« Arius Ark of the Covenant Arkites »

Ark of the Covenant


Description (§ 1).

Meaning of Kapporeth (§ 2).

Chests Used in Other Cults (§ 3).

Contents of the Ark (§ 4).

The Second Temple (§ 5).

Character of the Accounts in Exodus (§ 6).

The First Period of the Ark’s History (§ 7).

The Second Period (§ 8).

1. Description.

According to the Pentateuchal narrative, the ark of the covenant was the receptacle of the tables of the law (called “tables of the covenant,” Deut. ix. 9, 11, 15; “tables of the testimony,” Ex. xxxi. 18, xxxii. 15, xxxiv. 29), attesting the divine will, the foundation of the community between God and Israel. It is so called in Num. x. 33, xiv. 44; Deut. x. 8. (cf. Heb. ix. 4); in Ex. xxv. 22, xxvi. 33-34 “ark of the testimony” is found. According to the description of Ex. xxv. 10-22, xxvi. 33-34, xxxvii. 1-9, xl. 20-21, it was a chest of shittim (acacia) wood, standing on four feet, two cubits and a half (three feet nine inches) long, a cubit and a half (two feet three inches) wide and high; it was overlaid with gold inside and out, decorated with a golden crown (rim or molding), and had a gold ring at each of the four corners above the feet, through which passed staves overlaid with gold that the ark might be carried; these staves were never to be removed. The cover was a massive golden plate, at the end of which figures of cherubim were placed, facing each other and looking toward the cover, while their outspread wings extended over the latter. The place of the ark was at the rear of the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle.

2. Meaning of Kapporeth.

These cherubic figures direct the thought to Yahweh as enthroned over the ark (Ps. lxxx. 1; Jer. iii. 16-17). As it contained the tables of stone upon which were written the ten commandments, God was enthroned over that which was binding upon the people to which nothing could be added and from which nothing could be taken away. The Hebrew word kapporeth is best taken in the sense of “cover,” not as “expiatory vessel,” as is often done after the Septuagint, which translates it by hilastērion (Vulg. propitiatorium). Passages like Lev. xvi. 14-15; I Chron. xxviii. 11, do not necessarily require the latter interpretation. For when on the great day of atonement, according to the first passage, the high priest sprinkled the blood of atonement upon the first part of the kapporeth, he did it because it bore the throne of God, to which the blood was to be brought near; and in the same manner the designation of the Holy of Holies as beth ha-kapporeth in the passage in Chronicles, can be rejected as unsuitable to this interpretation only by those who overlook that the kapporeth is not to be thought of without the cherubim which bear the presence of God, which presence it is which makes the place of the ark the Holy of Holies.

3. Chests Used in Other Cults.

With the chests used in the idol worship of some nations of antiquity, the ark of the covenant had nothing at all in common. For those chests contained either images of gods or a mysterious symbolism like the mystic chests used in the service of the mysteries of Dionysius, Demeter, and Venus. In the strongest contrast to the heathen mystery, that which the ark contained was known and revealed to all the world; but it was also known to every one that it was as holy as the Word of God, spoken to Israel, and the proto-document of the fundamental conditions of the communion-relation existing between him and his chosen people.

4. Contents of the Ark.

According to the explicit statement in I Kings viii. 9, a passage which precludes the idea that Solomon made any change in the old Mosaic sanctuary, there was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone. When the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (ix. 4) says that in the ark of the covenant were the golden pot that had manna (Ex. xvi. 33) and Aaron’s rod that budded (Num. xvii. 10), he follows a tradition which proceeded from an inaccurate conception of these passages. For when Aaron is commanded (Ex. xvi. 33) to put the pot with manna “before Yahweh,” and when Moses is told (Num. xvii. 10) to bring Aaron’s rod again “before the testimony,” it does not follow that these things were kept inside of the ark. A comparison with other passages where similar expressions are used does not lead to the inference that the pot of manna and the rod were kept in the Holy of Holies, but rather that they were in the sanctuary.

5. The Second Temple.

At the destruction of Solomon’s temple the ark seems to have been burned; at least the second temple had an empty Holy of Holies. According to the Talmudic treatise Yoma (536), a stone three fingers above the ground was in the place of the ark, on which the high priest put his censer on the yearly day of atonement. It is this stone to which, according to some expositors, Zech. iii. 9 refers. The prophet Jeremiah refers to a time of which he says (iii. 16-17) “in those days, said the Lord, they shall say no more, the ark of the covenant of the Lord, neither shall it come to mind; neither shall they remember it; neither shall they visit it; neither shall that be done any more. At that time they shall call 286 Jerusalem the throne of the Lord.” This utterance reminds of the description of the new temple, which Ezekiel gives in the last chapters of his book (xl. sqq.), in which nothing is read of an ark of the covenant, where the living cherubim carrying the glory of God take the place of the cherubim of the tabernacle and of the Solomonic temple, made by the hand of men,—a reference to the time of the true dwelling of God in his congregation made perfect, in whose heart he wrote his law (Jer. xxxi. 33), a time when shall be fulfilled what the ark of the covenant of the Mosaic legislature together with the tabernacle prophetically prefigured as “a shadow of the good things to come” (Heb. x. 1).

