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The Catholic Encyclopedia
Ark of the Covenant
The Hebrew aron, by which the Ark of the Covenant is expressed, does not call to the mind, as that used for Noah's Ark, a large construction, but rather a chest. This word is generally determined in the sacred text; so we read of the Ark of the Testimony (Exodus 25:16, 22; 26:33, etc.), the Ark of the Testament (Exodus 30:26), the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord (Numbers 10:33; Deuteronomy 10:8, etc.), the Ark of the Covenant (Joshua 3:6, etc.), the Ark of God (1 Samuel 3:3, etc.), the Ark of the Lord (1 Samuel 4:6, etc.). Of these, the expression "Ark of the Covenant" has become most familiar in English.
The Ark of the Covenant was a kind of chest, measuring two cubits and a half in length, a cubit and a half in breadth, and a cubit and a half in height. Made of setim wood (an incorruptible acacia), it was overlaid within and without with the purest gold, and a golden crown or rim ran around it. At the four corners, very likely towards the upper part, four golden rings had been cast; through them passed two bars of setim wood overlaid with gold, to carry the Ark. These two bars were to remain always in the rings, even when the Ark had been placed in the temple of Solomon. The cover of the Ark, termed the "propitiatory" (the corresponding Hebrew means both "cover" and "that which makes propitious"), was likewise of the purest gold.
Upon it had been place two cherubim of beaten gold, looking towards each other, and spreading their wings so that both sides of the propitiatory were covered. What exactly these cherubim were, is impossible to determine; however, from the analogy with Egyptian religious art, it may well be supposed that they were images, kneeling or standing, of winged persons. It is worth noticing that this is the only exception to the law forbidding the Israelites to make carved images, an exception so much the more harmless to the faith of the Israelites in a spiritual God because the Ark was regularly to be kept behind the veil of the sanctuary.
The form of the Ark of the Covenant was probably inspired by some article of the furniture of the Egyptian temples. But it should not be represented as one of those sacred bari, or barks, in which the gods of Egypt were solemnly carried in procession; it had, very likely, been framed after the pattern of the naos of gold, silver, or precious wood, containing the images of the gods and the sacred emblems. According to some modern historians of Israel, the Ark, in every way analogous to the bari used upon the banks of the Nile, contained the sacred objects worshipped by the Hebrews, perhaps some sacred stone, meteoric or otherwise. Such a statement proceeds from the opinion that the Israelites during their early national life were given not only to idolatry, but to its grossest form, fetishism; that first they adored Yahweh in inanimate things, then they worshipped him in the bull, as in Dan and Bethel, and that only about the seventh century did they rise to the conception of an invisible and spiritual God. But this description of Israel's religious history does not tally with the most certain conclusions derived from the texts. The idolatry of the Hebrews is not proven any more than their polytheism; hence the Ark, far from being viewed as in the opinion above referred to, should rather be regarded as a token of the choice that Yahweh had made of Israel for his people, and a visible sign of his invisible presence in the midst of his beloved nation.
The Ark was first destined to contain the testimony, that is to say the tables of the Law (Exodus 40:18; Deuteronomy 10:5). Later, Moses was commanded to put into the tabernacle, near the Ark, a golden vessel holding a gomor of manna (Exodus 16:34), and the rod of Aaron which had blossomed (Numbers 17:10). According to the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:4), and the Jewish traditions, they had been put into the Ark itself. Some commentators, with Calmet, hold that the book of the Law written by Moses had likewise been enclosed in the Ark; but the text says only that the book in question was placed "in the side of the Ark" (Deuteronomy 31:26); moreover, what should be understood by this book, whether it was the whole Pentateuch, or Deuteronomy, or part of it, is not clear, though the context seems to favour the latter interpretations. However this may be, we learn from 1 Kings 8:9, that when the Ark was placed in Solomon's temple, it contained only the tables of the Law.
will I give orders, and will speak to thee over the propitiatory, and from the midst of these two cherubims, which shall be upon the Ark of the testimony, all things which I will command the children of Israel by thee" (Exodus 25:22). And indeed we read in Numbers 7:89, that when Moses "entered into the tabernacle of the covenant, to consult the oracle, he heard the voice of one speaking to him from the propitiatory, that was over the ark between the two cherubims".
