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Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant (אָרוֹן הָבְרִית ʔārōn hāb’rīθ, Modern aron habrit) is described in the Bible as a sacred container, wherein rested the Tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments as well as Aaron's rod and manna. According to the Biblical account, the Ark was built at the command of God, in accord with Moses' prophetic vision on Mount Sinai (). God communicated with Moses "from between the two cherubim" on the Ark's cover (). The Ark and its sanctuary were "the beauty of Israel" (). Rashi and some Midrashim suggest that there were two arks - a temporary one made by Moses, and a later one made by Bezalel.

The Biblical account relates that during the trip of the Israelites, the Ark was carried by the priests ~2,000 cubits (Numbers 35:5; Joshua 4:5) in advance of the people and their army or host (Num. 4:5-6; 10:33-36; Psalms 68:1; 132:8). When the Ark was borne by priests into the bed of the Jordan, the river was separated, opening a pathway for the whole of the host to pass over (Josh. 3:15-16; 4:7-18). The Ark was borne in a seven-day procession around the wall of Jericho by seven priests sounding seven trumpets of rams' horns, the city taken with a shout (Josh. 6:4-20). When carried, the Ark was always wrapped in a veil, in tachash skins (the identity of this animal is uncertain), and a blue cloth, and was carefully concealed, even from the eyes of the Levites who carried it.

Terminology

The Hebrew word aron is used in the Bible to refer to any type of ark, chest or coffer, for any purpose (Book of Genesis 50:26; 2 Kings 12:9, 10).

The Ark of the Covenant is distinguished from all others by such titles as:

  • Holy Ark
  • Ark of God, (1 Samuel 3:3)
  • Ark of thy God's strength
  • Ark of the Covenant, (Josh. 3:6; Hebrews 9:4)
  • Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of all the Earth
  • Ark of the Testimony, (Ex. 25:22)

Description

The Bible describes the Ark as made of shittah-tree wood (acacia), known to the Egyptians as the Tree of Life and an important plant in traditional medicine containing in many cases psychoactive alkaloids. It was a cubit and a half broad and high, and two and a half cubits long (about 130 cm x 78 cm x 78 cm (.79 m3) or 4.27 ft x 2.56 ft x 2.56 ft (27.93 ft3), for Egyptian royal cubit was most likely used). The Ark was covered all over with the purest gold. Its upper surface or lid, the mercy seat was surrounded with a rim of gold.

On each of the two sides were two gold rings, wherein were placed two wooden poles (with a decorative sheathing of gold), to allow the Ark to be carried (Num. 7:9; 10:21; 4:5,19, 20; 1 Kings 8:3, 6). Over the Ark, at the two extremities, were two cherubim, with their faces turned toward one another (Leviticus 16:2; Num. 7:89). Their outspread wings over the top of the Ark formed the throne of God, while the Ark itself was his footstool (Ex. 25:10-22; 37:1-9). The Ark was placed in the "Holy of Holies," so that one end of the carrying poles touched the veil separating the two compartments of the tabernacle (1 Kings 8:8). The Book of Deuteronomy describes the Ark as a simple wooden container with no mention of ornaments or gold. Similarly, the Quran makes a reference to the Ark as a wooden box with holy relics inside it.

Contents

According to the Bible, the two tablets of stone constituting the "testimony" or evidence of God's covenant with the people (i.e. The Ten Commandments) were kept within the Ark itself. A golden jar containing some of the manna from the Israelites' trek in the wilderness, and the rod of Aaron that budded, were added to the contents of the Ark (Ex. 16:32-34; Heb. 9:4), but apparently were later removed at some point prior to the building of Solomon's temple, as the Tanakh states in I Kings 8:9 that there "was nothing in the Ark save the two tablets of stone." While Heb. 9:4 states these items were placed "inside" the Ark, Ex. 16:33-34 and Num. 17:10 use the expression "before" the Ark; some see a contradiction here, as the correct meaning of these phrases is open to interpretation. A Rabbinic tradition states that Moses also put the broken fragments of the first tablets of the Law into the Ark.

Sanctity and consecration

Even Aaron, brother of Moses and the High Priest, was forbidden to enter the place of the Ark, except once per year on a designated day, called The Day of Atonement, when he was to perform certain ceremonies there (Lev. 16). Moses was directed to consecrate the Ark, when completed, with the oil of holy ointment (Ex. 30:23-26); he was also directed to have the Ark made by Bezalel, son of Uri of the tribe of Judah, and by Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan (Ex. 31:2-7). These instructions Moses carried out, calling upon every "wisehearted" one among the people to assist in the work (Ex. 35:10-12). Bezalel the artist made the Ark (Ex. 37:1); and Moses approved the work, put the testimony in the Ark, and installed it.

