The meaning of Ark Of The Covenant in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
kuv'-e-nant ('aron ha-berith):
I. The Statements of the Old Testament Concerning the Ark of the Covenant.
In Exodus 25:10 ff., Moses receives the command to build an ark of acacia wood. Within this ark were to be placed the tables of the law which God was about to give to Moses. Upon the top of the ark, probably not as a lid but above the lid, the kapporeth, in the New Testament to hilasterion (Hebrews 9:5), is to be placed, which was a golden plate upon which two cherubim, with raised wings and facing each other, covered the ark. From the place between the two cherubim God promises to speak to Moses, as often as He shall give him commands in reference to the Israelites.
The portion of the Pentateuch in which this is recorded is taken from the so-called Priest Codex (P). The reports of the Elohist (E) and the Jahwist (Jahwist) on this subject are wanting; but both of these sources report concerning the important role which the ark played in the entrance of Israel into Canaan, and these documents too must have contained the information that the people had received this ark. It can further with certainty be stated concerning the Elohist, and with some probability concerning the Jahwist, in what part of these documents these accounts were to be found. For Elohist reports in Exodus 33:6 that the Israelites, in order to demonstrate their repentance on account of the golden calf, had at God's command laid aside their ornaments. In Exodus 33:7-10 there follows a statement concerning the erection of the sacred tent; but this is explained only by the fact that between Exodus 33:6 and 7 a report concerning the erection of the ark of the covenant must have been found, which the R of the Pentateuch (since before this he had already made use of the much more exhaustive account of the Priest Codex) was compelled to omit. But that at this place the Elohist must have reported not only concerning the erection of the sacred tent but also of the construction of the ark of the covenant, is in itself probable, and can too be concluded from this, that according to the Deuteronomist, the composition of which is also conditioned upon that of the Elohist and the Jahwist, the ark was built on this occasion. We further conclude that it was not so much the tabernacle which could serve as a consolation to the people, something that at that time they needed, but rather the ark, which was to symbolize to them that God was on the march with them. In the Jahwist we do not indeed find at this place any statement concerning this sacred structure, but we do find the statement that the Israelites, out of sorrow because of the bad news brought by Moses, discarded their ornaments. For Exodus 33:4 is taken from the Jahwist, since the Elohist contains the command to discard the ornaments later on, and hence could not have written Exodus 33:4. Now it is a justifiable surmise that the Jahwist has also reported what use was made of the ornaments that had been discarded; and as this author, just as is the case with the Elohist, must have at some place contained a report concerning the construction of the ark, he certainly must have given this just at this place. The corresponding account in the Deuteronomist is found in Deuteronomy 10:1-5. Accordingly, then, all the four Pentateuch documents reported that Moses had built the ark at Sinai. The Deuteronomist, like the Priestly Code (P), says, that it was built of acacia wood. In the Elohistic narrative the subject is mentioned again in Numbers 10:33 ff., where we read that the ark had preceded the people as they broke camp and marched from Sinai. At this place too the words are found which Moses was accustomed to speak when the ark began to move out and when it arrived at a halting-place.
According to the narrative in Jos. 3 the ark cooperated at the crossing of the Jordan in such a way that the waters of the river ceased to continue flowing as soon as the feet of the priests who were carrying the ark entered the water, and that it stood still above until these priests, after the people had crossed over, again left the bed of the river with the ark. In the account of the solemn march around Jericho, which according to Jos. 6 caused the walls of the city to fall, the carrying of the ark around the city is regarded as an essential feature in Joshua 6:4, Joshua 6:7, Joshua 6:11. In chapter 7 it is narrated that Joshua, after the defeat of the army before Ai, lamented and prayed before the ark. In chapter 8 this is mentioned in connection with Mount Ebal.
3. Other Historical Books:
At the time of Eli the ark stood in the sanctuary at Shiloh (I Samuel 3:3). From this place it was taken after Israel had been defeated by the Philistines at Ebenezer, in order to assure the help of Yahweh to the people; but, instead of this, the ark fell into the hands of the Philistines (1Sa. 4). But the various misfortunes that now afflicted the Philistines induced these to regard the possession of the ark as a calamity (1Sa. 5) and they sent it back to Israel (1Sa. 6). It was brought first to Bethshemesh in the tribe of Judah, near the borders of the Philistines, and soon after to Kiriath-jearim, about 7.5 miles Northwest of Jerusalem. There the ark remained for years in the house of a man by the name of Abinadab, whose son was its guardian (I Samuel 7:1), until David brought it to Mount Zion, after he had established his camp and court there. He there placed it in a tent prepared for it (2Sa. 6; 1Ch. 13; 15). In David's time again the ark was taken along into battle (II Samuel 11:11). When David fled from the presence of Absalom, the priests wanted to accompany him with the ark, but he sent it back (II Samuel 15:24 f.). David had also intended to build a temple, in which the ark was to find its place, since before this it had always found its resting-place in a tent. But God forbade this through Nathan, because He was willing to build a house for David, but was not willing that David should build one for Him (2Sa. 7). Solomon then built the temple and placed the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies of this temple, where it was placed under the wings of two mighty cherubim images (1Ki. 8; 2Ch. 5).