Yahweh used to speak to his servant in a cloud over the oracle (Leviticus 16:2). This was, very likely, also the way in which he communicated with Josue after the death of the first leader of Israel (cf. Joshua 7:6-1). The oracle was, so to say, the very heart of the sanctuary, the dwelling place of God; hence we read in scores of passages of the Old Testament that Yahweh "sitteth on [or rather, by] the cherubim".
In the last years of Israel's history, the Jewish rabbis, from a motive of reverence to God's holiness, avoided pronouncing any of the names expressing the Divinity in the Hebrew language, such as El, Elohim, etc., and still less Yahweh, the ineffable name, i.e. a name unutterable to any human tongue; instead of these, they used metaphors or expressions having reference to the Divine attributes. Among the latter, the word shekinah became very popular; it meant the Divine Presence (from shakhan, to dwell), hence the Divine Glory, and had been suggested by the belief in God's presence in a cloud over the propitiatory. Not only did the Ark signify God's presence in the midst of his people, but it also betokened the warlike undertakings of Israel; no greater evil accordingly could befall the nation than the capture of the Ark by the enemies, as, we shall see, happened towards the close of the period of the Judges and perhaps also at the taking of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army, in 587 B.C.
According to the sacred narrative recorded in Exodus 25:10-22, God Himself had given the description of the Ark of the Covenant, as well as that of the tabernacle and all its appurtenances. God's command was fulfilled to the letter by Beseleel, one of the skilful men appointed "to devise and to work in gold, and silver, and brass, and in engraving stones and in carpenters' work (Exodus 37:1-9). On that day God showed His pleasure by filling the tabernacle of the testimony with His Glory, and covering it with the cloud that henceforward would be to His people a guiding sign in their journeys. All the Levites were not entitled to the guardianship of the sanctuary and of the Ark; but this office was entrusted to the kindred of Caath (Numbers 3:28).
Whenever, during the desert life, the camp was to set forward, Aaron and his sons went into the tabernacle of the covenant and the Holy of Holies, took down the veil that hung before the door, wrapped up the Ark of the Testimony in it, covered it in dugong skins, then with a violet cloth, and put in the bars (Numbers 4:5, 6). When the people pitched their tents to sojourn for some time in a place, everything was set again in its customary order. During the journeys the Ark went before the people; and when it was lifted up they said: "Arise, O Lord, and let Thy enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee from before Thy face!" And when it was set down, they said: "Return, O Lord, to the multitude of the host of Israel!" Numbers 10:33-36). Thus did the Ark preside over all the journeys and stations of Israel during all their wandering life in the wilderness.
As has been said above, the sacred chest was the visible sign of God's presence and protection. This appeared in the most striking manner in different circumstances. When the spies who had been sent to view the Promised Land returned and gave their report, murmurs arose in the camp, which neither threatenings nor even the death of the authors of the sedition could quell. Against the will of God, many of the Israelites went up to the mountain to meet the Amalecites and Chanaanites: "but the ark of the testament of the Lord and Moses departed not from the camp". And the enemies came down, smote, and slew the presumptuous Hebrews whom God did not help. The next two manifestations of Yahweh's power through the Ark occurred under Josue's leadership. When the people were about to cross the Jordan,
the priests that carried the ark of the covenant went on before them; and as soon as they came into the Jordan, and their feet were dipped in part of the water, the waters that came down from above stood in one place, and swelling up like a mountain, were seen afar off . . . but those that were beneath ran down into the sea of the wilderness, until they wholly failed. And the people marched over against Jericho; and the priests that carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, stood girded upon the dry ground, in the midst of the Jordan, and all the people passed over through the channel that was dried up. (Joshua 3:14-17)
A few days later, Israel was besieging Jericho. At God's command, the Ark was carried in procession around the city for seven days, until the walls crumbled at the sound of the trumpets and the shouts of the people, thus giving the assailing army a free opening into the place (Joshua 6:6-21). Later again, after the taking and burning of Hai, we see the Ark occupy a most prominent place in the solemn assize of the nation held between Mount Garizim and Mount Hebal (Joshua 8:33).
