A myriad of mysteries is contained in the pages of the Old Testament. For centuries, scholars of theology, archeology and anthropology have labored to produce some explanation of the contradictions and impossibilities put forth in these texts. The ancient ruins of lost cities reveal evidence that some writings may be incorrectly dated, or even that they may be false. Faith and tradition give way to speculation that the Bible may be nothing more than a collection of ancient Israelite mythology. Some things, however, prove tantalizingly true.
Temple Judaism and its monarchy, for example, are historical fact; the records of surrounding civilizations corroborate the chronicling of their place in the ancient world. Jerusalem was conquered and sacked on a regular basis by the likes of Egypt, Babylon, Rome and finally, Palestine. The temple was destroyed on numerous occasions and its treasures looted and carried off as booty. One mystery connected to these events has captivated the imagination of mankind, inspiring theologians, archeologists, and filmmakers alike: the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant.
This ancient coffer, believed to have held the actual stone tablets on which the Decalogue or Ten Commandments were inscribed by the very hand of Yahweh, disappears from biblical mention after the Babylonian exile. Having successfully established themselves as a nation, the Israelites were beaten and taken as captives by Babylon. Enslaved in a foreign land, all hope of regaining their freedom and traditions rested in the power of their God. After seventy years, as prophesied, the repentance and lamentation of the Israelites so moved the King of Babylon that they were allowed to return and rebuild their capitol.
The Holy of Holies, or resting place of the Ark in the temple, would, however, remain empty from that time forward. The description of the Ark, given in Exodus chapter twenty-five, indeed explains why it may have been a coveted artifact to rival kings. It was a wooden chest, layered over in gold and measuring more than a yard long and two feet in height and width, respectively. Gold rings attached to the sides made it possible for two handles, also of gold covered wood, to be slid through. The lid of the Ark represented a throne for the very presence of God and was flanked by two cherubim.
These winged effigies of heavenly beings, or angels, were in a crouched or kneeling position, as if bowing before the power of Yahweh. Their wings fanned out in front of them creating, in effect, a canopy over the Ark. Moses himself received the description for the Ark from God on Mount Sinai or Horeb; it was only one of several objects that the Lord wanted the Israelites to cast for use in worship. In the wilderness exile, these sacred vessels were carried from place to place and resided in a special group of tents when Israel was encamped.
The tents were arranged around a center “courtyard,” this served as a portable temple for worship. The Ark, along with its accompanying tabernacle, altar, and lampstand, became the very center of Hebrew ritual. The tabernacle was an inner tent, with gold laden wooden poles for a frame and fine, colorful cloth curtains for its sides. Even the curtain rings were made of gold. All of this gold was undoubtedly the spoils that, as slaves in Egypt, the Israelites had coerced from their captors. It was fashioned, for a time, into the golden calf of infamy in the Exodus story.
Whenever the nation traveled, the Ark was carried before it on the shoulders of twelve priests who were consecrated specifically for its guardianship. Sometimes a veil of fine cloth embroidered with symbols of the covenant and cherubim of gold thread was draped over the Ark. While in the tabernacle, the veil served as the final separation between the Hebrew nation and the Holy of Holies, access to which was only granted the High Priest. Going on before the Israelites, the priests bearing the Ark sang the praises of God and the power of God was believed to render the column invulnerable to attack.
Later, in the book of Joshua, the priests bore the Ark into the river Jordan; the flow of water was stopped up. Rising as if held back by an invisible dam, the waters ceased to run so that the Hebrews could cross on dry ground. The success of military campaigns was attributed to the power overshadowing the Ark. When it was carried around the walls of the city of Jericho, the citizens within were struck with fear and on the seventh day of these “parades” the walls collapsed. In the First book of Samuel, the Israelites are defeated because the Ark is not with them.
When it arrived in their camp, their enemies the Philistines were so afraid of its power that they immediately besieged them again and captured the Ark. From there, the Ark fought its own battles. Passed from one enemy nation to another, it left their temples in ruins, their people afflicted, and their lands desolate. King David returned the Ark, which he called “the footstool of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 28:2), to Jerusalem. He was so overjoyed at its recapture that he danced naked in the streets before it.
Residing in the homes of some of the most righteous men in Israel, the Ark remained the most important focal point of worship and symbolism to the nation. David fretted over the fact that the Ark had no temple in which to reside while he himself lived in a palace. Because of his sin with Bathsheba, the Lord refused him the honor of constructing one. It was his son Solomon that would fulfill his dream and build the temple he planned for the Ark. There it remained until after the death of King Josiah when Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded.
To the ancient Israelites, the Ark of the Covenant was just that: a container for the stone tablets on which the provisions for the basis of their agreement with God were inscribed. It is also possible that the Ark held a sacred vessel containing a piece of Manna from the desert (Exodus 16:34). Other traditions hold that the staffs of Moses and Aaron were placed inside; and, in Deuteronomy chapter thirty-one, the transcriptions of the Law of Moses also went into its protective shell. More than a mere vault of safety, however, the Ark was a symbol of God’s power manifest in the midst of the people; a throne on which the Spirit of God did rest.
Like the Holy Grail, it has an actual power to heal, sanctify, and possibly, to kill. One man named Uzzah died when he touched it; and he was only trying to keep it from falling off an ox cart (Second Samuel 6:6-7). Many possibilities exist for the explanation of what happened to the Ark. Some believe it was destroyed and its gold melted down, along with the other temple treasures, by the Babylonians. The lingering hope that it may have been hidden by the priests of the temple prior to the sacking of Jerusalem is, however, held throughout the world.
It may be the case that it still rests in a hidden chamber somewhere beneath the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim mosque now on the site of the original temple. Second Temple Judaism maintained the tradition of the Holy of Holies, and since entrance was forbidden, it was long believed that the Ark was still inside. In the final fall of Jerusalem to Rome the temple was found to be empty of its relics. The possibility also exists that it was taken to Egypt or the Byzantine Empire. Whatever the case, the Ark remains an object of mystery and fascination to this very day.