Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant is described in the Hebrew Bible as a sacred container built by Moses, in which rested the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.

The Ark and its sanctuary were "the beauty of Israel" (Lam. 2:1). During the journeys of the Israelites, the Ark was carried by the priests in advance of the host (Num. 4:5, 6; 10:33-36; Ps. 68:1; 132:8). The Ark was borne by the priests into the bed of the Jordan, which separated, opening a pathway for the whole of the host to pass over (Josh. 3:15, 16; 4:7, 10, 11, 17, 18). The Ark was borne in the procession round Jericho (Josh. 6:4, 6, 8, 11, 12). When carried, the Ark was always wrapped in the veil, the badgers' skins, and blue cloth, and carefully concealed even from the eyes of the Levites who carried it.

Table of contents
1 Terminology
2 Description
3 Sanctity and consecration
4 As a movable sanctuary
5 Captured by the Philistines
6 In the days of King David
7 In Solomon's Temple
8 In the Qur'an
9 In the Bible and the Apocrypha
10 The Babylonians
11 Analysis
12 In Art and Music
13 References and External links


The Hebrew word aron is used in the Bible to designate any type of ark, chest or coffer, for any purpose (Gen. 50:26; 2 Kings 12:9, 10). The Ark of the Covenant is distinguished from all others by such titles as the "Ark of God" (1 Sam. 3:3), "Ark of the Covenant" (Josh. 3:6; Heb. 9:4), "Ark of the Testimony" (Ex. 25:22).


The Bible describes the Ark as made of acacia or shittah-tree wood, a cubit and a half broad and high and two cubits long, and covered all over with the purest gold. Its upper surface or lid, the mercy-seat, was surrounded with a rim of gold; and on each of the two sides were two gold rings, in which were placed two gold-covered poles by which the ark could be carried (Num. 7:9; 10:21; 4:5,19, 20; 1 Kings 8:3, 6).

Over the Ark, at the two extremities, were two cherubim, with their faces turned toward each other (Lev. 16:2; Num. 7:89). Their outspread wings over the top of the ark formed the throne of God, while the ark itself was his footstool (Ex. 25:10-22; 37:1-9).

The Ark was deposited in the "holy of holies," and was so placed that one end of the poles by which it was carried touched the veil which separated the two apartments of the tabernacle (1 Kings 8:8). The two tables of stone which constituted the "testimony" or evidence of God's covenant with the people (Deut. 31:26), the "pot of manna" (Ex. 16:33), and "Aaron's rod that budded" (Num. 17:10), were laid up in the Ark (Heb. 9:4).

Sanctity and consecration

Even Aaron, brother of Moses and the High Priest, was forbidden to enter this place of the Ark too often. He was enjoined to perform certain ceremonies when entering there (Lev. xvi). Moses was directed to consecrate the Ark, when completed, with the oil of holy ointment (Ex. xxx. 23-26); and he was also directed to have the Ark made by Bezaleel, the son of Uri of the tribe of Judah, and by Aholiab, the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan (ib. xxxi. 2-7). These instructions Moses carried out, calling upon "every wisehearted" one among the people to assist in the work (ib. xxxv. 10-12). Bezaleel the artists made the Ark (ib. xxxvii. 1); and Moses approved the work, put the testimony in the Ark, and installed it.

In Deut. x. 1-5 a different account of the making of the Ark is given. Moses is made to say that he constructed the Ark before going upon Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tables. The charge of carrying the Ark and the rest of the holy utensils was given to the family of Kohath, of the tribe of Levi; but they were not to touch any of the holy things until after the latter had been covered by Aaron (Num. iv. 2-15).

As a movable sanctuary

In the march from Sinai, and at the crossing of the Jordan, the Ark preceded the people and was the signal for their advance (Num. x. 33; Josh. iii. 3, 6). During the crossing of the Jordan 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 (Josh. iii. 15-17; iv. 10, 11, 18). As memorials, twelve stones were taken from the Jordan at the place where the priests had stood (ib. iv. 1-9).

The Ark was carried into battles, such as in the Midian war (Numbers 31). During the ceremonies preceding the capture of Jericho, the Ark was carried round the city in the daily procession, preceded by the armed men and by seven priests bearing seven trumpets of rams' horns (ib. vi. 6-15). After the defeat at Ai, Joshua lamented before the Ark (ib. vii. 6-9). When Joshua read the Law to the people between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, they stood on each side of the Ark. The Ark was set up by Joshua at Shiloh; but when the Israelites fought against Benjamin at Gibeah, they had the Ark with them, and consulted it after their defeat.

Captured by the Philistines

The Ark is next spoken of as being in the Temple at Shiloh during Samuel's apprenticeship (I Sam. iii. 3). After the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan the ark remained in the tabernacle at Gilgal for a season, and was then removed to Shiloh till the time of Eli, between 300 and 400 years (Jer. 7:12), when it was carried into the field of battle so as to secure, as they supposed, victory to the Hebrews, and was taken by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:3-11), who sent it back after retaining it seven months (1 Sam. 5:7, 8). After their first defeat at Eben-ezer, the Israelites had the Ark brought from Shiloh, and welcomed its coming with great rejoicing.

