Fashioned by master craftsman Bezalel from acacia wood overlaid with gold, it measured 111cm x 67cm x 67cm (44” x 26” x 26”) and had a solid gold cover supporting two angels with bowed heads and outstretched wings.
Truly, the Ark of the Covenant was a treasure beyond price. Yet, to the nation of Israel, its material value was as nothing compared with what it represented – the presence of its original designer, Almighty God himself!
In fact, the Ark, which contained the Ten Commandments and, initially, a golden jar of manna and the flowering rod of Aaron, was considered so sacred that no one was allowed to touch it – or even to look upon it - on pain of death.
When the people of Israel came to rest during their 40 year wanderings through the desert, it lay in the Holy of Holies, an inner chamber screened off from the main tabernacle (or tent), accessible only by the High Priest for just one day every year - the Day of Atonement. And when the people broke camp, the Ark had to be carried by Levites on poles slotted through two rings of gold on either side and covered with blue cloth and sealskin to shield it from the gaze of the people. In this way the Ark was carried into battle ahead of the nation of Israel, putting courage into the people and striking fear into their enemies, particularly after the spectacular fall of Jericho.
Not a magic charm
However, contrary to the Indiana Jones movie, the Ark of the Covenant had no miraculous properties in itself. Success or victory depended entirely on the people’s loyalty to God – a lesson which the Israelites learned to their cost. Acting against divine instructions, Hophni and Phinehas, renegade sons of the High Priest Eli, took the Ark from the tabernacle in Shiloh, wrongly viewing it as a magic charm that would protect them against their enemies and help them conquer the Promised Land.
They soon realised their mistake. After a humiliating defeat in which 30,000 Israelites lost their lives, the sacred chest was captured by the Philistines who brought it back to Ashdod. Here, it was placed in the temple next to the half-man half-fish image of the Philistine god Dagon. But not for long. Overnight, the idol fell flat on its face before the ark. It was then put back on its plinth, only to be brought crashing down again the following night, this time losing its head along with the palms of its hands.
Later, as the Ark was paraded on a seven month tour of Philistia, the people were plagued with haemorrhoids, the land was overrun by jerboas, and the city of Ekron was hit by death-dealing confusion. These woes were enough to prompt the Ark’s speedy return to Israel, accompanied by a suitable offering!
Eventually, the Ark was brought to Jerusalem, although it did not have a permanent home until Solomon’s temple was built. In 642 BCE, King Josiah arranged for the Ark to be brought back to the temple, although there is no indication as to why it was removed in the first place. It may have been for safekeeping during temple renovations; or it could have been to prevent its misuse by one of Josiah’s predecessors, including his own father Manasseh, who fell away to false worship.
Whatever the reason, the Ark is not mentioned again in Hebrew scripture and there is no evidence that it was taken to Babylon after Jerusalem’s destruction in 607 BCE. It simply disappeared.
Does it still exist?
Various archaeologists have spent years searching for the Ark of the Covenant without success. Some believe it’s in Axum, Ethiopia at the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, having been ‘acquired’ by Menelik, the Queen of Sheba’s son during a visit to Jerusalem. However, this does not square up with the Bible account (2Chronicles 35 v 3) which, as previously mentioned, places the Ark in Jerusalem during Josiah’s reign – nearly 400 years later. This might explain why the “Keeper of the Ark”, the monk who claims to have possession, refuses to let anyone see it.
Archaeologist Leen Ritmeyer claims to have discovered where the original Temple’s Holy of Holies was located, pointing to a bedrock section in the centre which matches the precise dimensions of the Ark. Whether the Ark is indeed buried there is likely to remain a mystery, as neither the Muslim or Israeli authorities will agree to an excavation.
To sum up, it seems unlikely that the Ark of the Covenant will ever be found, partly because it has served its purpose, and also because such a precious artefact would doubtless attract unwarranted veneration.