Lecture #232: The History of the Divine Service at Altars (XLII) – The Prohibition of Bamot (XIX)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

Sponsored by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family
in honor of the yahrtzeits of our esteemed grandparents:
Neil Fredman (Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, 10 Tevet),
Clara Fredman (Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid, 15 Tevet),
and Walter Rosenthal (Shimon ben Moshe, 16 Tevet).

In this shiur we will deal with two issues:

1. The reasons for the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo.

2. The status of the Mishkan according to the various verses that mention Shilo.

The reasons for the destruction of Shilo

Interestingly, the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo is not mentioned in the book of Shemuel or in the book of Divrei Ha-yamim, which generally record events that took place during the 369 year period that Shilo was active.

Rather, the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo is described in Tehilim as follows:

When God heard this, He was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel: so that He forsook the Mishkan of Shilo, the tent where He made His dwelling among men, and delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy's hand. He gave His people over also to the sword; and was wroth with His inheritance. The fire consumed their young men; and their virgins had no marriage song. Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation. (78:59-64)

            It is also mentioned in Yirmeyahu (7:12): “But go now to My place which was in Shilo, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of My people Israel.”

Neither of these two sources references the reasons that led to the Mishkan's destruction. We will try to understand the reasons for the destruction through analyzing Scripture’s description.

I. The conduct of Eli's sons in the Mishkan

In the previous shiur we mentioned the problematic conduct of the sons of Eli in the Mishkan, disrespecting people bringing sacrifices and forcibly seizing their portions of the meat prior to the required burning of the offering's fats.[1]

The manner in which the sons of Eli ran the Mishkan is described in detail in the book of Shemuel (I Shemuel 2:11-17) and in the Gemara in Yoma (9a-9b). Chazal saw their conduct as the primary reason for the destruction of Shilo:

Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta said: Why was Shilo destroyed? Because of two [evil] things that prevailed there, forbidden sexual relationships and contemptuous treatment of sanctified objects.

[Proof of] forbidden sexual relationships because it is written: "Now Eli was very old, and he heard all that his sons did unto Israel, and how that they lay with the women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting." Notwithstanding Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachmani who said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Whosoever says that the sons of Eli sinned is but mistaken; it is because they delayed offering up their sacrificial birds Scripture accounts it to them as if they had lain with them.

The [sacred] offerings were treated contemptuously, as it is written (I Shemuel 2:15-17): "Also before the fat was made to smoke, the priest's servant came and said to the man that sacrificed, ‘Give meat to roast for the priest, for he will not have boiled meat of yours, but raw.’ And if the man said to him: ‘Let the fat be made to smoke first of all, and then take as much as your soul desires,’ then he would say, ‘Nay, but you shall give it me now, and if not, I will take it by force.’ And the sin of the young men was very great before the Lord, for the men dealt contemptuously with the offering of the Lord."

Chazal clearly distinguish between two different sins: contemptuous treatment of sanctified objects and forbidden sexual relationships. To this, of course, we must add the distorted perception of the Shekhina. Eli and his sons erroneously saw the ark as an "insurance policy" that would save Israel in times of trouble (see our expanded discussion of this issue in the previous shiur), detaching an individual’s worship of God from responsibility for his actions.

II. Idol Worship

Following the destruction of Shilo, the ark wanders between the cities of the Pelishtim, returns to Beit-Shemesh, and is transferred to Kiryat-Ye'arim. At this point, Shemuel the prophet harshly reprimands Israel for their idolatrous ways. He states as follows:

And Shemuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, If you return to the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtarot from among you, and direct your hearts to the Lord, and serve only Him; and He will deliver you out of the hands of the Pelishtim. Then the children of Israel put away the Be'alim and the Ashtarot, and served the Lord only. (I Shemuel 7:3-4)

It is possible that the appearance of this description only a few chapters after the battle between Israel and the Pelishtim at Even-ha-Ezer indicates that Israel desecrated God’s name there by engaging in idolatrous practices alongside the ark.

Moreover, it seems that the worship of the God of Israel through improper means, e.g., with Mikha's idol, brought many to seek alternatives to the Mishkan closer to their homes. Mikha's idol may be an extreme example, both in its proximity to Shilo and in the extent of the idolatry worshipped there,[2] but it is quite possible that this model was duplicated in other places. We should note that Mikha's idol itself wandered from Mount Efrayim to Dan in the north, as Chazal say: "Because his bread was available to travelers."