4. Prophetical and Poetical Books:
Jeremiah in the passage Jeremiah 3:16, which certainly was written after the destruction of Jerusalem, states that in the future new Jerusalem nobody will any more concern himself about the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, and no one will again build such a one. In the post-exilic Psa. 132 (verse 8), Yahweh is petitioned to occupy together with the ark, the symbol of His omnipotent presence, also the sanctuary that has been erected for Him, the poet describing himself and those who sing this psalm as participants in the home-bringing of the ark by David. No further mention is made of the ark of the covenant in the Psalter or the prophetical books.
5. The New Testament:
In the New Testament the ark of the covenant is mentioned only in Hebrews 9:4 in the description of the Solomonic temple.
II. The Form of the Ark of the Covenant.
According to the statements in the Priestly Code (P), the ark of the covenant was a chest made out of acacia wood, 2 1/2 cubits (about equal to 4 ft.) long, 1 1/2 cubits wide and 1 1/2 high. That it was made out of acacia wood is also stated by the Deuteronomist in Deuteronomy 10:3. According to P it was covered with gold within and without, and was ornamented with a moulding of gold running all around it. At its four feet rings were added, through which the gold-covere d carrying-staves were put. These staves are also mentioned in I Kings 8:7-8; II Chronicles 5:8-9, and mention is often made of those who carried the ark (II Samuel 6:13; II Samuel 15:24). The correctness of these statements cannot be proved, but yet there is no reason to doubt them. Rather we might have reason to hesitate in clinging to the view that on the old ark there was really a golden kapporeth, but only because in olden times the possession of such valuables and their use for such a purpose would be doubtful. But on the basis of such reasons we could at most doubt whether the lid with its cherubim consisted of solid gold. That the cherubim were attached to or above the ark is not at all improbable. That Solomon placed the ark in the Holy of Holies between two massive cherubim figures (I Kings 6:19, I Kings 6:23 ff.; I Kings 8:6) does not prove that there were no cherubim figures on the ark itself, or even that those cherubim figures, which according to Exodus 25:19 were found on the ark, were nothing else than those of Solomon's days in imagination transferred back to an earlier period (Vatke, Biblische Theologie, 1835, 333; Popper, Der biblische Bericht uber die Stiftshutte, 1862). In recent times the view has been maintained that the ark in reality was no ark at all but an empty throne. It was Reichel, in his work Vorhellenische Gotterkulte, who first expressed this view, and then Meinhold, Die Lade Jahwes, Tubingen, 1910, and Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 1901, 593-617, who developed this view in the following manner. It is claimed that in the days of Moses a throne-like rock at Mount Sinai was regarded as the seat of Yahweh, and when the Israelites departed from Sinai they made for themselves a portable throne, and Yahweh was regarded as sitting visibly enthroned upon this and accompanying His people. In the main the same view was maintained by Martin Dibellius (Die Lade Jahwes, Gottingen, 1906; Hermann Gunkel, Die Lade Jahwes ein Thronsitz, reprinted from the Zeitschrift fur Missionskunde und Religionswissenschaft, Heidelberg, 1906). The occasion for this view was given by the fact that among the Persians and other people there were empty thrones of the gods, which were carried or hauled around in processions. The reasons for finding in the ark of the covenant such an empty throne are found chiefly in this, that the passages in the Old Testament, in which it seems that the presence of God is made conditional on the presence of the ark (compare Numbers 14:42-44), can be explained if the ark is regarded as a throne of Yahweh. However, empty thrones of the gods are found only among the Aryan people, and all of the passages of the Old Testament which refer to the ark can be easily explained without such a supposition. This view is to be rejected particularly for this reason, that in the Old Testament the ark is always described as an ark, and never as a throne or a seat; and because it is absolutely impossible to see what reason would have existed at a later period to state that it was an ark if it had originally been a throne. Dibelius and Gunkel appeal also particularly to this, that in several passages, of which I Samuel 4:4; II Samuel 6:2 are the oldest, Yahweh is declared to be enthroned on the cherubim. But this proves nothing, because He is not called "He who is enthroned on the ark," and the cherubim and the ark are two different things, even if there were cherubim on the lid of the ark. Compare the refutation of Meinhold and Dibelius by Budde (ZATW, 1901, 193-200, and Theol. Studien und Kritiken, 1906, 489-507).
