Israelite shrines and worship before the Temple of Solomon (1 Samuel 1)

Bilderesultat for shrine from Hazor

Illustration: Shrine from Hazor ca 14th century B.C.

Following the conquest, Israelite worship was conducted at the tabernacle at Shiloh. This was in keeping with the laws of the sanctuary given in Deuteronomy 12:5, 13-14. However, in the books of Joshua through 1 Chronicles at least 20 local shrines, altars or high places are mentioned as pre-Solomonic places of worship, with roughly one-third of these referred to in 1 Samuel. The Israelites did at times follow Canaanite cultic practices, worshiping the local Baals and Ashteroths (cf. Judges 3:7). Canaanite worship at local shrines involved the erection of sacred pillars representing the deities; the planting of sacred trees; engagement in sacrifice, feasting and ritualized prostitution (cf. Genesis 38:21, 1 Kings 14:24), and participation in pilgrimages to cult sites. Human sacrifice was practiced as well. Did worship at Israelite high places differ? It often did, and it is important to realize that not all of the outlying shrines were illicit or pagan.

After the apparent destruction of Shiloh the Israelites returned to traditional custom, worshiping God at local, open-air cult sites as the patriarchs had done (cf. e.g. Genesis 12:6-8, 26:23-25, 28:10-22). The Baals and Ashteroth were removed, God alone was worshiped (1 Samuel 7:3-4) and the grossly pagan features of Canaanite worship were absent. Israelite worship included pilgrimage, the offering of sacrifices and libations, feasting (cf. 9:12-24), musical praise (cf. 10:5) and prayer and fasting (cf. 7:5-6). Sites were probably chosen as places of worship on the basis of associations with the patriarchs or on their connection to great moments in Israel’s history or prior appearances of the Lord. The presence of the ark of the covenant lent sanctity to some sites (cf. 2 Samuel 6:12 ff), as did the tabernacle to others (cf. 1 Samuel 21:4-6, 1 Chronicles 16:39, 21:29). Common to all Israelite high places was an altar, but some sites had other associated structures as well (cf. 1 Samuel 9:22). Prior to the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, worship at local shrines was common practice among the Israelites.

The multiplicity of shrines in early Israel helps us to make sense of the apparently contradictory rules concerning worship that we find in the law. On the one hand, we see frequent reference to the central sanctuary as “the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for His name” (e.g. Deuteronomy 12:11). We also see clear indication that the line of Aaron was the only legitimate priestly line; all other Levites were subordinates who were entrusted with sanctuary duties but did not serve as priests (e.g. Numbers 18:1-7, 21-24). On the other hand, some texts seem to imply that all Levites had priestly authority (Judges 17:13).

The solution lies in the fact that Israel did have one central shrine, the place where the ark of the covenant resided and where the priests of Aaron’s line officiated. This shrine was first at Shiloh and later at Jerusalem. However, most people could not make frequent trips there, and thus there were numerous other sites throughout Israel where the people could worship routinely. Any Levite – but only a Levite – it appears, could serve as a priest at one of these outlying shrines. However, if a Levite came to the central shrine, he could perform only subordinate duties (could not wear the priestly vestments or assume the duties of the Aaronic priests).


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