Ark of the Covenant

From Academic Kids

Missing image
A late 19th-century artist's conception of the Ark of the Covenant, employing a Renaissance cassone for the Ark and cherubim as latter-day Christian angels

The Ark of the Covenant (in Hebrew: aron habrit) is described in the Hebrew Bible as a sacred container built at the command of Moses, in which rested the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The Ark and its sanctuary were "the beauty of Israel" (Lamentations 2:1).

During the journeys of the Israelites, the Ark was carried by the priests in advance of the host (Numbers 4:5, 6; 10:33-36; Psalms 68:1; 132:8). The Ark was borne by the priests into the bed of the Jordan, which separated, opening a pathway for the whole of the host to pass over (Joshua 3:15, 16; 4:7, 10, 11, 17, 18). The Ark was borne in the procession round Jericho (Josh. 6:4, 6, 8, 11, 12). When carried, the Ark was always wrapped in the veil, the badgers' skins, and blue cloth, and carefully concealed even from the eyes of the Levites who carried it.

The tablets in the Ark were purportedly inscribed by God, for both the original tablets that were broken by Moses (c.f. Exodus 32:19), and for the subsequent one. (c.f. Exodus 34:1) (There might have been some misconceptions arising from the New International Version's interpretation of Exodus 34:28 due to ambiguity in that verse).



The Hebrew word aron is used in the Bible to designate any type of ark, chest or coffer, for any purpose (Genesis 50:26; 2 Kings 12:9, 10). The Ark of the Covenant is distinguished from all others by such titles as the "Ark of God" (1 Samuel 3:3), "Ark of the Covenant" (Josh. 3:6; Hebrews 9:4), "Ark of the Testimony" (Ex. 25:22).


The Bible describes the Ark as made of acacia or shittah-tree wood, a cubit and a half broad and high and two cubits long (about 130 80 80 cm), and covered all over with the purest gold. Its upper surface or lid, the mercy-seat, was surrounded with a rim of gold; and on each of the two sides were two gold rings, in which were placed two wooden poles (with a decorative sheathing of gold ) by which the ark could be carried (Num. 7:9; 10:21; 4:5,19, 20; 1 Kings 8:3, 6).

Over the Ark, at the two extremities, were two cherubim, with their faces turned toward each other (Leviticus 16:2; Num. 7:89). Their outspread wings over the top of the ark formed the throne of God, while the ark itself was his footstool (Ex. 25:10-22; 37:1-9).

The Ark was deposited in the "holy of holies," and was so placed that one end of the poles by which it was carried touched the veil which separated the two compartments of the tabernacle (1 Kings 8:8). There is no dispute that, according to the Bible, the two tablets of stone which constituted the "testimony" or evidence of God's covenant with the people (Deuteronomy 31:26) were kept within the Ark itself. The Tanakh states in I Kings 8:9 that there "was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone". Some see it as contradictory with other verses, claiming the presence of the "pot of manna" (Ex. 16:33), and "Aaron's rod that budded" (Num. 17:10) in the Ark (Heb. 9:4). The items were placed "before the testimony"; the correct meaning of that phrase is open to interpretation.

Sanctity and consecration

Even Aaron, brother of Moses and the High Priest, was forbidden to enter this place of the Ark too often. He was enjoined to enter the holy of holies only once per year on a designated day and perform certain ceremonies there (Lev. 16). Moses was directed to consecrate the Ark, when completed, with the oil of holy ointment (Ex. 30:23-26); and he was also directed to have the Ark made by Bezaleel, the son of Uri of the tribe of Judah, and by Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan (Ex. 31:2-7). These instructions Moses carried out, calling upon "every wisehearted" one among the people to assist in the work (Ex. 35:10-12). Bezaleel the artists made the Ark (Ex. 37:1); and Moses approved the work, put the testimony in the Ark, and installed it.

In Deut. 10:1-5 a different account of the making of the Ark is given. Moses is made to say that he constructed the Ark before going upon Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets. The charge of carrying the Ark and the rest of the holy implements was given to the family of Kohath, of the tribe of Levi; but they were not to touch any of the holy things until after the latter had been covered by Aaron (Num. 4:2-15).

As a movable sanctuary

In the march from Sinai, and at the crossing of the Jordan, the Ark preceded the people and was the signal for their advance (Num. 10:33; Josh. 3:3, 6). During the crossing of the Jordan the river grew dry as soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touched its waters, and remained so until the priests, with the Ark, left the river, after the people had passed over (Josh. 3:15-17; 4:10, 11, 18). As memorials, twelve stones were taken from the Jordan at the place where the priests had stood (Josh. 4:1-9).

