The Ark of the Covenant was surely one of the most important objects ever in the Jewish tradition. It contained both sets of the Ten Commandments (one in pieces) and a sample of the manna that our ancestors lived on during the forty years of wandering in the desert.
And yet somehow it just disappeared. It features prominently in Scripture, both in the Torah and in other books of the Bible, up until around the first time the Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE. And then it just disappears and is not mentioned again. What happened to it?
I, your humble rabbi, have played a small – well, very small – part in the search for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Although to be honest, I was more part of a dramatization of the search for the Ark for entertainment purposes, than a real explorer. You can see me in a TV show on the Science Channel, “Unlock the Secrets of the Lost Ark” with a hard hat and light, prowling through Zecharia’s Cave in Jerusalem, in the rubble under the Temple Mount, searching for the lost ark. A real Indiana Jones moment for me. You can also catch me on Montreal native William Shatner’s UnXplained, Season 3 Episode 3, “The Search for the Ark of the Covenant” explaining to viewers the significance of the ark and discussing what might have happened to it.
Today I will share with you some background on the ark and my theory on what happened to it.
A verse in this week’s Torah reading, Behaalotcha, hints at why the Ark was so important. It’s a familiar verse: we recite it every time we take the Torah out of the ark.
Vayihi binsoa haaron, vayomer Moshe: kuma, Adonai, v’yafutzu oyvecha, viyanusu mipanecha m’sanecha
And it was when the ark traveled, Moses said, “Arise, Adonai, and may your enemies be scattered, may those who hate you flee from your presence!”
This is a somewhat perplexing passage. What does the ark traveling have to do with enemies being scattered?
The commentators are all over the map in trying to understand what these verses are about. The Midrash, Sifrei, asks who could be enemies of God? The answer—enemies of Israel! The Slonimer rebbe suggests we should understand these verses metaphorically and consider talmidei chochamim, Torah scholars, the ark—after all, it is within people that the Torah really resides. Although that interpretation doesn’t necessarily make any sense either – do you see enemies fleeing from Torah scholars?
However, it may be that a less interpretive reading, and a more literal reading is closer to the original intent. The tradition claims that the ark WAS imbued with mystical powers that allowed the Israelites to prevail over their enemies. If so, the ark’s ability to help us conquer our enemies could explain why this is so important as to merit being set apart from the rest of the Torah.
The power of the ark is mentioned in several places in the Torah. Consider the caution given after Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu are killed for offering strange fire to the Lord: “The Lord said to Moses, Speak to Aaron your brother, that he should not come at all times into the holy place within the veil before the throne of mercy, which is upon the Ark, so that he does not die: for I will appear in the cloud upon the throne of mercy.”
The throne of mercy was the slab of pure gold which served as the cover for the ark, on which rested the two cherubim. God’s presence was said to rest on the Ark, and approaching at the wrong time could lead to sudden death!
If you’ve ever seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you might have thought that all that fantastical stuff about the powers of the Ark, how it could level mountains, lay waste regions, and protect any Army carrying it was all made up. Not so! The writers of Raiders of the Lost Ark relied directly on material in the Jewish tradition—in the Bible and in the Midrash.
The Bible and Midrash are full of legends which attest to the powers of the Ark. Most of the legends about the ark are in the later books of the Tanakh, not in the Torah itself.
There’s a midrash that claims the Ark was the ancient Hebrews’ navigational device. The Ark led the way in the desert. As the people would break camp, Moses would tell them to do what the Shechinah (Divine presence) within the Ark commands. But the people wouldn’t believe Moses that the Shechinah dwelt among them unless he spoke the words in this week’s parsha: “Arise, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, let them that hate you flee before you.” At which point the Ark would move, the people would believe, and the Ark would soar up high and swiftly move before the camp a distance of three days march, settling in a suitable camping spot. Wouldn’t that be useful for those summer vacations when all the good camp sites seem to be taken!
The Midrash also tells us that the Ark provided protection in the desert, with sparks or fiery jets issuing forth from the cherubim that killed off the serpents and scorpions in the path of the Israelites, and burned away all the thorns on the path that might injure the hikers. As if that’s not sweet enough, the smoke from the zapped thorns rose straight in a column, and perfumed the whole world!
Everyone knows about the parting of the waters at the Red Sea. Not everyone knows about a second parting of the waters—of the Jordan River. In the book of Joshua we learn that when the Israelites were entering the Promised Land, as the priests who were carrying the Ark set foot into the Jordan River, the waters piled up behind, and allowed them to walk across on dry land. The midrash expands on this story, and says that the waters rose to a height of 300 miles!!! The midrash says the Ark remained in the middle of the riverbed while all the people crossed, and once all the people were across, the Ark set forward all on its own, dragging the priests entrusted with its care after it, until it overtook the people!
