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Ark of the Covenant

ARK OF THE COVENANT (אֲרֹ֣ון הַבְּרִ֔ית, ἡ κιβωτὸ̀ς τῆς διαθήκης; the chest of the testament). A wooden container, the central object in Israel’s preexilic sanctuary.

I. Name

The Heb. noun אֲרﯴן, H778, is used 195 times in the OT for the Ark of the covenant.

A. Chest. In itself, אֲרﯴן, H778, means box or chest; e.g., a money chest (2 Kings 12:9, 10; 2 Chron 24:8-11) or even a coffin (Gen 50:26), suggesting from the outset the Ark’s primary function as a container (see below, III-A).

B. Attributed qualities. The OT further identifies the Ark under two significant types of attributive phrases:

1. Of deity. Because of its close association with deity, the אֲרﯴן, H778, is called “the ark of God” thirty-four times (1 Sam 3:3, et al.). Psalm 132:8 speaks of it as “the ark of thy might,” Heb. עֹז, H6437; hence when Psalm 78:60, 61 refers to God’s “power [עֹז, H6437]” and His “glory” as “delivered to captivity” at Shiloh, such terminology would identify the Ark. Other attempts, however (e.g., IDB, I, 225, 226), to discover the Ark concealed within references to God’s might (cf. Pss. 96:6; 105:4) seem far-fetched, except as these latter vv. were later quoted by David when bringing the Ark to Jerusalem (1 Chron 16:27 and 11). Because it reveals the presence of deity, thirty-one times the Ark is called the ark of the covenant of Yahweh [the Lord]” (Deut 10:8, etc.), the name which means “I am” (Exod 3:14, cf. vv. 12, 17), which in turn suggests the phrase.

2. Of redemption. Most significant is the title, “ark of the covenant” (Josh 3:6, etc., five times) or “ark of the covenant of Yahweh” (Num 10:33; Josh 3:3; etc., twenty-seven times; cf. Josh 3:11; Judg 20:27). The Ark contained the two tables of The Decalogue, q.v., which constituted the documentary basis of God’s redemptive covenant with Israel (Exod 34:28, 29); cf. Moses’ stress upon the written form of God’s pledge to save His own people, and of their required response in belief and obedience (24:4, 7). Moreover, since this redemption involved the life blood of the Redeemer (24:8), the NT speaks appropriately of the death of the One who makes the “will” (διαθήκη, G1347, “testament,” Heb 9:16-18 RSV) and hence of the “ark of his testament” (Rev 11:19 KJV). Some modern critics have sought to eliminate as redactional interpolations all the earlier OT references to this covenant or testament (HDB, I, 149); but, though missing from certain LXX vv. in 1 Samuel (e.g., 3:3-5), the term appears in indisputably ancient passages, both MT and LXX (e.g., Num 10:33; 14:44; 2 Sam 15:24). A corresponding early title appears fourteen times in the phrase, “ark of the testimony” (Heb. עֵדוּת, H6343, “sign,” “reminder,” Exod 25:22 etc.). עֵדוּת, H6343, denotes the two stone tables (31:18; 32:15) placed within the Ark (25:16, 21) as evidence of the redemptive testament (cf. the interchange of testimony and covenant [Exod 31:18; Deut 9:11]). Attempts, therefore, to rule out covenant terminology in favor of some more general title, such as “ark of God,” as original violate the Biblical contexts and rest upon unprovable theories of the evolution of Heb. religion and of conflicting source-strata within the Pentateuch (cf. M. H. Woudstra, The Ark of the Covenant from Conquest to Kingship, 60-83).

II. Form

Ancient analogies to the Ark have been sought in tent-shrines (Morgenstern), model temples (May), chariots for deities (Torczyner), squared thrones (Kristensen), or even conffins for the gods (Hartmann); but Scripture describes the ’ārōn (Exod 25:10-16; Deut 10:1, 2) as a vessel “unique in the ancient Near East...the repository of the covenant-tables” (K. A. Kitchen, NBD, p. 82).

A. Specifications. The Ark’s pattern, as revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai, appears in Exodus 25:10-22.

1. Body. Made of acacia (Heb. שִׁטִּֽים) wood, the Ark was rectangular, two and one-half cubits long (3 3/4 ft.) and one and one-half cubits (2 1/4 ft.) wide and high (v. 10). Gold plated inside and out, with a gold molding (KJV crown; Heb. זֵר, H2425, “border,” v. 11), it was supported by four ft., each with a golden ring (v. 12), into which carrying poles of gold plated acacia wood were permanently inserted (vv. 13-15).

