Excursus: The Ark of the Covenant
Posted by foryourfaith on August 4, 2010
Considered the most holy and powerful objet in the Hebrew Bible, the Ark of the Covenant measured only 2½ cubits by 1½ cubits by 1½ cubits (4 feet 2 inches long by 2 feet 6 inches wide by 2 feet 6 inches high).
The Power of the Ark
The description of the Ark is found in Exodus 25:10-22: “They shall make an ark of Acacia wood, 2 cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and half its breadth and a cubit and a half its height. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, within and without shall you overlay it and you shall make upon it a molding of gold roundabout, and you shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet . . .
“You shall make poles of Acacia wood and overlay them with gold and you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the Ark to carry the Ark by them. The poles shall remain in the rings of the Ark and shall not be taken from it. And you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold . . . and you shall make two cherubim of gold . . . on the two ends of the mercy seat . . . The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings . . . And you shall put the mercy seat on the Ark and in the Ark you shall put the Testament . . . “
In the Ark were the two tablets of stone on which God made a covenant with the people of Israel when they came out of the land of Egypt. The tablets of the Law were put into the Ark, and this is what gave it its power. Many great deeds were preformed with the Ark as it traveled in front of the army. In the Book of Joshua, it says that the walls of Jericho came tumbling down when the Ark was carried around its wall in front of the army.
The Ark Arrives at Jerusalem
The journey of the Ark through the Hebrew Bible proceeds as follows: The Ark was first kept at the city of Shiloh (Joshua 18 and 1 Samuel 3) and accompanied the Israelite army into battle. It fell into the hands of the Philistines, who took it to three of their five cities. According to 1 Samuel, “When the Philistines captured the Ark of God . . . and they took into the house of Dagon and set up beside Dagon, and when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downwards beside the Ark of the Lord.”
The Philistines thus decided to send the Ark back to the Israelites, because it had created such a panic among their people. Because Shiloh had been destroyed, the Ark moved on (Jeremiah 26 and Psalms 78): “When God heard He was full of wrath and He utterly rejected Israelite. He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh, the tent where He dwelt among men, 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.”
The Ark was returned to Beth-shemesh, an incident described in 1 Samuel. The Ark remained there until a plague necessitated its transfer to the house of Abinidab, where it stayed from twenty years. Then David moved the Ark to Jerusalem (1 Samuel), dancing and singing before it as it was led to the city. He first left it at a house on the outskirts of the city, before finally moving it into a special tent within Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). Eventually, a year later, it was finally placed within the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple.
First Kings 8 says, “And all the elders of Israel came and they brought up the Ark of the Lord, the tent of meaning, and all the holy vessels in the tent, and King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel were with him before the Ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered. Then the priests brought the Ark of Covenant of the Lord to its place in the inner sanctuary of the house in the most holy place underneath the wings of the cherubim.”
Where is the Ark
After it was moved to the Temple, there is no further mention of the Israelites carrying the Ark toward or to festivals. Some scholars note that it was not among the vessels carried into exile or brought back, suggesting that the Ark was no longer in the Temple when the city was destroyed by the Babylonians in the year 586 BCE. So the Ark probably disappeared sometime between the end of Solomon’s reign and the time that the city was destroyed.
The Book of 2 Esdras, found only in Bibles that contain the Apocrypha, implies that the Ark was destroyed. The author, lamenting the fall of Jerusalem, says that the sanctuary was laid waste, the altar broken down, and the Ark spoiled.
Another possibility is that the Ark was captured and carried off. There is a passage in the Talmud that says that the Ark was hidden by King Josiah “in its place.” There is no indication of where this might be, but according to the Talmud, Josiah hid the Ark ten or fifteen years before the destruction of the city of Babylonians. This statement has led to the theory that the Ark is in a secret chamber carved deep beneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Indeed, there are chambers underneath the Mount where no one is allowed to go, some ultraorthodox Jews claim that the Ark is down there and will be revealed at the proper time.
There are stories that when a tunnel was being excavated next to the Temple Mount, two rabbis went in to see if they could find the Ark. In the course of these investigations, the rabbis noticed water seeping from a stone, removed the stone, and revealed a vaulted chamber. From there, they discovered another lower chamber; in this lower chamber, they believed they would find the Ark. Unfortunately, the authorities got wind of the investigations and sealed up the entrance to the caves before the rabbis were able to locate the Ark. This is a common theme: Everyone who claims to have discovered the Ark, without exception, can never produce evidence of it.
Great Discovery, or False Sighting?
Numerous people have found, or claimed to have found, the Ark. This includes people like Ron Wyatt, who claimed to have discovered Noah’s Ark, among other things. In 1979, he began excavations with his sons to find the Ark of the Covenant. They dug for a couple of years and claimed to have broken through the rocks into an open space. There they caught a glimpse of something shiny. Entering, they discovered dry-rotted wooden timbers and animal skins, which turned to powder when they moved them, as well as objects from Solomon’s Temple. They couldn’t uncover all the artifacts, and yet they are confident that they saw the Ark, the Great menorah, a large sword, a mitre with an ivory pomegranate, and so on. Unfortunately, they did not take any photographs, nor were they able to bring out any objects.
Another favorite suggestion for the location of the Ark is Mount Nebo in Jordan, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, because 2 Maccabees says that Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant there. In the autumn of 1981, Tom Crotser and his team from the institute for restoring Ancient History went to the Franciscan monastery on the summit of Mount Nebo. They said that they found a plaque that indicated that the Ark of the Lord was buried there. At night, they entered a tunnel that was 35 feet long and 4 feet wide. At the end of the tunnel, they ran into a wall. After knocking the stones down, they entered a small cave and discovered a large object, under whose covering they could see a golden box. They did not touch the box because they remembered what had happened to others who had touched it (namely, they were killed). So they photographed the box and withdrew. An archaeologist later looked at the photographs, which were not the highest quality. One of them showed a very modern-looking box with a nail sticking out of one corner.
Other people have suggested that the Ark is buried in the area of the Qumran caves, but there have been major excavations in the area and no one has yet found the Ark there.
The Ark in Ethiopia
There is also a tradition that claims that the Ark is in Ethiopia. Journalist Graham Hancock, in particular, investigated this claim. According to the story, the Queen of Sheba and Solomon had a son. This son went to Ethiopia and brought the Ark with him. Eventually it reached the site of Axum. Others have tried to follow up on this theory and have traced this movement of the Ark to one particular church, but nobody has been allowed in to see the Ark, if indeed it exists there.
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