Asaf's account of the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo provides evidence for these patterns of worship: "For they provoked Him with their high places, and moved Him to jealousy with their graven images. When God heard this, He was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel" (Tehilim 78:58-59). Scripture describes worship of idols at bamot, also arousing God's jealousy.[3]

Thus, we might assume that the people of Israel did not destroy the idols and bamot of the Canaanites. This fulfills the Torah’s prediction (Devarim 32:16): "They provoked Him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations they provoked Him to anger."

III. Interpersonal Sins

In the previous shiur we expanded upon the abuses of Chofni and Pinchas in the Mishkan in Shilo. Upon examining the words of Yirmeyahu that were cited in the previous shiur, it would appear that the general state of interpersonal relations at the time also contributed to the destruction of the Mishkan in Shilo. As may be recalled, Yirmeyahu describes the dismal social reality in his day: "For if you thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor, if you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place" (7:5-6). Several verses later, we come to his famous call to consider the case of Shilo. The comparison to Shilo may relate to the nature of the sins of the time in addition to the very fact of its destruction.

IV. Each man in his inheritance

The two main reasons given for the destruction of Shilo, idolatry and interpersonal sins, each hang the guilt on the negative behavior of the people of Israel. However, it is possible that the people's minimal contact with the Mishkan in Shilo was due to practical constraints. During the period of the Judges, the tribes were focused on strengthening their grip on their tribal territories against the remaining native inhabitants. This intense preoccupation made it difficult for the more distant tribes to visit the Mishkan on a frequent basis. Thus, it is very likely that many of the tribes preferred to worship God in a more local setting.

V. In those days there was no king in Israel

As we know, during the period when the Temple stood in Shilo there was no central leadership. We can assume that this contributed to the lack of a single spiritual center that would serve the entire people of Israel. Thus, there were no national assemblies, and visiting the Mishkan was only relevant to the tribe of Efrayim and those living close by, but not to the rest of Israel.

The fact that Scripture does not explicitly relate to the reasons for the destruction of the Mishkan seems to indicate that the standing of the Mishkan was insignificant. This is a direct continuation of Scripture's ignoring the Mishkan in the book of Shofetim, where the sole mention of it is in the context of describing the years of Mikha's idol.

With this in mind, let us consider the treatment of the Mishkan between the time of the destruction of Shilo and the building of the Temple by Shlomo. We should note that with the destruction of Shilo and the ark's captivity in the hands of the Pelishtim, the Mishkan ceased to serve as the exclusive center containing both the Mishkan and the ark. From that time on there was a split where the Mishkan stood by itself as the great bama that was erected first at Nov and later at Giv'on. The ark, on the other hand, wandered among the cities of the Pelishtim, to Beit Shemesh, to Kiryat-Ye'arim, and finally to the city of David, where David reigned as king over all of Israel in Jerusalem.

The standing of the Mishkan from the destruction of Shilo to the building of the Temple

According to Seder Olam Rabba, after the destruction of Shilo, the Mishkan stood for 13 years in Nov and then 44 years in Giv'on. It is very interesting that according to Chazal and the verses in Scripture, the years of the various leaders correspond with the placement of the Shekhina during that period. The 13 years of the leadership of Shemuel and Shaul correspond to the time during which the Mishkan stood in Nov.[4] The 40 years of David's kingdom together with the first four years of Shlomo’s amount to the 44 years during which the great bama stood in Giv'on.

Continuing the biblical trend regarding the Mishkan in Shilo, there is no reference of the relocation of the great bama from Shilo to Nov or from Nov to Giv'on in the books of Shemuel or Divrei Ha-yamim. Scripture seems to ignore the state of the Mishkan and its various stations. Though it does relate to special events that take place in the Mishkan, it does not address the Mishkan's move from one place to the next.

Let us now examine the Mishkan according to the plain meaning of the text. Before we describe the Mishkan in Nov and Giv'on, let us examine the form of the Mishkan in Shilo, so that we can compare and contrast the different versions of it.

1. The structure of the Mishkan         

            We should note that the Mishkan in Shilo is called "the house of God" or "the house of the Lord." In contrasting the Mishkan with Mikha’s idol Scripture writes: "And they set up for themselves Mikha's idol, which he had made, all the time that the house of God was in Shilo" (18:31). Next, in the account of the Levite and his concubine: "And I went to Beit-Lechem-Yehuda, but I am now going to the house of the Lord" (Shoftim 19:18. Finally, in the description of the Mishkan introducing Shemuel’s first role: "And Shemuel lay until the morning, and opened the doors of the house of the Lord" (I Shemuel 3:15).