2. Cover. The “mercy seat,” literally, כַּפֹּ֫רֶת, H4114, ἱλαστήριον, G2663, “place of propitiatory atonement,” was a covering plate of pure gold that corresponded to the dimentions of the Ark (3 3/4 x 2 1/4 ft., v. 17). At its two ends and facing each other were two hammered gold cherubim, q.v., with wings overshadowing the plate and with their faces toward it (vv. 18-20, Heb 9:5). The cherubim (angels) were presumably human in appearance (cf. Ezek 1:5), not pagan sphinxes forming a throne (as suggested in BA, 1:1 [1938], 10:3 [1947]); they conveyed the idea of heavenly majesty (Ezek 1:10).

B. Construction. The Ark was built by Bezalel and Oholiab (Exod 31:6, 7; 37:1-9), assisted by other skilled Israelites (36:8), on Moses’ orders (Deut 10:3). It was to be set within the veil in the most holy place of the Tabernacle (Exod 26:33), the mercy seat placed upon it (v. 34), and anointed with the rest of the Tabernacle (30:26). Facing both the Ark and the veil stood the altar of incense (v. 27; 30:6), though this latter came, in time, to be more closely associated with the Ark’s own inner sanctum (1 Kings 8:22). Modern scholars increasingly grant that an ark of some sort may go back to the time of Moses (IDB, I, 225); but many would still insist on the Ark’s tradition as totally separated from that of the Tabernacle (cf. G. Von Rad, OT Theology, I, 235).

III. Function

Like the Tabernacle of which it was a part, the Ark’s form was derived from that meaningful pattern which was revealed to Moses upon the Mount (Exod 25:9, 40); it was an embodiment of covenantal redemption ordained in heaven (Heb 8:5). Furthermore, while its dependence upon the concept of the covenant insured unity for the intended functions of the Ark, salvation’s richness belies Von Rad’s insistence that it is “inconceivable that the throne should also have at the same time served as a container” (ibid., I, 238). Like sacraments today, it could both contain memorials to past redemption and also mediate God’s grace to the present.

A. Container. The initially declared purpose of the עֵדוּת, H6343, chest, was to hold the “testimony” to God’s salvation (Exod 25:16). Specifically, this meant (Deut 10:5):

1. The decalogue. The stone tables of “the covenant of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:21) continued to stay in the Ark. Later Moses’ full “book of the law” was placed “by the side of the ark of the covenant” (Deut 31:26); hence there is a possible connection between the recovery of the lost law book in the days of Josiah and the restoration at that time of the Ark to its proper place in the Temple (2 Chron 34:14; 35:3).

2. Manna and rod. Upon Moses’ orders, Aaron put an omer (c. two quarts) of manna in a jar and placed it “before the Lord...before the testimony” (Exod 16:33, 34), though actually done later (KD, Pentateuch, II, 74), as a memorial to God’s provision. Hebrews 9:4 adds that, with the passage of time, the golden jar came to rest inside the Ark. After the revolts of Korah and his associates, when God vindicated the authority of Moses and Aaron by causing the latter’s rod to bud forth buds and almonds, God told Moses also to put this rod “before the testimony, to be kept as a sign...[against] murmurings” (Num 17:10). Although it came to reside within the Ark (Heb 9:4), only the two tables were to be found there by the time of Solomon (1 Kings 8:9).

B. Sacrament. Beyond containing memorials to what God had already done, the Ark served as well as a sacramental sign of His continuing covenantal activity.

1. Theophany. As God had appeared upon Mt. Sinai, so He promised that His visible presence would abide with His people when they resumed their migration. The glory cloud in which He had wrought deliverance at the Exodus (Exod 13:21; 14:19, 20) would regularly appear between the wings of the cherubim over the mercy seat of the Ark (25:22; cf. 40:34; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 80:1). The Ark thus became more than a mere symbol or pledge of God’s presence; it became a “chariot” (1 Chron 28:18) for real theophanies, paralleling the function of the actual angelic cherubim (Ps 18:10). To be “before the ark” was equivalent to being “before Yahweh” (Num 10:35; Josh 6:8). On the other hand, one cannot identify Yahweh with the Ark (cf. W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT, I, 105), which would be crass idolatry, or confine Him to it as His abode (R. H. Pfeiffer, JBL 45 [1926], 220) or throne (Eichrodt, op. cit., I, 108). Yahweh existed prior to the Ark, voluntarily initiated its construction, and graciously chose to appear over this “footstool” (1 Chron 28:2). He continued to exist apart from the Ark, despite the above mentioned recent interpretations (IDB, I, 225); for “before Yahweh” need not imply “before the ark” (1 Sam 7:2, 6). Finally, He could exist in open opposition to the Ark and repudiate it (4:3-11): its sacramental value was temporary and ceased when Israel lapsed into the error of those who consider it “a vessel which guarantees the presence of God” (L. Köhler, OT Theology, 121, 122). Yet, when approached in the proper spirit, the institution of the Ark is found to correspond to that of the Lord’s Supper: as a seal of “participation,” communion, with His contemporary presence in the sanctuary (1 Cor 10:16), and as a type of His ultimate presence in heaven (Heb 8:5; 9:24).

