Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Ark of the Covenant

What Did It Look Like and What Happened to It?

Dr. Paul Manuel—2004

An artist's impression of the Ark (Byers, 1995)
What did the Ark of the Covenant look like?

The Bible offers a description of the ark's appearance in the building plans of Bezalel.
Exod 37:1-9 Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long [3.75 ft], a cubit and a half wide [2.25 ft], and a cubit and a half high [2.25 ft]. He overlaid it with pure gold, both inside and out, and made a gold molding around it. He cast four gold rings for it and fastened them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then he made poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold. And he inserted the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. He made the atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Then he made two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. He made one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; at the two ends he made them of one piece with the cover. The cherubim had their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim faced each other, looking toward the cover.
Bezalel constructed the ark around 1450 B.C.E., but there were no pictorial representations of his work for almost two millennia.

In the earthly sanctuary, the ark was the throne of God, and His physical presence hovered above it.1 The angelic figures may have been the ark's most striking feature, for biblical authors often described God as the one "enthroned between the cherubim.2 Inside the ark were the tablets of the law He gave to Moses (hence, the term "the ark of the covenant" 33x).3

After the destruction of the temple and the loss of its furnishings, the people maintained as much of their religious tradition as possible. The design of most synagogues (to this day) includes an often large and ornate cabinet for the biblical scrolls of the community. This synagogue ark protects the scrolls and serves to remind the people of the temple ark.

The Jerusalem Temple and the Ark

The earliest depiction of the ark is on a Jewish coin minted during the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 C.E.). It shows the hope of a rebuilt temple, perhaps reflecting the memory of Herod's temple (destroyed sixty years earlier). Through the pillars of the gate separating the Court of Women from the Court of Priests, there is a view of the ark within the sanctuary, the wings of the cherubim arching over the mercy seat (Edersheim 1997:111; also Eban 1984:91).

A beautiful illumination from a late 13th c. Spanish Bible (Gutmann 1978:51, plate 6) shows major components of the sanctuary, including the menorah (the seven-branched candlestick) and its accessories (top right), budded and bare versions of Aaron's rod on either side of the container of manna (lower right), the table of showbread holding its twelve loaves (lower left), and the two tablets of the Decalogue under the mercy seat (the ark's lid) with the cherubim above (top left).

Another Spanish illumination from the same period (ibid. p. 54, plate 9) also shows major components of the sanctuary. Prominent in this illustration is the ark (top center), with its prescribed four rings and two staves (Exod 25:12-15). The mercy seat is absent to show the two tablets of the law inside (barely visible against the mottled background). A curious addition to this collection of cultic objects is the stylized tree to the right of the ark, which may represent the burning bush, an historical allusion to God's past dealings with the nation (Exod 3:2), or it may represent an olive tree, a messianic anticipation of God's future dealings with the nation (Zech 14:4).

Yet another Spanish illuminated manuscript is the Sarajevo [Passover] Haggadah (14th C.; so-named because it resides in the Sarajevo National Museum). It includes an illustration of the ark in the sanctuary, presumably of Solomon's temple (Freedman 1972 3:461). The wings of the cherubim arch overhead, and the tablets of the Decalogue are (partially) visible inside the chest.

An unknown German artist in a painted miniature (15th c.) depicted Moses' experience at Mt. Sinai (von Ems n.d.) when, on the summit, he asked to see God's face (upper left; Exod 33:18) and, later, when he descended and spoke with radiant countenance to the people (lower right; Exod 34:29). To stress the preeminence of God's law, the ark sits atop the mountain (a location it never occupied).

The Philistine Return of the Ark

The pictures here are two of many painted on the walls of a third century (C.E.) synagogue in the ancient city of Dura Europos, on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria. They are the earliest known artistic representations of identifiable settings from scripture (Goodenough 1972 6:277-278, 284). The top row of the first fresco shows Aaron wearing his vestments, flanked by other priests in the tabernacle court.

The bottom row shows sacrificial animals of various kinds. The centerpiece of both rows is the tabernacle itself, although the artist has made it a permanent structure of quarried stone instead of a temporary structure of wood. In the center is the menorah, above which is a view of the ark in the sanctuary. The second fresco portrays events after Philistines had taken the ark (1 Sam 4-6). The painting shows Dagon's temple to the right, open and empty, with cult objects broken and scattered on the ground before it. In the foreground to the left is the ark of the covenant on a cart pulled by two oxen and escorted by two attendants. In the background are the rulers from the three Philistine cities of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. In both frescos, the artist represents the ark as a tall cabinet, similar to what holds biblical scrolls in synagogues today.

