The Ark of the Covenant - its history and spiritual significance

The Ark of the Covenant was the most mysterious and intriguing of all the sacred objects of ancient Hebrew religion.

Questions that I have been frequently asked by students include:

Why did God give Moses such detailed instructions for the Ark?

What religious symbolism is depicted in the Ark?

What was the Mercy Seat?

How was the Ark?

Does the Ark still exist, and if so, where is it?

What is the spiritual significance of the Ark?

On this page will share a brief history of the Ark. I have also provided links to two inspiring Bible studies with printable teacher's guides and study outlines for students. Please use these study materials for your Bible study group or church absolutely free.

These studies are part of a complete ten session lecture series on the Tabernacle of Moses. This is available as a Old Testament Division Distance Education Course through Christian Life School of Theology Global.

Free Bible Study Lessons

Ark of the Covenant Study 1: Teacher's Guide.

Right-click to download this PDF file here.

Ark of the Covenant Study 1: Student Outline.

Right-click to download this PDF file here.

Ark of the Covenant Study 2: Teacher's Guide.

Right-click to download this PDF file here.

Ark of the Covenant Study 2: Student Outline.

Right-click to download this PDF file here.

A brief description of the Ark

The Ark of the Covenant was a box containing the Tablets of Stone on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments as well as Aaron's rod and a jar of manna.

According to the Torah, the Ark was built at the command of God, as revealed to Moses in a prophetic vision on Mount Sinai (Exodus 25:10-16). After the Ark was placed in the Tabernacle, God communicated with Moses "from between the two cherubim" on the Ark's cover (Exodus 25:22). The Ark and its sanctuary were "the beauty of Israel" (Lam. 2:1).

The Biblical narrative of the exodus describes the Ark as borne by the priests in advance of the Israelites and their army (Num. 4:5-6; 10:33-36; Psalms 68:1; 132:8). When the Ark was carried by priests into the bed of the Jordan, the river was separated, opening a pathway for the whole nation to pass over (Josh. 3:15-16; 4:7-18).

The Ark was borne in a seven-day procession around the wall of Jericho by seven priests sounding seven trumpets of rams horns, the city taken with a shout (Josh. 6:4-20). When carried, the Ark was always wrapped in a veil and a blue cloth so that it was carefully concealed even from the eyes of the Levites who carried it.

The Ark of the Covenant was made of acacia wood, known to the Egyptians as the Tree of Life and an important plant in traditional medicine containing psychoactive alkaloids. It was 1.5 cubits broad and high, and 2.5 cubits long (i.e. 130 x 78 x 78 cm or 4.27 x 2.56 x 2.56 ft). It was overlaid without and within with the purest gold. On each of the two long sides were two gold rings, in which were placed two wooden poles to enable the Ark to be carried (Num. 7:9; 10:21; 4:5,19, 20; 1 Kings 8:3, 6).

The lid of the Ark was called the Mercy Seat (Hebrew: Kaporet) and was surrounded with a rim of gold. At the two extremities of the Mercy Seat were two cherubim, with their faces turned toward one another (Leviticus 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 of the Covenant was placed in the Most Holy Place (inner sanctuary) of the Tabernacle of Moses and later of Solomon's Temple (1 Kings 8:8).

In contrast to the elaborate ornamentation described in the Book of Exodus, The Book of Deuteronomy makes a reference to the Ark as a simple wooden container with no mention of ornaments or gold. Likewise, the Qur'an describes the Ark as a wooden box with holy relics inside it.

A brief history of the Ark

The Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in numerous books of the Old Testament (Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, Psalms, Jeremiah), as well as the New Testament books Hebrews and Revelation.

The prophet Jeremiah, speaking in the days of King Josiah (Jer. 3:16), prophesies of a future time when the Ark will no longer be used, neither talked about, nor be made again. The Psalms refer to the Ark’s capture by the Philistines and call it "the strength and glory of God" (Ps. 78:61). Psalm 132:8 declares "You and the ark of Your strength."