Once they got the Ark to Israel, the first stop was to conquer Jericho. Most people have heard the story of how the Jews walked around the city, blew on the trumpets, and the walls came tumbling down. But an important part of the story is that the important factor in the walls coming down was not the blowing of the trumpets, but rather the presence of the Ark, which was carried around the city.
Having the Ark in your possession was NOT a guarantee of victory in battle, as evidenced by the story told in the book of Samuel, when the Philistines captured the Ark. The Philistines quickly realized they had a hot potato—where ever the Ark was, statues of the Philistine god Dagon were knocked down, people died, and those who didn’t die were afflicted with a horrible case of hemorrhoids. The Philistines loaded the Ark on a wagon and it sent it back to the Jews. With an “offering” of five golden hemorrhoids for good measure.
There are several stories told of people escorting the Ark dying mysterious deaths.
The Ark had a few other remarkable powers. According to the Midrash, when they were bringing the Ark to Geba, the priests who tried to take hold of it were raised up in the air and thrown violently to the ground. Another story told of the Ark is that when the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, Solomon used the Ark to distinguish between men who were circumcised and men who were not!
Given all of these magical powers, and the fact that the Ark held the testimony to the covenant between Man and God, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Ark and its contents were clearly the most important object in Jewish history. There is nothing that is even a close second. Which makes it all the more mysterious that the Ark could disappear without a trace. The very last reference we have to the Ark anywhere in the Bible is in 2 Chronicles, where it says King Josiah told the Levites to put the Ark in the Temple, the implication being that it had been moved from there earlier by King Menashe. This was late in the First Temple period, 7th century BCE, probably 30 or 40 years before the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. And that is the very last mention of the Ark in the Bible—yet there is a lot of history which comes after.
Nowhere in the Bible does it mention the Ark either being carried off in the destruction of the First Temple, or it being returned after the Persians allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple. There are no further references to the Ark whatsoever. Not only has the Ark physically disappeared, but even the scriptural history of the Ark stops totally abruptly.
The book of 2 Maccabees, part of the Apocrypha not included in the Hebrew Bible, but part of the Catholic Bible, claims that the prophet Jeremiah spirited the ark out of Jerusalem and hid it in a cave in the Judean desert.
The Talmud gives a few different theories. One says Josiah hid the Ark before the invading army of Nebuchadnezzar came and destroyed the Temple the first time. Another says that one time a priest noticed something hidden under the wood house by the Temple, but he was struck dead before he could reveal the secret to others, intimating it’s under the Temple Mount.
There are those who believe that this story in the Talmud is what actually happened, and that the Ark remains hidden away under the Temple mount somewhere, waiting to be unearthed. That’s my favorite theory.
But there is another tale told. The Christians of Ethiopia claim that the Ark, the most sacred object in Judaism, the Ark which could kill 50,000 who just looked at it (sounds like a nuclear explosion, no?) is in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopians claim that when the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, she took a little souvenir home: the Ark of the Covenant! The path the Ark supposedly took in getting from Jerusalem to Axum is a very long and complicated story. Interestingly, every Ethiopian Christian church has a tabot, which is a replica of the Ark. These replicas of the Ark are what gives the church its sanctity. When they bring the replicas out, they are covered in cloth wrappings so no one can actually see them.
Not only does each church have a replica, but the Ethiopians claim that in the town of Axum in Northern Ethiopia, in the church of Saint Mary of Zion, guarded over by one old Ethiopian who tried to flee when told he was appointed guardian of the Ark, rests the Ark of the Covenant.
Should we search for the actual physical Ark? If it’s in Ethiopia, should we ask for it back? Should we hunt for it under the Temple Mount?
Despite my televised poking around looking for the Ark, I don’t think so.
The Torah tells us the Ark was so special no one could look at it anyway. Another reason not to have it in our possession is it would be far too easy to turn it into an opportunity for idol worship. To focus on the box, not the contents, the tablets, not the teachings. Having the Ark and putting it on display in a museum would make Judaism seem like another museum religion, like the Egyptian sun worshippers for example, a religion with interesting artifacts, but no relevance to the present.
No, it’s better to remember what the Slonimer Rebbe said. The Ark that counts is the person. The Ark that is eternal—the Ark that cannot be lost, stolen, or destroyed is the Ark of the Jewish people, who keep the covenant engraved on their hearts, not engraved on stone. And it is that Ark which will scatter our enemies—we will scatter our enemies through the strength, wisdom, and courage we gain from living lives guided by God and Torah.