In the second battle the Israelites were again defeated, and the Philistines captured the Ark (ib. iv. 3-5, 10, 11). The news of its capture was at once taken to Shiloh by a messenger "with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head." The old priest, Eli, fell dead when he heard it; and his daughter-in-law, bearing a son at the time the news of the capture of the Ark was received, named him Ichabod—explained as "Where is glory?" in reference to the loss of the Ark (ib. iv. 12-22).

The Philistines took the Ark to several places in their country, and at each place misfortune resulted to them (ib. v. 1-6). At Ashdod it was placed in the temple of Dagon. The next morning Dagon was found prostrate before it; and on being restored to his place, he was on the following morning again found prostrate and broken. The people of Ashdod were smitten with boils; a plague of mice was sent over the land (ib. vi. 5). The affliction of boils was also visited upon the people of Gath and of Ekron, whither the Ark was successively removed (ib. v. 8-12).

After the Ark had been among them seven months, the Philistines, on the advice of their diviners, returned it to the Israelites, accompanying its return with an offering consisting of golden images of the boils and mice with which they had been afflicted. The Ark was put down in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite, and the Beth-shemites offered sacrifices and burnt offerings (ib. vi. 1-15). Out of curiosity the men of Beth-shemesh gazed at the Ark; and as a punishment over fifty thousand of them were smitten by the Lord (ib. 19). The Bethshemites sent to Kirjath-jearim, or Baal-Judah, to have the Ark removed (ib. 21); and it was taken to the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar was sanctified to keep it. Kirjath-jearim was the abode of the Ark for twenty years. Under Saul the Ark was with the army before he first met the Philistines, but the king was too impatient to consult it before engaging in the battle. In I Chron. xiii. 3 it is stated that the people were not accustomed to consult the Ark in the days of Saul.

In the days of King David

At the very beginning of his reign David removed the Ark from Kirjath-jearim amid great rejoicing. On the way to Zion, Uzzah, one of the drivers of the cart on which the Ark was carried, put out his hand to steady the Ark, and was smitten by the Lord for touching it. David in fear carried the Ark aside into the house of Obed-edom the Gittite, instead of carrying it on to Zion, and here it stayed three months (II Sam. vi. 1-11; I Chron. xiii. 1-13).

On hearing that the Lord had blessed Obed-edom because of the presence of the Ark in his house, David had the Ark brought to Zion by the Levites, while he himself, "girded with a linen ephod," "danced before the Lord with all his might"—a performance for which he was despised and rebuked by Saul's daughter Michal (II Sam. vi. 12-16, 20-22; I Chron. xv.). In Zion he put the Ark in the tabernacle he had prepared for it, offered sacrifices, distributed food, and blessed the people and his own household (II Sam. vi. 17-20; I Chron. xvi. 1-3; II Chron. i. 4).

Levites were appointed to minister before the Ark (I Chron. xvi. 4). David's plan of building a temple for the Ark was stopped at the advice of God (II Sam. vii. 1-17; I Chron. xvii. 1-15; xxviii. 2, 3). The Ark was with the army during the siege of Rabbah (II Sam. xi. 11); and when David fled from Jerusalem at the time of Absalom's conspiracy, the Ark was carried along with him until he ordered Zadok the priest to return it to Jerusalem (II Sam. xv. 24-29).

It remained then at Kirjath-jearim (7:1,2) till the time of David (twenty years), who wished to remove it to Jerusalem; but the proper mode of removing it having been neglected, Uzzah was smitten with death for putting "forth his hand to the ark of God," and in consequence of this it was left in the house of Obed-Edom in Gath-rimmon for three months (2 Sam. 6:1-11), at the end of which time David removed it in a grand procession to Jerusalem, where it was kept till a place was prepared for it (12-19).

In Solomon's Temple

When Abiathar was dismissed from the priesthood by Solomon for having taken part in Adonijah's conspiracy against David, his life was spared because he had formerly borne the Ark (I Kings ii. 26). It was afterwards deposited by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:6-9). Solomon worshiped before the Ark after the dream in which the Lord promised him wisdom (ib. iii. 15). In Solomon's Temple a Holy of Holies was prepared to receive the Ark (ib. vi. 19); and when the Temple was dedicated, the Ark, containing nothing but the two Mosaic tables of stone, was placed therein. When the priests came out of the holy place after placing the Ark there, the Temple was filled by a cloud, "for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord" (I Kings viii. 10-11; II Chron. v. 13, 14).

When Solomon married Pharaoh's daughter, he caused her to dwell in a house outside Zion, as Zion was consecrated because of its containing the Ark (II Chron. viii. 11). King Josiah had the Ark put into the Temple (II Chron. xxxv. 3), from which it appears that it had again been removed by some predecessor.