2. Revelation. The God who is present is also the God who speaks and acts. He had from the outset promised to communicate His specific laws to Moses “from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark” (Exod 25:22). The first such revelation proved to be the Book of Leviticus (1:1), and God continued to address Moses in an audible voice from above the mercy seat (Num 7:89). Answers to inquiries were granted to Aaron, as the one who wore the Urim and Thummim, q.v., the “lights and perfections” (Num 27:21), presumably the high-priestly breastplate with its stones that sparkled in the presence of the Ark’s glory cloud (Lev 16:2).

3. Providence. Even without such inquiry, however, God acted through the Ark, for the guidance and the protection of His people. His lifting up of the cloud became the signal for Israel’s wilderness advance (Num 10:11; see below, IV-A), and it was the Ark that went before the tribes “to seek out a resting place for them” (v. 33). God’s presence became also a means for scattering the nation’s enemies (v. 35); cf. the Ark’s functioning as a palladium at Jericho (see below, IV-B) and being designated by the name of Yahweh of Hosts, q.v. (or armies, 2 Sam 6:2, of Israel, 1 Sam 17:45). Yet Morgenstern’s attempt to identify the Ark with Arab tent-shrines (see below, Bibliography), regularly carried into battle and assigned certain oracular functions, appears ill-advised, for the Ark’s use in battle seems to have been exceptional.

4. Atonement. Once every year, however, the Ark achieved its ultimate sacramental significance in the Day of Atonement service, q.v. (Lev 16:2). After insuring his personal safety through a protecting cloud of incense before it (v. 13), Aaron would sprinkle the Ark’s cover, or mercy seat, seven times: first with the blood of a bull, slain as a sin offering for himself, and then with that of a goat for the people (vv. 14, 15), so as to cleanse Israel “from all [its] sins...before the Lord” (v. 30). In pictorial fashion, grace (the blood of the testament) thus became an intervening cover between the holiness of God (the glory cloud) and the verdict of divine justice upon the conduct of man (the Decalogue underneath); see Atonement.

IV. History

A. Wilderness. The components of the Ark were brought to Moses at Mt. Sinai at the beginning of the second year of the Exodus (Exod 39:35; 40:17).

1. Inauguration. After he had erected the Tabernacle, Moses assembled the Ark and placed it within the sanctuary (40:21, 22); the cloud of God’s glory then filled the Tabernacle (v. 34). Moses appointed the Kohathite Levites, under Aaron’s son Eleazar, to be responsible for the Ark (Num 3:31, 32; cf. Deut 9:25). Before it should move, however, the priests were always to cover it with the inner veil, a skin covering, and a blue cloth (Num 4:5, 6); and the Kohathites could not touch the Ark itself, on pain of death (v. 15).

2. Journeys. Seven weeks later God’s cloud arose (10:11) and Israel departed from Sinai. While the Tabernacle as a whole occupied a central spot in the column (2:17), the Ark preceded it by three days’ journey, serving as a guide for Israel’s camping sites (10:33). Jewish tradition has indeed assumed two arks, one for the broken stone tables, which then preceded the main body (Woudstra, op. cit., 91, 96-99); but Deuteronomy 10:1 appears to summarize the making of the one Ark and not to suggest a second, constructed after the golden calf incident. Formal prayers accompanied each journeying and resting of the Ark: “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered...Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel” (Num 10:35, 36). Far from demonstrating an idolatrous identification of Yahweh with the Ark, these prayers actually underline the uncontrollableness, but also the pious hope, of God’s abiding presence. The Ark remained behind, in Israel’s camp at Kadesh, when the presumptuous were defeated at Hormah (14:44, 45). Moses had warned them, “Do not go up...for the Lord is not among you” (v. 42).

