What is the Ark of the Covenant?
The Hebrew bible states that the Ark was built by the Israelites in the Sinai Desert after they fled Egypt and its purpose was to hold the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
When this is rumoured to have happened is up for debate, but any trace of the Ark has vanished following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BC.
There are contrasting beliefs about what the Ark was made of and looked like, with the Book of Exodus describing a lavish chest made with gold and other precious materials.
‘Have them make an ark of acacia wood — two and a half cubits [3.75 feet or 1.1 meters] long, a cubit and a half [2.25 feet or 0.7 meters] wide, and a cubit and a half [2.25 feet] high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it.’ Exodus 25:10-11.
It was supposedly built to be placed inside a movable shrine known as the tabernacle.
A curtain prevented people from viewing the Ark of the Covenant and an altar and incense burners were placed in front of the curtain.
The incense was made of gum resin, onycham, galbanum and Frankincense and was to be burned by Aaron, the brother of Moses, and his sons at morning and sunset.
Exodus also mentions more details about its alleged appearance and talks about Bezalel, who was chosen by God to build the Ark.
‘I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills — to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.’ Exodus 31:3-5.
The second description of the Ark is far less ornate and describes it as being made just of wood, according to the Book of Deuteronomy.
This contrasting tale tells of a story where the Israelis lost their faith in God and, at one point, were worshipping a golden calf instead.
Moses became so outraged and angered by this that he smashed the existing stone tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed.
God promptly ordered Moses to create new tablets, also engraved with the Commandments, and build a wooden box to put them in.
‘Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain. Also make a wooden ark. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Then you are to put them in the ark.’ Deuteronomy 10:1-2.
‘So I [Moses] made the ark out of acacia wood and chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I went up on the mountain with the two tablets in my hands. The Lord wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the Ten Commandments he had proclaimed to you on the mountain….’ Deuteronomy 10:3-4. Moses then put the tablets inside the wooden ark.
Magical powers and curses of the Ark
It was claimed in the religious scripture that the Ark also had magical powers.
In one story, the Jordan River stopped flowing and remained still while a group of priests carrying the ark crossed the river.
Other stories describe how the Israelites took the ark with them into battle where the powers of the ark helped the Israelites defeat their enemies.
The Ark was once captured by the Philistines and caused outbreaks of tumours and disease among the population.
So bad was the pestilence that the Philistines returned it to their foe, the Israelites.
After its return, it was lowered on to its ‘large stone’ base which supported its mass, but some awe-struck residents of the town of Beth Shemesh made the mistake of peering inside, resulting in them being struck down by God with lightning.
This scene is recreated in the 1981 Harrison Ford film, Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the faces of people looking inside melted.
Differing accounts of the Ark have led some scholars to the conclusion that there may have been more than one created.
What is the ‘large stone’?
The mythical ‘large stone’ described in the First Book of Samuel was used to hold up the Ark – a large chest containing the Ten Commandments – after it arrived at Beth Shemesh.
The return to Beth Shemesh is documented in the first book of Samuel.
It states: ‘Now the people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it.
‘Then the cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there; a large stone was there.
‘So they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord.
‘The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the chest that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone.’
Tales of the Ark are littered through the Holy book, with many alluding to its mysterious disappearance and unknown whereabouts.
Where the Ark of the Covenant is – common theories
According to the Book of Maccabees, the ark was hidden in a cave on Mount Nebo by the prophet Jeremiah.
‘[ This] place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy.’ 2 Maccabees 2:7
The ‘Treatise of the Vessels’ says that the ark ‘shall not be revealed until the day of the coming of the Messiah son of David….’
The Book of Revelation claims that the ark will not be seen again until the end times.
Revelation 11:19 states: ‘Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the Ark of his Covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.’
Ongoing research has looked to unearth the mysterious Ark and looked at various locations around Jerusalem.