Tales of the Ark of the Covenant

O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!
- Sir Walter Scott

When the movie, "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark", came out in 1981, I never heard the Ark of the Covenant as I suspect most people haven't if it weren't for the movie. So I've followed the biblical trail of the Ark from its construction under Moses to its destruction led by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. While the movie is fictional, there is an element of biblical truth to the Ark's power.

The Ark had special handling instructions. It rewarded those who gave it respect and it punished violators. The first to pay the price were Aaron's two sons who got burnt to a crisp for making an unsanctioned ritual near the Ark. Joshua used it to divide the waters of the Jordan so his people could cross over. The Ark was instrumental in breaking down the walls of Jericho.

The Israelites had an internecine tribal war over the rape and murder of a concubine; it ended in a day of maiden snatching. Eli and his two sons came to an untimely death, because his sons desecrated the tabernacle. When the Philistines captured the Ark, it literally gave them hemorrhoids and caused many deaths. When they gave it back, one of the Israelites made the fatal mistake of touching the Ark. When the Ark reached Jerusalem, David was so happy; he danced publicly half naked. When his wife Michal scolded him, he cut her off sexually.

The Ark found a permanent home in the temple Solomon built. Solomon ignored the Ark and its Covenant, and had his palace built bigger than the temple. The Ark is not mentioned again until late in temple history when one of King Josiah's priests found a Torah scroll Moses had left by the Ark; his reforms lasted until he died. The temple and everything in it was destroyed by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar.

The Ark itself

The Hebrew word for ark means simply "box, chest or coffin." (Yes it is true; Noah's ark was a box.)  The year was about 1480 BCE, somewhere in the mountains of Sinai when God gave Moses instructions on how to build the Ark of the Covenant. It was an exception to the Second Commandment against graven images.

20And he took the testimony and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark, and set the mercy seat above on the ark; (Ex. 40:20)


These were the instructions Yahweh said to Moses on how to build the Ark.

The Ark was 2-1/2 cubits in length, and its width and height are half its length. A cubit is about 18 inches; so its size in feet is about 4 x 2 x 2. It was built out of acacia wood and overlaid with gold, with a molding of gold around it.

10"They shall make an ark of acacia wood; two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height.
11And you shall overlay it with pure gold, within and without shall you overlay it, and you shall make upon it a molding of gold round about. (Ex. 25:10-11)

It had four rings of gold, one on each of its feet. Two poles clad with gold were inserted in the rings for carrying.

12And you shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it.
13You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold.
14And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark by them.
15The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. (Ex. 25:12-15)

It had a mercy seat (throne) on top of the ark, fashioned with two gold cherubim facing each other at each end. (The cherubs may have had human bodies with wings; they are not specifically defined here.) Their wings shall form the seat and their legs the legs of the seat.

17Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth.
18And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat.
19Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends.
20The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.
21And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. (Ex. 25:17-21)

Ark of the Covenant

Yahweh would meet and talk with the Israelites from above the mercy seat.

22There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Ex. 25:22)


The Ark was supposed to represent Yahweh's presence on earth. He spoke with Moses from between the two cherubs.

89And when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the LORD, he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was upon the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and it spoke to him. (Num. 7:89)

The Ark went three days before them when they traveled. When they set camp, the cloud of God was over them by day. It was to make their enemies scatter before them.

33So they set out from the mount of the LORD three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting place for them.
34And the cloud of the LORD was over them by day, whenever they set out from the camp.
And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, "Arise, O LORD, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee."
36And when it rested, he said, "Return, O LORD, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel." (Num. 10:33-36)

The Ark was conceived for military purposes for as long as the people did not transgress against the command of God.

41But Moses said, "Why now are you transgressing the command of the LORD, for that will not succeed?
42Do not go up lest you be struck down before your enemies, for the LORD is not among you.
43For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are before you, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned back from following the LORD, the LORD will not be with you."
44But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD, nor Moses, departed out of the camp.
45Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down, and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah. (Num. 14:41-45)

Rules for handling

The poles shall not be removed from the Ark.

15The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. (Ex. 25:15)

The poles shall be carried on the shoulder.

9But to the sons of Kohath he gave none, because they were charged with the care of the holy things which had to be carried on the shoulder. (Num. 7:9)

Whoever touches the Ark itself shall die.

15And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry. (Num. 4:15)

Whoever carries the Ark must be a consecrated Levite.

8At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. (Deut. 10:8)

Keep these things in mind; for they affect the course of events.

Aaron loses two sons - Leviticus 10

After being initiated into the priesthood, the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu made the mistake of making an offering for an un-ceremonial purpose. (Censers are used to burn incense) A fire came out of the Ark and devoured them to death. 

1Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them.
2And fire came forth from the presence of the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. (Lev. 10:1-2)

It was a lesson learned the hard way. Afterward, Yahweh told Moses to tell Aaron not to go behind the curtain where the Ark and the mercy seat are until he sees a cloud on the mercy seat, lest he shall die.

