Ark of the Covenant

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The Ark of the Covenant, as portrayed in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark (Lucasfilm, c. 1981)

The Ark of the Covenant (Hebrew: ארון הבּרית, 'ărōn ha-berīth) in the Old Testament of the Bible is the chest the Hebrews used to contain the tablets of the Law given by God to Moses. The Ark was the centerpiece of the Temple in Jerusalem, residing in the Holy of Holies, and seen just once a year by the high priest on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Biblical description

The Ark is first mentioned in Exodus, chapter 25:

And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof.
And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, within and without shalt thou overlay it, and shalt make upon it a crown of gold round about.
And thou shalt cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in the four corners (feet) thereof; and two rings shall be in the one side of it, and two rings in the other side of it.
And thou shalt make staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold.
And thou shalt put the staves into the rings by the sides of the ark, that the ark may be borne with them.
The staves shall be in the rings of the ark: they shall not be taken from it.
And thou shalt put into the ark the testimony which I shall give thee.
And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof.
And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat.
And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof.
And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.
And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee.
And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel. (Exodus 25:10-22)

Essentially, the Ark was a box approximately 27 inches wide by 27 inches high by 36 inches long (Biblical: 1.5 x 1.5 x 2 cubits; a cubit = 18 inches); the "shittim wood" was determined to have been acacia. The lid of the box was solid gold and crowned by a pair of gold cherubim facing each other; the outspread wings of the cherubim formed the throne of God, while the Ark itself was His footstool.

The gold rings on the corners enabled poles to be inserted at the beginning when the Ark was first carried by the Levites, who were the only Hebrew tribe authorized to do so. Thereafter the staves were never to be withdrawn. When traveling, the Ark was covered by a costly veil of blue cloth. See Badger skins (Bible).

The Ark was also known by another name: 'Ark of Testimony, the result of its containing the most important object in Hebrew life, the tablets of the Law (Exodus 40:18; Deuteronomy 10:5) given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which were often referred to as the testimony. The tablets, as well as a pot of manna (Exodus 16:34), and Aaron's rod which had blossomed (Numbers 17:10) formed the contents of the Ark. Jewish tradition mentions that the first five books of the Torah written by Moses was also placed inside; however, according to 1 Kings 8:9, when the Ark was placed in the new temple by Solomon, it contained only the tablets of the Law.


When the Ark was carried in the open, it was covered by a veil of colored skins, and a blue cloth, concealed even from the Levite priests who were assigned to carry it. When the Hebrews were at rest during the wanderings, the Ark was placed within the tabernacle, a tent-like structure erected as a place of worship, the Ark being placed within a segregated area inside called the “Holy of Holies”.

During the journeys of the Israelites the ark was carried by the priests in advance of the main body of the Hebrew host (Numbers 4:5, 4:6; 10:33-36; Psams 68:1; 132:8), its power first being demonstrated when it was borne over the Jordan River, which separated into a pathway for the priests to cross (Joshua 3:15, 3:16; 4:7, 4:10, 4:11, 4:17, 4:18). It was borne in the procession round Jericho (Joshua 6:4, 6:6, 6:8, 6:11, 6:12) for seven days prior to the successful capture of that city.

Much has been said about the Ark’s power, that it was claimed to have been an early type of storage battery; indeed, warnings not to touch the Ark by anyone but the high priest were in force, and one man (Uzzah) was killed by it after reaching out to steady it. Taken in battle at one point in its history (1 Samuel 4:3-11), the victorious Philistines were forced to beg their defeated foe to take it back after spending seven calamitous months with it (1 Samuel 5:7, 1 Samuel 5:8).

After the settlement of Israel in the Promised Land the ark remained in the tabernacle at Gilgal for a season, and then removed to Shiloh until the time of Eli, between 300 and 400 years (Jeremiah 7:12). It remained then at Kirjath-jearim (1 Samuel 7:1, 1 Samuel 7:2) for twenty years until removed to the house of Obed-edom in Gath-rimmon for three months (2 Samuel 6:1-11) as a result of Uzzah’s transgression; when that period ended David removed it in a grand procession to Jerusalem, where it was kept till a place was prepared for it (2 Samuel 6:12-19). It was left to Solomon to build the first temple where it was deposited (1 Kings 8:6-9). When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and plundered the temple, the ark was probably taken away by Nebuchadnezzar and destroyed, as no trace of it is afterwards to be found. Jeremiah in the passage Jeremiah 3:16, which certainly was written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, states that in the future new Jerusalem nobody will any more concern himself about the Ark of the Covenant, and no one will again build such a one. In the post-exilic Psalm 132:8 the Lord is petitioned to occupy together with the ark, the symbol of His omnipotent presence, also the sanctuary that has been erected for Him, the poet describing himself and those who sing this psalm as participants in the home-bringing of the ark by David. No further mention is made of the Ark of the Covenant in the Psalter or the prophetical books. The absence of the Ark from the second temple was considered a reason for its inferiority

Current status

The Ark of the Covenant is the most sought-after religious object in history, involving the divinely-inspired, soul-seekers, the Knights Templars, archaeologists, historians, scholars, skeptics, and outright charlatans.


