The Ark of the Covenant is a gold-covered wooden chest with a lid cover described in the Book of Exodus as containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. According to the New Testament Book of Hebrews, it also contained Aaron’s rod and a pot of manna.
The biblical account relates that; approximately one year after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt; the Ark of the Covenant was created according to the pattern given to Moses by God when the Israelites were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. Thereafter, the gold-plated acacia chest was carried by its staves by the Levites approximately 2,000 cubits (approximately 800 meters or 2,600 feet) in advance of the people when on the march or before the Israelite army, the host of fighting men.
When carried, the Ark of the Covenant was always hidden under a large veil made of skins and blue cloth, always carefully concealed, even from the eyes of the priests and the Levites who carried it. God was said to have spoken with Moses “from between the two cherubim” on the Ark’s cover. When at rest the tabernacle was set up and the holy Ark was placed in it under the veil of the covering; the staves of it crossing the middle side bars to hold it up off the ground.
The Biblical Account About the Ark of the Covenant
The biblical account continues that, after its creation by Moses, the Ark of the Covenant was carried by the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. Whenever the Israelites camped; Then the Ark was placed in a separate room in a sacred tent, called the Tabernacle.
When the Israelites, led by Joshua toward the Promised Land; arrived at the banks of the Jordan river; the Ark was carried in the lead preceding the people and was the signal for their advance. During the crossing, the river grew dry as soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant touched its waters; and remained so until the priests—with the Ark—left the river after the people had passed over. As memorials, twelve stones were taken from the Jordan at the place where the priests had stood.
The Ark of the Covenant in the Battle of Jerico
In the Battle of Jericho, the Ark of the Covenant 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. 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. After the defeat at Ai, Joshua lamented before the Ark of the Covenant. When Joshua read the Law to the people between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, they stood on each side of the Ark.
We next hear of the Ark in Bethel where it was being cared for by the priest Phineas the grandson of Aaron (where ‘Bethel’ is translated ‘the House of God’ in the King James Version). According to this verse, it was consulted by the people of Israel when they were planning to attack the Benjaminites at the battle of Gibeah. Later the Ark was kept at Shiloh, another religious center some 16 km (10 mi) north of Bethel; at the time of the prophet Samuel’s apprenticeship; where it was cared for by Hophni and Phinehas, two sons of Eli.
Capture by the Philistines
According to the Biblical narrative; a few years later the elders of Israel decided to take the Ark of the Covenant out onto the battlefield to assist them against the Philistines; after being defeated at the battle of Eben-Ezer. They were heavily defeated with the loss of 30,000 men. The Ark was captured by the Philistines and Hophni and Phinehas were killed. Then the news of its capture was at once taken to Shiloh by a messenger “with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head”. Then the old priest, Eli, fell dead when he heard it.
The Philistines took the Ark to several places in their country; and at each place misfortune befell them. At Ashdod it was placed in the temple of Dagon. 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. Then the people of Ashdod were smitten with tumors; a plague of mice was sent over the land. Then the affliction of boils was also visited upon the people of Gath and of Ekron; whither the Ark was successively removed.
The Philistines Return the Ark of the Covenant
After the Ark had been among them for 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 tumors and mice wherewith they had been afflicted. was set up in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite, and the Beth-shemites offered sacrifices and burnt offerings. Out of curiosity the men of Beth-shemesh gazed at the Ark; and as a punishment; seventy of them (fifty thousand and seventy in some translations) were smitten by the Lord.
Kiryat Ye’arim remained 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 consulting the Ark in the days of Saul.
The ARK In the days of King David
In the Biblical narrative, at the beginning of his reign over the United Monarchy, King David removed the Ark from Kiryat Ye’arim amid great rejoicing. On the way to Zion, Uzzah, one of the drivers of the cart that carried the Ark, put out his hand to steady the Ark; and was struck dead by God for touching it. Then 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” and in the sight of all the public gathered in Jerusalem, a performance which caused him to be scornfully rebuked by his first wife, Saul’s daughter Michal. In Zion, David put the Ark in the tent he had prepared for it, offered sacrifices, distributed food, and blessed the people and his own household. David used the tent as a personal place of prayer.
