The Ark of the Covenant is the wooden chest, plated with gold, that the Israelites made from instructions given to Moses by God. It is described in the Bible as being a sacred item, and when it was in an Israeli place, that place tended to experience blessings and prosperity; however, when in a non-Israeli location, that place tended to experience misfortune. The Ark of the Covenant has also been called “Ark of the Testimony,” among other names.
The size of the Ark itself was listed as 2.5 cubits long, 1.5 cubits wide, and 1.5 cubits high. This translates to about 131cm x 79cm x 79cm or 52” x 31” x 31”. These measurements are laid out in the book of Exodus, chapter 37.
The entire Ark of the Covenant is plated with gold, inside and out. An additional border of gold, “a hand breadth” – about 4-5” (10-12cm), circles the entire box. The lid is known as the Mercy Seat and has two beaten-gold cherubim affixed to the top of it. They face each other and their wings meet over the middle of the lid.
Rather than being hauled as chests are usually, the Ark was meant to be carried by four men, using staves (also made of the same wood and covered in gold) that were inserted into golden rings affixed to the sides. It was carried in this way for the 40 years during which the Israelites wandered in the desert, as well as for some time after that. Generally, when carrying the Ark, the priests covered it with a large veil made of blue cloth and animal skins. The Israelites knew that, when the priests began to go with the Ark, they were to follow.
When the Ark was not being carried, its home was within the Tabernacle – a sacred tent that was also built according to specific instructions. Once the Israelites settled, and Solomon’s Temple was built, the Ark rested there until after the Babylonians conquered Israel and took them captive. The room in which the Ark was kept – the Holy of Holies – was entered only rarely, and only by the high priest.
The contents are minimal – only the stone tablets containing the 10 Commandments, a pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod that bloomed, all of which point to God’s sovereignty, grace, and mercy. It is suggested that covering the law with the mercy seat carries symbolism of God’s mercy covering the broken law.
The prophet Jeremiah predicts a time when the Ark of the Covenant is neither remembered nor visited, because the people have become righteous and wise, following God completely.
God’s presence – in the form of a light or a cloud – appeared above the mercy seat during the high priests’ ceremonial rites. Often, God used this method to speak to Moses, the leader of the Israelites. Additionally, the people – through the priests – used this fact to consult God about their questions.
The Israelites believed that the Ark was special, and its presence within the Israelite camp would serve as protection against their enemies. It was true that when the Ark was in the house of Obed-edom before it returned to the Temple, his house prospered more than before.
After Solomon had his famous talk with God from which he received God’s wisdom (as well as wealth), he went to the Ark to offer offerings to God.
Many miracles – both good and bad – occurred that relate to the Ark. These include the following:
- The parting of the Jordan River when the priests carrying the Ark stepped in. The moment the water was touched by the feet of the priests carrying the Ark, the waters dried up until the last foot of the last priest followed the last Israelite out of the river.
- The fall of Jericho after priests carried the Ark around for days. While this may not be directly related to the Ark, the fact remains that the Ark was leading the procession once each day for six days, then seven times on the seventh day.
- The death of Uzzah after touching the Ark. No human hand was to touch the Ark of the Covenant, and when the Ark was riding on a cart, rather than being carried on staves as was supposed to happen, Uzzah reached out to steady it and was struck dead.
- The Philistines captured the Ark and had much misfortune. First, at the temple of Dagon, the Ark was placed in the temple and the idol Dagon was found prostrate toward the Ark in the morning. After being put back into place, the next morning it was found broken as well as prostrate. After moving it to Ashdod, the people broke out in boils, and hemorrhoids, and were plagued with mice. These afflictions followed the Ark to Gath and Ekron.
Nobody knows for sure where the Ark of the Covenant is now. Some believe that it resides in a cave below the Temple Mount (also known as Dome of the Rock, which is why it is impossible to confirm or deny this rumor). Others insist it is in a cave on Mount Nebo, based on the writings in 2 Maccabees, which say that Jeremiah hid it there. Still, others declare it is being guarded in the St. Mary of Zion Cathedral in Aksum, Ethiopia, by one chosen man, and nobody else is allowed to see it. There are a few people – the Lemba – in South Africa who claim their ancestors carried it south and hid it in the Dumghe mountains in a cave. Some of these say that it self-destructed and the core was used to rebuild; a replica was found in the 1940s that was dated to around 1350, which fits their legend. There are some who even suggest it may have been taken to Europe: France, Rome, the UK, and Ireland all have stories that hint at a possibility of the Ark having been there at some point.
The Ark of the Covenant has long been a thing that sparked imagination, and many movies have been made that feature the Ark, a search for it, and sometimes its contents. These include the obvious Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones finds the Ark in Egypt, as well as mentions in two other Indiana Jones films (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), as well as a Danish family film made in 2006, The Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar which speaks of the Ark as a power source.
There is an Israeli holiday based on the crossing of the Jordan celebrated each year on the Hebrew date of Nisan 10 called Yom HaAliya. This normally falls sometime in March or April.