The Truth About The Ark of God

I was watching the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and thought most people know little about the Ark. So I decided to repeat here what I wrote in my book on the prophet Samuel.

The ark, in Hebrew “aron,” is mentioned 201 times in the Hebrew Bible, including once where the Torah states Joseph’s body was placed in an ark.[1] The Torah states that only one thing was placed in the ark: The Decalogue, commonly called The Ten Commandments,[2] nothing else.[3]

Moses’ ark was about four feet long by thirty inches. It was given some twenty-two various designations signifying its importance: ark of God,[4] holy ark,[5] and ark of the testimony (or pact, or covenant).[6] The Israelites carried it into battle to assure success.[7]

The ark was so important that it was not allowed to be touched.[8] It was placed in the temple in the “Holy of Holies” behind a curtain.[9] In chapter 4 of the book Samuel, of all the calamities that Israel suffered during the war with the Philistines – the slaughter of tens of thousands of Israelites, the death of Eli, his two sons, and daughter-in-law – what bothered the people most was the loss of the ark.

Some scholars suggest that the cherubim on top of the ark served as the seat upon which God sat and the ark served as the footstool of God. Jeremiah 3:16 and 17 states that in the future Jerusalem and not the ark will be the seat of the Lord. Exodus 25:22 relates that God told Moses he would meet with him at the ark and would speak with him between the cherubim. The two tablets were placed in it in accordance with the ancient custom of other nations of setting documents and agreements between kingdoms at the feet of their god.[10]

Since God was understood to sit atop the ark, and God was powerful, the ancient Israelites felt that they should bring the ark to the battlefield so that God can be there to help them. Joshua did so at Jericho and the Israelites did it Samuel chapter 4. Numbers 10:35 recalls the Israelite view of God in combat: When the ark set out at the head of the people, they would cry out: “Rise, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee from you.”[11]

After the episode of the capture of the ark by the Philistines and its placement in the temple by King Solomon, we hear no more about it until the time of King Josiah. Josiah tells the Levites: “Put the holy ark in the house that Solomon the son of David king of Israel built; they will no longer be a burden on your shoulders” (II Chronicles 35:3).

What did King Josiah mean when he told the Levites that the ark “will no longer be a burden on your shoulders? Arnold Ehrlich focused on and explained Exodus 25:14 and 15, in his Mikra Kipheshuto, which states that rings were placed on the sides of the ark and two poles were inserted into the rings so that it could be carried, and these poles “shall not be taken from it.” Granted the Mishkan and its implements, including the ark, were carried from place to place during the forty-year desert travels, and some articles needed supports to aid in carrying them, but why were the ark poles not removed when the ark was placed in a settled sanctuary in Canaan and later in the temples in Jerusalem? I Kings 8:8 and II Chronicles 5:9 state that the poles remained attached to the ark until the end of the monarchy: the “poles were so long that their ends could be seen . . . outside the holy place; and they are still there today.”

Ehrlich argues that Exodus 25 reflects conditions that existed during the much later temple period and was composed and inserted into the Five Books of Moses during this late period to justify having poles attached to the ark. He suggests that the Levite who functioned in the temple frequently removed the ark from the temple and carried it by means of the poles to many Judean cities to show the holy object to the people who never saw it. He imagines that the Levites charged for this viewing and may have even misled them to believe that the viewing, or viewing together with a prayer they recited for a fee, would cure their ills. This is similar to early practices by the Roman Catholic Church that Martin Luther criticized. Ehrlich notes that prophets castigated the temple priests and Levites for other misdeeds.

Some people may suppose that Deuteronomy 31:24-26 is opposite to what is stated above, for these verses say that Moses commanded the Levites to place “this Torah” on the “side” of the ark so that the people will be reminded when they see it that they will be punished if they abandon God. The words “this Torah,” stated twice, refers to the prior teaching that the people should not abandon God, for if they do so, they will be punished. The word “Torah” here, as in all other appearances in the Pentateuch, means teaching, a single teaching. Besides, the parchment was not placed in the ark, but on its side.

Curiously, the cherubim upon which scholars contended God sat mysteriously disappeared without comment or explanation, for when Solomon built his temple and placed the ark inside, he built new cherubim.

In midrashic literature, in order to teach moral lessons,[12] despite the Torah saying that the ark only contained the Decalogue, the rabbis said the ark contained both the whole and the shattered Decalogue,[13] and a phial of manna, a phial of anointing oil, Aaron’s staff, and the chest in which the Philistines sent a gift to the Israelite God.[14]

With all the significance placed upon the ark, why wasn’t the Torah set inside of it during the post-Moses period; the Torah with the multitude of commands is certainly more significant than the close to a dozen in the Decalogue? Is it possible that the more significant Torah was not placed in the ark because it did not exist until it was found during the reign of King Josiah, as many scholars claim?

 

[1] Genesis 50:26. This was not the first time that the ark was taken to a battlefield, nor the last. It was at the siege of Jericho (Joshua 3:6, 6:6, and in the war against the Ammonites II Samuel 11:11).

[2] The biblical name for the two tablets of stone is aseret hadibrot, the Ten Statements, which was translated into Greek as Pentateuch, which is a literal translation. Contrary to the common notion, the Decalogue contains more than ten commands, and the numbers vary from eleven to around fifteen.

[3] Deuteronomy 10:2, 5; I Kings 8:9; II Chronicles 5:10.

[4] More than sixty times.

[5] As in II Chronicles 35:3.

[6] Exodus 30:6, Numbers 4:5, 7:89, Deuteronomy 31:9, 25, 26, and more, about twenty times.

[7] Joshua 6 against Jericho and I Samuel 4 against the Philistines and II Samuel 11 against Rabbah.

[8] Numbers 4:15, 19, 20.

[9] Exodus 26:34, I Kings 8:6, II Chronicles 5:7.

[10] Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing, volume 3, 1972.

[11] See also Exodus 15:3, Psalms 24:8, 68:1.

[12] Maimonides wrote in his essay Chelek that a person who accepts rabbinic midrashim as true is a fool and one who dismisses it entirely because it is untrue is also a fool. One must realize that although untrue the midrashim, as parables, contain lessons.

[13] Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 8b and Bava Batra 14b.

[14] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 52b.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. He developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 35 books.
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