Several traditions exist as to the fate of the Ark after 587 B.C. The first was written down in the book of 2nd Maccabees, apparently a copy of a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah:

The prophet, being warned by God, commanded that the tabernacle and the ark should accompany him, till he came forth to the mountain where Moses went up and saw the inheritance of God. And when Jeremias came thither he found a hollow cave and he carried in thither the tabernacle and the ark and the altar of incense, and so stopped the door. Then some of them that followed him, came up to mark the place; but they could not find it. And when Jeremias perceived it, he blamed them saying: the place shall be unknown, till God gather together the congregation of the people and receive them to mercy. And then the Lord will shew these things, and the majesty of the Lord shall appear, and there shall be a cloud as it was also shewed to Moses, and he shewed it when Solomon prayed that the place might be sanctified to the great God. (2 Maccabees 2:4-8)

According to tradition, Jeremiah was divinely warned of the Babylonian invasion, and taking the Ark he had it sealed up and hidden inside a mountain where no one could find it except during the last days; various accounts cite the location as being either Mt. Nebo in Jordan, or near the Temple Mount in a small grotto within Mt. Moriah. This in turn has led to several searches by professional and amateur alike, of which the most notable of the latter was Ron Wyatt.

John the Apostle

According to the testimony of John, when he was on the island of Patmos, he witnessed the ark of the covenant within the temple of God in heaven. Revelation 11:19. This appears" to indicate that the ark was transported to heaven some time after Jeremiah had sealed it inside the mountain and it is no longer on earth.

Alternatively, the ark of the covenant shown to John in heaven could be the prototype pattern of the ark shown to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 25:40), so that the physical copy of the heavenly ark (Hebrews 9:23-24) made by Bezalel under Moses' instructions may still be on earth.

See Jeremiah 3:16.
"And it shall come to pass, when ye be multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, saith the LORD, they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the LORD: neither shall they remember it; neither shall they visit it; neither shall that be done any more." KJV
"It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; it shall not be made again." RSV

Ron Wyatt

The Temple Mount location has been the subject of several searches by Ron Wyatt, a registered nurse by training, and an amateur Biblical archaeologist/historian. Wyatt claimed to have found the Ark in 1982 [1] after being divinely inspired; his search resulted in several images of gold which he claimed was the Ark, albeit blurry.

Wyatt had also found, among other things, the tombs of Noah, Abraham, Jesus, and numerous other Biblical figures; the sites of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the true Noah's ark; Moses' original Ten Commandments bound with a golden hinge; the true site of the Red Sea crossing; and many other things related to the Bible, all when he was on his vacations, which he could afford while working part-time [2]. His "achievements" led to severe criticism, most notably from Christian circles, his lack of formal training in archaeology notwithstanding. Needless to say, when comparred with the physical description given in the Bible about the Ark of the Covenant, Wyatt's claimed photos do not match.

Dr. Jim Fleming, founder and former director of the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies (located at Tantur) and an editorial advisor to Biblical Archaeology Review stated that while at a dig at Mount Calvary he observed at close hand Wyatt's methods, claiming in one incident that he had discovered the Ark based on nothing more than the reading of an ordinary metal detector. Others have noted similar instances; John Woods, a Christian pastor, said “I saw him explaining to a group that a piece of metal embedded in the face of the Garden Tomb was part of the seal Pilate had placed upon the tomb. In fact it was a piece of shrapnel from the war (the Six-Day War of 1967; from a letter to Gordon Franz from Reverend John Woods, Executive Director, The Gospel Mission of Washington, D.C., February 4, 1994).


Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, Aksum, Ethiopia

According to another tradition, the Ark may have been removed by the Levites to keep it out of the hands of the idolatrous Israelite King Manasseh, who profaned the Temple by sacrificing to a pagan god (2 Kings 21). The tradition holds that the priests took the Ark with them east towards the Nile River in Egypt, where they erected an actual temple on the island of Elephantine (evidence confirms the existence of such a structure). Later the Ark was again moved south to Ethiopia, where it resided on an island in Lake Tana for several centuries before being moved once more to Aksum, where it resides in the small Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion today. The term tabat refers to a copy of the Ark, which is an object made for individual churches within Ethiopia; the number of these copies gives some protection to the original, if it indeed does exist within Ethiopia.

According to a statement made public by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church while visiting Rome, the Ark was to have been revealed to the world on June 26, 2009. In a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, Patriarch Abuna Pauolos stated "Soon the world will be able to admire the Ark of the Covenant described in the Bible as the container of the tablets of the law that God delivered to Moses and the center of searches and studies for centuries." When the time for the reveal had come and gone, a spokesman for the church said that what the patriarch said earlier may have been "a slip [of the] tongue from the patriarch"[3].

Menelik I

A variant of this story was that the son of a union between the legendary Queen of Sheba and King Solomon had returned to Jerusalem as a young man. Menelik would stay for a short time, and either be given the Ark by his father or would steal it.


Tanis was an Egyptian city in the Nile delta region, and once the capitol of Pharaoh Shoshenq I, claimed to have been the Biblical Shishak who raided Jerusalem and carried away much treasure. Belief in this theory has never been popular due to lack of supporting evidence; however, Tanis was intriguing enough to serve as a fictional location for one of today's most famous films: 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones, the hero of the film, is an archaeologist sent by the U.S. government to retrieve the Ark from its Tanis location before the Nazis can get to it.