I will do to the house that is called by my name [the Temple], and in which you trust… as I did to Shiloh.” (Jeremiah 7:12 – 14)

I will make this house [the Temple] like Shiloh, and I will make this city [Jerusalem] a curse for all the nations of the earth.” (Jeremiah 26:6)

Psalm 78 describes Shiloh’s destruction and the elevation of a new tribe and sanctuary in Jerusalem.

He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh, the tent where he dwelt among mankind,  and delivered his power to captivity, his glory to the hand of the foe. He gave his people over to the sword and vented his wrath on his heritage. Fire devoured their young men, and their young women had no marriage song.Their priests fell by the sword, and their widows made no lamentation… He rejected the tent of Joseph; he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim,  but he chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loves. He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever. (Psalm 78:60 – 69)

The trauma of Shiloh’s destruction transformed Israel forever. After Shiloh, Israel no longer looked to regional warlords like the Judges or to the High Priestly office, whose influence was drying up in Eli’s time. (Consider the corruption of Eli’s sons, and Eli’s inability to stop it.) The High Priestly office survived, but existed in the shadow of new types of leaders. Samuel arose as a prophet-leader followed by the evolving monarchy of Saul the Benjamite. David’s rise cemented dynastic monarchy as Israel’s new kind of government and Jerusalem as its new capital and religious center.

Ironically, Tel Shiloh is located in the West Bank, which today is Palestinian territory. There is a Jewish settlement near the site. Visitors can tour the ruins of this small-but-important city in early Israel. Israel Finkelstein, who excavated there in the early 1980’s, believed the tabernacle would have been located on the summit of the tel. Others argue that the only place affording the dimensions of the tabernacle would have been the ‘Tabernacle Plateau’ – a level area beside the tel. You can view photos of Shiloh here.


About LukeChandler

Luke holds an M.A. in Ancient and Classical History and has been an adjunct professor at Florida College in Temple Terrace, Florida. Luke and his wife Melanie have five children. He serves as a minister with the North Terrace Church of Christ and has participated in multiple archaeological excavations in Israel. Luke leads informative, meaningful tours to Europe and the Bible Lands.
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3 Responses to What was Israel’s ‘Capital’ Before the Monarchy?

  1. Pingback: What was Israel’s ‘Capital’ Before the Monarchy? « Faith in Hand

  2. Mount ebal also i important at that time.

    Have you read the “foot” places, and the subsequent theorie developped by Adam Herzog. I was first sceptical, but after listen to his arguments on egypt symbolic and hebrew languages, i was quite convinced.

    Antoine, another digger

    • lukechandler says:

      Some important events did occur at Mount Ebal. The city of Shechem is also there and had a role in several stories, including that of Jephthah.

      I haven’t read the book/article you mentioned, nor am I familiar with the theory by Herzog. I’ll keep an eye open for that information. Thanks for posting!

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