The Ark: Typological Development

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Iconography in the Apse of Holy Theophany Church in Colorado Springs.

We are beginning to wrap up our ongoing discussion of how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant. We have covered many concrete examples and are now embarking on some analysis of what we have learned.

We have traced how the people of God have understood the ark from its very beginning to its contemporary expression within the Church. We have examined how the Ark was built and we followed its life in Israel up until its disappearance. Subsequently, we examined possible midrashic traditions latent in Scripture that typologically identify the Ark with the Holy Virgin. We examined so-called apocryphal literature that provides useful clues. We traced the great conversation of the Holy Fathers on this topic through the first seven centuries. And finally, we examined the expression of the Ark’s typology in the life of the Church: its iconography, services, and hymnology.

In this particular case study, and perhaps others, we find a distinct pattern. First, the subject of typological interest comes into existence. In our case, the Ark is explicitly “spec’d out” by God himself and is then constructed under the guidance of the Prophet Moses. The Ark gains a certain mystique throughout its developing life among the people of Israel, becoming a key emblem or meme in the mythos of the nation of Israel. Whether we are talking about a physical artifact such as the Ark or a story such as Abraham’s hospitality to his three visitors (a topic for an upcoming series of posts), the type follows this same path.

The next step is the Gospel. Saint Paul alludes to the application of forward looking typology to the Old Testament, saying, “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect” (Hebrews 10:1). In our specific case, it is affirmed by Saint John Damascene as noted earlier. The Gospel becomes the lens that we use to interpret the ancient types, but the interpretation does not necessarily become clear immediately, as in our case.

Clearly, given the fact that accounts of the Gospel and other contemporaneous events were recorded significantly later, either an oral tradition or long lost documents carry the stories forward in time until they are written down. Interpretations may grow organically within this mix, as hypothesized by Laurentin and others, influencing the recording of Scripture and other writings.

We begin to truly see the application of typology surface in the writings of the Holy Fathers, where it develops through the centuries. As the present author might observe from a similar study of the typology attached to the story of the Hospitality of Abraham, a turning point in the application of the typology seems to sometimes occur during the third or fourth centuries. It is probably not coincidental that this was a time of great upheaval and development within the church, owing to the occurrence of many heresies and the refining of doctrinal articulation that was carried out by the great ecumenical councils. In our case we see a transition from a clearly Christocentric typology of the Ark to its identification with the Holy Virgin Mary (the shift seems to happen somewhere between Saint Dionysius and Saint Athanasius). While both typological traditions may have coexisted from very early times, the Church shifted emphasis from one to the other as its understanding deepened.

The title Theotokos is not truly rooted in Mariology, but in Christology. It does honor to the Theotokos by recognizing her role in the incarnation, but she is called the God Bearer not due to her own nature, but because of the nature of her son. The ecumenical councils sought to clarify the nature of Jesus Christ and this clarification shone light also upon the role of Mary, which may have influenced how the Church viewed the typology of Mary and of the Ark.

After the conciliar age, the typology seems to stabilize and we see it becoming part of Orthodox praxis in the services of the Church as described above. Iconography finally incorporates the typology and we not only hear it in the hymnology, but see it on the walls of the church. In the end, lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of praying is the law of believing.

Here we have discussed the implications of theological/typological development within the church. In our next post in this series, we will discussion the implications of the fully developed typology.

Ark of the Covenant in the New Testament

In part 2 of this series, we talked about the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. Here we stroll into more ambiguous territory and attempt to find connections in places where they are not explicit. We focus on typological reference to the Ark. This part of the study is based on modern scholarship rather than on Biblical or Patristic sources. It’s far from certain, but still worthy of discussion. As mentioned at the beginning of this series, the Ark is often connected typologically to the virgin Mary, who is sometimes called the Ark of the New Covenant.

While the typology of the Ark is not directly mentioned in the Holy Scriptures, there exist several possible allusions that are worth discussing. A midrashic approach, exemplified by Fr. René Laurentin, attempts to find an intentional anamnesis embedded in Luke’s infancy narrative, intended to connect it with the Old Testament theme of God being present in the bosom of his people. First emerging in Exodus 33:3 and 34:9, it is developed throughout the Old Testament narrative, which progressively establishes the Ark as the epicenter of God’s presence in Israel.1

Fr. René finds numerous interesting textual parallels between Luke’s language and Ark-related imagery in the Old Testament. For instance, when God takes up residence in Israel, his glory overshadows the tabernacle (Exodus 40:35) just as the power of God overshadows the Holy Virgin as described by Gabriel during the Annunciation (Luke 1:35). In another case he compares David’s transfer of the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:2-11) with Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in the womb of his mother (Luke 1:33-44).2

Fr. René surmises that Luke identified the events portrayed in his infancy narrative with the eschatological fulfillment of this theme as proclaimed by the Prophet Zephaniah. In this prophecy, the Daughter of Zion is thought to be the Holy Virgin and it is here that the typology of both the Ark and the Daughter of Zion converge, as we see God present in the bosom of His people:3

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Cry aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Be glad and rejoice with your whole heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing (Zephaniah 3:14, 17).

A less ambiguous example is the Visitation narrative found in Luke 1:39-44. Elizabeth exclaims, “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me” (Luke 1:43)? This parallels David’s question, “In what possible way can the ark of the Lord come with me” (2 Samuel 6:9)? Similarly, Mary remains in the house of Elizabeth for three months just as the Ark remained in the house of Obededom for three months.4

Many in the Roman Catholic church find a connection between the Ark described at the end of chapter eleven of Revelation and the woman described in the beginning of chapter twelve. Chapter divisions were not present at the time of writing, so the two figures would have been seen tightly juxtaposed by earlier readers. Most of the Holy Fathers see this woman as a figure of the Church, but Cardinal John Henry Newman does not believe this precludes the woman from representing the Theotokos. He explains,

Now I do not deny of course that under the image of the Woman, the Church is signified; but what I would maintain is this, that the Holy Apostle would not have spoken of the Church under this particular image unless there had existed a Blessed Virgin Mary who was exalted on high and the object of veneration of all the faithful.5

In part 4, we’ll take a brief interlude from the topic at hand and discuss typology and why it matters.


François Bovon, Luke the Theologian: Fifty-five Years of Research (1950-2005), (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005), p. 182-185.

Ibid.

Ibid.

Michael O’Carroll, Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, <Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers 2000>, p. 50.

Cardinal John Henry Newman, Modern History Sourcebook: John Henry Newman On the Blessed Virgin Mary, <15 March 2016>.