B. Conquest.

1. Entrance. On important occasions, such as the entrance into Canaan, the Ark might be carried by priests (Josh 3:3; 4:10; cf. Deut 31:9; 1 Kings 8:3) or as a joint undertaking by priests and Levites (2 Sam 15:24; 1 Chron 15:11, 12). At the very time, therefore, that these priests reached the banks of Jordan, God caused its waters to be stopped up at Adam, q.v. (Josh 3:15, 16). The Ark then led Israel into the stream bed and stood at midpoint until the nation had crossed over (v. 17). It further participated in the fall of Jericho, when for seven days it was carried about this frontier city before Yahweh caused its walls to collapse (6:12-16, 20). Joshua prayed before the Ark during the Ai campaign (7:7).

2. Settlement. The Ark first rested, apparently, within the Tabernacle at Israel’s camp at Gilgal (4:19; 9:6; 14:6); but God later ordained a more central location at Shiloh (18:1; cf. Jer 7:12). It had also been present at Joshua’s renewal of Israel’s covenantal obedience to Yahweh at Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim (Josh 8:33). Though Joshua subsequently summoned a national assembly at nearby Shechem, under an oak that was in “the holy place of Yahweh” (cf. Gen 12:6, 7; 35:2-4), there is no indication that the Ark or Tabernacle was ever located there (מִקְדָּשׁ, H5219, Josh 24:26, is not necessarily “sanctuary,” KD, 233).

C. Judges.

1. Shiloh. In time, a house (Judg 18:31) or “temple” (1 Sam 1:9; 3:3) came to be constructed for the Ark at Shiloh, at which annual pilgrimage feasts centered (Judg 21:19; 1 Sam 1:3). The boy Samuel slept in this temple (1 Sam 3:3), though presumably not in the inner sanctuary where the Ark rested, since he failed to associate the voice that he heard with that of God (v. 7). At some earlier period, as an emergency measure, the Ark was moved S from Shiloh to Bethel on the Benjamite border during the war against Gibeah (Judg 20:26, 27), its theophanic character justifying the offering of sacrifice before it (21:4; cf. Exod 20:24). Evidence is lacking for other claimed transfers of the Ark to other locations, such as to Bochim (Judg 2:1-5, ISBE, I, 245). The commonly expressed critical theory of “lotterybox” arks to be found at numerous local sanctuaries is quite untenable; the unwarrantable assumption is made that later scribes wilfully corrupted the noun אֲרﯴן, H778, into H680, אֵפֹד֒, H680, Ephod, q.v., or אָ֫וֶנ֒, H224, “wickedness” (R. H. Pfeiffer, Religion in the OT, 74).

2. Philistia. The pagan theory of having God “in a box,” as if the presence of the Ark would automatically guarantee salvation (1 Sam 4:3, 7), was dispelled once and for all when the Philistines captured the Ark at the first battle of Ebenezer, c. 1080 b.c. (vv. 10, 11). But while Israel’s loss was dramatically illustrated by the name Ichabod (v. 21)—אִֽי־כָבﯴד׃֙, “no glory”—Philistia learned to its sorrow that God’s כָּבﯴד֒, H3883, literally “weight,” was still associated with the Ark, as He punished their treatment of it with heavy, כָּבְדָ֥ה (5:11), judgments on both their gods and their people.

Finally, after a seven months’ captivity in Ashdod and Ekron (6:1), the Ark was returned to Israel, accompanied by symbolic guilt offerings of gold (v. 11). God’s effective presence was twice more demonstrated, first as He compelled the cows that were hitched to its new wagon to abandon their own calves in order to drag it to Beth-shemesh on the NW border of Judah (v. 12), and then as He struck down seventy of the Beth-shemeshites for irreverently looking inside it (v. 19 RSV). The Ark was thereafter moved ten m. farther inland, to Kiriath-jearim, where a certain Abinadab consecrated his son Eleazar to care for it (7:1). No attempt was made to restore it to the Tabernacle; during the twenty years of his judgeship (v. 2, HDB, I, 399), 1063-1043 b.c., Samuel stressed direct repentance toward God rather than the sacramental Ark, whose presence Israel had abused.

D. Kingdom. Saul generally neglected the Ark (1 Chron 13:3), though he did have it with him and called for it just prior to the battle of Michmash, 1041 b.c. (1 Sam 14:18; “ephod,” LXX).