The Transport of the Ark

In an illumination from a 12th c. Spanish Bible (Freedman 1972 3:461), Levites are carrying the ark across the Jordan River into Canaan, just before the Israelite conquest (Josh 3:14-17). Despite certain inconsistencies—the artist has them using one pole instead of two (Exod 25:14-15) and walking on the water instead of through parted water—the ark itself is covered, as would have been the case whenever it appeared outside the tabernacle (Num 4:5).

Earlier, a stone mason carved this representation of the ark into the wall of a 3rd c. C.E. Capernaum synagogue (Freedman 1972 3:461; Eban 1984:38). An ornate chest without cherubim, it sits atop a wheeled cart, reminiscent of the event in the fresco above, or, it may recall David's initial attempt to transport the ark to Jerusalem, a journey that led to the death of Uzzah (2 Sam 6:111; cf. Num 7:9).

The Exposure of the Ark

The Jewish historian Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, chronicles Pompey's assault on the temple in 63 C.E., when the Roman general entered the sanctuary.
Ant 14.72 Pompey went into it, and not a few of those that were with him also, and saw all that which it was unlawful for any other men to see, but only for the high priests. There were in that temple the golden table, the holy candlestick, and the pouring vessels, and a great quantity of spices....
Josephus says nothing of the general's having seen the ark and states elsewhere that the ark was not in the temple (cf. War 5.219, below). Nevertheless, the French artist, Jean Fouquet, illuminated a 15th c. manuscript of the historian's work, showing the entry of Pompey and his forces into the sanctuary, where they viewed the ark (Eban 1984:88). Apparently, the artist had not read the author whose work he illustrated.

While the biblical description of Bezalel's work often gave way to stylized renderings, the ark of the covenant never lost its significance for the people of Israel. The uncertainty of its fate has also fueled considerable speculation.

What happened to the Ark of the Covenant?

