Harvest House Publishers
There I will meet with you; and from above
the mercy seat, from between the cherubim
which are upon the ark of the testimony,
I will speak to you about all that I will give you
in commandment for the sons of Israel.
These words from one of the greatest events in Israel’s history also introduce us to the greatest object in Israel’s devotion—the Ark of the Covenant. Israel’s exodus from Egypt was a transition from national slavery to national sovereignty. The Ark takes its position here at the beginning of Israel’s national identity as a symbol of Israel’s unique covenant relationship with God. This was demonstrated in two ways. First, the Ark bore the tablets of the covenant—Israel’s constitution, which showed the nation’s favored status as God’s people. Second, the Ark showed that God was willing to share Israel’s desert experience and to be their Companion during the journey to the Promised Land. The Lord’s presence with the Ark served to constantly remind the Jewish nation that the Lord would not abandon them to suffer slavery among the nations again.
The Lord first revealed this purpose for the Ark on Mount Sinai when He gave Moses its design: “Let them [Israel] construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them. According to…the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it” (Exodus 25:8-9). These verses are followed by the directions for constructing the Ark as the first and preeminent piece of the Tabernacle’s furniture. Above the Ark, God would meet with Moses and manifest His glory to His people. So as God formed Israel into a new national entity, calling them to be His people, the Ark went with them as the sign and seal of God’s power to perform His promise.
What Is the Ark?
The Ark is approximately three to four feet long and one to two feet high and wide. The Hebrew word used for the Ark, ’aron, signifies a box or chest. Our English word Ark, which comes to us through the Latin arca (“chest”), has the same meaning. In Genesis 50:26 the same Hebrew word (’aron) is used for the coffin (sarcophagus) in which Joseph was buried. This distinction is important because our English Bibles do not distinguish between the ark of Noah and the Ark of the Covenant. The Hebrew uses a different word for Noah’s ark, the word tebah, which denotes a kind of container used as a vessel. The same word is used of the woven papyrus basket that bore the infant Moses safely on the River Nile.
The biblical text says that the Ark was made of acacia wood (Exodus 25:10). Acacia trees are native to the Sinai Desert, and the wood was considered so durable that the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) translated the Hebrew for “acacia wood” as “incorruptible wood.” Magnifying this imperishable quality was the pure gold that overlaid the wood (Exodus 25:11). It may have been applied as gilding (like gold leaf ); an idea perhaps denoted by the language of Hebrews 9:4 “covered on all sides with gold.” This was the method used on wooden furniture of the period as evidenced in finds from Egyptian tombs. Thin leaves of gold were glued to a fine layer of plaster spread over the wood or applied as hammered sheets to the wood with small nails. However, the rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew term for “overlay” here is more substantial. According to the Talmud, this indicates thin boxes of gold placed on both the inside and outside of the acacia wood, making it a three-layered box.
Inside the Ark
The Ark contained sacred objects that demonstrated God’s presence among the Israelites in the desert. They also served as a witness to future generations of God’s covenant with His people (see Hebrews 9:4). Pagan shrines held images of their gods, but in the Ark no such image was present. Rather, the objects in the Ark represented God’s demonstration of His Word. These objects, according to the biblical text, were the two stone tablets on which were carved the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:16; see 31:18), the Torah (Pentateuch) written by Moses (Deuteronomy 31:24-26), the almond-wood staff of Aaron the high priest, which had miraculously budded (Numbers 17:10), and a golden pot of the last trace of the heavenly manna that fed the Israelites during their 40-year desert sojourn (Exodus 16:32-35). While all of these were associated at one time with the Ark, only the two tablets remained permanently with the Ark (2 Chronicles 5:10). Rabbinic tradition also affirmed that the Mosaic legislation (the Torah) remained inside (or beside) the Ark. Clearly the presence of these items makes the Ark the most valuable object in Jewish history. The late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, affirmed this when he declared: “The Ark—the ’Aron Ha-brit— includes the Ten Commandments, [that is,] the broken and unbroken tablets, and the entire scroll written by Moses. It includes every item that is important for the history of the Jews, and it is the highest stage of sanctity we can have.”
