A chest that could move

It was a veritable treasure chest: constructed of acacia wood, richly adorned with gold both inside and outside, hung on two carrying poles, and closed with an exquisite lid. All of this alone would suffice to make it extremely valuable—to say nothing of the contents!

In any event, the chest known in ancient Israel as the Ark of the Covenant was certainly an extremely sacred object, which was even venerated religiously. Wherever the people happened to be, the Ark of the Covenant was right there with them. Not shut up somewhere in a locked room within the temple—that came later on—but rather right in the midst of the people: visible, revered, and well-guarded! And yet there is no trace of it to this very day. Unfortunately! No matter how many archaeologists, antiquarians, or even grave robbers have sought after it, it has never been found. This is probably why so many legends have sprung up around this object: some say it was hauled away to Ethiopia. Others say that Jeremiah hid it away. In any case, its value would be inestimable by modern standards—perhaps precisely because of all of these stories.

For the devout Jews of antiquity it was more than merely a golden treasure: it was proof of the constant presence of God! It was part of the temple of God and, together with it, comprised the throne of the almighty God and the place of His revelation. At all times it stood as a reminder to the people of the experience they had made with their patriarch Moses at Mount Sinai, because contained inside were the two stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. It served as the memory of the nation at that time. And even more: the fact that it could be carried around meant that the place of God’s encounter was mobile. The portable ark thus became a visible sign that God was in the midst of Israel and could reveal himself anywhere. This ruled out the possibility of binding the representation of God to any one location.

How it came to be so

According to the Torah, the construction of this “covenantal chest” or “ark of testimony” was commanded by God. The dimensions—approximately 130 centimetres long, 80 centimetres wide, and 80 centimetres tall—were just as precisely prescribed as its outward form: acacia wood overlaid with gold. Two carrying poles secured by golden rings ensured its portability. The ninth chapter of the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews describes the detachable cover plate (kapporet)—also known as the “mercy seat”, “cover of reconciliation”, or “atonement plate”—in elaborate detail. Two eagle-like winged beings (cherubim) were enthroned on its head, protectively spreading their wings towards each other and over the cover plate. The chest could only be touched by select men and the high priests. Any unauthorised touch led to instant death.

What we know

So much for tradition. To this day, the chest’s archaeological existence remains unproven. All reports about alleged finds of the Ark of the Covenant are based exclusively on oral statements. There are no concrete objects or other reliable indications of its survival. Everything we know about it is recorded in Holy Scripture: after receiving the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai, Moses received instructions from God to build a sanctuary for Him, so that “I [God] may dwell among them” (Exodus 25: 8). The Ark of the Covenant thus constituted the centre of the sanctuary.

According to 1 Samuel 3, it was kept in the temple of Shiloh after the Israelites had conquered Palestine. It was also carried by the Israelite army during military conflicts.

Later on, David took the ark to Jerusalem. After the construction of the temple, it was kept in the Most Holy Place. There it was considered the throne of the invisible God. It is generally believed that the chest was destroyed by fire during the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 587 BC.

Our experience today

Be that as it may, the Ark of the Covenant can always be envisioned as a symbol for the presence of God, even without concrete evidence. And it also has something to say in the Christian family of faith, namely as a reference to the wholesome proximity of God. God is everywhere and accompanies us wherever we go. In His Son, Jesus Christ, He is close to mankind in unsurpassed fashion. The path of Jesus from divine glory into the human world—and the salvation that can be experienced through Him—is an essential component of Christian truth.

What we can learn from all of this

God reveals Himself and bestows security and salvation wherever the gospel of the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus is proclaimed and where sacraments are dispensed. The experience of God’s presence is not limited to the church building or divine service, but can also occur in daily life, namely in the dialogue of prayer, in a life of love for God led in accordance with the standards of the divine will, and in loving interpersonal encounters.

Photo: Kemelly - stock.adobe.com

Article info


Peter Johanning