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, the ark disappeared from the pages of history. What happened to the ark of the covenant? Several traditions and theories have arisen to account for its fate.
1. The most popular belief is that faithful Jews4 hid it before Babylonian troops breached the city wall.5
m Shek 6:1 [There] was a tradition among [the priests] from their ancestors that the ark was hidden there [in the wood store]. 2 It happened once that a certain priest was occupied and noticed that some flooring was different from the rest. He went over and was telling it to his fellow, but before he could end the matter his soul was departed from him. And thus they knew definitely that there the ark had been hidden.
b Yoma 53b R. Judah b. Il'ai [mid 2nd c.] said: The ark was hidden [buried] in its own place, as it was said: And the staves were so long that the ends of the staves were seen from the holy place, even before the Sanctuary; but they could not be seen without; and there they are unto this day [1 Kgs 8:8].
2 Macc 2:4 ... 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. 5 And Jeremiah came and found a cave, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense, and he sealed up the entrance. 6 Some of those who followed him came up to mark the way, but could not find it. 7 When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: "The place shall be unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. 8 And 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."
Ant 18.85 The Samaritan nation too was not exempt from disturbance. For a man who made light of mendacity and in all his designs catered to the mob, rallied them, bidding them to go in a body with him to Mount Gerizim, which in their belief is the most sacred of mountains. He assured them that on their arrival he would show them the sacred vessels which were buried there.... His hearers, viewing this tale as plausible, appeared in arms.... But before they could ascend, Pilate blocked their projected route up the mountain with a detachment of cavalry and heavy-armed infantry....
2. Some say the ark went to Babylon with other temple vessels.6
b Yoma 53b R. Eliezer [early 2nd c.] said: The ark went into exile in Babylonia, as it was said: In the following year King Nebuchadnezzar sent and had him [Jehoiachin] brought to Babel together with the precious vessels of the house of the Lord 12 Chr 36:101.
Cf. 2 Chr 36:18 He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the LORD's temple and the treasures of the king and his officials.
3. Less likely is that it was taken to heaven and will descend to earth during the Messianic Age.
2 Baruch 29:8 And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years because these are they who will have arrived at the consummation of time.
Cf. Rev 11: 19a Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.
The ark John sees in the heavenly temple is probably the model on which Moses patterned the ark for the tabernacle and is not the earthly ark itself.
Exod 25:9 Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.
Cf. Heb 8:5 They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: "See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain."
4. Some suspect the ark may have left Jerusalem in an earlier invasion, going south to Egypt with Pharaoh Shishak or north to Israel with King Jehoash.
1 Kgs 14:25 In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Shishak king of Egypt attacked Jerusalem. 26 He carried off the treasures of the temple of the LORD and the treasures of the royal palace. He took everything, including all the gold shields Solomon had made.
2 Kgs 14:13 Jehoash king of Israel captured Amaziah king of Judah, the son of Joash, the son of Ahaziah, at Beth Shemesh. Then Jehoash went to Jerusalem and broke down the wall of Jerusalem from the Ephraim Gate to the Corner Gate—a section about six hundred feet long. 14 He took all the gold and silver and all the articles found in the temple of the LORD and in the treasuries of the royal palace. He also took hostages and returned to Samaria.
According to the author of Chronicles, however, a later Judean king still had possession of the ark and set it in its proper place after his renovation of the temple.
2 Chr 35:3 [Josiah] said to the Levites, who instructed all Israel and who had been consecrated to the LORD: "Put the sacred ark in the temple that Solomon son of David king of Israel built. It is not to be carried about on your shoulders. Now serve the LORD your God and his people Israel."
Moreover, Jeremiah suggests that people in his day were deriving a false sense of security from the ark's presence in Jerusalem, an attitude that would change in the Messianic Age."7
Jer 3:16a "In those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land," declares the LORD, "men will no longer say, 'The ark of the covenant of the LORD.'"
5. The ark may have traveled to Egypt with Jeremiah after the destruction of Jerusalem, where the Jewish community in Elephantine built a temple for it (Porten 1995:59-60; Kaufman 1995:16).
TAD B3.12:3 . . .YHW the God who dwells in the fortress of Elephantine....
6. A thirteenth century tradition holds that Solomon, foreseeing the Babylonian invasion, sent the ark to Ethiopia. (Abu Salih, quoted in Isaac 1993:61).
the Abyssinians [Ethiopians] possess also the Ark of the Covenant, in which are the two tables of stone, inscribed by the finger of God with the commandments which he ordained for the children of Israel.
7. Hollywood suggests that it was buried in Tanis (Egypt) and is now in a U.S. military storage facility (Steven Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981).
8. It may have been destroyed, in Jerusalem or in Babylon, for the ark was not among the vessels Cyrus returned after the exile.
2 Chr 36:18 He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the LORD's temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. 19 They set fire to God's temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.
Ezra 1:7 Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the LORD, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god. 8 Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 This was the inventory: gold dishes 30 silver dishes 1,000 silver pans 29 10 gold bowls 30 matching silver bowls 410 other articles 1,000. 11 In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver. Sheshbazzar brought all these along when the exiles came up from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Whatever happened to the ark, the Jewish historian Josephus (late 1st c.), the Roman historian Tacitus (late 1st c.), and the Mishnah (c. 200) testify that it did not return to the second temple.8
War 5.219 The innermost recess measured twenty cubits, and was screened in like manner from the outer portion by a veil. In this stood nothing whatever....
Historiae 9:1 The first Roman to subdue the Jews and set foot in their temple by right of conquest was Gnaeus Pompey: thereafter it was a matter of common knowledge that there were no representations of the gods within, but that the place was empty and the secret shrine contained nothing.
m Yoma 5:2 After the ark was taken away a stone lay there from the time of the early prophets and it was called foundation.
Will there be another ark of the covenant? Although some traditions indicate otherwise, the millennial temple will also apparently have no ark, and after the millennium, in the New Jerusalem, there will not even be need for a temple.
Jer 3:16b It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made.
Rev 21:22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.
While its fate remains a mystery, the ark of the covenant is a potent symbol of God's presence with His people, a presence He will one day reassert.


  • Byers, Gary, 1995, "Ark of the Covenant, Lost or Found?" ChristianAnswers.Net. Internet (www.christiananswers.net/q-abr/abr-a002.html).
  • Eban, Abba, 1984, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. New York: Summit Books.
  • Edersheim, Alfred, 1997, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were in the Time of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications.
  • Freedman, Henry, 1972, "Ark of the Covenant." Encyclopedia Judaica 3:459-466.
  • Goodenough, Erwin Ramsdell, 1972, "Dura-Europos." Encyclopedia Judaica 6:275-298.
  • Gutmann, Joseph, 1978, Hebrew Manuscript Painting. New York: George Braziller.
  • Isaac, Ephraim, 1993, "Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?" Biblical Archaeology Review 19/4:60-63.
  • Kaufman, Asher S., 1995, "Other Hints as to the Ark's Location." Biblical Archaeology Review 21/5:16.
  • Porten, Gary, 1995, "Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine?" Biblical Archaeology Review 21/3:54-67,76-77.
  • Seow, C.L., 1992, "Ark of the Covenant." Anchor Bible Dictionary 1:386-393.
  • von Ems, Rudolf, n.d., "Moses and the Ark of the Covenant." Manuscripts collection at the J. Paul Getty Museum. (www.getty.edu/art/collections/objects/o2164.htm1).


