A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What happened to the Ark of the Covenant?

Dear Straight Dope:

What ever happened to the original Tablets of the Covenant that were carried by Moses in Sinai? Where are they today? This question was examined in detail by the Hollywood movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but I would like to hear the REAL story, please.

What you're really asking about is what happened to the Ark of the Covenant, since the tablets were placed inside it and are never mentioned separately again. Amazing how much interest has been aroused in the Ark since Harrison Ford portrayed the arch- [no pun intended] -etypical arch- [still no pun intended] -eologist.

First, what exactly is the Ark of the Covenant?

It was a wooden chest, the design of which is described in Exodus 25:10-22 and the construction in Exodus 37:1-9, built by the Children of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt, after Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai (around 1280 BC, give or take a bit). The size of the chest is given in cubits, but would be about 4 ft x 2.5 feet. The Ark shown in the movie was too big, but otherwise pretty close. The top was open, but covered by a slab overlaid in gold and decorated with two cherubim with outstretched wings. Dont think of cherubim as the cute li'l baby angels of the Middle Ages; no one today knows for sure, but the consensus of scholars is that a cherub was probably a winged lion with a human head, so the movie got that wrong, too, in all probability.

The Ark housed the tablets with the original Ten Commandments ... nothing else. Fanciful ideas that it held the rod of Aaron (the one used to do the miracles in Egypt) and other magical items are countered by I Kings 8:9 ... it only held the tables of the Ten Commandments. This is consistent with well-documented evidence that legal documents were put in "sacred places" throughout the ancient Near East, symbolically underscoring their importance.

Second, what about its known (i.e., Biblical) history?

The Ark travelled with the Israelites during the 40 years in the wilderness. Two poles were put through gold rings on the side to carry it (the movie did that part right). After the Israelites conquered the land of Israel, the Ark is not mentioned much, but presumably travelled a bit from city to city. At one point, it was given to a family to take care of, and so it settled down. Ultimately, David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, somewhere around 1000 BC.

Around 930 BC, the Ark was put in the Temple in Jerusalem built by King Solomon, where it stayed permanently in the center room, called the Holy of Holies. It was visited by the High Priest on one day each year (Yom Kippur, holiest day of the year), and so was mostly out of sight. The Ark is not mentioned in the Bible again, except for a brief reference during the reign of King Josiah (640 - 609 BC).

In 587 BC, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. At that point, the Ark disappears from history. The Jews rebuilt the Temple about 70 years later, but there is no mention of the Ark in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which describe the rebuilding of the Temple, and general opinion is that the Ark wasn't there or it would've been mentioned.

Third, although you didn't ask, let me answer anyway: could it do magic, destroy armies, etc., like in the movie?

OK, let's start by saying that the Ark itself was considered a holy item. Very few objects in Judaism (or in the Old Testament) are considered to be holy -- places, yes; time, yes; but very few objects.

The Bible does not describe any "magic" about the Ark. God communicates with Moses from above it (Exodus 25:22); later similarly for Solomon, so that the later author of I Chronicles 28:2 describes the Ark poetically as the "footstool of the throne of God." However, God is never said to reside in it or to speak through it.

So the Torah does not mention any "magic" in connection with the Ark, but there are two interesting later stories.

- In I Samuel 13, the Israelites were fighting the Philistines, and they brought the Ark to the battle to inspire them. The Philistines won the battle and captured the Ark (so much for the movie's assertion that the Ark fought and won battles for the Israelites) ... however, it brought them bad luck (or divine wrath, as you prefer) -- their main idol, Dagon, kept falling over (slapstickish though it sounds, I'm not making this up; the Biblical author(s) had a sense of humour) and they got smitten by all sorts of diseases and plagues. So, seven months later, they brought the Ark back to the Israelites and said, here, we don't want it any more. The text is very clear that these nuisances come from God's anger, not from any magic inherent in the Ark itself.

- In II Samuel 6:3-7, when David is bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, Uzzah, son of Abinadab, inadvertently touches the Ark when it was being moved (according to the recap in Chronicles, because it was wobbling and looked like it might topple off the cart - I guess it wasn't being carried by the poles) and falls dead.

Erich Von Daniken, the guy who thinks that the Bible stories tell of visits by outer-space aliens, claims that the Ark was an electric generator of some sort, with the rings on the side (for the poles) used to create an electromagnet; a microphone allowed the aliens to "talk" to the priests through the Ark (gasp! the voice of God!) ... and poor Uzzah got electrocuted. Most people think this is pretty imaginative, needless to say. I don't remember what Von D thinks about the plagues brought on the Philistines.

So the movie takes some liberties in its special-effects finale.

So, finally, we get to your question: where is it now?

The most likely answer is that the Babylonians melted it down for the gold when they destroyed the Temple in 587 BC. They weren't what you might call "sensitive" to historic items of the realms they conquered, and gold was more valuable than a pretty box.

There are, of course, other opinions.

There is a rabbinic legend (written down around 100 BC but presumably older) that, when the Babylonians invaded the Temple, the priests hurled the Ark skyward, and God took it back into Heaven. Modernists find that a little hard to accept literally, gravity being pretty much more effective than faith when it comes to moving mountains -- er, sorry, to throwing boxes.

The apocryphal book 2 Maccabbees (again, around 100 BC) suggests that the Ark was hidden by the priests to save it from the Babylonians, and is in a cave somewhere by the Dead Sea ... or perhaps in what is now the West Bank ... at Mount Nebo.

Others say that Ark was hidden by the priests in a secret cave under the Temple Mount, carved out by Solomon (or perhaps by King Josiah, 640 - 609 BC).

In 1991, a journalist named Graham Hancock wrote a book called SIGN AND SEAL, claiming the Ark is in a small church out in the desert in Ethiopia. He says the Ark was actually stolen by Solomon's outcast son, carried to Ethiopia, and kept there secretly by a Judaic cult. The Knights Templar came along, thinking the Ark was the Holy Grail (I don't quite understand that part), converted the Jews to Christianity, and kept the Ark in a church ... hidden, unseen, not even looked at by the faithful (this has the poetic echo of the Biblical Ark being not touched and only being seen by the High Priest). That TV show about Lost Mysteries (I forget its name) had an episode based on Hancock's book. Hancock's story, interesting enough and well told, has the problem that he never saw the Ark either ... he just saw the church, they wouldn't let him in. So who ya gonna believe?

Most serious archaeologists and historians think Hancock's hypothesis is pretty weak.

That's probably more of a summary than you wanted, but Biblical archaeology is a fascinating topic.

One brief linguistic footnote to conclude.

English translations of the Bible can lead to confusion, since the word "ark" is used for both the Ark of the Covenant (a box or chest) and Noah's Ark (a boat). The original Hebrew text uses different words: the Ark of the Covenant is '-R-W-N ("aron") while Noah's Ark is T-B-H ("tabah"), so there is no linguistic relation between the two. And Joan of Arc, of course, is completely different.

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