Testimonies of Judgment and Grace
The historical objects associated with the Ark represented both divine judgment and grace. After Moses broke the tablets, 3000 Israelites died at the hands of the Levites (Exodus 32:28). After the people complained about the manna, a severe plague destroyed the contentious among them. When Korah and his company rebelled, an earthquake wiped out his family and supporters, and a plague killed an additional 14,700 Israelites. God knew that Israel would continue to sin (Deuteronomy 31:27-29), so the objects associated with these events accompanied the Ark as a legal declaration against Israel’s future violations of the covenant (Deuteronomy 31:26). This is particularly true of the Torah scroll, by which Israel was to live (Leviticus 18:5; Nehemiah 9:29; Ezekiel 18:9; 20:11; Luke 10:28; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12).
But each of these objects also represented the grace of God. As the psalmist stated after recounting a litany of Israel’s sins in the desert, “Nevertheless He looked upon their distress when He heard their cry; and He remembered His covenant for their sake, and relented according to the greatness of His lovingkindness” (Psalm 106:44-45). In token of this lovingkindness (covenant faithfulness), alongside the broken tablets were the second set of restored tablets, indicating God’s graciousness to continue His covenant with Israel despite their rebellion with the golden calf (Exodus 34:1-28). The pot of manna also revealed God’s loyal love, for God continued His constant care of the nation, giving them all their “daily bread,” until they finally reached the Land of promise (Exodus 16:35; Joshua 5:12). Likewise, Aaron’s rod that budded was graciously given to validate God’s proper priesthood (Numbers 17:5; 18:6-9,23) and therefore preserve the lives of those who would otherwise have perished for their complaints (Numbers 17:10). Finally, the book of the law (the Torah) was present with the Ark to testify to every successive generation (Deuteronomy 4:9) that God had not chosen the nation because of anything in the nation itself but because of His own sovereign love and gracious choice (Deuteronomy 7:6-9).
Each of these objects testified to God’s grace and assured Israel of the possibility of divine forgiveness. On the Day of Atonement (Hebrew, Yom Kippur), the high priest sprinkled the blood of the guilt offering upon the mercy seat of the Ark. The Hebrew word for the mercy seat, kapporet, is related to this special day because the blood on the lid of the Ark ceremonially “purged” (Kippur) the nation of its sin, which was represented by the objects inside. Thus, when God looked down from between the cherubim, He saw only the blood, which turned the Ark from a throne of justice into a throne of grace! The Ark therefore was an ever present testimony of the truth that despite man’s sin, God has graciously provided a way of salvation.
The Mercy Seat of the Ark
On top of the Ark was a golden lid known in English as the mercy seat, although the Hebrew term kapporet simply signifies a covering. The mercy seat is described as a separate object from the Ark, probably because it required a separate construction. But the command to build the mercy seat immediately follows the command to build the Ark (Exodus 25:17-21), and once they were joined, the mercy seat became inseparable from the Ark and is described this way in every reference to the Ark thereafter. The mercy seat functioned practically as a lid for the box containing the tablets and was held in place by a rim or crown of gold that surrounded the top four corners of the outer box. This assured that if the Ark was jostled in transport, the lid would not fall off and expose the contents of the Ark. In such a case, all those who even inadvertently beheld the Ark might die. Two cherubim formed out of one solid piece of gold topped the golden lid. Medieval Jewish commentator Rashi explained that when the lid was made, a large quantity of gold was poured out and beat in the middle with a hammer or mallet to make the ends bulge upward. The cherubim were then formed from these protruding extremities.
The Cherubim on the Mercy Seat
Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, was from a priestly family and therefore had access to the Second Temple in his day. Although his writings offer an eyewitness description of the inside of the Temple, Josephus remarks concerning the cherubim: “No one can tell what they were like.” This statement is curious because the Talmudic tractate Yoma 54a records that the walls and tapestries inside the Holy Place of the Temple contained pictorial reproductions of the cherubim. It is strange that Josephus would not know of this detail, especially since he includes so many others, even within the Holy of Holies itself. At any rate, like Josephus, we have no reliable information as to the exact appearance of the cherubim. We can only piece together a possible likeness from biblical, traditional descriptions and archaeological comparisons.
From the biblical use of the Hebrew term keruvim (which is only transliterated as “cherubim” in English), we must conclude that these beings are a class of angels like the six-winged seraphim in Isaiah and the four-faced and four-winged cherubim in Ezekiel. However, the cherubim that were positioned on the Ark cover had only one face and two wings each. Their faces were turned inward, and their wings were spread horizontally near their heads. Despite the popular misconception of cherubs as baby angels or cupids (derived from Græco-Roman mythology), they always appear in Scripture as immensely powerful beings that attend the visible presence of God.
