Popular misconceptions abound regarding the Bible, and are often reflected in translation. Adam’s apple is not on the Tree of Knowledge, but rather only in his throat (the Latin translation could not resist the association of “evil” with “apple,” occasioned by a homonym). Sodom is not destroyed mainly over sodomy, but rather over breach of the rules of hospitality. And Moshe’s famous “horns,” as sculpted by Michelangelo, are, as is well known, an alternative but erroneously used translation of the Hebrew word for “beams [of light].”
This week’s reading, which begins the prescriptions for building the “Dwelling” or Tabernacle, the portable Israelite sanctuary for their wilderness wanderings, focuses on another word affected by translation: the “Ark [of the Testimony/Covenant’], in which the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments were kept. It was the holiest object in ancient Israelite culture, anchoring the worship of YHWH and establishing the royal seat of kings in Jerusalem. Another ark, less elaborate, was sometimes carried into battle as a kind of talisman. The former one has been celebrated in folklore and even film. Who could forget the weird ghost-like creatures that streamed out of it, and the Nazis’ melting faces that followed, in 1981‘s “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?
Special effects aside, I do want to say a word about the designation “Ark.” The same English word is used to denote a sacred box, a vessel loaded with animals and some humans in Genesis, and, later on, the receptacle for Torahs in synagogues. What do they have in common? The simple answer is that they all describe rectangular enclosures either horizontal or vertical, which hold something precious. The English, however, is deceptive in its wide coverage. It derives from Latin verb arcere, “contain,” while the noun arca means “box.” In Genesis, Noah’s Ark uses an Egyptian loan word for a chest, teivah, and at the beginning of Exodus, Moshe’s baby basket does as well. Since biblical Hebrew has numerous other words for boat and basket, this represents a conscious choice to link the two stories, where the preservation of life is paramount, and those in the floating box have no control over its journey. The other Ark in Exodus, the one which contains the Commandments, uses a separate term, aron, which shares its basic meaning with the later synagogue “closet” as well as a modern Israeli wardrobe/closet. To return to the Bible, it also signifies the coffin in which Yosef’s embalmed body is put at the very end of Genesis.
Given this bifurcated situation, as a translator I felt that I had no choice but to utilize two separate words in English, even though the base meaning is rather the same. Hence my Five Books of Moses has Noah’s “Ark” along with Moshe’s “little-ark” (my concession to scale), but uses the “Coffer of the Testimony” and Yosef’s “coffin” for the other term.
So in the end, this week’s reading talks about an ornate box. But quibbling over terminology should not distract us from what is truly at stake here: more important than the Coffer’s gold overlay, the gold cover and the two winged-sphinxes on top–all of which represented no less than God’s throne and footstool–are its contents, the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Nahum Sarna points out that, in contrast to other ancient cultures with their impressive statues of gods, this holiest object of Israel centered simply on the divine Word. And importantly, it contained fragments of the broken tablets (Ex. 32:19) along with the newer, whole ones. So it is not only the intact Commandments, “written by the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18), which were supposed to be preserved for future generations, but also the emblems of failure, brought about by human beings in a moment of panic, in the Golden Calf story. Today, in an era punctuated by the breaking of norms and its dangers, we might do well to keep the symbolism in mind.