In the Qur'an

There is only a brief mention of the Ark of the Covenant in the Qur'an:

Their prophet said to them, "The sign of his kingship is that the Ark of the Covenant will be restored to you, bringing assurances from your Lord, and relics left by the people of Moses and the people of Aaron. It will be carried by the angels. This should be a convincing sign for you, if you are really believers." 002:248

According to some Muslim scholars, the Ark of the Covenant does not have a religious basis in Islam and Islam does not give it any special significance.

In the Bible and the Apocrypha

The only mention of the Ark in the books of the prophets is the reference to it by Jeremiah, who, speaking in the days of Josiah (Jer. iii. 16), prophesies a time when the Ark will no longer be needed because of the righteousness of the people.

In the Psalms the Ark is twice referred to. In Ps. lxxviii. 61 its capture by the Philistines is spoken of, and the Ark is called "the strength and glory of God"; and in Ps. cxxxii. 8, it is spoken of as "the ark of the strength of the Lord."

The Ark is mentioned in one passage in the Apocrypha (II Maccabees ii. 4-10), which contains a legend to the effect that the prophet Jeremiah, "being warned of God," took the Ark, and the tabernacle, and the altar of incense, and buried them in a cave on Mount Sinai, informing those of his followers who wished to find the place that it should remain unknown "until the time that God should gather His people again together, and receive them unto mercy."

The Babylonians

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and plundered the temple, the Ark enters the domain of legend. Historians suppose the ark was probably taken away by Nebuchadnezzar and destroyed. The absence of the ark from the Second Temple was acknowledged. Variant traditions include the intentional concealment of the Ark under the Temple Mount, the removal of the Ark from Jerusalem in advance of the Babylonians (this variant usually ends up with the Ark in Ethiopia), the removal of the Ark by the Ethiopian prince Menelik I (purported son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba), removal by Jewish priests during the reign of Manasseh, and the miraculous removal of the Ark by divine intervention.

Today, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Axum, Ethiopia claims to still possess the Ark of the Covenant. Tradition maintains that it was brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I following a visit to his father King Solomon. Although it was once paraded before the town once each year, it is now kept under constant guard in a "treasury" near the Cathedral of Mary of Zion, and only the head priest of the church is allowed to view it. In recent years Western historians were allowed to view the Ark, and they learned that it did not match at all any previous description of the Biblical ark. It is now generally acknowledged that the Ethiopian ark did not come from Israel, and is not an artifact that was ever in the Temple in Jerusalem.


Speculations that the Ark of the Covenant may have operated as an electrical capacitor are common amongst electrical engineers; they say that the design of it allowed it to store electric charge, and thus could facilitate an electric discharge between the cherubs. The theory suggests that it resembles a capacitor (of radiant energy) in its construction. The biblical accounts of individuals sudden deaths from touching the Ark could correspond to death by a lethal high voltage charge. Louis Ginzberg’s "Legends of the Jews" has ancient oral traditions referring to "sparks" from the cherubim. These "fiery jets" occasionally burned and destroyed close objects. Other biblical accounts could correspond with exposure to some high frequency electromagnetic fields. Jewish legend has occasional records of a "cloud" between the cherubim. The Ark was considered dangerous at these times and Moses would not approach it.

Nikola Tesla, in the article "A fairy tale of electricity" (published September 9, 1915), stated in regards to the Ark:

"The records, though scanty, are of a nature to fill us with conviction that a few initiated, at least, had a deeper knowledge of amber phenomena. To mention one, Moses was undoubtedly a practical and skillful electrician far in advance of his time. The Bible describes precisely, and minutely, arrangements constituting a machine in which electricity was generated by friction of air against silk curtains, and stored in a box constructed like a condenser. It is very plausible to assume that the sons of Aaron were killed by a high-tension discharge, and that the vestal fires of the Romans were electrical." [1]

Archaeological discoveries of the last century (which include the Baghdad Battery among others), indicate that a working knowledge of energy devices might have been present in ancient Middle Eastern cultures, and therefore it might not have been beyond Moses' specialized training in the house of Pharaoh (Exodus 2:10).

It is known that the acacia wood acts as an insulator, while the gold (the purest available at that time) is known as a good conductor. An electric charge could have accumulated from constant exposure to static electricity in the Middle East climate (among other possible sources). The Ark's upper surface has a rim of gold (a single coil of angels figures). Over the ark, the cherubs could form a spark gap, producing a dynamic radiance that would inspire awe in the observer, and act as a lightning source to kill anyone that touched it.—Num. 7:9; 10:21; 4:5,19, 20; 1 Kings 8:3, 6 Lev. 16:2; Num. 7:89; 2 Sam. 6:6, 7.

Around 1999, author Richard Andrews built a model of the ark. He claims that when tested, it demonstrated that it would act as an electromagnetic accumulator.

In Art and Music

The Ark of the covenant plays a prominent role in many works of classical and modern day art.

The 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark served in no small part to introduce the Ark of the Covenant to American culture.

References and External links