The cherubim on the Ark also bore a deep theological significance that reaches back to the Garden of Eden and the fall of man. The earliest mention of the cherubim—and in fact, the only such reference before the construction of the Ark—is in Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve’s fall. Through the fall, sin had forced the human couple to flee from the holy ground in the garden to the cursed ground outside, which now bore thorns and thistles, demanded constant toil, and could not keep plants or animals alive forever (Genesis 3:17-19). Adam and Eve were kept from returning to the holy garden in their unholy state by the cherubim stationed at the east entrance to the Garden of Eden. While the sacred tree of life remained, the garden had to be guarded from the defiling intrusion of sin and sinners. Man could not return to God, so he could not return to the garden where God’s presence was manifested.
In the fallen world beyond the sanctuary of Eden, God’s holy presence was unwelcome. Therefore, the cherubim held flaming swords that turned in every direction, barring any return to God. This representation of fiery judgment warned sinners of their deserved punishment if they attempted to violate that which was holy. At this point, mankind’s future appeared bleak. Indeed, even though God chose Abraham to bring blessing to mankind (Genesis 12:3), troubles befell Abraham’s children, climaxing with their slavery in Egypt for 400 years. However, at this darkest hour the divine drama goes forward to Sinai. God frees the slaves from bondage and transforms them into a new nation. In this drama of restoration and renewal of covenant, God reveals His plan for mankind—through the inclusion of the cherubim on the Ark.
Without the reference in Genesis to the cherubim, we would have no explanation for their later appearance in the Tabernacle and Temple. At Sinai, the Tabernacle replaced the Garden of Eden. Sinful man still could not return to a holy God, but a holy God had returned to sinful man. At the garden, the cherubim prevented human access to God’s presence, but at the Ark, the cherubim welcomed mankind’s approach. Even the position of the cherubim on the Ark demonstrated this reversal. The cherubim in Eden faced outward, guarding God’s presence within the garden from any approach by man. By contrast, the cherubim on the Ark faced inward, turning away from man and toward the place where God’s presence was now manifested to man. This is seen in the words of Exodus 25:22: “There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.” This verse demonstrates the dramatic change in humanity’s relationship with God that was accomplished through the Ark.
But the presence of the cherubim also remind us of the unchanging holiness of God. In Exodus 33:20 (see also Deuteronomy 5:25-26) we read that no one could behold God’s face (His glory) and remain alive. When God’s glory was on top of Mount Sinai, no one, not even an animal, could approach or touch the mountain (Exodus 19:12-24; Hebrews 12:20). If this revelation of God high on a mountaintop could instantly kill, how much more if He took up residence in the very midst of the Israelite camp! Therefore, in order to prevent God’s glory from breaking forth upon men, the cherubim were present to guard God’s glory, lest in making their approach, men transgressed and defiled the divine presence.
The connection between the Garden of Eden and Sinai was also demonstrated by the direction in which men were to approach God’s presence at the Ark. Both the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) were entered from the east, the same position guarded by the cherubim in Eden. Understanding this symbolism, the rabbis declared that “the Ark was in the exact center of the whole world…standing on the starting point of the creation” (Tanhuma, Kedoshim 10). Although a return to Eden was impossible, the representative presence of sinful man (through the priesthood) before the holy and all-consuming presence of God’s glory was now possible at the Ark.
Touching the Untouchable
Even though man had a new beginning with God at the Ark, man’s sinful condition remained and made direct access to God forbidden. Therefore, the Ark, which represented God’s presence, was to be treated as holy, and no man was to look upon or touch the Ark once the presence of God had descended upon it. For this reason, the Ark was placed in a dark, windowless room, and when the high priest went before the Lord’s presence at the Ark, he had to first fill the room with a heavy cloud of incense to hide the Ark. According to the rabbis, he then had to feel his way to the mercy seat by means of the extended poles of the Ark (always left in place) because he was forbidden to look upon the Ark itself. When the Levites transported the Ark, they had to first cover it with a blue cloth without looking upon or touching it in the process. Only when they had properly covered the Ark could they bring it out in the sight of the Israelites. Many people are disturbed by this “untouchableness” of the Ark. They do not think it fair that God would kill the men of Beth-shemesh who simply gazed in curiosity at the Ark (1 Samuel 6:19) or Uzzah, who tried to prevent it from falling (2 Samuel 6:6-7). Therefore, some people have offered alternative explanations to why people died when they came into contact with the Ark.