[1] In the heavenly sanctuary, the ark and the throne are separate pieces.
Rev 7:15 ...they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
Rev 11:19a Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.
[2] The relevant passages are:
I Sam 4:4a ...the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim.
2 Sam 6:2b ...the LORD Almighty...is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark. [ 1 Chr 13:61
2 Ks 19:15b ...O LORD, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim.... 1= Isa 37: 16a1 Ps 80:1 b ...you who sit enthroned between the cherubim, shine forth
Ps 99: 1 b ...he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake.
[3] That record was also called "the two tablets of the Testimony" (Exod 31:18; 32:15; 34:29), which gave the ark its other name: "the ark of the Testimony" or, simply, "the Testimony."
Exod 30:6 Put the altar in front of the curtain that is before the ark of the Testimony—before the atonement cover that is over the Testimony—where I will meet with you.
At some point, the ark contained a sample of manna and Aaron's rod, in addition to the tablets.
Exod 40:20a He took the Testimony and placed it in the ark, attached the poles to the ark and put the atonement cover over it.
Deut 10:5 Then I came back down the mountain and put the tablets in the ark I had made, as the LORD commanded me, and they are there now.
Heb 9:4b This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant.
It is unknown whether the ark still contained those items when residents of Beth Shemesh peered inside.
1 Sam 6:19 But God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the LORD.
By the time King Solomon placed the ark in the temple, though, "There was nothing in the ark except the two stone tablets that Moses had placed in it at Horeb" (1 Kgs 8:9a = 2 Chr 5:10).
1 Kgs 8:21 I have provided a place there for the ark, in which is the covenant of the LORD that he made with our fathers when he brought them out of Egypt.
[4]  Less common is that an angel hid it.
2 Baruch 6:7 And I saw that [the angel] descended into the Holy of Holies and that he took from there the veil, the holy ephod, the mercy seat, the two tablets, the holy raiment of the priests...and all the holy vessels of the tabernacle.
A similar tradition holds that the earth swallowed the mercy seat and the tablets of the covenant.
2 Baruch 6:8 And he said to the earth with a loud voice: "Earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the mighty God, and receive the things which I commit to you, and guard them until the last times, so that you may restore them when you are ordered, so that strangers may not get possession of them. 9 For the time has arrived when Jerusalem will also be delivered up for a time, until the moment that it will be said that it will be restored forever." And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up.
[5] The Tosefta (early 3rd c.) preserves a similar tradition (Kaufman 1995:16).
t Sot 13.1 R Yehudah b Laqish [late 2nd C. C.E.} says: [The] Ark was concealed in its place [i.e., below the Holy of Holies].
The historian Eupolemus (mid-2nd C. B.C.E.) is the source for Eusebius's account in Praeparatio Evangelica 9:39 and probably also for that of Alexander Polyhistor of Miletus (c. 1st c. B.C.E.; so Seow 1992:390).
Eupolemus 39.5 [Nebuchadnezzar] took as tribute the gold and silver and bronze in the Temple and sent them to Babylon, except for the ark and the tablets in it. This Jeremiah preserved.
[6] The Tosefta (early 3rd c.) preserves a similar tradition (Kaufman 1995:16).
t Sot 13.1 R Eliezer [early 2nd c. C.E.] says: [The] Ark was exiled to Babylon.
The author of Ps 78 may allude to this event.
Ps 78:61 He sent [the ark of] his might into captivity, his splendor into the hands of the enemy.
Cf. Ps 132:8 arise, O LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.
[7]  Another suggestion was that faithful priests took the ark to Egypt during Manasseh's apostasy. 
2 Kgs 21:4 [Manasseh] built altars in the temple of the LORD, of which the LORD had said, "In Jerusalem I will put my Name."
Its presence in Jerusalem during Josiah's reign, however, argues against that hypothesis.

[8] Ezekiel records the departure of the Shekinah (the physical manifestation of God's presence enthroned above the ark) from the temple prior to the Babylonian destruction of the city, but he says nothing about the ark. Later, he predicts the return of the Shekinah to the millennial temple, but again makes no mention of the ark.
Ezek 10:4a Then the glory of the LORD rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple.... 18a Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple....
Ezek 43:4 The glory of the LORD entered the temple through the gate facing east.... 5b and the glory of the LORD filled the temple.

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