A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Followup: the New Testament says there was so manna in the Ark of the Covenant!

Dear Straight Dope:

Regarding the Ark of the Covenant, you need to check the whole Bible. Hebrews 9:4 states, "...which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant.This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant." Reconsider.

Sigh, I dunno how much more esoteric we can get, but I guess we're going to try. It's the topic that will not die.

OK, one quick point before the main argument:

The Ark of the Covenant measured "two and a half cubits long, one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high." (Ex 25:10 and 37:1). A cubit is about the length of a forearm from elbow to tip of middle finger, so say 18 inches. Thus the Ark was less than 4 feet long, and just over two feet wide, two feet high (give or take a few inches.) Sorry, that's too small for Aaron's staff to fit comfortably..... unless you want to tell me that Aaron's staff was hinged (or perhaps telescoped, this could explain how it turned into a serpent.) Or perhaps Aaron was height-impaired, and used a four foot staff.

Now, back to the main discussion point.

The last mention of the Ark in the Hebrew Bible is in the Book of Kings, written around 600 - 575 BC, although there were doubtless earlier source documents that are no longer known. It specifies (as noted in the earlier posting) that there was nothing in the Ark except the tablets. The Ark itself vanished during the Babylonian conquest, around 587 BC. So the writers of the Book of Kings overlapped with the time when the Ark was in the (First) Temple. There is no mention of an Ark in the Second Temple, and it is generally agreed that there wasn't one.

The Letters to the Hebrews that you quote was written around the year 67 AD, over 600 years after the Ark had disappeared. The Letters to the Hebrews was most likely not written by Paul, but it was clearly heavily influenced by him. The whole point of the author of Letters to the Hebrews is to try to keep people attached to the new Christian faith, and not have them return to Judaism. He is citing the tradition of the Ark to show his readers that Jesus replaces the Ark and priests of the (Second) Temple.

OK, enough background. We have a contradiction between the comment in Hebrews (that the Ark contained the jar of manna and the staff of Aaron along with the two tablets) and the comment in Kings (that the Ark contained nothing except the two tablets). The plain reading of the early citations in Exodus and Numbers are consistent with the comment in Kings, that the jar and staff were NOT put in the Ark but before/beside it.

So, frankly, you got your choice of which text to believe. If you believe that every word of all texts is literal truth, you have a problem reconciling A (from Hebrews) with Not A (from Kings and Chronicles and Exodus and Numbers).... Or you could be creative and invent a compromise, maybe the jar and staff were only kept in the Ark on Mondays and Thursdays.

I personally take the Kings version (that only the tablets were in the Ark) because that version:

(a) is consistent with the plain reading of the earlier texts;

(b) is also consistent with common sense (Aaron's staff wouldn't fit in the Ark and the manna would have rotted long before); and

(c) was written at the earlier time period, when the Ark still stood in the Temple.

It's not inconceivable that the author of Letter to the Hebrews just got it wrong. He was writing over 600 years after the Ark was last seen, and this was before the age of easy availability of texts. When he quotes Old Testament, he is very likely quoting from memory. In the line before the one you cite, he says that the gold altar of incense was kept in the Holy of Holies (center room of the Temple where the Ark was kept); this statement contradicts Exodus 30:6 and 40:26 which says it was kept in the room outside the Holy of Holies. It is possible that such errors were not his, but occurred in some earlier texts or traditions. I did not find such a text, but I confess I didn't strain myself looking.

Anyway, that all leads me to accept the Kings version and discount the Hebrews version.

Personal note: Of course, I'm Jewish, so actually I do more than discount the Hebrews version, I reject it outright. I personally think the author of Letter to the Hebrews got a *lot* of things wrong beyond the mere details of what was in the Ark or what ritual instruments were kept where.

Second personal note: I did check the "whole" Bible, JHJ, you needn't be snippy about it. I just didn't bother with that appendix that you call the New Testament.

Conclusion: As with so many other issues of contradictions within the Bible (regardless of what your denomination takes as "the Bible"), you are free to make up your own mind. No one can prove or disprove one argument over the other.

On the other hand, we've got the record for multiple Mailbag postings on a single topic! Cecil is quietly proud, I'm sure.

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