Explanations of the Ark’s Power
One explanation for the deadly effect of the Ark was that it was an ancient battery, charged with high voltage. Anyone who disturbed its energy flow would be instantly electrocuted. Author Richard Andrews described the Ark as a giant capacitor, capable of storing electrical energy. In a 1999 article for the Daily Mail, a British newspaper, he stated, “Gold is one of the best conductors of electricity there is, while wood is one of the best insulators.… If the Israelites had set out to construct a primitive accumulator, they could hardly have picked a better design than the Ark.” Andrews, who had once been a furniture builder, constructed a replica of the Ark. Tests of his model at a college laboratory confirmed that it could accumulate and release an electrical charge. Andrews theorizes that the friction of the heated air of the desert against the Ark permitted it to accumulate static electricity. “The strength of the charge,” he observed, “would depend on variables such as humidity and temperature, but also length, speed and bumpiness of journey…there is no reason why the charge could not be lethal.”
A possible example of an ancient battery (though contested) is now in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. Attributed to the Parthian Empire (an ancient Asian culture that ruled most of the Middle East from 247 B.C. to A.D. 228), the object (estimated to be from 200 B.C.) is a clay jar only five inches high and three inches wide. It has an opening sealed with an asphalt plug, which held a copper sheet in place, rolled into a tube. According to Matthew Zymet, who reported on this artifact for The Learning Channel, “This tube was capped at the bottom with a copper disc held in place by more asphalt. A narrow iron rod was stuck through the upper asphalt plug and hung down into the center of the copper tube—not touching any part of it. Fill the jar with an acidic liquid, such as vinegar or fermented grape juice, and you have yourself a battery capable of generating a small current.” Experiments with models of the “Baghdad Battery” have demonstrated it can generate between 1.5 and 2 volts. However, these naturalistic explanations for the Ark’s power do not explain how someone simply looking at the Ark could be affected (as were the men of Beth-shemesh).
Henry Soltau, a scholar of the last century who wrote books about the Tabernacle and its vessels, believed that those who looked into the Ark were killed because the contents of the Ark were exposed. Inside were the tablets of the law, “the ministration of death,” which would have brought “destruction to the thousands of Israel.” However, the men of Beth-shemesh’s violation of the righteousness codified in the law brought death, not the tablets of the law themselves (see Romans 2:12-16; 3:19-20; 5:13-14,20; 7:7-11).
Therefore, death in connection with the Ark was not a result of the contents or structure of the Ark. People died when they trespassed against God’s holiness. One of the categories of serious sin in the Old Testament was violation (Hebrew ma’al ) of the sancta (holy things that were set apart exclusively to God), the sanctuary, or the priests (Leviticus 5:15). The explanation for this commandment is given in Leviticus 10:3: “It is what the LORD spoke, saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.’ ” From our position “short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we may still think it unfair of God to punish with death those who curiously or accidentally made contact with the Ark, but we can at least under-stand the righteous basis by which He has acted with respect to His own holiness. However, more insight into the motives of the unfortunate men described in these troubling passages about the Ark may help us with our feelings of unfairness.
An Example of Holiness
The men of Beth-shemesh apparently died because their actions were a deliberate attempt to dishonor God. The original text as well as the context imply that they were not simply looking into the Ark in a curious manner but were peering into the Ark with an attitude of arrogance and with a complete disregard for God’s commands about the sanctity of the Ark. This is the insight Targum Jonathan on the Prophets offers in its explanation of this incident. Actually, two different explanations are given in this interpretive reading of 1 Samuel 6:19—one in the text and the other in the margin. The one in the text says that the men of Beth-shemesh “rejoiced that they had gazed upon the Ark of the Lord when it was uncovered.” The marginal reading says that the men died “because they rejoiced at Israel’s misfortunes and despised the Ark of the Lord when it was uncovered.” The emphasis of the text is upon the blasphemous act of the men enjoying the sight of the “naked” Ark, since to behold the Ark was akin to beholding God Himself. The emphasis of the marginal reading is upon the treasonous act of coveting their fellow Jews’ destruction, an act of derision that mocked the power of the Ark that was pledged to protect them. Both explanations surface an ulterior motive to defame God’s glory—a motive that was worthy of divine punishment. Therefore, the Ark did not kill the men of Beth-shemesh or any others who touched it, but rather an offended holy God in heaven whom the Ark represented.