The Ark in battle. Movable sanctuary.
The Ark in battle. Movable sanctuary.

The Ark was carried into battles, such as in the Midian war (Num. 31). During the ceremonies preceding the capture of Jericho, the Ark was carried round the city in the daily procession, preceded by the armed men and by seven priests bearing seven trumpets of rams' horns (Josh. 6:6-15). After the defeat at Ai, Joshua lamented before the Ark (Josh. 7:6-9). When Joshua read the Law to the people between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, they stood on each side of the Ark. The Ark was set up by Joshua at Shiloh; but when the Israelites fought against Benjamin at Gibeah, they had the Ark with them, and consulted it after their defeat.

Captured by the Philistines

The Ark is next spoken of as being in the tabernacle at Shiloh during Samuel's apprenticeship (1 Sam. 3:3). After the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan the ark remained in the tabernacle at Gilgal for a season, and was then removed to Shiloh till the time of Eli, between 300 and 400 years (Jeremiah 7:12), when it was carried into the field of battle so as to secure, as they supposed, victory to the Hebrews, and was taken by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:3-11), who sent it back after retaining it seven months (1 Sam. 5:7, 8). After their first defeat at Eben-ezer, the Israelites had the Ark brought from Shiloh, and welcomed its coming with great rejoicing.

In the second battle the Israelites were again defeated, and the Philistines captured the Ark (1 Sam. 4:3-5, 10, 11). The news of its capture was at once taken to Shiloh by a messenger "with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head." The old priest, Eli, fell dead when he heard it; and his daughter-in-law, bearing a son at the time the news of the capture of the Ark was received, named him Ichabod—explained as "Where is glory?" in reference to the loss of the Ark (1 Sam. 4:12-22).

The Philistines took the Ark to several places in their country, and at each place misfortune resulted to them (1 Sam. 5:1-6). At Ashdod it was placed in the temple of Dagon. The next morning Dagon was found prostrate before it; and on being restored to his place, he was on the following morning again found prostrate and broken. The people of Ashdod were smitten with boils; a plague of mice was sent over the land (1 Sam. 6:5). The affliction of boils was also visited upon the people of Gath and of Ekron, whither the Ark was successively removed (1 Sam. 5:8-12).

After the Ark had been among them 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 boils and mice with which they had been afflicted. The Ark was put down in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite, and the Beth-shemites offered sacrifices and burnt offerings (1 Sam. 6:1-15). Out of curiosity the men of Beth-shemesh gazed at the Ark; and as a punishment over fifty thousand of them were smitten by the Lord (1 Sam. 6:19). The Bethshemites sent to Kirjath-jearim, or Baal-Judah, to have the Ark removed (1 Sam. 6:21); and it was taken to the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar was sanctified to keep it. Kirjath-jearim was 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 the battle. In 1 Chronicles 13:3 it is stated that the people were not accustomed to consult the Ark in the days of Saul.

In the days of King David

At the very beginning of his reign David removed the Ark from Kirjath-jearim amid great rejoicing. On the way to Zion, Uzzah, one of the drivers of the cart on which the Ark was carried, put out his hand to steady the Ark, and was smitten by the Lord for touching it. David in fear carried the Ark aside into the house of Obed-edom the Gittite, instead of carrying it on to Zion, and here it stayed three months (2 Sam. 6:1-11; 1 Chron. 13:1-13).

On hearing that the Lord 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"—a performance for which he was despised and rebuked by Saul's daughter Michal (2 Sam. 6:12-16, 20-22; 1 Chron. 15). In Zion he put the Ark in the tabernacle he had prepared for it, offered sacrifices, distributed food, and blessed the people and his own household (2 Sam. 6:17-20; 1 Chron. 16:1-3; 2 Chron. 1:4).

Levites were appointed to minister before the Ark (1 Chron. 16:4). David's plan of building a temple for the Ark was stopped at the advice of God (2 Sam. 7:1-17; 1 Chron. 17:1-15; 28:2, 3). The Ark was with the army during the siege of Rabbah (2 Sam. 11:11); 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 (2 Sam. 15:24-29).