1The LORD spoke to Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died;
2and the LORD said to Moses, "Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.(Lev. 16:1-2)

Joshua crosses the Jordan - Joshua 3-5

It was the time of the year when the Jordan overflowed it banks. When the people were ready to cross to invade Jericho, the priests carrying the Ark went into the Jordan first. When the waters stopped flowing, the priests stood in the middle of the river so the 40,000 armed men could cross over.

13about forty thousand ready armed for war passed over before the LORD for battle, to the plains of Jericho.
14So, when the people set out from their tents, to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people,
15and when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest),
16the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were wholly cut off; and the people passed over opposite Jericho.
17And while all Israel were passing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan. (Josh. 3:14-17)

When the priests carrying the Ark crossed the Jordan, the waters resumed their flow.

18And when the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD came up from the midst of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests' feet were lifted up on dry ground, the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before. (Josh. 4:18)

Once they crossed, God told Joshua to circumcise the people of Israel again. Explaining that the people born in the wilderness were not circumcised.

2At that time the LORD said to Joshua, "Make flint knives and circumcise the people of Israel again the second time."
5Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people that were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised.
7So it was their children, whom he raised up in their stead, that Joshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way. (Josh. 5:2, 5, 7)

Now if Joshua could circumcise a man in 15 minutes, it would take 10,000 hours to circumcise 40,000. That would be 833 days if he worked twelve hours a day, not to mention the pain involved and an occasional slip of the knife. In biblical days it was part of the process for the operator to clean the wound by taking the penis into his mouth. That's a lot of bloody cock sucking.

Fall of Jericho - Joshua 6

Joshua told his priests to take up the Ark of the Covenant and let seven priests with trumpets march before the Ark around the city.

6So Joshua the son of Nun called the priests and said to them, "Take up the ark of the covenant, and let seven priests bear seven trumpets of rams' horns before the ark of the LORD."
7And he said to the people, "Go forward; march around the city, and let the armed men pass on before the ark of the LORD." (Josh. 6:6-7)

The people marched around the city for six days with trumpets constantly blaring. On the seventh day, as the trumpets were blaring, the people began shouting. The wall fell down flat and the Israelites utterly destroyed the city with the edge of the sword.

20So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.
21Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword. (Josh. 6:20-21)

The Israelites have an internecine war - Judges 19-21

This is the story about a Levite whose concubine was raped and murdered. Her death started an internecine war between the Israelites and the tribe of Benjamin, and ended in a day of maiden stealing. This is one of the most bizarre stories in the Bible.

The Ark is mentioned to be at Bethel where it was taken care of by Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron. The Ark played a part in the Israelites' victory over the Benjamites.

26Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept; they sat there before the LORD, and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.
27And the people of Israel inquired of the LORD (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days,
28and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, "Shall we yet again go out to battle against our brethren the Benjaminites, or shall we cease?" And the LORD said, "Go up; for tomorrow I will give them into your hand." (Judges 20:26-28)

While traveling from her father's house, they stopped to spend the night as a guest in the Benjamite town of Gibeah. That evening the men of the city surrounded the house and pounded on the door; they wanted "sex" with the Levite. The host offered his virgin daughter and the concubine, but they refused. So the Levite pushed his concubine outside where she was "raped and abused throughout the night." The next morning when he found her dead, he took her home and cut her "limb by limb into twelve pieces." He sent one piece to each of the tribal chieftains, calling for a meeting to decide on a course of action.

At the council meeting, the group demanded the Benjamites to identify the scoundrels. Instead they mustered 26,000 to defend the people of Gibeah. The other Israelites mustered 400,000 men to take the city. On the first two days the Benjamites killed 40,000 Israelites. On the third day the Israelites killed 25,100 Benjamites before they "put the whole city to the sword" (includes women and children) and set it on fire. Only 600 Benjamite men survived.

Now the eleven tribes had a new problem; there were no surviving Benjamite women and no more Benjamite towns. They couldn't let the Benjamites go extinct and the law forbade intermarrying between tribes. The best place to find to find virgins, they decided, was Jabesh-Gilead because no one there participated in the war. So they sent 12,000 soldiers to kill everyone who was not a female virgin. They found 400 but it wasn't enough. When they heard about a festival at Shiloh, the Benjamite men went there to hide in the vineyards. When a young woman came close to them, they abducted her and made her a wife.

Eli and Samuel - 1 Samuel 1-4

When Samuel was about a year old, his mother Hannah put him in the care of Eli the priest at Shiloh. This was to keep a promise she made to God to raise him as a Nazarite and a Judge (Nazarite law is defined in Numbers 6.). Eli had two sons who had a sacrilegious habit of violating the laws of sacrifice and having sex with women in the tabernacle. A man of God came to Eli and prophesied that God will kill his family and deny him ancestry; his two sons will die the same day and a faithful priest will take his place. Years later Samuel received a similar vision that the death of his sons was imminent.

10And the LORD came and stood forth, calling as at other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for thy servant hears."
11Then the LORD said to Samuel, "Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle.
12On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.
13And I tell him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.
14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever." (2 Sam. 3:10-14)

As we have seen before, the purpose of the Ark was to assure military victory. But, because of the curse God put on Eli, this was not to be. Not long after Samuel's vision, when the Israelites went to battle against the Philistines without the Ark, they lost 4,000 men. In a second battle, they took the Ark with them. This time they lost 30,000 men, Eli's sons were killed and the Ark was captured. When Eli heard the news, he fell off his chair, broke his neck and died. His daughter-in-law died in childbirth, but the child survived. We might wonder why God killed 30,000 men because two transgressed.