The Israelites having settled in the Promised Land, it became necessary to choose a place where to erect the tabernacle and keep the Ark of the Covenant. Silo, in the territory of Ephraim, about the centre of the conquered country, was selected (Joshua 18:1). There, indeed, during the obscure period which preceded the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, do we find the "house of the Lord" (Judges 18:31; 20:18), with its High-Priest, to whose care the Ark had been entrusted. Did the precious palladium of Israel remain permanently at Silo, or was it carried about, whenever the emergency required, as, for instance, during warlike expeditions?
This point can hardly be ascertained. Be it as it may, the narrative which closes the Book of Judges supposes the presence of the Ark at Bethel. True, some commentators, following St. Jerome, translate here the word Bethel as though it were a common noun (house of God); but their opinion seems hardly reconcilable with the other passages where the same name is found, for these passages undoubtedly refer to the city of Bethel. This is no place to discuss at length the divers explanations brought forward to meet the difficulty; suffice it to say that it does not entitle the reader to conclude, as many have done, that there probably existed several Arks throughout Israel. The remark above made, that the Ark was possibly carried hither and thither according as the circumstances required, is substantiated by what we read in the narration of the events that brought about the death of Heli. The Philistines had waged war against Israel, whose army, at the first encounter, turned their backs to the enemy, were utterly defeated, and suffered very heavy losses. Thereupon the ancients of the people suggested that the Ark of the Covenant be fetched unto them, to save them from the hands of their enemies.
So the Ark was brought from Silo, and such acclamations welcomed it into the camp of the Israelites, as to fill with fear the hearts of the Philistines. Trusting that Yahweh's presence in the midst of their army betokened a certain victory, the Hebrew army engaged the battle afresh, to meet an overthrow still more disastrous than the former; and, what made the catastrophe more complete, the Ark of God fell into the hands of the Philistines (1 Samuel 4).
Then, according to the Biblical narrative, began for the sacred chest a series of eventful peregrinations through the cities of southern Palestine, until it was solemnly carried to Jerusalem. And never was it returned to its former place in Silo. In the opinion of the Philistines, the taking of the Ark meant a victory of their gods over the God of Israel. They accordingly brought it to Azotus and set it as a trophy in the temple of Dagon. But the next morning they found Dagon fallen upon his face before the Ark; they raised him up and set him in his place again. The following morning Dagon again was lying on the ground, badly mutilated. At the same time a cruel disease (perhaps the bubonic plague) smote the Azotites, while a terrible invasion of mice afflicted the whole surrounding country. These scourges were soon attributed to the presence of the Ark within the walls of the city, and regarded as a direct judgment from Yahweh. Hence was it decided by the assembly of the rulers of the Philistines that the Ark should be removed from Azotus and brought to some other place. Carried successively to Gath and to Accaron, the Ark brought with it the same scourges which had occasioned its removal from Azotus. Finally, after seven months, on the suggestion of their priests and their diviners, the Philistines resolved to give up their dreadful trophy.
The Biblical narrative acquires here a special interest for us, by the insight we get therefrom into the religious spirit among these ancient peoples. Having made a new cart, they took two kine that had sucking calves, yoked them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. And they laid the Ark of the God upon the cart, together with a little box containing golden mice and the images of their boils. Then the kine, left to themselves, took their course straight in the direction of the territory of Israel. As soon as the Bethsamites recognized the Ark upon the cart that was coming towards them, they went rejoicing to meet it. When the cart arrived in the field of a certain Josue, it stood still there. And as there was a great stone in that place, they split up the wood of the cart and offered the kine a holocaust to Yahweh. With this sacrifice ended the exile of the Ark in the land of the Philistines. The people of Bethsames, however, did not long enjoy its presence among them. Some of them inconsiderately cast a glance upon the Ark, whereupon they were severely punished by God; seventy men (the text usually received says seventy men and fifty thousand of the common people; but this is hardly credible as Bethsames was only a small country place) were thus smitten, as a punishment for their boldness. Frightened by this mark of the Divine wrath, the Bethsamites sent messengers to the inhabitants of Cariathiarim, to tell them how the Philistines had brought back the Ark, and invite them to convey it to their own town. So the men of Cariathiarim came and brought up the Ark and carried it into the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar they consecrated to its service (1 Samuel 7:1).