W. Volck†.

6. Character of the Accounts in Exodus.

In the preprophetic age, “the ark” was the most important symbol of the Hebrew religion, and its functions belonged almost wholly to that period. The preceding sketch takes for granted that the descriptions of it given in Exodus correspond to its form, condition, and contents as it actually appeared throughout its many vicissitudes. But it is now generally admitted that they are an idealization, like the accounts in the same priestly code of the tabernacle itself. The tradition, however, that the ark was transported from Sinai to Palestine, and was moved from place to place till it was finally lodged in the shrine of David in Jerusalem and thence naturally transferred to the temple of Solomon, is doubtless based on fact.

7. The First Period of the Ark’s History.

The chief significance of the ark in the history of religion is that it represents in unique fashion the transition stage between the primitive conceptions of the Deity and those announced by the prophets. The advance made by the Mosaic revelation upon the previous beliefs of the Hebrews is signally shown in its representation of Yahweh as more than a mere local deity. He was, indeed, still thought of as inseparable from his chosen people; but wherever they went he might go with them. He did not, it is true, forsake Sinai at once; in great emergencies he came thence in his full power and majesty to the new home of his worshipers (Judges v. 4 sqq., cf. I Kings xix. 8 sqq., Deut. xxxiii. 2). The ark, however, was to be a constant and unfailing proof that he was among them as their champion and protector. This is the original meaning of Ex. xxxiii. (cf. R. Smend, Alttestamentliche Religionegeschichte, Leipsic, 1893, pp. 42-43). The question of the literal accuracy of the statement that the two tablets of the law were placed in the ark at Sinai and were thence forward kept there will be settled according to the view taken by each inquirer of the character of the Mosaic teaching. It is perhaps easier to believe that they were placed there at first than to suppose that they were kept there during the whole early history of Israel. The guardians of the ark were then very little concerned about the commandments of Yahweh; what they wanted was to have him fight their battles; they cared more for his numen than for his nomen. Moreover, it is not said whether the version of the decalogue contained in Ex. xx. (E) or that of xxxiv. (J) was the one that was laid in the ark. So long as both versions were in vogue neither could have been regarded as exclusively sacrosanct. Possibly some sacred stone was first placed in the ark as a talisman. It is noteworthy that the place in the Jordan where the ark stood when the waters were divided was marked by a heap of stones—a sacred memorial (Josh. iii.-iv.). The first period in the history of the ark came to an end with its capture by the Philistines when it was demonstrated that the power of Yahweh did not necessarily accompany those who trusted to its presence for victory (I Sam. iv.). This was doubtless a wholesome lesson; but the moral of it was weakened in later times by the sacerdotalists who added to the genuine tradition stories of the terrible punishments inflicted both upon the Philistines and Hebrews who failed, though unwittingly, fully to appreciate the sanctity of the ark (I Sam. v., vi.).

8. The Second Period.

In the next period the ark, instead of being itself an object of worship and an instrument of blessing or cursing, became a sacred relic in a permanent sanctuary. The transition stage was the time between its return from the Philistine country and its triumphal transportation to Jerusalem (I Sam. vii. 1-2; II Sam. vi. 1-11). The circumstances are obscure. But this much seems plain: That there was no fitting sanctuary for the ark now that Shiloh, the national religious center, had been destroyed; that the ark itself, having ceased to be a beneficent wonder-worker, was kept in seclusion; and that during the whole of the unsettled reigns of Saul and of David in Hebron it was never regarded or appealed to as a national palladium, not even in the most anxious days of battle. When a permanent seat of worship and of central government had been provided by David, it was natural that the most venerable monument of the national religion (cf. Jer. iii. 16) should be securely housed and guarded. But it had lost its practical efficiency. We do not read of its being again taken forth with the army (II Sam. xi. 11 merely implies that it had not as yet a fitting temple of its own); and David himself in his utmost peril refused to have it carried with him when he left Jerusalem before Absalom (II Sam. xv. 24 sqq.). With its removal to the temple of Solomon it disappears from the record of Israel’s religion. It was superseded by the living word of Revelation.

J. F. McCurdy.

Bibliography: The best treatment is found in EB, i. 300-310, with that in DB, i. 149-151 perhaps next; J. H. Kurtz, Beiträge zur Symbolik des alttestamentlichen Kultus, in Zeitschrift für lutherische Theologie, xii (1851) 27 sqq.; idem, Der alttestamentliche Opferkultus, §§ 11, 15, Leipsic, 1882; A. Köhler, Lehrbuch der biblischen Geschichte, i. 368-369, Erlangen, 1875; Sehring, Der alttestamentliche Sprachgebrauch in Betreff des Namens der . . . Bundeslade, in ZATW xi. (1891) 114-115; Couard, Die religiöse nationale Bedeutung der Lade, in ZATW, xii., 1892 W. H. Kosters, in ThT, xxvii., 1893 (brilliant); H. Winckler, Geschichte Israels, i. 70-77, Leipsic, 1895; B. Krætzschmar Die Bundesvorstellung im Alten Testament, pp. 208-220, Marburg, 1896; C von Schick, Die Stiftshütte des Tempel in Jerusalem, und der Tempelplatz der Jetztzeit, Berlin, 1896; W. Lotz, Die Bundeslade, Leipsic, 287 1901; M. Debelius, Die Lade Jahves, in Forschungen zur Religion und Litteratur des Alten und Neuen Testaments, Leipsic, 1906. On other arks, C. C. W. F Bähr, Symbolik der Mosäischen Stiftshütte, Heidelberg, 1841; Simpson, Ark-shrines of Japan, in TSBA, v. 550-554; C. J. Ball, in TSBA, xiv. 4.

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