According to the Haggadah written in the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods (circa 200-500 CE), after installment in the second Temple, the Ark and the operation of the Temple was supervised by the angel Metatron. There are numerous possible etymologies for the name Metatron, one being from two Greek words μετὰ θρóνος after and throne. There are no references to Metatron in the Jewish Tanakh (Old Testament), the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) or any Islamic source.

In Deut. 10:1-5, a different account of the making of the Ark is given. Moses is made to say that he constructed the Ark before going upon Mount Horeb to receive the second set of tablets. The charge of carrying the Ark and the rest of the holy implements was given to the family of Kohath (of the tribe of Levi). They, though, were not to touch any of the holy things that were still uncovered by Aaron (Num. 4:2-15).

Other references to the Ark in Scripture

The Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur'an.

In the Bible

The Ark is mentioned in the books Joshua, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Hebrews and Jeremiah. It is referenced by Jeremiah, who, speaking in the days of Josiah (Jer. 3:16), prophesies a future time when the Ark will no longer be used. In the Psalms, the Ark is twice referred to. In Ps. 78:61 its capture by the Philistines is spoken of, and the Ark is called "the strength and glory of God"; and in Ps. 132:8, it is spoken of as "You and the ark of Your strength." The Ark is also mentioned in several passages in Exodus and 1 Samuel, including Exodus 25:10-22 and 1 Samuel 4:3-22 and 5:7-8. The Ark is mentioned in one passage in the deuterocanonical 2 Maccabees 2:4-10, which contains a reference to a document saying that the prophet Jeremiah, "being warned of God," took the Ark, and the tabernacle, and the altar of incense, and buried them in a cave on Mount Nebo (Deut. 34:1), informing those of his followers who wished to find the place that it should remain unknown "until the time that God should gather His people again together, and receive them unto mercy." Hebrews 9:4 states that the Ark contained "the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant." Finally, in the Book of Revelation the Ark is described as being in the 'temple' of God in heaven (Rev. 11:19). The Ark is last seen in God's 'temple' just before a woman gives birth to the man child (Rev. 12:1-2), both stalked by a dragon and his angels cast to earth (Rev. 12:3-17).

In the Qur'an

There is a brief mention of the Ark of the Covenant in Islamic literature. This mention is in the middle of the narrative of the choice of Saul to be king. The Qur'an states:
And (further) their Prophet said to them: "A Sign of his authority is that there shall come to you the Ark of the covenant, with (an assurance) therein of security (Sakina) from your Lord, and the relics left by the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, carried by angels. In this is a symbol for you if ye indeed have faith. (

Islamic scholar Al Baidawi mentions that the Sakina could be Tawrat, Books of Moses. According to Al-Jalalan, the relics in the Ark were the fragments of the two tablets, rods, robes, shoes, mitres of Moses and the vase of Manna. Al-Tha'alibi, in Qisas Al-Anbiya (The Stories of the Prophets), has given an earlier and later history of the Ark.

According to most Muslim scholars, the Ark of the Covenant has a religious basis in Islam, and Islam gives it special significance. Muslims believe that it will be found by Mahdi near the end of times from Lake Tiberias.

Biblical account

Mobile vanguard

In the march from Sinai, and at the crossing of the Jordan, the Ark preceded the people, and was the signal for their advance (Num. 10:33; Josh. 3:3, 6). The Ark of the Covenant burned the thorns and other obstructions in the wilderness roads. According to tradition, sparks from between the two cherubim killed serpents and scorpions. During the crossing of the Jordan, the river grew dry as soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touched its waters; and remained so until the priests -- with the Ark -- left the river, after the people had passed over (Josh. 3:15-17; 4:10, 11, 18). As memorials, twelve stones were taken from the Jordan at the place where the priests had stood (Josh. 4:1-9).

The Ark was carried into battle, such as in the Midian war (Num. 31). In the capture of Jericho the Ark was carried round the city once a day for six days, preceded by the armed men and seven priests sounding seven trumpets of rams' horns (Josh. 6:4-15). On the seventh day the seven priests sounding the seven trumpets of rams' horns before the Ark compassed the city seven times and with a great shout, Jericho's wall fell down flat and the people took the city (Josh. 6:16-20). After the defeat at Ai, Joshua lamented before the Ark (Josh. 7:6-9). When Joshua read the Law to the people between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, they stood on each side of the Ark. The Ark was again set up by Joshua at Shiloh; but when the Israelites fought against Benjamin at Gibeah, they had the Ark with them, and consulted it after their defeat.

