by Doug Ward
On March 3, 2001, a special called ``Biblical Mysteries: The Ark of the Covenant'' was broadcast by the NBC television network in the United States. I decided to tune in, partly because we had just been discussing the instructions for the construction of the ark (Exodus 25) in our family Bible study. I was also curious to see how the program would handle the various speculations about the ark's current whereabouts.
The television special turned out to be rather disappointing. It concentrated largely on the speculations of a man named Michael S. Sanders (see www.biblemysteries.com). Sanders believes that the ark was taken by the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak, who attacked the kingdom of Judah during the reign of Solomon's son Rehoboam and ``carried off the treasures of the temple of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace'' (2 Chron. 12:9). Strangely, the program made no mention of the strong evidence against this theory. In particular, 2 Chron 35:3 indicates that the ark was still in the possession of the Jews a few hundred years later, during the reign of King Josiah. 1
People have long been intrigued by the question of where the ark of the covenant might be located. The ``Biblical Mysteries'' special, Graham Hancock's book The Sign and the Seal, and the movie ``Raiders of the Lost Ark'' are all indicators of our continuing fascination with the ark. The recovery of the gold-covered ark, which contained the stone tablets of God's covenant with Israel (Ex. 25:21; 40:20; Heb. 9:4), would truly be a sensational discovery. Of infinitely greater value, however, are the spiritual lessons conveyed to us through the symbolism of the ark. In this article, we will turn to the scriptures to see that the ark has much to teach us about God's nature, promises and purpose.
The Significance of the Tabernacle and the Ark
The events recorded in the biblical book of Exodus vividly demonstrate God's love and faithfulness to His people. In fulfillment of His promise to Abraham (Gen. 15:13-14), God miraculously delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and began to guide them toward a new home in Canaan. At Mt. Sinai, six weeks into the journey to the Promised Land, God described the dramatic rescue with this poetic phrase: ``...I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself'' (Ex. 19:4, NIV).
God had a vitally important purpose in liberating Israel, expressed in Exodus 19:6: ``...you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'' To equip the Israelites for this mission, He gave them the Ten Commandments and other instructions at Mt. Sinai. God's commandments reveal much about His nature and character; Israel would need to follow them in order to be proper representatives of God and reflect His character.
Among the instructions God gave to Israel were detailed plans for the tabernacle, a portable place of worship. Nearly a third of the book of Exodus (chapters 25-31 and 35-40) is devoted to these plans and their execution, indicating that the tabernacle would play a key role in Israel's mission. As God explained in Exodus 29:45-46,
``Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.''
The tabernacle would provide a special place for God to be present with His people. This purpose of the tabernacle is reflected in its Hebrew word-mishkan. The noun mishkan comes from the verb shakan, which means ``to dwell'' [1, p. 94]. (Shekinah, the Hebrew word for God's glorious presence, also comes from shakan.)
The plans for the tabernacle begin in Exodus 25 with instructions for its most important component--the ark of the covenant (vv. 10-22). The ark was a gold-covered wooden chest designed to house the tablets of the Ten Commandments (vv. 10-16). On its cover, also made of gold, were two golden cherubim, between which God's presence would appear:
``There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites'' (verse 22).
From His place between the cherubim, God would continue the revelation that He gave to Israel on Mt. Sinai. The tabernacle has often been referred to as a ``portable Sinai,'' and in fact, there are a number of parallels between the appearances of God at Mt. Sinai and at the tabernacle [3, Chapter 9]. For example, after the tabernacle and its furnishings had been built, God's presence came to the tabernacle in a cloud (Ex. 40:34), reminiscent of His earlier descents to Mt. Sinai in a cloud (Ex. 19:9; 24:15-16). Then God ``called to Moses and spoke to him'' (Lev. 1:1), as He had earlier called to Moses on the mountain (Ex. 19:20; 24:16). (Interestingly, the only other time that the book of Exodus speaks of God ``calling'' to Moses was at the burning bush in Exodus 3:4 .)
On Mt. Sinai, there was a point beyond which the people could not go in approaching God's presence (Ex. 19:12, 21; 24:1-2). Moses, Aaron with his sons Nadab and Abihu, and some elders could go past that point, but only Moses talked with God (24:1-2, 13-18). Similarly, the tabernacle included an area called the Holy Place, access to which was restricted to priests performing their prescribed duties. Within the Holy Place was the Most Holy Place, which contained the ark of the covenant and could only be entered by the high priest, and then only on the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:1-2, 29-34; Heb. 9:1-7).
Both at Mt. Sinai and in the plans for the tabernacle, we see God's transcendence as well as His immanence (see [1, Chap. 9]). On one hand, a person who wished to approach God would have to prepare appropriately for the encounter (e.g., Ex. 19:10-11; Lev. 11-15) and carefully follow God's instructions on how, when, and where He could be contacted. These provisions underlined the great gulf separating an infinite, perfect God from finite, sinful human beings. On the other hand, God in His great love wished to reach across that gulf and dwell among His people, as emphasized by His continuing presence above the ark.