In Solomon's Temple

When Abiathar was dismissed from the priesthood by Solomon for having taken part in Adonijah's conspiracy against David, his life was spared because he had formerly borne the Ark (1 Kings 2:26). It was afterwards deposited by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:6-9). Solomon worshiped before the Ark after the dream in which the Lord promised him wisdom (1 Kings 3:15). In Solomon's Temple a Holy of Holies was prepared to receive the Ark (1 Kings 6:19); and when the Temple was dedicated, the Ark, containing nothing but the two Mosaic tables of stone, was placed therein. When the priests came out of the holy place after placing the Ark there, the Temple was filled by a cloud, "for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord" (1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron. 5:13, 14).

When Solomon married Pharaoh's daughter, he caused her to dwell in a house outside Zion, as Zion was consecrated because of its containing the Ark (2 Chron. 8:11). King Josiah had the Ark put into the Temple (2 Chron. 35:3), from which it appears that it had again been removed by one of his predecessors.

In the Qur'an

There is only a brief mention of the Ark of the Covenant in the Qur'an:

Their prophet said to them, "The sign of his kingship is that the Ark of the Covenant will be restored to you, bringing assurances from your Lord, and relics left by the people of Moses and the people of Aaron. It will be carried by the angels. This should be a convincing sign for you, if you are really believers." 002:248

According to some Muslim scholars, the Ark of the Covenant does not have a religious basis in Islam and Islam does not give it any special significance while others believe that it will be found by Mahdi near the end of times and inside there will be relics left by the people of Moses and the people of Aaron. They might be the sceptres of Moses and Aaron, plates of Torah and Aaron's turban.

In the Bible

The only mention of the Ark in the books of the prophets is the reference to it by Jeremiah, who, speaking in the days of Josiah (Jer. 3:16), prophesies a time when the Ark will no longer be needed because of the righteousness of the people.

In the Psalms the Ark is twice referred to. In Ps. 78:61 its capture by the Philistines is spoken of, and the Ark is called "the strength and glory of God"; and in Ps. 132:8, it is spoken of as "the ark of the strength of the Lord."

The Ark is mentioned in one passage in the deuterocanonical 2 Maccabees 2:4-10, which contains a reference to a document saying that the prophet Jeremiah, "being warned of God," took the Ark, and the tabernacle, and the altar of incense, and buried them in a cave on Mount Nebo (Deut 34:1), informing those of his followers who wished to find the place that it should remain unknown "until the time that God should gather His people again together, and receive them unto mercy."

Hebrews 9:4 states that the Ark contained "the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant."

Finally, in Revelation 11:19 the Ark is described as being in heaven, just before the mother of the Messiah appears (Book of Revelation 12).

In ancient historical sources

(See Mishnayot and Gerard Robins in the external links)

The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, and the famed Copper Scroll - made of pure copper - was found at Qumran in 1952. The Copper Scroll is the inventory - written in Hebrew - of the holy treasures of Solomon's First Temple, treasures which were hidden before the destruction of that temple by the Babylonians and treasures which have not been seen since.

The Copper Scroll tells us that a silver [alabaster?] chest, the vestments of the Cohen Gadol (Hebrew High Priest), gold and silver in great quantities, the Tabernacle of the Lord (the Mishkan) and many treasures were hidden in a desolate valley - under a hill - on its east side, forty stones deep. The Mishkan was a "portable" Temple for the Ark of the Covenant.

The writings in the Copper Scroll were confirmed 40 years later in the 1990s through an ancient text found in the introduction to Emeq HaMelekh ("Valley of the King(s)"), a book published in 1648 in Amsterdam, Holland, by Rabbi Naftali Hertz Ben Yaacov Elchanon (Rabbi Hertz). The book's introduction included ancient records which Rabbi Hertz called the "Mishnayot". Hertz used the term Mishnayot, since the text of the Mishnayot is missing from the Mishnah (Mishna), which is the first section of the Talmud, a collection of ancient Rabbinic writings including also the Gemara, "the summary", and containing the Jewish religious law.

The "missing" Mishnaic text in the Mishnayot is called the 'Massakhet Keilim', written in twelve chapters. Each chapter of the Mishnayot describes vessels which were hidden under the direction of Jeremiah the Prophet by five holy men (Shimor HaLevi, Chizkiah, Tzidkiyahu, Haggai the Prophet and Zechariah the Prophet), seven years prior to the destruction of Solomon's First Temple, because the dangers of Babylonian conquest were imminent. The Mishnayot describing this hiding was then written in Babylon during the Babylonian Captivity.

In 1952 two large marble tablets were found in the basement of a museum in Beirut, stating they were the words of Shimor HaLevi, the servant of HaShem, and the writing on the tablets is the entire missing text of "Massakhet Keilim" (Mishnayot) including reference to the Copper Scroll.