1. On Zion. David, however, after his capture of Jerusalem in 1003 b.c., had the Ark brought to his new capital (2 Sam 6; 1 Chron 13; 15). Indeed, while the Philistines’ innovation of a cart might be excused through ignorance, the Israelites’ failure to observe the precise Pentateuchal instructions for carrying it could not; and Abinadab’s descendant Uzzah was struck down for his resulting sacrilege, even though well-intentioned (2 Sam 6:6). After a three months’ delay at the house of the Levite Obed-edom (v. 11), the Ark was conducted with joy and sacrifices to a tent, אֹ֔הֶל (v. 17), or booth, סֻכָּה, H6109, (11:11); “lowly abode” (Woudstra, op. cit., 121), with curtains (7:2), that David had temporarily erected for it on Mt. Zion (Pss 3:4; 9:11). The high priest Abiathar was made responsible for the Ark (1 Kings 2:26) and a sacrificial service (1 Chron 16:1), and an organization of Levitical singers and doorkeepers was instituted under Asaph and Obed-edom (6:31-48; 16:4-6, 37, 38). Certain great Psalms seem to have been composed for the occasion and for its subsequent celebration (Pss 24:7-10; 132:8). No hint, however, exists of any annual Babylonian style “enthronement festival” for Yahweh: sentiments such as “God has gone up with a shout” (Ps 47:5) express rather His reign over all the earth (vv. 6, 7; cf. Ps 11:4; Hab 2:20).

Subsequently, during Absalom’s revolt, Zadok and Abiathar sought to bring the Ark to David in his flight from Jerusalem (2 Sam 15:24); but the king refused to treat it as a talisman or palladium, placing instead his trust directly in God (v. 25).

2. On Moriah. While Solomon, too, had sacrifices offered before the Ark in its temporary shelter (1 Kings 3:15), his greatest achievement was to carry out his father’s plans for erecting a permanent Temple (1 Chron 22:19; 28:2, 11, 19) on Mt. Moriah, to the N of Zion (2 Chron 3:1). The Ark with its cherubim cover was placed within the inner sanctuary, or “oracle” (1 Kings 6:19 KJV), overshadowed by two huge, gold-plated, olive wood cherubim, fifteen ft. in height and wingspread (vv. 23-28). Upon its installation, the glory cloud filled the house, just as it had filled the Tabernacle (8:1-11); and Solomon repeated the old wilderness prayer, “Arise, O Lord God, into thy resting place” (2 Chron 6:41). Here the Ark remained, with only its poles visible (5:9). Despite a temporary removal under the apostate King Manasseh (35:3; cf. 33:7), it so remained until its presumed destruction when Nebuchadnezzar burned the Temple in 586 b.c.

E. Later references. The postexilic second Temple had no Ark (Jos. War. V. 5), though today’s Jewish synagogues are equipped with “arks,” located on the side toward Jerusalem and designed to hold the Torah. Even before the fall in 586 b.c., Jeremiah had predicted that in days to come the Ark would no longer be sought (Jer 3:16), because all Jerusalem would eventually become the throne of Yahweh (v. 17), the symbolism of the Ark being replaced by direct faith in God under the new covenant (31:31-34). As the climax to Biblical history, in a vision of the new heavens after God’s final judgment (Rev 11:18), John saw “the ark of his covenant” (v. 19), indicative of the ultimate accomplishment of that testamentary redemption for which it had consistently stood.

Bibliography W. R. Arnold, Ephod and Ark (1917); H. G. May, “The Ark—a Miniature Temple,” AJSL, LII (1936), 215-234; J. Morgenstern, The Ark, the Ephod, and the “Tent of Meeting” (1945); F. M. Cross, “The Tabernacle,” BA, X (1947), 45-68; A. Bentzen, “The Cultic Use of the Story of the Ark in Samuel,” JBL, LXVII (1948), 37-53; N. H. Tur Sinai, “The Ark of God at Beit Shemesh (I Sam. vi) and Perez ’Uzza (II Sam. vi, I Chron. xiii),” VT, I (1951), 275-286; T. Worden, “The Ark of the Covenant,” Scripture, V (1952), 82-90; J. R. Porter, “The Interpretation of 2 Samuel VI and Psalm CXXXII,” JTS, NS, V (1954), 161-173; R. E. Hough, The Ministry of the Glory Cloud (1955); W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT (1961), I, 102-112; G. Von Rad, OT Theology (1962), I, 234-241; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (1962), 363-369; M. H. Woudstra, The Ark of the Covenant from Conquest to Kingship (1965).