The Ark of the Covenant

In today’s first reading, the Ark of the Covenant is prominently featured and a locus of the story. While the Ark is an icon of the people of the Exodus up to the Babylonian exile, I fear most folks know little about the Ark apart from “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” the 1981 blockbuster movie – now 40 years old. Of course the very title of the movie begs the question: when did it get “lost.” The Ark is perhaps the most sacred relic of the Israelites. It consisted of a pure gold-covered wooden chest with an elaborate lid called the Mercy seat. The Ark is described in the Book of Exodus as containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. According to the Letter to the Hebrews, it also contained Aaron’s rod and a pot of manna.

When the Israelites, led by Joshua arrived at the banks of the River Jordan ready to enter the Promised Land, the Ark was carried in the lead. During the crossing, the river grew dry as soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touched its waters, and remained so until the priests—with the Ark—left the river after the people had passed over.

During the Battle of Jericho, the Ark was carried around the city once a day for six days, preceded by the armed men and seven priests sounding seven trumpets of rams’ horns. On the seventh day, the seven priests sounding the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the Ark compassed the city seven times and, with a great shout, Jericho’s wall fell down flat and the city was conquered.

In today’s reading, during the age of the Judges, the Israelites battled the Philistines and lost badly. The Israelites returned to Shilo to bring the Ark onto the battlefield only to have it captured by the Philistines who took it back to their capital as war treasure. For their troubles they endured 7 months of ill fortune before they gladly returned it to the Israelites.

Eventually the Ark was relocated to Jerusalem during the reign of King David. David’s son Solomon built the Temple which became the permanent home to Ark. In Scripture, King Hezekiah was the last one to see the Ark. What happens next is where the mystery begins. One speculation is that the Babylonians captured the Ark:

And they took all the holy vessels of the Lord, both great and small, with the vessels of the ark of God, and the king’s treasures, and carried them away into Babylon (1 Esdras 1:54)

But to be precise, the passage does not say the Ark itself was taken.  Others hold that King Josiah had already hidden the Ark so as to prevent its capture (about 30 years before the fall of Jerusalem when Babylon and Egypt were threatening). We also have this account about the prophet Jeremiah:

The same document also tells how the prophet, in virtue of an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should accompany him, and how he went to the very mountain that Moses climbed to behold God’s inheritance. When Jeremiah arrived there, he found a chamber in a cave in which he put the tent, the ark, and the altar of incense; then he sealed the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the path, but they could not find it. When Jeremiah heard of this, he reproved them: “The place is to remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will be seen, just as they appeared in the time of Moses and of Solomon when he prayed that the place might be greatly sanctified. (2 Maccabees 2:4-8; “very mountain” though to be Mt. Nebo)

Revelation 11:19 says the prophet saw God’s temple in heaven opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within the heavenly temple.

Long before “Raiders” there were a whole host of other claimed places where the Ark was held: Ethiopia, in the Tigray town of Axum where it is guarded up to this day. The Lemba people of South Africa and Zimbabwe hold that their ancestors carried the Ark southward in their migrations, eventually hiding it in a deep cave in the Dumghe mountains. For the record, one tribe of the Lemba carry genetic markers that tie them to males of the Levant.

There have been many claims of the Ark hidden in the West: Chartres Cathedral, France, hidden there by Knights Templar. One speculation is that the Ark was taken from Jerusalem to the village of Rennes-le-Château in Southern France (also the locus of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. At the outbreak of World War I, the Freemasons moved the Ark to the United States.

The Ark of the Covenant was said to have been kept in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, surviving various pillages of Rome but was eventually lost when the basilica burned. Other adventurers trace the Ark to a hiding place in the Hill of Tara in Ireland. Excavations turned up nothing before almost destroying the archeological value of the site.

In 1922 there was a brief flurry of excitement when the royal tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun was open in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. When the technical details of the found ark were revealed, it was quickly noted that the shape and dimensions were not in accord with the Scriptural description.

This is perhaps the inspiration for the 1981 movie, as the Ark Indiana Jones in the Egyptian city of Tanis in 1936.

And as we all now know, the Ark is lost in a US Government warehouse.

I would be remiss if I did not reference the television show, The Big Bang Theory.  After watching “Raiders”” Sheldon asks Amy what she thought and she replied that it was good which offends Sheldon since it is one of his favorite movies. Amy restated that she enjoyed it but notes a large plot-hole. Amy explains that if Indiana Jones were not in the movie the Nazis would still find the Ark of the Covenant, would still have taken it to the island, then opened it up, and all would have died. Sheldon holds this to be heresy of the highest order; and plots his revenge as he consults with other uber fans of the movie. You can watch that video here. Enjoy.

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