Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

26. Sanctuaries in Ancient Israel

“The place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place his name there” is a constantly recurring phrase in the Book of Deuteronomy. The reference is to the centre of worship, the tabernacle and its service, which was to be established in a convenient centre in the Land when wilderness wanderings were ended.


Shiloh was the place which was chosen “at the first” (Jer. 7:12). It was centrally situated in the territory of Ephraim. There Joshua convened the tribes when the earliest blows of conquest had been struck, in order to apportion the rest of the Land more precisely to those who had not inherited as yet. But, strangely enough, it was at Shechem and not Shiloh, where Joshua assembled the people to hear his final exhortations and to be renewed in covenant with their God who had given them the Land. This is doubly strange in that Shechem and Shiloh are so close together. It would have been just as easy for the tribes to assemble in one place as in the other. How came it, then, that the place sanctified by the presence of the tabernacle and the ark was disregarded?

There are references to Shiloh as a centre of worship in a section of the Book of Judges which probably belongs to the early part of this disturbed period (18:31 and ch. 21). And again in the early chapters of 1 Samuel, the sanctuary at Shiloh is the background to the familiar stories of Hannah and Samuel, of Eli and his wayward sons.

Then from this period onward Shiloh as a centre of worship in Israel disappears completely from the sacred records, apart from two allusions in Jeremiah (7:12; 26:6,9) to the utter destruction which overtook the tabernacle there and the town itself. It was disowned by God who destroyed it by the Philistines (Psa. 78:60).

It is a matter for surprise that Shiloh apparently played so little part in the history of the nation. The fact is that Shiloh was not unique as a holy place in Israel; it was not the only ‘place which the Lord was to choose to place his name there’.

An investigation of the various other centres, which were used in these unsettled times as places of approach to God should not be without value.


Mention has already been made of Shechem which, at the time that Joshua made covenant there between the people and their God, was evidently already regarded as a right and proper place for worship and sacrifice. There the people presented themselves “before God” (Josh. 24:1). “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and set them a statute and an ordinance in Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God, and took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord” (Josh. 24:25,26). This sanctuary at Shechem was probably the one called Bochim (the weeping ones) in Judges 2:1-5. Indeed the incident described there may be the very occasion which Joshua 24 narrates in greater detail. The similarities are certainly very striking. This Judges narrative adds: “and they sacrificed unto the Lord”.

Other Scriptures make it plain that at Shechem there was an altar of special sanctity and historic importance. It was there that the Land was first promised to Abraham’s Seed (before it was promised to Abraham!), which gracious promise was acknowledged by sacrifice on the altar which Abraham raised up there in thanksgiving (Gen. 12:6,7). It was to this place that Jacob came after his encounter with Esau on his way back from the country of Laban; and there, after repurchasing the piece of land which Abraham had bought from the original Hittite owners (Acts 7:16), he rebuilt Abraham’s altar (Gen. 33:19,20).

It was this altar which was rebuilt again, this time by Joshua, when the tribes of Israel all came together between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim to hear proclaimed the blessings and curses of the Law (Josh. 8:30).

But the re-establishment of the Hittite worship of Baal-berith in the time of Abimelech, the unworthy son of Gideon, ended the special holiness of Shechem until, many years later, the Son of God himself called the people of that place to “worship God in sincerity and in truth”, even as Joshua himself had insisted in the day of the covenant (John 4:24; Josh. 24:14). The site of this Shechem altar, of ancient sanctity, has lately been identified by the archaeologists (“Biblical Archaeology Review”, Jan.-Feb. 1985; see also Jan.-Feb. 1988).

Gideon’s Ophrah

There was another sanctuary of much less prominent character in the early days of the Judges, in Ophrah the home of Gideon. Its origin was, of course, the consecration (as an altar) of the rock where the angel of the Lord accepted fearful Gideon’s offering (Judg. 6:21-26). The altar from that day forth was called “Jehovah-Shalom” — the Lord of Peace.

The language of Judges 8:27 implies that Gideon ill-advisedly, though with the best of intentions, chose to establish and equip at Jehovah-Shalom a centre of worship for the God who had wrought deliverance through him. There is also the further implication that this new institution was widely accepted as a new spiritual centre for the neighbouring tribes. This honouring of a place which God had not chosen for such purpose would doubtless have continued but for the defilement of it by the brutal slaughter of Gideon’s family at the hands of Abimelech and his hired assassins.

From this example, and others now to be considered, it appears that God was willing, during this period when the tribes were disturbed and incoherent, that other sanctuaries besides the main centre be used to focus the piety of Israel.

Mizpeh of Gilead

It is clear from the story of Jephthah that in his day there was a well-recognized sanctuary in Mizpeh of Gilead. Jephthah’s agreement with the elders of Gilead was made “before the Lord in Mizpeh” — a phrase which invariably has reference to an altar or holy place where God was worshipped. Apparently too, but not certainly, it was at this Mizpeh that Jephthah vowed his vow unto the Lord. And, it may be that it would be at this sanctuary where his daughter would serve the Lord during her life-long virginity — but not necessarily (“Bible Studies”, p. 205a).