The actual Hebrew text, as well as the Vulgate and all translations dependent upon it, intimates that the Ark was with the army of Saul in the famous expedition against the Philistines, narrated in 1 Samuel 14. This is a mistake probably due to some late scribe who, for theological reasons, substituted the "ark of God" for the "ephod". The Greek translation here gives the correct reading; nowhere else, indeed, in the history of Israel, do we hear of the Ark of the Covenant as an instrument of divination. It may consequently be safely affirmed that the Ark remained in Cariathiarim up to the time of David. It was natural that after this prince had taken Jerusalem and made it the capital of his kingdom, he should desire to make it also a religious centre. For this end, he thought of bringing thither the Ark of the Covenant. In point of fact the Ark was undoubtedly in great veneration among the people; it was looked upon as the palladium with which heretofore Israel's life, both religious and political, had been associated. Hence, nothing could have more suitably brought about the realization of David's purpose than such a transfer. We read in the Bible two accounts of this solemn event; the first is found in the Second Book of Samuel (6); in the other, of a much later date, the chronicler has cast together most of the former account with some elements reflecting ideas and institutions of his own time (1 Chronicles 13). According to the narrative of 2 Samuel 6, which we shall follow, David went with great pomp to Baal-Juda, or Cariathiarim, to carry from there the Ark of God. It was laid upon a new cart, and taken out of the house of Abinadab. Oza and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, guided the cart, the latter walking before it, the former at its side, while the King and the people that were with him, dancing, singing, and playing instruments, escorted the sacred chest. This day, however, like that of the coming of the Ark to Bethsames, was to be saddened by death. At a certain point in the procession the oxen slipped; Oza forthwith stretched out his hand to hold the Ark, but was struck dead on the spot. David, frightened by this accident, and now unwilling to remove the Ark to Jerusalem, he had it carried into the house of a Gethite, named Obededom, which was probably in the neighborhood of the city. The presence of the Ark was a source of blessings for the house to which it had been brought. This news encouraged David to complete the work he had begun. Three months after the first transfer, accordingly, he came again with great solemnity and removed the Ark from the house of Obededom to the city, where it was set in its place in the midst of the tabernacle which David had pitched for it. Once more was the Ark brought out of Jerusalem, when David betook himself to flight before Absalom's rebellion. Whilst the King stood in the Cedron valley, the people were passing before him towards the way that leads to the wilderness. Among them came also Sadoe and Abiathar, bearing the Ark. Whom when David saw, he commanded to carry back the Ark into the city: "If I shall find grace in the sight of the Lord", said he, "he will bring me again, and will shew me both it and his tabernacle". In compliance with this order, Sadoe and Abiathar carried back the Ark of the Lord into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 15:24-29).
The tabernacle which David had pitched to receive the Ark was not, however, to be its last dwelling place. The King indeed had thought of a temple more worthy of the glory of Yahweh. Although the building of this edifice was to be the work of his successor, David himself took to heart to gather and prepare the materials for its erection. From the very beginning of Solomon's reign, this wince showed the greatest reverence to the Ark, especially when, after the mysterious dream in which God answered his request for wisdom by promising him wisdom, riches and honour, he offered up burnt-offerings and peace-offerings before the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh (1 Kings 3:15). When the temple and all its appurtenances were completed, Solomon, before the dedication, assembled the elders of Israel, that they might solemnly convey the Ark from the place where David had set it up to the Holy of Holies. Thence it was, most likely, now and then taken out, either to accompany military expeditions, or to enhance the splendour of religious celebrations, perhaps also to comply with the ungodly commands of wicked kings. However this may be, the chronicler tells us that Josias commanded the Levites to return it to its place in the temple, and forbade them to take it thence in the future (2 Chronicles 35:3). But the memory of its sacredness was soon to pass away. In one of his prophecies referring to the Messianic times, Jeremias announced that it would be utterly forgotten: "They shall say no more: The ark of the covenant of Yahweh: neither shall it come upon the heart, neither shall they remember it, neither shall it be visited, neither shall that be done any more" (Jeremiah 3:16).
