Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 6.41.46 PMIn Part 1, we began a discussion of how the Church relates to the Ark of the Covenant. The beginning of this relationship of course begins in the Old Testament, when the Ark is constructed.

Overlaid in pure gold, the Ark of the Covenant was a rectangular wooden chest constructed in proportions approximately equivalent to the golden rectangle. Attached to the four corners of the Ark were golden rings for the purpose of load bearing. Gold overlaid wooden poles were threaded through the rings to facilitate transportation of the Ark. Matching the dimensions of its upper surface, a golden propitiatory hammered of a single piece of gold rested atop the Ark. Arising from each end of the propitiatory, an angel faced toward the center, wings outstretched (Exodus 25:10-20 OSB). The Apostle Paul tells us that the Ark contained “the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant” (Hebrews 9:4). The space above the mercy seat was the holiest place in the temple, for God declared,

There I will make Myself known to you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat [the propitiatory], from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of testimony, about everything I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel (Exodus 25:22).

The most significant role the Ark played in the life of the children of Israel was as the place of atonement or propitiation for sin. Only once per year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) did the priest enter the holiest place in the temple to enact the cleansing of the sanctuary. Prior to this great annual cleansing, the priest would perform an elaborate process of self-cleansing and sacrifice in preparation for his entrance into the presence of God, lest he die. After clouding the Ark with the smoke of incense, he would first sprinkle the blood of the bull sacrificed for his own sins upon the eastern side of the propitiatory, and then he would sprinkle the blood of the goat offered as a sin offering for all the people (Leviticus 16:1-19).

In addition to being the throne of God, the container of the tablets of the testimony, and the place of reconciliation with God, the Ark came to represent something of a talisman of power among the Israelites, at times being carried into battle. In the case of Jericho it was processed around the city for seven days, after which the city collapsed and the inhabitants were overcome (Joshua 3:14-17). The story of Uzzah is another example of its great power and the absolute necessity of following established handling procedures. After its return to Israel by the Philistines, the Ark was being transported improperly and seemed to be teetering on the cart upon which it was riding. Uzzah reached out his hand to steady it and was instantly killed (2 Samuel 6:1-11).

The Ark remained in Israel through most of the period of time related to us by the Old Testament. There are several legends as to what happened to the Ark during and after the exile, but no certainty. In the second book of Maccabees, a letter is quoted explaining that the Prophet Jeremiah had been commanded by God to hide the Ark in a cave (2 Maccabees 2:4-8). Another legend claims that the Ark was taken to Ethiopia where it still remains. The only thing that is certain is that the Ark was missing when Herod’s temple was built. In other words, the Ark was absent from the temple during the events recorded in the New Testament and thereafter.

In Part 3, we’ll discuss possible New Testament foreshadowing of the Church’s future typological understanding of the Ark.

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