III. The Contents of the Ark of the Covenant.
According to the Priestly Code the two tables of the law constituted the contents of the ark. In Exodus 25:16; Exodus 40:20, as also Deuteronomy 10:5, and, too, in I Kings 8:9, we have the same testimony. The majority of the modern critics regard this as an unhistorical statement first concocted by.the so-called "Deuteronomistic school." Their reasons for this are the following: (1) The critics deny that the existence of the Mosaic tables of the law is a historical fact; (2) The critics declare that if these tables had really been in possession of the Israelites, they would not have been so foolish as to put them into a box which it was forbidden to open; (3) The critics declare that the views entertained in olden times on the importance of the ark cannot be reconciled with the presence of the tables in the ark. But we reply: (1) that the actual existence of the two tables of the law is denied without sufficient reasons; that the ten principal formulas of the Decalogue, as these are given in Exo. 20 and Deu. 5, come from Moses, must be insisted upon, and that according to Exo. 34 other ten commandments had been written on these tables is incorrect. The laws in Exodus 34:17-26 are not at all declared there to be the ten words which God intended to write upon the tables. But if Moses had prepared the tables for the commandments, then it is (2) only probable that he caused to be made a suitable chest for their preservation and their transportation through the desert. Now it might be thought that the view that the ark was so holy that it dared not be opened had originated only after the time of Moses. However, it is just as easily possible, that that importance had already been assigned by Moses to the tables in the ark which the sealed and carefully preserved copy of a business agreement would have and which is to be opened only in case of necessity (Jeremiah 32:11-14). Such a case of necessity never afterward materialized, because the Israelites were never in doubt as to what was written on these tables. On a verbatim reading no stress was laid in olden times. (3) With regard to the importance of the ark according to the estimate placed upon it in the earlier period of Israel, we shall see later that the traditions in reference to the tables harmonize fully with this importance.
Of the modern critics who have rejected this tradition, some have thought that the ark was empty, and that the Israelites thought that Yahweh dwelt in it (Guthe, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, 39), or that the empty chest was a kind of fetish (Schwally, Semitische Kriegsaltertumer, 1901, I, 10). As a rule they believe that a stone image of Yahweh or two stones had been placed in the ark, these being possibly meteor stones, in which it was thought that some divine power was dwelling (Stade, Geschichte Israels, I, 458); or possibly stones that in some battle or other had been hurled and through which a victory had been won (Couard, ZATW, XII, 76); or possibly they were the stones which at the alliance of the tribes that dwelt about Mount Sinai were first set up as testimonials of this covenant (Kraetzschmar, Die Bundesvorstellung im Alten Testament, 216). Of these views only the one which declares that the ark contained meteor stones deserves any notice, because it could indeed be thought possible that Israel would have taken with them on their journey through the desert such stones which they could have regarded as pledges of the Divine Presence fallen from heaven and could have preserved these in a sacred ark. But it is impossible to show that this view is probable, not to speak of proving it to be correct. The only extant tradition says that the ark contained the tables of the law, and this is the only view that is in harmony with what we must think of the whole work of Moses. Finally we must again remember that it is probable that Elohist and Jahwist, who speak both of the ark and also of the tables of the law, in the portions of these documents which have not been preserved, reported also that the tables were placed in the ark.