The Approach to God and the Ark
The Ark, as the holiest of these holy things of God, reminds us that the Holy One whom it represents can only be approached in holiness. We cannot come to God as we are any more than the common Israelite could trespass God’s sanctity and live. We cannot come with professed religion, for pretenders who wore the priestly robes died just the same. We can only come if we are considered as holy. God made such holiness possible for us through the sacrifice of Christ: “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). Jesus, our holy Savior, has made us acceptable to God by covering our sins with His blood and has further qualified us to serve God as priests. Because of the holy work of Christ, those who have faith in Jesus are now considered holy to the Lord: “You are not your own…. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Therefore Christians are commanded to not contaminate themselves as God’s “holy place” with unholy things (1 Corinthians 5:7-13; 6:9-18; 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:3; 1 Peter 1:14-16).
How Many Arks?
In discussing the description of the Ark, we must consider the Jewish opinion that two Arks existed to house separate sacred items, in particular, the two different sets of stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written. Michael ben Chaim, a publisher of academic books on Egyptian and Near Eastern archaeology and history, argues that God commanded Israel to build two Arks: “The Torah therefore is absolutely clear. There were two arks, two sets of stones [tablets] and in accordance with G-D’s orders, the broken stones which G-D gave, were placed in the Golden ark and the stones which Moses cut were placed in the wooden ark.” This tradition is based on the statement in Deuteronomy 10:1-3 that Moses was commanded to make “an ark of wood for yourself.” Rashi, the medieval Jewish commentator, stated his opinion based on this passage: “This is not the Ark that Bezalel made [the golden Ark], for see now, they did not deal with [the construction of ] the Tabernacle until after Yom Kippur [when the Ark was necessary for the atonement ritual], for upon [Moses’] descent from the mountain he commanded [Israel] about the work of [the construction of ] the Tabernacle, and Bezalel made the Tabernacle first and only afterwards [did he make] an Ark and [the] furnishings [of the Tabernacle]. It is [thus] found [that] this was a different Ark. This is the one that would go out with them to battle. That one which Bezalel made did not go out to battle, except in the days of Eli, and they were punished because of it, and it was captured.” Therefore, according to rabbinic tradition, the golden Ark of Bezalel remained in the Holy of Holies while the wooden ark of Moses was taken out to the battlefield.
One wonders, if this were the case, why the broken tablets were protected within the Ark at the Tabernacle or Temple while the unbroken tablets were taken out in the field where they were subject to capture. Moreover, where was the wooden ark housed? Certainly within the sanctuary, but then why is only one Ark ever mentioned in the biblical text? The lack of a cover on the wooden ark might explain the ease with which the men of Beth-shemesh later looked into the Ark (1 Samuel 6:19), but looking into an already open Ark should not have carried such a severe penalty.
In fact, the text in Deuteronomy 10 does not require that we see Moses’ Ark as different from that described in Exodus 25. In Exodus 25:10, God commands that “they [the sons of Israel] shall construct an ark of acacia wood,” but the previous verse states, “so you [Moses] shall construct it.” This language does not suggest that the sons of Israel and Moses made two Arks but that each had a part in fulfilling the commandment to make the one and only Ark.
Because the rabbis regarded the first stone tablets as “God’s work” and “written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18; 32:16), they were more sacred than the second tablets which Moses “cut out for himself ” (Deuteronomy 10:1). However, the text here says, “Cut out for yourself two tablets of stone like the former ones.” If Moses was to make the second set like the first set, the implication is that he also made the first set. The first tablets “were God’s work” (Exodus 32:16), and the second set was also written on by God (Deuteronomy 10:2).