The Qur'an recounts that during the time of Samuel and Saul the children of Israel were given back Tabut E Sakina ("the casket of Shekhinah") which brought them peace and reassurance from God. The Qur'an states:

And their Prophet said to them: "A Sign of his authority is that there shall come to you the Ark of the Covenant, with (an assurance) therein of security from your Lord, and the relics left by the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, carried by angels. In this is a symbol for you if ye indeed have faith. (Sura 2:248)

One incident from the history of the Ark of the Covenant has always fascinated me. It was captured as a spoil of war by the Philistines. After it had been among them seven months and they had been afflicted with tumors, their diviners urged them to return it to the Israelites.

The Ark was set in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite (1 Sam. 6:1-15). Out of curiosity the men of Beth-shemesh removed the Mercy Seat and looked in the Ark. As a punishment seventy of them were smitten by the Lord (1 Sam. 6:19).

This biblical narrative formed the basis for the Scene in Steven Spielberg's popular movie Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) when Dr. Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), arch-enemy of Indian Jones (Harrison Ford) lifts the Mercy Seat and is killed by the supernatural powers of the Ark.

In 587/6 BCE the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and plundered the temple. At this point the Ark of the Covenant entered the realm of legend. The consensus of scholarship is that the ark was most likely taken away by Nebuchadnezzar and destroyed. The absence of the ark from the Second Temple was conspicuous. In a prophetic vision the Ark is finally re-established in the Temple: "Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the Ark of his Covenant" (Rev. 11:19 NIV).

Does the Ark exist today... if so, where is it?

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant (tabot) in Axum. It is claimed that the Ark is kept under guard in a treasury near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, and used occasionally in ritual processions. However, every Ethiopian church keeps a version of the Axum tabot.

The Lemba people of South Africa and Zimbabwe believe they are of Jewish descent. They contend that their ancestors carried the ngoma lungundu or "voice of God" (i.e. Ark of the Covenant) south. It was eventually hidden in a deep cave in the Dumghe Mountains in Zimbabwe.

In 2008, UK Channel 4 broadcast a documentary in which University of London professor of Hebrew, Tudor Parfitt, researched this claim.

Described by the London Mail newspaper as "the real Indiana Jones", Parfitt found remarkable similarities between the ngoma lungundu described by the Lemba and the biblical account of the Ark of the Covenant. It was of similar size, was carried on poles by priests, was not allowed to touch the ground, was revered as a voice of their God, and was used as a weapon of great power, sweeping enemies aside.

Theories as to the supposed location of the Ark of the Covenant abound. Some claim that it is hidden somewhere in or around Mt. Nebo on the east bank of the River Jordan.

In 1989, while digging underground beneath the Calvary Escarpment in Jerusalem, pseudoarchaeologist Ron Wyatt supposedly broke into a chamber. He claimed to have seen the Ark and taken photographs. All photos came out blurry!

Archeologist Vendyl Jones claims to have found the entrance to the chamber in the Cave of the Column near Qumran, where he believes the Ark was hidden prior to the destruction of the First Temple. He waits funding to excavate the chamber.

I appreciate Spielbergs's irony in the closing sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Back in Washington, D.C. from the Middle East, Army intelligence agents tell a suspicious Indiana Jones that the Ark "is someplace safe" to be studied by "top men". In fact, it is sealed in a wooden crate labeled "top secret" and stored in a giant government warehouse filled with countless similar crates. In the hands of the US government, the Ark of the Covenant is now truly lost!

Return from Ark of the Covenant to Free Bible Study Lessons.

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There are many outstanding books and resources produced by qualified scholars and Bible teachers on the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, the Temple and related themes. Unfortunately, there is also a fair amount of superficial or sensational literature by less than qualified writers.

In our aStore I have listed the books, study materials and related resources that I have used and which will enrich your understanding of the mysteries of the ancient Hebrew Tabernacle and Temple.

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