IV. The Names of the Ark of the Covenant.
The name "ark of the covenant of Yahweh" was not originally found everywhere where it now stands, but in many places the words "of the covenant" were added later. However, the expression "ark of the covenant" is found in the oldest source of the Book of Sam (II Samuel 15:24), and in I Kings 3:15 in the old source for the history of Solomon, of which the Deuteronomistic author of the Book of Kings made use; in I Kings 8:1, a very old account of the building of the temple; and the genuineness of the expression "ark of the covenant" in these passages is not with any good reasons to be called into question. Further the expression is found in the books of Numbers and Joshua, in a number of passages (Numbers 10:33; Numbers 14:44; Joshua 3:3, Joshua 3:6, Joshua 3:8; Joshua 4:9, Joshua 4:18; Joshua 6:6, Joshua 6:8), which in all probability belong to the document of Elohist. It appears that the Elohist designates the ark as the "ark of the covenant of God," or more briefly; as the "ark of the covenant," unless in a connected narrative he writes only " the ark," while in the Jahwist the principal appellation was "ark of Yahweh, the Lord of the whole earth" (compare Lotz, Die Bundeslade, 1901, 30-36). From this we must conclude that the appellation "ark of the covenant of Yahweh" must go back to very ancient times, and we must reject the view that this term took the place of the term "ark of Yahweh" in consequence of a change of views with reference to the ark, brought about through Deuteronomy. Indeed, since the name "ark of the covenant," as is proved by the Elohist, was nowhere mor e in use than in Ephraim, where they did not possess the ark and accordingly would have had the least occasion to introduce a new name for it, it can be accepted that the name originated in the oldest times, namely those of Moses. The other expression "ark of Yahweh" may be just as old and need not be an abbreviation of the other. It was possible to designate the ark as "ark of Yahweh" because it was a sanctuary belonging to Yahweh; and it was possible to call it also "the ark of the covenant of Yahweh," because it was a monument and evidence of the covenant which Yahweh had made with Israel. It is for this reason not correct to translate the expression 'aron berith Yahweh by "the ark of the law of Yahweh," as equivalent to "the ark which served as a place for preserving the law of the covenant." For berith does not signify "law," even if it was possible under certain circumstances to call a covenant "law" figuratively and synecdochically the "covenant"; and when I Kings 8:21 speaks of "the ark wherein is the covenant of Yahweh," the next words, "which he made with our fathers," show that covenant does not here mean "law," but rather the covenant relationship which in a certain sense is embodied in the tables.
In P the ark is also called "the ark of the testimony," and this too does not signify "ark of the law." For not already in P but only in later documents did the word 'edhuth receive the meaning of "law" (Lotz, Die Bundeslade, 40). P means by "testimony" the Ten Words, through the proclamation of which the true God has given evidence of His real essence. But where this testimony is found engraved in the handwriting of God on the tables of stone, just there also is the place where He too is to be regarded as locally present.
V. The History of the Ark of the Covenant.
According to the tradition contained in the Pentateuch the sacred ark was built at Mount Sinai and was taken by the Israelites along with them to Canaan. This must be accepted as absolutely correct. The supposition is groundless, that it was a shrine that the Israelites had taken over from the Canaanites. This view is refuted by the high estimate in which in Eli's time the ark was held by all Israel (1Sa. 1 ff.; I Samuel 2:22); and especially by the fact that the ark was at that time regarded as the property of that God who had brought Israel out of Egypt, and accordingly had through this ark caused the Canaanites to be conquered (I Samuel 4:8; I Samuel 6:6; II Samuel 7:6; I Kings 12:28). The opinion also that the ark was an ancient palladium of the tribe of Ephraim or of the descendants of Joseph and was only at a later period recognized by all Israel (Stade, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, I, 458) is not tenable, for we hear nothing to the effect that the descendants of Joseph concerned themselves more for the ark than the other tribes did. In the time of Eli the ark stood in the sanctuary at Shiloh. When Israel had been conquered by the Philistines, the ark was taken from Shiloh in order that Yahweh should aid His people. But notwithstanding this the Philistines yet conquered and captured the ark (1Sa. 5). But the many misfortunes that overtook them made them think that the possession of the ark was destructive to them and they sent it back (1Sa. 6). The ark first came to Bethshemesh, in the tribe of Judah, and then to Kiriath-jearim (or Baale-judah, II Samuel 6:2), about 7.5 miles Northwest of Jerusalem. There the ark remained for many years until David, after he had taken possession of Mount Zion, took it there (2Sa. 6) and deposited it in a tent. Solomon brought it into the Holy of Holies in the temple (I Kings 8:3-8), where in all probability it remained until the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar; for Jeremiah 3:16 proves that the Israelites felt that they were in possession of the ark up to this time.
VI. The Significance of the Ark.
According to many investigators the ark was originally a war sanctuary. In favor of this it can be urged that Israel took it into their camp, in order that they might receive the help of Yahweh in the battle with the Philistines (1Sa. 4); and further that also in the time of David the ark was again taken along into battle (II Samuel 11:11; compare Psa. 24); note also the word of Moses, which he spoke when the ark was taken up to be carried: "Rise up, O Yahweh, and let thine enemies be scattered" (Numbers 10:35). However, nothing of what we know or presuppose concerning the form and the contents of the ark points to an original military purpose of the same; and in the other statements that are found elsewhere concerning the ark, a much more general significance is assigned to it. The significance which the ark had for the Israelites in connection with their wars is only the outcome of its signification as the symbol of the presence of Yahweh, who was not at all a God of war, but when His people were compelled to fight was their helper in the struggle.