Captured by the Philistines

The Ark is next spoken of as being in the tabernacle at Shiloh during Samuel's apprenticeship (1 Sam. 3:3). After the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan, the Ark remained in the tabernacle at Gilgal for a season, then was removed to Shiloh until the time of Eli, between 300 and 400 years (Jeremiah 7:12), when it was carried into the field of battle, so as to secure, as they supposed, victory to the Hebrews; and it was taken by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:3-11), who sent it back after retaining it seven months (1 Sam. 5:7, 8) because of the events said to have transpired. After their first defeat at Eben-ezer, the Israelites had the Ark brought from Shiloh, and welcomed its coming with great rejoicing.

In the second battle, the Israelites were again defeated, and the Philistines captured the Ark (1 Sam. 4:3-5, 10, 11). The news of its capture was at once taken to Shiloh by a messenger "with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head." The old priest, Eli, fell dead when he heard it; and his daughter-in-law, bearing a son at the time the news of the capture of the Ark was received, named him Ichabod—explained as "Where is glory?" in reference to the loss of the Ark (1 Sam. 4:12-22).

The Philistines took the Ark to several places in their country, and at each place misfortune resulted to them (1 Sam. 5:1-6). At Ashdod it was placed in the temple of Dagon. The next morning Dagon was found prostrate, bowed down, before it; and on being restored to his place, he was on the following morning again found prostrate and broken. The people of Ashdod were smitten with hemorrhoids; a plague of mice was sent over the land (1 Sam. 6:5). The affliction of boils was also visited upon the people of Gath and of Ekron, whither the Ark was successively removed (1 Sam. 5:8-12).

After the Ark had been among them seven months, the Philistines, on the advice of their diviners, returned it to the Israelites, accompanying its return with an offering consisting of golden images of the hemorrhoids and mice wherewith they had been afflicted. The Ark was set in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite, and the Beth-shemites offered sacrifices and burnt offerings (1 Sam. 6:1-15). Out of curiosity the men of Beth-shemesh gazed at the Ark; and as a punishment, seventy of them (fifty thousand seventy in some ms.) were smitten by the Lord (1 Sam. 6:19). The Bethshemites sent to Kirjath-jearim, or Baal-Judah, to have the Ark removed (1 Sam. 6:21); and it was taken to the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar was sanctified to keep it. Kirjath-jearim was the abode of the Ark for twenty years. Under Saul, the Ark was with the army before he first met the Philistines, but the king was too impatient to consult it before engaging in battle. In 1 Chronicles 13:3 it is stated that the people were not accustomed to consult the Ark in the days of Saul.

In the days of King David

At the beginning of his reign, David removed the Ark from Kirjath-jearim amid great rejoicing. On the way to Zion, Uzzah, one of the drivers of the cart whereon the Ark was carried, put out his hand to steady the Ark, and was smitten by the Lord for touching it. David, in fear, carried the Ark aside into the house of Obed-edom the Gittite, instead of carrying it on to Zion, and here it stayed three months (2 Sam. 6:1-11; 1 Chron. 13:1-13).

On hearing that the Lord had blessed Obed-edom because of the presence of the Ark in his house, David had the Ark brought to Zion by the Levites, while he himself, "girded with a linen ephod," "danced before the Lord with all his might" — a performance that caused him to be despised and scornfully rebuked by Saul's daughter Michal (2 Sam. 6:12-16, 20-22; 1 Chron. 15). This derision of David on her part prompted God to take away her fertility. In Zion, David put the Ark in the tabernacle he had prepared for it, offered sacrifices, distributed food, and blessed the people and his own household (2 Sam. 6:17-20; 1 Chron. 16:1-3; 2 Chron. 1:4).

Levites were appointed to minister before the Ark (1 Chron. 16:4). David's plan of building a temple for the Ark was stopped at the advice of God (2 Sam. 7:1-17; 1 Chron. 17:1-15; 28:2, 3). The Ark was with the army during the siege of Rabbah (2 Sam. 11:11); and when David fled from Jerusalem at the time of Absalom's conspiracy, the Ark was carried along with him until he ordered Zadok the priest to return it to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 15:24-29).