            Again, when describing the location of Eli's seat it says: "Now Eli the priest sat upon a seat by the gate post of the Temple of the Lord" (I Shemuel 1:9); and later: "And Shemuel lay down to sleep in the Temple of the Lord where the ark of God was" (I Shemuel 3:9).

            On the other hand, the Mishkan is also called Ohel Mo'ed, the Tent of Meeting. Thus in Yehoshua: "And the whole congregation of the children of Israel assembled together at Shilo, and set up the Tent of Meeting there" (18:1). Similarly, in the account of the tribal territories: "These are the territories which Elazar the priest, and Yehoshua the son of Nun, and the head of the fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel divided for an inheritance by lot in Shilo before the Lord, at the door of the Tent of Meeting. So they made an end of dividing the country" (19:51).             

This suggests that the people related to the Mishkan in Shilo both as a "house" and as a "tent." This dual description expresses the uniqueness of this phase of the Mishkan in Eretz Israel. On the one hand, the Mishkan is a continuation of the presence of the Shekhina in the wilderness as a "tent," demonstrated through the name Ohel Mo'ed. On the other hand, it is a stone structure, a house containing a Temple and doorposts.

In this context, it is interesting to examine the wording of God's response to David's request to build the Temple. The prophet Natan states as follows:

Go and tell My servant David, Thus says the Lord, shall you build Me a house for Me to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in any house since that time that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but I have walked in a tent and in a tabernacle (II Shemuel 7:5-6).

Scripture seems to be discussing the Mishkan prior to the days of David, i.e., the transition from Gilgal, to Shilo, to Nov and to Giv'on. Here, it is specifically stated that God did not dwell in a house, but rather “walked” in a tent and a tabernacle. Thus even though we cited verses that refer to Shilo as a house, God describes the period as one of transient dwelling in a tent and tabernacle.

We should note that the Mishkan was called "the Tent of Meeting" (Shemot 39:40) as well as "the Mishkan of the Testimony" (Shemot 38:21) in the wilderness. Sometimes, the Torah uses a combination of the two designations: "On the first day of the first month shall you set up the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting" (Shemot 40:2), or even in a parallel arrangement, "How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, and your tabernacles, O Israel" (Bemidbar 24:5).

The parallel verse in Divrei ha-Yamim to the verse in Shemuel reads: "For I have not dwelt in a house since the day that I brought up Israel to this day; but have gone from tent to tent, and from one tabernacle to another" (I Divrei ha-Yamim 17:5). It seems that this verse relates to the wandering of Shekhina from the wilderness to Gilgal, Shilo, Nov and Giv'on. This account brought Chazal to say in the Mishna in Zevachim (14:6): "When they came to Shilo, bamot were [again] prohibited. [The Mishkan] there had no roof, but [consisted of] a stone edifice ceiled with curtains."

2. The function of the Mishkan

According to Scripture’s description, the service was conducted in full in the Mishkan in Shilo, as had been done in the wilderness. A continually burning lamp was lit there,[5] and it is clear from the verses that incense was burned there. Additionally, communal sacrifices were offered, including the daily offerings and the additional offerings.

In addition, Shilo served as a house of worship, as is evident from Chana's prayer, and also as a place of Divine revelation: "And the Lord appeared again in Shilo: for the Lord revealed Himself to Shemuel in Shilo by the word of the Lord" (I Shemuel 3:21). So too, Scripture attests to the fact that some people made pilgrimages to the Mishkan (in his rebuke of his sons, Eli mentions "the women who assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting"). In this way, Scripture illustrates the full functioning of the Mishkan in Shilo.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] We might question whether this dismal situation itself kept potential pilgrims away from the Mishkan, or, the communal failure to make pilgrimages to Shilo enabled the sons of Eli to treat the Mishkan as their private estate. If the second possibility is true, we must understand what kept the people of Israel from visiting the Mishkan.

[2] The shrine included a carved idol, a molten idol, terafim and an efod.

[3] Amos Chakham (in his Da'at Mikra commentary to Tehilim) argues that it is possible that the verse refers to Bemidar 33:52: "And you shall destroy all their figured pavements, and destroy all their molten images, and devaste all their high places."

[4] There are many different calculations of the years of the leadership of Shemuel and Shaul, but this is not the forum for such a discussion.

[5] This is clear from the verse, "And the lamp of God had not yet gone out" (I Shemuel 3:3),