The Curse of the Ark - 1 Samuel 5-7:2

The Philistines captured the Ark and brought it to one of their temples in the city of Ashdod where an idol of the god Dagon stood. The next day, the Philistines found their idol lying face down on the ground, so they restored its original position. The second day, the idol fell face down on the ground again; only this time its head and hands broke off. Shortly afterward, the people of Ashdod fell sick with hemorrhoids. When they sent the Ark to the city of Gath, hemorrhoids broke out again. (Newer Bibles substitute "tumors" for "emerods." The Hebrew word is ophel, meaning "emerods" or "hemorrhoids.")

12And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven. (1 Sam. 5:12 KJV)

When the people of Ashdod sent the Ark to Ekron, the curse got worse; people were either dying or getting hemorrhoids. After seven months in Philistine territory, the Philistines decided to send the Ark back to Israel with a guilt offering. The offering was to be five gold hemorrhoids and five gold mice, according to the number Philistine rulers.

4Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him? They answered, Five golden emerods, and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines: for one plague was on you all, and on your lords. (1 Sam. 6:4 KJV)

The Philistines put the Ark and their offerings on an ox cart. They went straight to the Israelite town of Beth Shemesh; they did not turn right and they did not turn left. The people of Beth Shemesh were happy to get their Ark back until seventy of them got killed for opening the top and looking into it.  

19And he slew some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked into the ark of the LORD; he slew seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had made a great slaughter among the people. (1 Sam. 6:19)

The people of Kiriath Jearim accepted the Ark and brought it safely to the house of Abinadab. His son Eleazar was consecrated to guard the Ark where it remained for twenty years without incident.

David brings the Ark back to Jerusalem - 2 Samuel 6

At David's request, Abinadab's sons, Eleazar and Uzzah, transported the Ark by an ox cart. As they were traveling the oxen stumbled and Abinadab's son Uzzah put his hand on the Ark to keep it from falling. God got angry and killed him on the spot.

2And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baalejudah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim.
3And they carried the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart
4with the ark of God; and Ahio went before the ark.
5And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled.
7And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Sam. 6:2-7)

David was afraid to bring the Ark into Jerusalem; so he left it with Obed-edom the Gittite. After three months without mishap, David felt comfortable enough to bring the Ark into Jerusalem. It was a time of rejoicing and David danced with all his might, girded in a linen ephod.

14And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. (2 Sam. 6:14)

We don't know how scanty his linen ephod was, but it was enough for his wife Michal to scold him for uncovering himself in front of his servants. David got indignant. "I will make myself yet more contemptible." He kept her childless for the rest of her life.

20And David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, "How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants' maids, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!"
21And David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me above your father, and above all his house, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the LORD-and I will make merry before the LORD.
22I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor."
23And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death. (2 Sam. 6:20

The Temple Period

When King Solomon completed the temple in 992 BCE, the Ark found a permanent home.

5And King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who had assembled before him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered.
6Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.
7For the cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles.
8And the poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place before the inner sanctuary; but they could not be seen from outside; and they are there to this day.
9There was nothing in the ark except the two tables of stone which Moses put there at Horeb, where the LORD made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt.(1 Kings 8:5-9)

The temple measured 90 feet long, 30 feet wide and 45 feet high. It took 70,000 laborers, 80,000 stonecutters, 30,000 slaves and 3,000 supervisors to build it in seven years. After the temple was completed, Solomon had a palace built for himself, two and a half times bigger than the temple. It was 150 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high, and took thirteen years to build.

Solomon and many others after him broke covenant law. Israel split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Israel was later captured by the Assyrians. The people of Judah continued to honor pagan gods.

The Ark was forgotten about until King Josiah's temple priests found some lost scrolls that Moses placed by the side of the Ark. It was a ruse, but Josiah used the discovery as an excuse to centralize his power under Yahweh. It didn't matter much. After Josiah was killed, things went back to the way they were before.

In 586 BCE the temple was burned to the ground and the Ark was destroyed with it.

8In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month-which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon-Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem.
9And he burned the house of the LORD, and the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down.
10And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. (2 Kings 25:8-10)

The Ark is last mentioned when Jeremiah said it is to be forgotten and not missed.

16And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, says the LORD, they shall no more say, "The ark of the covenant of the LORD." It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; it shall not be made again. (Jer. 3:16)

The reason it happened, says Jeremiah, is because the people of Israel and Judah broke the covenant.

9Again the LORD said to me, "There is revolt among the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
10They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words; they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers.
11Therefore, thus says the LORD, Behold, I am bringing evil upon them which they cannot escape; though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. (Jer. 11:9-10)

Let them cry to their other gods; it will do no good.

12Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble.
13For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah; and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to burn incense to Baal. (Jer. 11:12-13)

Final analyses

In his infinite wisdom, God punished his own people and rewarded his enemies.