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Ark of the Covenant


ARK OF THE COVENANT (Heb. אֲרוֹן הַבְּרִית, אֲרוֹן הָעֲדוּת (aron ha-berit, aron ha-ʿedut)), the chest which stood in the Holy of Holies, and in which "the tables of the covenant" were kept.


The modifying phrases qualifying the word "ark" are numerous: "the ark of yhwh" (Josh. 4:11; et al.); "the ark of yhwh, the Lord of all the earth" (Josh. 3:13); "the ark of the Lord yhwh" (i Kings 2:26); "the ark of God" (i Sam. 3:3; et al.); "the ark of yhwh your God" (Josh. 4:5); "the ark of the God of Israel" (i Sam. 5:8; et al. – the designation used by the Philistines); "the holy ark" (ii Chron. 35:3). Especially important are the terms alluding to the religious and historical significance of the ark: "the ark of the pact" (Ex. 25:22; et al.); "the ark of the covenant" (Josh. 3:6; et al.); "the ark of the covenant of yhwh" (Num. 10:33; et al.); "the ark of the covenant of God" (Judg. 20:27; et al.); "the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth" (Josh. 3:11); "the ark, wherein is the covenant of yhwh, which He made with our fathers…" (i Kings 8:21; "with the children of Israel" – ii Chron. 6:11); "the ark of the covenant of yhwh of Hosts, who dwelleth between the cherubim" (see *Cherub; i Sam. 4:4); "the ark of God, whereupon is called the Name, even the Name of yhwh of Hosts who dwelleth between the cherubim" (ii Sam. 6:2; very similar is i Chron. 13:6).


According to the description contained in Exodus 25:10–22 and 37:1–9 (where *Bezalel, upon the instruction of *Moses, constructs the ark), the length of the ark was two and a half cubits (4 ft. 2 in.) and its width and height a cubit and a half (30 ins.); it was made of acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold both inside and out. A crown of gold surrounded it above, and four golden rings were attached to its feet, two on each side; into these were inserted the staves used for carrying the ark (see below). An ark cover (kapporet), which was made entirely of gold and the dimensions of which corresponded with those of the ark, covered the aperture on top. At the two ends of the ark cover were set two *cherubim that "screened," i.e., guarded or protected (cf. Gen. 3:24; Ps. 5:12; 91:4; et al.), as it were, the ark cover, as well as the tables of the covenant in the ark. The wings of the cherubim were outstretched and their faces were turned "one to another toward the ark cover." In the *Temple of Solomon there were apparently no cherubim on the ark cover, but two, ten cubits in height and made of olive wood overlaid with gold, stood on the floor in front of the ark. Each had two wings – each five cubits long – extending outward from the one wall to the wing of the other cherub, and they "covered the ark and the staves thereof above" (i Kings 6:23 ff.; 8:6–9; ii Chron. 3:10–13; 5:7–8).

The ark is depicted in the Torah as one object (Ex. 25:10–22; Deut. 10:1–5) (kapporet denoting simply "cover"), but according to traditions set in Solomonic times (i Kings 8:9), the cherubs were severed from the cover of the ark (see below). The cover (kapporet) with the cherubim symbolized the place of the manifestation of the Divinity in the Temple of Israel ("who dwelleth between the cherubim," i Sam. 4:4), whereas the ark contained underneath it "the tables of the covenant" or "the tables of the pact" (Ex. 25:21; 31:18; Deut. 10:3, 5; i Kings 8:9; ii Chron. 5:10. In biblical Hebrew ʿedut is equivalent to Akkadian adê and Aramaic ʿdy', "pact," "treaty"), and served as a symbol of the covenant between God and His people. Some see in the cherubim "the chariots of God" (Ps. 68:18), symbolic of the celestial cherubim, upon which God manifests Himself to execute justice in the world and to bring salvation to His people (ii Sam. 22:11; Ps. 18:11; Isa. 19:1; 66:15; Ps. 68:18, 34; 80:2; 99:1). Others again regard them as a kind of symbol for the clouds of heaven, which are similarly likened to God's chariot (cf. the epithet "that rideth upon the clouds," Ps. 68:5: aravot, "clouds," see also v. 34; cf. Ex. 13:21; Num. 10:34; 14:14). A later passage termed the ark cover together with the cherubim, "chariot" (i Chron. 28:18), but this may be a later adaptation (cf. Ezek. 1:26; 10:1–18: above the cherubim was the likeness of a throne and upon the throne a likeness as the appearance of the glory of the Lord). Similarly the ark was regarded, according to one view, as His footstool (cf. Ps. 99:5; Ps. 132:7–8; i Chron. 28:2; ii Chron. 6:41). For this reason "the tables of the covenant" might have been placed in the ark in accordance with a custom, prevalent at the time, of placing documents and agreements between kingdoms "at the feet" of the god, the guardian of treaties and documents, who supervised their implementation (cf. i Sam. 10:25). Thus, for example, the pact between Ramses ii and Hattusilis iii was deposited at the feet both of the Hittite god Teshub and of the Egyptian god Ra. At all events, it is clear that the ark was regarded as the place of the manifestation of the Divine Presence and of God's will to His elect (Ex. 25:22; 30:6; Lev. 16:2, where God appeared between the two cherubim in "the cloud"; Num. 7:89). When the ark was conveyed elsewhere (see below), God also "journeyed" in a cloud over the Israelite host (Num. 10:34; 14:14; see also Ex. 33:7–11). Hence also the accounts of the miracles that occurred alongside the ark – the drying up of the waters of the Jordan when the ark preceded the people (Josh. 3–4) and the fall of the walls of Jericho after the ark had encircled them seven times (Josh. 6). Similarly, there was the stringent prohibition against touching the ark, the holiest of all the sacred appurtenances (Num. 4:15, 19, 20; cf. the narratives of the plagues among the Philistines after the capture of the ark (i Sam. 5); the smiting of the men of Beth-Shemesh "because they had gazed upon the ark of the Lord" (i Sam. 6:19); and the death of Uzzah (ii Sam. 6:6–7). Even the high priest was to "come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the ark cover which is upon the ark; that he die not" (Lev. 16:2). When the high priest entered the Holy of Holies – once a year – he came with "the cloud of the incense," which was intended to shroud "the ark cover that is upon the pact, that he die not" (Lev. 16:13). In the period of the Second Temple, when the ark no longer existed, the high priest was still accustomed to hold "a feast for his friends for having come forth in peace from the Sanctuary" (Yoma 7:4).