Other Mizpeh sanctuaries

This Mizpeh is always referred to with the definite article: The Mizpeh, i.e. The Watchtower. The priests and prophets of the Lord are frequently alluded to in Scripture as ‘watchmen’ (e.g. Hab. 2:1; Ezek. 3:17 and 33:2-7; Hosea 9:8; Isa. 29:20 and 56:10 and 21:6; Jer. 31:6 and 6:17). This detail, combined with the reference in Joshua 13:26 to “Ramoth-Mizpeh” in Gilead, suggests fairly strongly that Mizpeh was an alternative name for Ramoth-gilead, which was one of the cities of refuge in eastern Israel. It seems not unlikely that Ramoth-gilead was also the Mizpeh where Jacob and Laban agreed to disagree, and where Jacob also “offered sacrifice upon the mount” (Gen. 31:48-54). If so, its sacred associations in Jacob’s day might well single it out in later times for re-consecration.

It may well be the same Mizpeh that is mentioned in 1 Sam. 7:16 along with Bethel, Gilgal and Ramah as one of the centres of Samuel’s administration. The Septuagint adds significantly in that place: “and he judged Israel in all these sanctuaries.

The possibility should be considered of Mizpeh (watchtower) being a kind of technical term for a sanctuary in ancient Israel very much as ‘Ebenezer’ or ‘Bethel’ became for many a Methodist community in the last century a well-recognized name for their place of worship.

For instance, Mizpeh of Moab (1 Sam. 22:3), where David met the king of Moab when seeking refuge for his parents from the vengeful jealousy of Saul, may well be Bezer, the city of refuge, which was situated on the borders of Reuben and Moab.

There is another Mizpeh mentioned in Judges 20:1,3 and 21:1 in connection with the controversy between Benjamin and the rest of the nation. Geographical considerations immediately rule out the possibility that this might be Mizpeh of Gilead. But the text calls it “the house of God”, i.e. Bethel (20:18,26,31 RV and 21:2 RV), on the northern border of Benjamin. Some, however, identify it with Shiloh.

It is not certain where was the Mizpeh to which Samuel rallied the tribes for repentance before God (a long-neglected Day of Atonement?) and for resistance against further Philistine aggression (1 Sam. 7:5-16). Most probably it was the Gibeah (the priestly and Benjamite part of Kirjath-Jearim; Josh. 21:17; 18:14,28) where the ark was lodged after being returned by the Philistines. This may also have been Samuel’s Ramah, for that became a well-recognized religious centre during his lifetime. There is a good deal of uncertainty about some of these place-identifications.


Nob, in the vicinity of Jerusalem, is stated to have been a place of organised worship of some considerable importance. It had “fourscore and five persons that did wear a linen ephod”; and Ahimelech himself, high-priest of the line of Ithamar and Eli, officiated there (1 Sam. 21 and 22:18,19). It was this place which is referred to in the narrative of the slaying of Goliath: “And David took the head of the Philistine, and brought it to Jerusalem” (1 Sam. 17:54; cp. 21:8,9). It is difficult to see just how or why Nob came to achieve such high but short-lived importance.


Lastly, mention must be made of Gibeon, “the great high place” (1 Kgs. 3:4). “There (at the beginning of Solomon’s reign) was the tabernacle of the congregation of God, which Moses the servant of the Lord had made in the wilderness (2 Chron. 1:3).

This very tabernacle, first fashioned under the shadow of Mount Sinai, had undoubtedly been set up originally in Shiloh. How then did it come to be at Gibeon? One can only surmise. If the identity of Gibeon-Gibeah-Ramah be accepted (and a pretty good case can be made for this), then probably, when there was a serious threat, after the death of Eli, of Shiloh being overrun by the Philistines, Samuel had the tabernacle dismantled and removed elsewhere. When his administration settled down at Ramah-Gibeon he would have the sanctuary re-erected there; and there it continued right through the reign of David. If this identification of Gibeon is not accepted, then it is necessary to postulate that irreligious Saul took the trouble for no known reason, to have Moses’ tabernacle re-erected at a place which gets no mention at all in the history of his reign.

The numerous offerings which Solomon made at Gibeon (1 Kgs. 3:4) probably marked the formal closure of the sanctuary at Gibeon as “the great high place”. Whatever may have been its precise function hitherto, this would now be completely superseded by the temple that was a-building in Jerusalem.

Likely conclusions

It would seem, then, beyond question from the evidence available that during the period between Joshua and David quite a number of holy places were in use at various times for the offering of sacrifices and for approach to God. This fact suggests a different view of the often repeated phrase in Deuteronomy: “the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place his name there”. Instead of regarding it as an allusion to the one unique place, Shiloh, which was appointed as the centre of worship for the nation, perhaps it should be read as signifying the place (i.e. any place) which has been sanctified for that purpose.

In harmony with this suggestion are the words of Nathan the prophet to David: “Thus saith the Lord, Thou shalt not build me an house to dwell in: for I have not dwelt in an house since the day that I brought up Israel unto this day; but have gone from tent to tent, and from one tabernacle to another. Wheresoever I have walked with all Israel, spake I a word to any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to feed my people, saying, Why have ye not built me an house of cedars?” (1 Chron. 17:4-6).

This diversity of holy places helps to a clearer understanding of the repeated criticism made in the later history that “the high places were not taken away” by the kings of Judah. Gibeon is called “the great high place”. The sanctuary where the prophet Samuel ministered is called “the high place” (1 Sam. 9:13). And when, in a Hezekiah psalm, Assyrian invaders are said to have “burned up all the synagogues of God in the Land” (Psa. 74:7,8), the reference is most probably to the various religious centres mentioned in this compilation, to which a certain sanctity still clung

Next Next Next