In Solomon's temple

When Abiathar was dismissed from the priesthood by Solomon for having taken part in Adonijah's conspiracy against David, his life was spared because he had formerly borne the Ark (1 Kings 2:26). It was afterwards placed by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:6-9). Solomon worshiped before the Ark after his dream in which the Lord promised him wisdom (1 Kings 3:15). In Solomon's Temple, a Holy of Holies was prepared to receive the Ark (1 Kings 6:19); and when the Temple was dedicated, the Ark—containing nothing but the two Mosaic tables of stone—was placed therein. When the priests emerged from the holy place after placing the Ark there, the Temple was filled with a cloud, "for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord" (1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron. 5:13, 14).

When Solomon married Pharaoh's daughter, he caused her to dwell in a house outside Zion, as Zion was consecrated because of its containing the Ark (2 Chron. 8:11). King Josiah had the Ark put into the Temple (2 Chron. 35:3), whence it appears to have again been removed by one of his successors.

The Babylonians and afterwards

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and plundered the temple, the Ark entered the domain of legend. Many historians suppose that the ark was probably taken away by Nebuchadnezzar and destroyed. The absence of the ark from the Second Temple was acknowledged. The Ark is finally re-established to the Temple in vision: "Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the Ark of his Covenant" (Rev. 11:19 NIV).

Fate of the Ark

Guesses of the ultimate fate of the Ark include the intentional concealing of the Ark under the Temple Mount; the removal of the Ark from Jerusalem in advance of the Babylonians (this variant usually ends up with the Ark in Ethiopia); the removal of the Ark by the Ethiopian prince Menelik I (purported son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba); removal by Jewish priests during the reign of Manasseh of Judah, possibly taken to the Jewish Temple at Elephantine in Egypt; the miraculous removal of the Ark by divine intervention (Cf. 2 Chronicles); and even the destruction of the original ornate Ark under King Josiah's reforms (when it may have been seen as violating the commandment against graven images) and replacement with a simple wooden box, easily lost when the Temple fell.

Rumoured present locations

Some have claimed to have discovered or have possession of the Ark.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant or tabot in Axum. The object is now kept under guard in a treasury near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, and used occasionally in ritual processions. But versions of the Aksum tabot are kept in every Ethiopian church, each with its own dedication to a particular saint, most popularly Mary, George and Michael.

The Kebra Nagast is Ethiopia’s greatest national document, composed to legitimise the new royal line established in 1270 by claiming its descent from Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and contains a reference to the Ark of the Covenant being brought to Ethiopia by Menelik. However, recent scholarship suggests that that reference is a later interpolation: many important manuscripts later than the thirteenth century make no reference to it, and it only became a core element of Ethiopian beliefs in the seventeenth century. It has been plausibly suggested that the claim that the Aksum tabot is the real Ark of the Covenant results from misunderstandings between the Ethiopians and their Portuguese allies following the defeat of Arab invasions in the sixteenth century – misunderstandings which were gratefully exploited and developed by the Ethiopian church.

Zimbabwe

The Lemba people, who believe they are of Jewish descent, have claimed that their ancestors carried the Ark south, calling it the ngoma lungundu or "voice of God", eventually hiding it in a deep cave in the Dumghe mountains, their spiritual home.

In a Channel 4 documentary broadcast in UK on April 14, 2008, Tudor Parfitt, taking a literalist approach to the Biblical story, described his research into this claim. He says that the object described by the Lemba has attributes similar to the Ark. It was of similar size, was carried on poles by priests, was not allowed to touch the ground, was revered as a voice of their God, and was used as a weapon of great power, sweeping enemies aside.

In his book The Lost Ark of the Covenant (2008) Parfitt also suggests that the Ark was taken to Arabia following the Second Book of Maccabees, and cites Arabic sources which maintain it was brought in distant times to Yemen. One Lemba clan, the Buba, which was supposed to have brought the Ark to Africa, have a genetic signature called the Cohen Modal Haplotype which connects them with the ancient Jewish priesthood. The Lemba also came to Africa from Yemen. Lemba tradition maintains that the Ark spent some time in Sena in Yemen. Later, it was taken across the sea to East Africa and may have been taken inland at the time of the Great Zimbabwe civilisation. According to their oral traditions, some time after the arrival of the Lemba with the Ark, it self-destructed. Using a core from the original, the Lemba priests constructed a new one. This replica was discovered in a cave by a Swedish German missionary named Harald von Sicard in the 1940s and eventually found its way to the Museum of Human Science in Harare.