During the period of the First Temple, a permanent place was allotted to the ark in the "Holy of Holies" (Ex. 26:34), but in times of need it was carried from place to place. The presence of the ark in the Israelite armed camp was believed to ensure God's help (cf. i Sam. 4:3). The Bible's writers project the movement of the ark into the legends of the Israelite journey from the desert of Sinai to the land of Israel (Num. 10:33; cf. 14:44) and into the legends of the conquest. In earliest Israel it was lodged at Shiloh (Josh. 18:1; i Sam. 3:3), but when great battles were fought, it was time and again brought from there to the front, as, for example, during the war against the Philistines near Eben-Ezer, which ended with the ark's falling into the hands of the Philistines (i Sam. 4). According to i Samuel 14:18, the ark also accompanied Saul during his first campaign against the Philistines; it was with the army during the siege of Rabbah in the days of David (ii Sam. 11:11). The ark songs which are preserved in the Pentateuch belong to an early period, and were sung when the ark was borne to the battlefront. One such song is credited to Moses: "When the ark was to set out, Moses would say, 'Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!' And when it halted, he would say, 'Return, O Lord, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands' " (Num. 10:35–36; cf. Ps. 68:2; 132:8). The ark was always carried on shoulders, except for one occasion when it was conveyed in a cart (ii Sam. 6:3), but when Uzzah, serving before the ark, died a sudden death, it was once more shoulder-borne (ibid. 6:6–15; cf. i Chron. 13:7 ff.; 15:2 ff.).

After the ark had been captured near Eben-Ezer and restored by the Philistines (i Sam. 4:11–6:11), it was at first transferred to Beth-Shemesh, because Shiloh had in the meantime been destroyed (Ps. 78:59–67; Jer. 26:6–9); but because a plague broke out in Beth-Shemesh, it was sent to Kiriath-Jearim, where it was placed in "the house of Abinadab in the hill, and [they] sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the Lord" (i Sam. 7:1). David, taking it from there, first deposited it in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite (evidently from Gat-Rimmon – a levitic town), and after three months brought it to the city of David – Jerusalem – to a tent which he had pitched for it (ii Sam. 6:2–17; i Chron. 13:5 ff.; 15; 16:1, 4–6, 37–38). Psalm 132 (and perhaps also Ps. 24) probably refers to this event.

With the erection of the Temple in the reign of Solomon, the ark was placed in the Holy of Holies (i Kings 8:6; ii Chron. 5:7), which consequently also came to be known, in the course of time, as "the place of the ark cover" (i Chron. 28:11; Tosef., Tem. 4:8; also in the Targum to the Prophets); but the cherubim were no longer attached to the ark cover (see above), and although the staves remained in position (i Kings 8:7–8), the

practice of carrying the ark from place to place ceased. Henceforth, there is no information about the ark being taken to war or to celebrations, nor is its ultimate fate known. It may be assumed from Jeremiah's statement (3:16) that at the end of the period of the First Temple the ark was no longer in the Temple. It is not mentioned among the Temple vessels carried into exile or returned from Babylon. In talmudic times there was a widespread tradition that the ark had been hidden by Josiah "in its place," or beneath the woodshed (Shek. 6:1–2; Yoma 53b–54a). According to a legend in ii Maccabees 2:1–7, the ark was concealed by Jeremiah on Mount Nebo. In the period of the Second Temple, at all events, the ark was no longer in the Temple (Yoma 5:2).