These qualities of God are important for worshippers in all eras to keep in mind. We who worship God today remember His transcendence when we come before Him with reverence, and we are grateful for His immanence when we confidently approach His throne of grace (Heb. 4:16).
A further indication that the tabernacle was designed to continue the experience of Mt. Sinai can be seen in the sacrifices offered at the inauguration of the tabernacle service in Lev. 9. These sacrifices included a peace offering (NIV, ``fellowship offering'') for the nation of Israel as a whole (Lev. 9:3, 18). A similar offering accompanied the ratification of the covenant at Sinai (Ex. 24:5). Interestingly, a collective peace offering was also part of the annual liturgy for Pentecost (Lev. 23:19), a festival that is traditionally associated with covenant renewal and God's revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Symbolism of the Ark
So far we have seen the importance of the ark of the covenant as a location for God to dwell among the Israelites and impart further instruction to them. Now let's take a closer look at the description of the ark in Ex. 25:10-22. Through the centuries, Jews and Christians have carefully examined each facet of these instructions in order to discern the lessons God may have trying to impart through such a detailed plan. Today there is a large body of tradition, rich with spiritual lessons, about the symbolism of the ark.
Notice first that the directions for building the ark can be divided into two sections, corresponding to two parts of the ark: verses 10-16 describe the wooden chest, the repository for the tablets of the covenant; while verses 17-22 discuss the cover atop the chest, where God's presence would reside between the golden cherubim. We might think of these two parts as representing the two parties involved in the covenant. The chest could stand for Israel, which receives Torah and agrees to follow it; and the cover could represent God, who will dwell among a people that gladly accepts His teaching.
Verse 11 instructs the Israelites to ``overlay it [i.e., the wooden chest] with pure gold, both inside and out...'' In Jewish tradition, this detail is said to signify that the lives of those who strive to obey God's commandments should exhibit a consistency between outward behavior and inner character. Such a consistency is emphasized throughout the Bible (see e.g. Deut. 10:16; I Sam. 15:22; Psalm 51:6, 16-17; Jer. 4:4; Hos. 6:6; Matt. 23:23-28; Rom. 2:28-29).
Like other articles of the tabernacle furnishings, the ark would be transported by means of poles that fit into gold rings at the four corners of its base (Exodus 25:12-14, 26-28; 27:4-7; 30:4-5). The instructions for the ark also specify that its poles never be removed from the rings (Ex. 25:15), a stipulation not made for the other furnishings. In Jewish tradition, the command to keep the poles in the rings is listed as one of the 613 commandments of Torah, and commentators have pondered its meaning .
One main reason, of course, for keeping the poles of the ark in their rings was to ensure that the ark would be carried with the poles and not by some other method. The ark, as the dwelling place of God's Shekinah, was the most holy of the tabernacle furnishings and thus deserved to be treated with special care. This principle was later underscored during the time of King David, when the ark was once transported on a cart, contrary to God's command that it be carried on the shoulders of the Kohathites (Numbers 7:6-9). At one point the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and Uzzah, who was guiding the cart, was struck dead when he put his hand on the ark to steady it (I Chron. 13:6-10). As a result, David made sure that the ark was handled properly when it was later carried the rest of the way to Jerusalem (I Chron. 15:11-15).
There may also be spiritual significance in the fact that the ark was to be carried on men's shoulders. Taking the ark upon one's shoulders could symbolize submission to God and acceptance of the responsibility to obey His commandments. In the context of this symbolism, the command to keep the poles in the rings of the ark could represent the fact that one's commitment to walk in obedience to God must never be ignored or abandoned. Jesus Christ later gave instruction on this point when He said, ``No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God'' (Luke 9:62).
The command not to take the poles of the ark out of their rings implies that it was possible to remove the poles. This fact has led commentators to ask the following question: Why didn't God just design the ark so that the poles were permanently affixed to it? After all, making the poles impossible to separate from the ark would have been a simple way to guarantee that they were never removed. In keeping with the symbolism of the previous paragraph, one answer offered by Jewish tradition is that the removability of the poles represents God's desire that His people accept His instruction voluntarily . God wants us to obey Him, but He will not force us to do so. He allows us to choose (see e.g. Deut. 30:19-20).
Perhaps the most striking feature of the ark was the presence of the golden cherubim on its cover (Ex. 25:18-20). Cherubim had previously appeared in the Bible in Gen. 3:24, where we read that in the aftermath of the sin of Adam and Eve, God ``placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.'' Some commentators have suggested that the cherubim were placed on the ark to remind Israel that access to God was limited and required spiritual readiness, as well as to impart the message that the way back to the Garden of Eden lies in faithfulness to God's covenant .