Moreover, the Bible never says what happened to the set of broken stone tablets. Exodus 32:19 simply says that they were shattered at the foot of the mountain. Scripture never implies that the first set was more sacred than the second set or that a separate Ark was required for each. Indeed, all of the references to the Ark in the Bible are singular and show a continuity for the Ark from Moses’ time onward. The New Testament likewise recognizes the one Ark (Hebrews 9:4-5). Likewise, Talmudic tradition stated that both the whole and the broken tablets were contained in one single Ark (Berakot 8b; Baba Bathra 14b). However, we need not suppose that any pieces of the first set of tablets were preserved and included alongside the restored tablets within the Ark or that two Arks were made to house two sets of stones.
The Aim of the Ark
The aim of the Ark, simply put, was to manifest God on earth. This is seen by the various terms used of the Ark, such as “the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth” ( Joshua 3:13), “the ark of the God of Israel” (1 Samuel 5:7), “the ark of the Lord GOD” (1 Kings 2:26), and “the holy ark” (2 Chronicles 35:3). God could only dwell with man on the basis of a covenant, and this is also reflected by other names the Ark bore: “the ark of the testimony” (Exodus 25:22) and “the ark of the covenant of the LORD”(Numbers 10:33; Judges 20:27). The law forbids the making of images of God, so the next best thing would be something that presented God’s nature without form. The glory cloud (called in later Jewish literature the Shekinah) confirmed God’s presence for a time, but the tablets of the law within the Ark revealed God through His word for all time. Conservative scholars on the subject of the Ark have made the point well:
What would have been better adapted to make the presence of God felt as a reality than the stone tablets with the Ten Words, through which the Lord had made known to His people His ethical character? For the words on these tablets were a kind of spiritual portrait of the God of Israel, who could not be pictured in bodily form, but whose living, holy presence was a vital element in His people’s daily life.
Perhaps for this reason they were said to have been “written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18; 32:15-16; 34:1,28; Deuteronomy 9:10). Therefore, more than any other communication from God to men, the tablets were direct evidence of God and of His relationship to Israel.
Thus far, we have seen that the Ark represented God’s powerful presence among His chosen people. Enthroned above the guardian cherubim, His feet symbolically rested on the Ark, His footstool. In this way the God of Israel maintained His faithfulness to His covenant with the nation, deposited within the Ark. The objects that attended the Ark rehearsed both the tragedy of judgment and triumph of grace. The tablets of the law and the Torah scroll remained a perpetual witness against the nation’s tendency to depart from the provisions of the covenant. The mercy seat provided a way for a holy God to live in the midst of an unholy people. By the atonement made there, God cleansed the national sins of Israel and sanctified them for renewed service as a priestly nation. With this understanding of the purpose of the Ark, let us examine its extraordinary activity within Israel.
The Activities of the Ark
The Ark performed a number of different functions at the same time. These activities related first to God’s people and then to other peoples in their association with Israel. In 1 Samuel 6:10–7:2 this association is negative: Those at war with Israel capture the Ark and experience its destructive power. Nevertheless, in 1 Kings 8:41-43 this association is positive, as those outside Israel pray toward the Temple, which houses the Ark. This is important to observe, for if the Ark has a prophetic destiny, it will have it first with respect to the Jewish people but also to Gentiles as well. What are some of these functions of the Ark that have made it the mystery of the ages?
A Passageway of Power
First and foremost, the Ark served as a conduit to channel the power of God among His people. It was an extension of God wherever it went. We see this demonstrated when the Ark was brought into the Jordan River and the waters immediately parted while the Israelites crossed ( Joshua 3:8–4:11). In this way, God showed that He was with this new generation of Jews as He had been with their fathers at the crossing of the Red Sea. We see this again at Jericho when the Ark led the way in the supernatural destruction of that city ( Joshua 6:6-21). Likewise, whenever the Ark was brought onto the field of battle, both Israel and its enemies attributed the outcome to the Ark (Numbers 14:44; 1 Samuel 4:8,17-22; 5:2-12; 2 Samuel 11:11).
God’s power as mediated through the Ark could be either for cursing or for blessing. People who treated the Ark without regard to God’s specific commandments concerning its use were cursed. Therefore, when the men of Beth-shemesh lined up to peer into the uncovered Ark (1 Samuel 6:19), or when Uzzah reached out to steady the improperly transported Ark (2 Samuel 6:6-7), the result was instant death. On the other hand, when those such as Abinadab (1 Samuel 7:1-2) or Obed-edom (2 Samuel 6:11-12) properly cared for the Ark at their homes, God blessed them.