The first chapter of the Mishnayot describes the vessels that were hidden - including the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle of the Lord, i.e. the Mishkan, the Tablets of Moses, the altar (with cherubim) for the daily and seasonal sacrifices (the ushebtis), the Menorah (candelabra), the Qalal (copper urn) containing the Ashes of the Red Heifer (ashes from a red cow sacrificed under Moses, necessary for ritual purification of the priests), and numerous vessels of the Kohanim (priests).

The second chapter of the Mishnayot states that a list of these treasures was inscribed upon a copper tablet. This is the Copper Scroll found at Qumran.

Work in the 1990s showed that in 1896, almost one hundred years previous, Solomon Schechter at Cambridge University in England had acquired 100,000 pages of ancient Hebrew texts from the Genizah (repository for aged sacred Jewish texts) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. A copy of the "Tosefta" (supplement to the Mishnah) was found in these texts, included among the text on Keilim (vessels). This "Tosefta" is the same text as cited by Rabbi Hertz as his source for the Mishnayot.

We thus have the hiding of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle of the Lord verified by four separate sources: 1) the Marble Tablets of Beirut, 2) the Copper Scroll, 3) the ancient sacred texts of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo now at Cambridge University, England, and 4) the Mishnayot of Rabbi Hertz.

The Babylonians

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and plundered the temple, the Ark entered the domain of legend. Historians suppose the ark was probably taken away by Nebuchadnezzar and destroyed. The absence of the ark from the Second Temple was acknowledged. Variant traditions include the intentional concealment of the Ark under the Temple Mount, the removal of the Ark from Jerusalem in advance of the Babylonians (this variant usually ends up with the Ark in Ethiopia), the removal of the Ark by the Ethiopian prince Menelik I (purported son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba), removal by Jewish priests during the reign of Manasseh, and the miraculous removal of the Ark by divine intervention (C.f. 2 Chronicles).

Where is it now?

Missing image
The treasury house of the cathedral at Axum


Today, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Axum, Ethiopia claims to still possess the Ark of the Covenant. Local tradition maintains that it was brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I following a visit to his father King Solomon. Although it was once paraded before the town once each year, it is now kept under constant guard in a "treasury" near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, and only the head priest of the church is allowed to view it. Most Western historians are skeptical of this claim.

Missing image
The Ark of the Covenant may have looked like this (found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun).

Some sources suggest that during the reign of king Manasseh (2 Chron 33) the Ark was smuggled from the temple by way of the Well of souls and taken to Egypt, eventually ending up in Ethiopia. There are some carvings on the Cathedral of Chartres that may refer to this. Modern excavations near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have found tunnels, but digging beneath the Temple Mount is somewhat restricted, not least because the Islamic mosque, the Dome of the Rock, sits there now.

Andis Kaulins claims that the hiding place of the ark, said specifically by ancient sources such as the Mishnayot to be "a desolate valley under a hill - on its east side, forty stones deep" - was what we today know of as the Tomb of Tutankhamun (east side of the Valley of Kings, ca. forty stones deep) and that what was found there are the described treasures, including the Mishkan and the Ark of the Covenant.

Some have claimed to have discovered the Ark. One such person is the late Ron Wyatt who claimed he felt it unwise to fully excavate the Ark for a variety of reasons, including bloody ownership disputes and divine inspiration. Another is Dr. Vendyl Jones, who claims to have found the entrance to the chamber in the tunnels beneath the Temple Mount where it was hidden prior to the destruction of the First Temple and says he will reveal the ark on Tisha B'Av (August 14, 2005), the anniversary of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.

Modern speculation

Speculations that the Ark of the Covenant may have operated as an electrical circuit have been held by some, including, in the 1900s, electrician Nikola Tesla. Louis Ginzberg’s "Legends of the Jews" has ancient oral traditions referring to "sparks" from the cherubim.

The design of the ark may have allowed it to store electric charge, and thus could facilitate an electric discharge between the cherubs. The theory suggests that it resembles a capacitor in its construction. The biblical accounts of individuals sudden deaths from touching the Ark could correspond to death by a lethal high voltage charge. "Fiery jets" occasionally burned and destroyed close objects. Other biblical accounts could correspond with exposure to some high frequency electromagnetic fields. Jewish legend has occasional records of a "cloud" between the cherubim. The Ark was considered dangerous at these times and Moses would not approach it.