As to what became of the Ark at the fall of Jerusalem, in 587 B.C., there exist several traditions, one of which has found admittance in the sacred books. In a letter of the Jews of Jerusalem to them that were in Egypt, the following details are given as copied from a writing of Jeremias:
The prophet, being warned by God, commanded that the tabernacle and the ark should accompany him, till he came forth to the mountain where Moses went up and saw the inheritance of God. And when Jeremias came thither he found a hollow cave and he carried in thither the tabernacle and the ark and the altar of incense, and so stopped the door. Then some of them that followed him, came up to mark the place; but they could not find it. And when Jeremias perceived it, he blamed them saying: the place shall be unknown, till God gather together the congregation of the people and receive them to mercy. And then the Lord will shew these things, and the majesty of the Lord shall appear, and there shall be a cloud as it was also shewed to Moses, and he shewed it when Solomon prayed that the place might be sanctified to the great God. (2 Maccabees 2:4-8)
According to many commentators, the letter from which the above-cited lines are supposed to have been copied cannot be regarded as possessing Divine authority; for, as a rule, a citation remains in the Bible what it was outside of the inspired writing; the impossibility of dating the original document makes it very difficult to pass a judgment on its historical reliability. At any rate the tradition which it embodies, going back at least as far as two centuries before the Christian era, cannot be discarded on mere a priori arguments.
The Apocalypse of Esdras
Side by side with this tradition, we find another mentioned in the Apocalypse of Esdras; according to this latter, the Ark of the Covenant was taken by the victorious army that ransacked Jerusalem after having taken it (IV Esd., x, 22). This is certainly most possible, so much the more that we learn from 2 Kings 25 that the Babylonian troops carried away from the temple whatever brass, silver, and gold they could lay their hands upon.
At any rate, either of these traditions is certainly more reliable than that adopted by the redactors of the Talmud, who tell us that the Ark was hidden by King Josias in a most secret place prepared by Solomon in case the temple might be taken and set on fire. It was a common belief among the rabbis of old that it would be found at the coming of the Messias. Be this as it may, this much is unquestionable; namely that the Ark is never mentioned among the appurtenances of the second temple. Had it been preserved there, it would most likely have been now and then alluded to, at least on occasion of such ceremonies as the consecration of the new temple, or the re-establishment of the worship, both after the exile and during the Machabean times. True, the chronicler, who lived in the post-exilian epoch, says of the Ark (2 Chronicles 5:9) that "it was been there unto this day". But it is commonly admitted on good grounds that the writer mentioned made use of, and wove together in his work, without as much as changing one single word of them, narratives belonging to former times. If, as serious commentators admit, the above-recorded passage be one of these "implicit citations", it might be inferred thence that the chronicler probably did not intend to assert the existence of the Ark in the second temple.
Catholic tradition, led by the Fathers of the Church, has considered the Ark of the Covenant as one of the purest and richest symbols of the realities of the New Law. It signifies, in the first place, the Incarnate Word of God. "Christ himself", says St. Thomas Aquinas, "was signified by the Ark. For in the same manner as the Ark was made of setim wood, so also was the body of Christ composed of the most pure human substance. The Ark was entirely overlaid with gold, because Christ was filled with wisdom and charity, which gold symbolizes. In the Ark there was a golden vase: this represents Jesus' most holy soul containing the fulness of sanctity and the godhead, figured by the manna. There was also Aaron's rod, to indicate the sacerdotal of Jesus Christ priest forever. Finally the stone tables of the Law were likewise contained in the Ark, to mean that Jesus Christ is the author of the Law". To these point touched by the Angel of the Schools, it might be added that the Ascension of Christ to heaven after His victory over death and sin is figured by the coming up of the Ark to Sion. St. Bonaventure has also seen in the Ark a mystical representation of the Holy Eucharist. In like manner the Ark might be very well regarded as a mystical figure of the Blessed Virgin, called by the Church the "Ark of the Covenant" — Faederis Arca.
KITTO, The Tabernacle and Its Furniture (London, 1849); LAMY, De tabernaculo, de sancta civitate et templo (Paris, 1720); LIGHTFOOT, Works, Vol. I, Descriptio templi hiersol.; POELS, Examen critique de l'histoire du sanctuaire de l'arche (Louvain and Leyden, 1897); VIGOUROUX, La Bible et les decouveries modernes (Paris, 1889), II and III.
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Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Ark of the Covenant'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/a/ark-of-the-covenant.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.