A Focal Point of Prayer
The divine presence dwelt tangibly with Israel through the Ark. It represented the point of contact between heaven and earth where God would meet with man. With this understanding, the medieval Jewish legal expert Rambam, in the introduction to his Terumah, stated that the Ark was “the focus of all their [Israel’s] prayers.” In support of this Rambam cites 2 Chronicles 6:32-33 (see 1 Kings 8:42-43). In King Solomon’s prayer of dedication at the installation of the Ark into the First Temple, he asked that when people prayed toward the Temple, that God would hear from heaven, His dwelling place, and act upon the requests. Rambam apparently recognized the Ark as a place where heaven met earth, where prayer gained an audience with the Almighty in His heavenly Temple. For this reason, many of the rabbis believed that the celestial Temple was spatially situated directly above the Jerusalem Temple. Therefore, at this one site on earth, the two spheres of the temporal and the eternal were joined at the Ark. If prayers coming from any place on earth were directed toward Jerusalem, they were guaranteed an audience (see 1 Kings 8:47; 2 Chronicles 6:38; Daniel 6:10).
A Gateway to God
Just as the Ark channeled God’s power and assured answered prayer, so it also revealed His will. As a veritable “gateway to God,” the Ark was a means by which God guided His people. In Exodus 25:22, God told Moses that He would meet with him at the Ark and speak to him there. English translations of the Hebrew term used for the tent where Moses went for these divine encounters have varied. Christian versions usually emphasize the aspect of appointment in their rendering of this word as “tent of meeting.” Jewish versions, on the other hand, have focused on the aspect of the speaking and so translate the word as “communion tent.” Numbers 7:89 depicts Moses coming to the Ark to receive instruction for Israel and hearing the voice of God speaking from between the cherubim. For this reason, some have called the Ark a “divination or oracle box.”
Some scholars have suggested that later God revealed the future to high priests who approached the Ark with their ephod, breastplate, and the Urim and Thummim. Perhaps the reason that the heads of tribes and the Levites assembled before Joshua and Eleazar the high priest at Shiloh for a divine decision was that the Ark was stationed there (Joshua 21:1-2). In the days of the Judges, the Ark was apparently used for this purpose, for Judges 20:27 notes, “The sons of Israel inquired of the LORD (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days).” In addition, when the boy Samuel was sleeping near the Ark, God summoned and spoke to him (1 Samuel 3:3-21).
We should probably not consider this function of the Ark to be a primary function because Exodus 25:22 does not indicate that meeting to hear God speaking would be a regular activity. More likely, this might have been simply a promise that God would speak to Moses after the dedication of the Tabernacle as a one-time event, as a climax to the ceremonies. If this was so, then Numbers 7:89 would be the fulfillment of that promise and not an example of a typical meeting. However, even if this were a singular event, the tent of meeting and the Ark served as a rallying point for the people, where they met to receive divine revelation as mediated by Moses or by the high priest (1 Samuel 3:1,21). In this way, then, the Ark functioned as a conduit of communication.
God in a Box?
So when we get to the bottom of this box we call the Ark, we have really discovered the greatest treasure of all—God. Imagine, God in a box! In saying this, let us be careful to point out that God was never contained in the Ark. King Solomon made this clear in 1 Kings 8:27, when he acknowledged, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!” Solomon was quite aware that when his prayers were directed to the Ark, God would hear in His dwelling place in heaven (1 Kings 8:30). Therefore, while God in His omnipresence filled both heaven and earth (see Isaiah 66:1) and remained in His heavenly Temple (see Psalm 11:4; 20:6), the Ark was the means by which God manifested His presence on earth. Whether or not the Jewish people were conscious of this theological distinction, all were quite aware that God’s presence attended the Ark!
The presence of God with the Ark and the Ark’s concealment created an aura of mystery around this sacred object. This mystery was magnified by the terrible stories of the awesome power that appeared to accompany the Ark into battle and of the quick deaths of those who violated the commandment against touching it. As a result, after the Ark had disappeared, its history became embellished by myth and legend. While the legends have made stories of the Ark more entertaining for fantasy writers and movie producers, we should see the Ark as it really is. Therefore, come with me into the next chapter as we separate fable from fact in our search for the Ark.
Excerpted from Searching for the Ark of the Covenant by Randall Price. Copyright © 2005 by World of the Bible Ministries. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.