The Levites were appointed to minister before the Ark. David’s plan of building a temple for the Ark of the Covenant was stopped on the advice of the prophet Nathan. The Ark was with the army during the siege of Rabbah; 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.
In Solomon’s Temple
In the Biblical narrative, at the beginning of his reign over the United Monarchy; King David removed the Ark of the Covenant from Kiryat Ye’arim amid great rejoicing. On the way to Zion, Uzzah; one of the drivers of the cart that carried the Ark, put out his hand to steady the Ark; and was struck dead by God for touching it. The place was subsequently named “Perez-Uzzah”, literally “Outburst Against Uzzah”, as a result. David, in fear, carried the Ark of the Covenant aside into the house of Obed-edom the Gittite; instead of carrying it on to Zion, and it stayed there for three months.
On hearing that God 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” and in the sight of all the public gathered in Jerusalem; a performance which caused him to be scornfully rebuked by his first wife, Saul’s daughter Michal. In Zion, David put the Ark in the tent he had prepared for it, offered sacrifices, distributed food, and blessed the people and his own household. David used the tent as a personal place of prayer.
The Levites were appointed to minister before the Ark. David’s plan of building a temple for the Ark was stopped on the advice of the prophet Nathan. The Ark was with the army during the siege of Rabbah; 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.
In Solomon’s Temple
According to the Biblical narrative, when Abiathar was dismissed from the priesthood by King Solomon for having taken part in Adonijah’s conspiracy against David; his life was spared because he had formerly borne the Ark. Solomon worshipped before the Ark after his dream in which God promised him wisdom.
During the construction of Solomon’s Temple, a special inner room; named Holy of Holies; was prepared to receive and house the Ark; and when the Temple was dedicated, the Ark—containing the original tablets of the Ten Commandments—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”.
When Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter; he caused her to dwell in a house outside Zion; as Zion was consecrated because it contained the Ark. King Josiah also had the Ark returned to the Temple; from which it appears to have been removed by one of his predecessors (cf. 2 Chron. 33-34 and 2 Kings 21-23).
The Babylonian Conquest and Aftermath
In 587 BC, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple. There is no record of what became of the Ark in the Books of Kings and Chronicles. An ancient Greek version of the biblical third Book of Ezra, 1 Esdras, suggests that Babylonians took away the vessels of the ark of God, but does not mention taking away the Ark:
And they took all the holy vessels of the Lord, both great and small, with the vessels of the ark of God, and the king’s treasures, and carried them away into Babylon
References of the Ark of the Covenant in Abrahamic Religions
The Ark is first mentioned in the Book of Exodus, and then numerous times in Deuteronomy; Joshua; Judges; I Samuel; II Samuel, I Kings; I Chronicles, II Chronicles; Psalms and Jeremiah.
In the Book of Jeremiah, it is referenced by Jeremiah, who, speaking in the days of Josiah; prophesied a future time, possibly the end of days, when the Ark will no longer be talked about or be made again:
And it shall be that when you multiply and become fruitful in the land, in those days—the word of the LORD—they will no longer say, ‘The Ark of the Covenant of the LORD’ and it will not come to mind; they will not mention it, and will not recall it, and it will not be used any more.
Rashi comments on this verse that “The entire people will be so imbued with the spirit of sanctity that God’s Presence will rest upon them collectively as if the congregation itself was the Ark of the Covenant.”
In the New Testament, the Ark is mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews and the Revelation to St. John. Hebrews 9:4 states that the Ark contained “the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant.” Revelation 11:19 says the prophet saw God’s temple in heaven opened, “and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple.”
The contents of the ark are seen by theologians such as the Church Fathers and Thomas Aquinas as personified by Jesus Christ: the manna as the Holy Eucharist; Aaron’s rod as Jesus’ eternal priestly authority; and the tablets of the Law, as the Lawgiver himself.