A Symbol of the Divine Presence:
That the ark was designed to be a symbol of the presence of God in the midst of His people is the common teaching of the Old Testament. According to the Elohist the ark was made to serve as a comfort to the people for this, that they were to leave the mountain where God had caused them to realize His presence (Exodus 30:6). According to the Priestly Code (P), God purposed to speak with Moses from the place between the cherubim upon the ark. According to Judges 2:1 ff., the angel of Yahweh spoke in Bethel (Bochim) in reproof and exhortation to the people, after the ark of the covenant had been brought to that place; for the comparison of Numbers 10:33 ff. and Exodus 23:20 ff. shows that Judges 2:1 is to be understood as speaking of the transfer of the ark to Bethel. When Israel in the time of Eli was overpowered by the Philistines, the Israelites sent for the ark, in order that Yahweh should come into the camp of Israel, and this was also believed to be the case by the Philistines (I Samuel 4:3 ff.). After the ark had come to Bethshemesh and a pestilence had broken out there, the people did not want to keep the ark, because no one could live in the presence of Yahweh, this holy God (I Samuel 6:20); and Jeremiah says (Jeremiah 3:16-17) that an ark of the covenant would not be again made after the restoration of Israel, but then Jerusalem would be called the "throne of Yahweh," i.e. it would so manifestly be the city of God that it would guarantee the presence of God at least just as much as the ark formerly did.
In olden times these things appeared more realistic to the people than they do to us; and when the ark was considered the visible representation of the presence of Yahweh, and as guaranteeing His presence, a close material connection was thought to exist between the ark and Yahweh, by virtue of which Divine powers were also thought to be present in the ark. The people at Bethshemesh were not willing to keep the ark any longer in their midst, because they could not live in its near presence. David's dancing before the ark is regarded by him and by the narrator of the event as a dancing before the Lord (II Samuel 6:5, II Samuel 6:14, II Samuel 6:21), and in II Samuel 7:5 ff. God says, through Nathan, that He had wandered around in a tent since He had led the Israelites out of Egypt.
But the view advocated by some of the modern critics, that the Israelites had thought that the ark was the dwelling-place or the throne-seat of Yahweh, is nevertheless not correct. This opinion cannot be harmonized with this fact, that in the sources, dating from the same olden times, mention is made of His dwelling in many places in Canaan and outside of Canaan, so that the idea that His presence or even He Himself is confined to the ark is impossible. The statement of Moses, "Rise up, O Yahweh, and let thine enemies be scattered" (Numbers 10:35), is not the command addressed to those who carry the ark to lift it up and thereby to lift Yahweh up for the journey, but is a demand made upon Yahweh, in accordance with His promise, to go ahead of Israel as the ark does. According to I Samuel 4:3 the Israelites did not say "We want to go and get Yahweh," but "We want to go and get the ark of Yahweh, so that He may come into our midst." They accordingly only wanted to induce Him to come by getting the ark. This, too, the priests and the soothsayers of the Philistines say: "Do not permit the ark of the God of the Israelites to depart without sending a gift along," but they do not speak thus of Yahweh. That Samuel, who slept near the ark, when he was addressed by Yahweh, did not at all at first think that Yahweh was addressing him, proves that at that time the view did not prevail that He was in the ark or had His seat upon it. Ancient Israel was accordingly evidently of the conviction that the ark was closely connected with Yahweh, that something of His power was inherent in the ark; consequently the feeling prevailed that when near the ark they were in a special way in the presence of and near to the Lord. But this is something altogether different from the opinion that the ark was the seat or the dwelling-place of Yahweh. Even if the old Israelites, on account of the crudeness of antique methods of thought, were not conscious of the greatness of this difference, the fact that this difference was felt is not a matter of doubt. That the ark was built to embody the presence of God among His people is just as clear from the statements of the Elohist, and probably also of the Jahwist, as it is from those of the Priestly Code (P); and if these have accordingly regarded the tables of the law as constituting the contents of the ark, then this is in perfect harmony with their views of this purpose, and we too must cling to these same views. For what would have been better adapted to make the instrument which represents the presence of God more suitable for this than the stone tables with the Ten Words, through which Yahweh had made known to His people His ethical character? For this very purpose it had to be an ark. The words on these tables were a kind of a spiritual portrait of the God of Israel, who could not be pictured in a bodily form. In this shape nobody in ancient Israel has formulated this thought, but that this thought was present is certain.
DISCLAIMER: Church of the Great God (CGG) provides these resources to aid the individual in studying the Bible. However, it is up to the individual to "prove all things, and hold fast to that which is good" (I Thessalonians 5:21). The content of these resources does not necessarily reflect the views of CGG. They are provided for information purposes only.