Tesla, in the article "A fairy tale of electricity" (published September 9, 1915), stated in regards to the Ark:

"The records, though scanty, are of a nature to fill us with conviction that a few initiated, at least, had a deeper knowledge of amber phenomena. To mention one, Moses was undoubtedly a practical and skillful electrician far in advance of his time. The Bible describes precisely, and minutely, arrangements constituting a machine in which electricity was generated by friction of air against silk curtains, and stored in a box constructed like a condenser. It is very plausible to assume that the sons of Aaron were killed by a high-tension discharge, and that the vestal fires of the Romans were electrical." [1] (

Archaeological discoveries of the last century (which include the Baghdad Battery among others), indicate that a working knowledge of energy devices might have been present in ancient Middle Eastern cultures, and therefore it might not have been beyond Moses' specialized training in the house of Pharaoh (Exodus 2:10).

It is known that the acacia wood acts as an insulator, while the gold (the purest available at that time) is a good conductor— the wooden poles inserted through gold rings which were used to carry the Ark prevented the electrocution of the bearers if the box held significant electric charge (a complete gold sheathing on the poles would ground out the bearers, if their attire or footwear did not insulate them). An electric charge could have accumulated from constant exposure to static electricity in the Middle East climate (among other possible sources). The Ark's upper surface has a rim of gold (a single coil of angels figures). Over the Ark, the cherubs could form a spark gap, producing a dynamic radiance that would inspire awe in the observer, and act as a lightning source to kill anyone that touched it.—Num. 7:9; 10:21; 4:5,19, 20; 1 Kings 8:3, 6; Lev. 16:2; Num. 7:89; 2 Sam. 6:6, 7.

According to some investigators, the Ark as described in Numbers would not be a very good design for a capacitor. A lumped-element estimate of the order of magnitude - if it is not much different from any other metal-clad box of similar dimensions - could be made for it being a capacitor (the type of metal is an important factor, though; gold has a first level ionization potential of 890.1 kJ/mol, electronegativity of 2.54 (Pauling scale), and electrical conductivity of 45.2 MS/m). If it is not much different, reportedly it would be on the order of 200 picofarads. At capacitance this low, such a capacitor would need to be charged to 100,000 volts to store even 1 joule (0.7 foot-pounds) of electrical energy. Without additional external interactions and other modifying factors, this would be insufficient to cause electrocution.

Around 1999, author Richard Andrews built a model of the Ark. He claims that when tested, the model demonstrated that the Ark could act as an electromagnetic accumulator. Electrostatic action, as well as the photoelectric effect, may have allowed the Ark of the Testimony to acculmulate a charge as the Hebrews moved the Ark. The irregular shape and lack of detail concerning the shape of the cherubim makes it impossible to exactly calculate the capacitance of the Ark of God. Any models of the physical operation of the Ark of the Testimony can only be approximated with lumped-element circuit theory. At its operating frequency, the Ark of God would not operate as a lumped-element device. The Ark of the Covenant would act more as a distributed resonator (rather than a simple capacitor). Various charging effects could combine and reinforce any stored field, increasing the overall electromagnetic intensity the Ark held.

Author Erich von Dniken's theory concerning the Ark's operation is considered unlikely by mainstream archaeology. Von Dniken, edging toward a particular point of view, has put forth the conclusion that the Ark of the Covenant was a extraterrestrial communications box. In the film "Chariots of the Gods", von Dniken showed an Ark replica made by Minnesota college students which produced a electrical charge.

See also

Hebrews: Most Holy Place, Solomon's Temple, Sanctuary, Shittah-tree, Cherub, History of ancient Israel and Judah, Tabernacle, Jewish symbolism, Book of Judges, Books of Chronicles, Exodus, Idolatry, Documentary hypothesis.

Middle Eastern: Arab, Ashdod, Israel, Palestine, 1050s BC, Axum, Tewahedo Church

"Mana": Nehushtan, Baghdad Battery, Shittah-tree, Ley line

Mormonism: Stake

Rastafari movement

People: Joshua, Samuel, Solomon, Menelik I, Theodulf, Nikola Tesla

Other: Acacia, Spark gap, Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Foucault's Pendulum (book), Rennes-le-Chteau, Government Warehouse, Lost History

References and external links

  • Initial text from Easton's Bible Dictionary (, 1897 listing of the Ark (

es:Arca de la Alianza he:ארון הברית nl:Ark van het Verbond ja:契約の箱 pl:Arka przymierza fi:Liitonarkku


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