Parfitt had this artifact radio-carbon dated to about 1350 CE, which coincided with the sudden end of the Great Zimbabwe civilization. Jewish sources in the Talmud, as well as the Jewish exegete Rashi (Rashi's commentary of Deuteronomy), suggest that there were two Arks: one was the original simple wooden Ark of Moses described in the Book of Deuteronomy, the other was the later golden Ark made by Bezalel as described in the Book of Exodus. Rabbinic opinion maintains that the first of these Arks was the Ark of War and the second was a ceremonial object which stayed in the Temple. Parfitt suggests that the Ark he found was the descendant of the Ark of War and that a wooden chest being used as a weapon was replicated at least once, and possibly many times. Parfitt offers the suggestion that the wooden ark may always have been a drum as well as a weapon of some sort, like the ngoma. It was often found in musical processions, David danced in front of it and it was covered over with a piece of leather. Parfitt, however, offers no explanation of the original principal contents of the Ark, the stone tablets.

Middle East

In 1989, Ron Wyatt claimed to have broken into a chamber while digging underground beneath the Calvary Escarpment. He claimed to have seen the Ark and taken photographs. All photos came out blurry (leading to scepticism of the claim). According to Wyatt the excavations were closed off (because of private property concerns) and, to the extent of knowledge, no one has seen the Ark since. Ron Wyatt was widely seen in the Biblical archaeology community as an attention seeker, often announcing he had found Biblically important objects with little or no hard evidence to back up his claims.

Vendyl Jones claimed to have found the entrance to the chamber in the Cave of the Column near Qumran. Here, he stated, is where the Ark was hidden prior to the destruction of the First Temple. Arutz Sheva quoted Jones stating he would reveal the Ark on Tisha B'Av (August 14, 2005), the anniversary of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples; however, this did not occur. On Jones' website he states that he was misquoted and actually said it would be appropriate if he discovered the Ark on Tisha B'Av. Jones is waiting for funding to explore the cave.

Modern excavations near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have found tunnels, but digging beneath the Temple Mount is somewhat restricted. One of the most important Islamic shrines, the Dome of the Rock, sits in the location where the First Temple of Solomon once stood. Messianic preacher Michael Rood claims that King Solomon married into the Egyptian royal family so as to gain the Egyptians' famed knowledge of sand hydraulic technology. King Solomon reportedly, when building the temple, put the Ark of the Covenant on a platform which could be lowered down into a tunnel system if the Temple were ever overrun. In 586 BCE King Nebuchadnezzar's troops destroyed the temple and carried off the temple treasures but did not find the Ark of the Covenant, which had been lowered into the cave system below and secreted away by Levite priests.

Michael Sanders claims to have found the location of the Ark Of the Covenant's 'stones' in Djaharya near an ancient temple created by Ramses III (now an old tower in ruins).

Europe

Languedoc

Several legends hold that the Ark was carried home to Languedoc by Templars returning from the Crusades.

England

In 2003, historical author Graham Phillips traced the route of the Ark through research using Biblical texts as being taken to Mount Sinai in the Valley of Edom by the Maccabees, along with other religious treasures. Phillips claims it remained there until the 1180s, when Ralph de Sudeley, the leader of the Templars who apparently found the Maccabean treasure at Jebel al-Madhbah, returned home to his estate at Herdewyke in Warwickshire, England, taking the treasure with him.

Ireland

During the turn of the 20th century British Israelites carried out some excavations of the Hill of Tara looking for the Ark of the Covenant – the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland campaigned successfully to have them stopped before they ruined the hill.

See also

Middle Eastern

Further reading

  • Carew, Mairead, Tara and the Ark of the Covenant: A Search for the Ark of the Covenant by British Israelites on the Hill of Tara, 1899-1902]. Royal Irish Academy, 2003. ISBN 0954385527
  • Cline, Eric H. (2007), From Eden to Exile: Unravelling Mysteries of the Bible, National Geographic Society, ISBN 978-1426200847
  • Fisher, Milton C., The Ark of the Covenant: Alive and Well in Ethiopia?. Bible and Spade 8/3, pp. 65-72, 1995.
  • Grierson, Roderick & Munro-Hay, Stuart, The Ark of the Covenant. Orion Books Ltd, 2000. ISBN 0-7538-1010-7
  • Hancock, Graham, The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Touchstone Books, 1993. ISBN 0-671-86541-2
  • Hertz, J.H., The Pentateuch and Haftoras. Deuteronomy. Oxford University Press, 1936.
  • Leeman, Bernard, Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship. Queensland Academic Press, 2005. ISBN 0-9758022-0-8
  • Ritmeyer, L., The Ark of the Covenant: Where it Stood in Solomon's Temple. Biblical Archaeology Review 22/1: 46-55, 70-73, 1996.

References

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