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Holman Bible Dictionary

Ark of the Covenant

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names the original container for the Ten Commandments and the central symbol of God's presence with the people of Israel.

Old Testament The ark of ancient Israel is mysterious in its origins, its meanings, and its ultimate fate. Its many names convey the holy sense of God's presence. The Hebrew word for ark means simply “box, chest, coffin,” as is indicated by its use for the coffin of Joseph (Genesis 50:26 ) and for the Temple collection box of King Joash (2 Kings 12:9-10 ).

The names used for the ark define its meaning by the words which modify it. The word “covenant” in the name defines the ark from its original purpose as a container for the stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments (sometimes called the “testimony”) were inscribed. Sometimes it is identified rather with the name of deity, “the ark of God,” or “the ark of the Lord” (Yahweh), or most ornately “the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts (Yahweh Sabaoth) who is enthroned on the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4 ).

The origin of the ark goes back to Moses at Sinai. The mysterious origin of the ark is seen by contrasting the two accounts of how it was made in the Pentateuch. The more elaborate account of the manufacture and ornamentation of the ark by the craftsman Bezalel appears in Exodus 25:10-22; Exodus 31:2 ,Exodus 31:2,31:7; Exodus 35:30-35; Exodus 37:1-9 . It was planned during Moses' first sojourn on Sinai and built after all the tabernacle specifications had been communicated and completed. The other account is found in Deuteronomy 10:1-5 . After the sin of the golden calf and the breaking of the original decalogue tablets, Moses made a plain box of acacia wood as a container to receive the new tables of the law.

A very ancient poem, the “Song of the Ark” in Numbers 10:35-36 , sheds some light on the function of the ark in the wanderings in the wilderness. The ark was the symbol of God's presence to guide the pilgrims and lead them in battle (Numbers 10:33 ,Numbers 10:33,10:35-36 ). If they acted in faithlessness, failing to follow this guidance, the consequences could be drastic (Numbers 14:39-45 ). Some passages suggest the ark was also regarded as the throne of the invisible deity, or his footstool (Jeremiah 3:16-17; Psalm 132:7-8 ). These various meanings of the ark should be interpreted as complementary rather than contradictory.

The ark was designed for mobility. Its size (about four feet long, two and a half feet wide, and two and a half feet deep) and rectangular shape were appropriate to this feature. Permanent poles were used to carry the ark, since no one was allowed to touch it, and only priestly (Levitical) personnel were allowed to carry it. The ark was the most important object within the tabernacle of the desert period, though its relationship to the tabernacle was discontinued sometime after the conquest of Canaan.

The ark played a prominent role in the “holy war” narratives of the crossing of the Jordan and the conquest, of Jericho (Joshua 3-6 ). After the conquest, it was variously located at Gilgal, Shechem (Joshua 8:30-35; see Deuteronomy 11:26-32; Deuteronomy 27:1-26 ) or Bethel (Judges 20:26 ), wherever the tribal confederacy was gathered for worship. Finally, it was permanently located at Shiloh, where a temple was built to house it (1 Samuel 1:9; 1 Samuel 3:3 ).

Because of the faithless superstition of the wicked sons of Eli, the Hebrew tribes were defeated in the battle of Ebenezer, and the ark was captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:1 ). The adventures of the ark in the cities of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron are told to magnify the strength and glory of the Lord of the ark. The Lord vanquished Dagon and spread bubonic plagues among the enemy until they propitiated the God of Israel by symbolic guilt offerings and a ritually correct sending away of the dread object (1 Samuel 5:1-6:12 ). The men of Bethshemesh welcomed the return of the ark, until they unwisely violated its holiness by looking into it (1Samuel 6:13-15,1 Samuel 6:19-20 ). Then it was carried to Kiriath-Jearim, where it remained in comparative neglect until David recovered the symbolism it had for the ancient tribal confederacy and moved it to his new capital and sanctuary in Jerusalem (1 Samuel 6:21-7:2; 2 Samuel 6:1 ). Abinadab and his sons (2 Samuel 6:3 ) seemed to have served the Lord of the ark faithfully until one son, Uzzah, was smitten for his rash touching of the holy object during David's first attempt to transport the ark from its “hill” at Kiriath-Jearim to his own city. In fear, David left the ark with Obed-edom the Gittite, whose household was blessed by its presence. More cautiously and with great religious fervor, David succeeded the second time in taking the ark into his capital city (2 Samuel 6:12-19 ).

Recent scholarship has suggested that on coronation occasions or annually at a festival of enthronement this ark ceremony was reenacted. Such an occasion would re-emphasize the promise to the Davidic dynasty, as well as the glory of the Lord of Hosts (Psalm 24:7-10;Psalms 24:7-10;132:1 ). Finally, Solomon built the Temple, planned by David, to house the ark, which he then transported into the holy of holies with elaborate festival ceremonies (1 Kings 8:1; 2 Chronicles 5:1 ).

The precise time of the theft or destruction of the ark is unknown. Some have suggested Shishak of Egypt plundered the Temple of this most holy object (1 Kings 14:25-28 ), but it seems more likely, from Jeremiah 3:16-17 , that the Babylonians captured or destroyed the ark in 587 B.C. with the fall of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple. As Jeremiah predicted, the ark was never rebuilt for the second Temple, the holy of holies remaining empty.

Other mysteries of the ark are its relation to the cherubim, its ornate lid called the “mercy seat,” and its precise ritual usage during the time of the monarchy. Because the ark of the covenant was the central symbol of God's presence with His people Israel, its mysteries remain appropriately veiled within the inner sanctuary of the living God. See Holy of Holies; Mercy Seat; Tabernacle; Temple.

New Testament Hebrews 9:1-10 shows the ark was a part of the old order with external regulations waiting for the new day of Christ to come with a perfect Sacrifice able to cleanse the human conscience. Revelation 11:19 shows the ark of the covenant will be part of the heavenly temple when it is revealed.

M. Pierce Matheney, Jr.


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Ark of the Covenant'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/view.cgi?n=452. 1991.

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