A Brief Biography of the Ark
After the tabernacle and its furnishings, including the ark, had been carefully constructed according to the specifications outlined in Ex. 25-30, ``the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle'' (Ex. 40:34). Then as He had promised, God accompanied the Israelites on their journey to Canaan. When the children of Israel broke camp at Mt. Sinai and began the next stage of their travels, the bearers of the ark led the way as God directed them (Num. 10:33). At the end of the journey, the waters of the Jordan River parted when the priests carrying the ark reached the water's edge (Joshua 3). God's presence with His people throughout their forty years of wandering in the wilderness is commemorated each fall in the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Later, during a time when the nation had strayed far from God, the Israelites temporarily lost possession of the ark when they foolishly tried to use it as a sort of magic talisman in a battle against the enemy Philistines (I Sam. 4). They had lost sight of the fact that the ark had no intrinsic power of its own. What they needed was repentance and a close relationship with God, not a gold-covered good luck charm.
The ark was brought to Jerusalem amid great rejoicing and celebration during the reign of King David (I Chron. 15-16). David's dream of building a great temple in which to house the ark was then realized by his son Solomon. At the time of the temple dedication (held, fittingly, in conjunction with the Feast of Tabernacles-see 2 Chron. 5:3; 7:8-10), the ark was carried to its position of honor in the temple's Most Holy Place (2 Chron. 5:4-10), and the Shekinah subsequently filled the magnificent new edifice (2 Chron. 5:13-14; 7:1-3). God had demonstrated His love and faithfulness by coming to dwell with His people once again.
After the reign of Solomon, Israel divided into two kingdoms. The northern House of Israel quickly fell into idolatry and was eventually conquered by the powerful Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem and the temple were located, also drifted away from God, but its decline was more gradual because of occasional religious revivals under righteous kings. In particular, the temple was repaired and true worship briefly restored under King Josiah (2 Chron 34-35). Josiah's revival included the return of the ark to its proper place in the temple (2 Chron. 35:3), from which it had apparently been removed either on account of the repairs or by the order of a previous idolatrous king.
What Happened to the Ark?
Second Chronicles 35:3 is the last passage in the Hebrew scriptures in which the ark of the covenant is mentioned. Nobody knows for sure what happened to the ark; presumably it disappeared at around the time of the destruction of the temple (about 586 B.C.). According to one tradition, recorded in the second century B.C. in the book of Second Maccabees, the prophet Jeremiah hid the ark in a cave:
``...the prophet, having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: `The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated' '' (2 Macc. 2:4-8, NRSV).
Why did God allow the ark to be lost? The answer indicated by the scriptures is that the ark came with an ``expiration date'' attached. As wonderful as the ark was, God planned from the beginning to eventually be present with His people in even more marvelous ways.
The first hint of the temporary nature of the ark appears in the original instructions for the tabernacle in Ex. 25:9, where God commands, ``Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you'' (see also Ex. 25:40). These instructions imply, according to both Jewish and Christian tradition, that the ark was a model of some greater heavenly prototype (see e.g. Heb. 8:5; Rev. 11:19).
A second clue about the greater things to come appears in Jeremiah's prophecy of a new (i.e., renewed) covenant in Jer. 31:31-37. This prophecy states that God's Torah, formerly engraved on tablets of stone and stored in the ark, would one day be written on the hearts of men (v. 33).
To make possible the close relationship between God and His people described in Jer. 31:34, God would send Jesus, the Messiah, to provide a perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity (Isa. 53:4-12). The offerings given by the Israelites at the altar in front of the Holy Place pointed toward this ultimate offering (see Hebrews 9-10).
The coming of the Messiah was also foreshadowed by the ark. We can think of Jesus' mother Mary, the virgin who fulfilled the prophecy of Isa. 7:13-14, as an ``ark'' which held the Word, the personification of Torah. (This symbolism is discussed further in our article on the Virgin Birth in Issue 5 of Grace and Knowledge.) And today, when we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, He comes to dwell in us (John 14:23). God's purpose is to grant us eternal life (Rom. 8:10-11) and to be with us forever (Rev. 21:3). He gives each of us the wonderful opportunity to be an ark or a temple (I Cor. 3:16; 6:19-20).
The possibility of finding the ancient ark of the covenant, lost now for nearly 2600 years, continues to intrigue would be Indiana Joneses as we enter a new millennium. But the ark, as great as it was, is in itself no more than a beautiful piece of antique furniture. Far more exciting, when we understand and accept them, are the spiritual principles and wonderful promises of which the ark was a symbol and type. As Jeremiah prophesied, one day the whole world will enjoy fellowship with God and the ark will no longer be remembered (Jer. 3:14-18). In the meantime, we gratefully accept His presence in and among us and strive to walk faithfully in His covenant.
1. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Christian and the ``Old'' Testament, William Carey Library, Pasadena, California, 1998.
2. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., ``The Book of Leviticus,'' pp. 985-1191 in Vol. 1 of The New Interpreter's Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994.
3. Göran Larsson, Bound for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1999.
4. Menachem Leibtag, ``The Mishkan: A Perpetuation of Ma'amad Har Sinai,'' commentary on Parashat Vayakhel (see www.tanach.org/shmot/vayak/vayaks1.htm.)
5. Elchanan Samet, ``The Ark of the Covenant,'' commentary on Parashat Teruma available online at https://etzion.org.il/en/tanakh/torah/sefer-shemot/parashat-teruma/ark-covenant.