Sacred chests, containing holy objects or images of deities, are also to be found among other peoples, but they bear no conspicuous resemblance, either in appearance or in function, to the ark. A number of scholars have compared the ark to the Markab or Aṭfah (or Uṭfah, a type of elongated chest, adorned with ostrich feathers), to the Maḥmal (a pyramid-shaped box sent by Arab princes, with gifts, to a pilgrim procession to Mecca), or to the Qubbah (a kind of tent of the pre-Islamic period, tapering to a point and made of red leather), which is found among several Arabian tribes. All these are borne on camels and have a certain sanctity attributed to them. The Aṭfah – as in ancient times, the Qubbah – is generally brought to the camp only when decisive wars are being fought or when an enemy threatens grave danger. According to A. Musil, the Aṭfah – or at least that of the Rwalah, one of the ʿAnzah tribes of Transjordan – serves also as a guide, and predictions are made from the movement or swaying of its feathers. But according to the overwhelming evidence, including that of eyewitnesses, the Aṭfah – also that of the Rwalah tribe – functions chiefly as the seat for a young girl with uncovered hair and naked bosom, whose purpose is to incite the young men to conquer or die fighting. Clearly there is no resemblance between the ark and the Aṭfah, since the ark did not serve as a guide (even in Num. 10:33; Naḥmanides, ibid.) or as an instrument of divination. Unlike the ark, the Maḥmal is not taken out to war, while the Qubbah is, as previously stated, a tent. Some scholars have compared the ark to the chests (the lower parts of which were generally boat-shaped) which were brought out of the temple by the Egyptian priests at festivals and on which statues of the gods were placed. The motif of the cherub of human form with outstretched wings may also be fundamentally Egyptian, although the word cherub (kurību) is at present found only in Akkadian sources.

[Yehoshua M. Grintz]

In the Aggadah

The sanctuary in the wilderness contained among other things the Ark of the Covenant and the two stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments (Ex. 25:10 ff.). The first tablets were broken and a second pair hewn out (ibid. 34:1, 4). According to one view there were two arks, one which housed the Torah (including the second tablets), while the other contained the fragments of the first tablets, and it was this ark that was taken out by the Israelites on various occasions. According to another view, both – the whole and the broken – tablets were contained in one ark, and from this the moral was drawn that a scholar who has forgotten his learning is still entitled to receive respect (Ber. 8b; bb 14b).

The ark traveled 2,000 cubits (the limits of a Sabbath journey) ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness, so that on the Sabbath they could go and pray there (Num. R. 2:9). Two fiery jets issued from between the cherubim above the ark, burning up snakes, scorpions, and thorns in its path, and destroying Israel's enemies (Tanḥ. Va-Yakhel 7).

When the Philistines returned the ark, which they had captured from the Israelites, the cows which drew the cart upon which it was placed burst into song (Av. Zar. 24b). Later, when Solomon brought it into the Temple, all the golden trees there yielded abundant fruit. This continued until Manasseh introduced into the Temple an image of an idol, whereupon the trees dried up and their fruit withered (Tanḥ. Terumah 11; Yoma 39b). It was housed in the Holy of Holies (i Kings 6:16–19). Miraculously, however, the ark did not diminish the area of the Holy of Holies in the least (bb 99a).

The ark was in the exact center of the whole world, and in front of it stood the *even shetiyyah ("foundation stone"), which was the starting point of the creation of the world (Tanḥ. Kedoshim 10). Opinions differ as to its subsequent fate. Some hold that it was taken to Babylon when the Temple was destroyed; others, that it was hidden in the Second Temple beneath the pavement in the wood storehouse. According to yet another tradition Josiah hid it, together with the other sacred utensils, to ensure that it would not be taken to Babylonia (Yoma 53b; tj Shek. 6:1, 49c). A baraita quoted by Maimonides (Yad Hilkhot Beit ha-Beḥirah, 4:1) states that when Solomon built the Temple, he foresaw its destruction and built a deep secret cave, where Josiah ordered the ark to be hidden. In ii Maccabees 2:4, it is stated that Jeremiah hid it in the cave of the mountain from which Moses had viewed the land of Israel prior to his death. In any case, it was not in evidence during the period of the Second Temple. With the ark were hidden the phial of manna, the phial of anointing oil, Aaron's staff, and the chest in which the Philistines sent a gift to the God of Israel (Yoma 52b).

[Harry Freedman]


general: de Vaux, Anc Isr, 297–303, 591 (incl. bibl.); Tur-Sinai, in: em, 1 (1965), 538–50 (incl. bibl.). history: Haran, in: iej, 13 (1963), 46–58; idem, in: bies, 25 (1961), 211–23; Delcor, in: vt, 14 (1964), 136–54 (Fr.); Porter, in: jts, 5 (1954), 161–73; Nielsen, in: vt supplement, 7 (1960), 61–74 (Eng.); Tur-Sinai, in: vt, 1 (1951), 275–86 (Eng.). function and symbolic significance: Bentaen, in: jbl, 67 (1948), 37–58; Haran, in: Sefer Tur-Sinai (1960), 2742; idem, in: Sefer D. Neiger (1959), 215–21; idem, in: iej, 9 (1959), 30–38, 89–94. add. bibliography: C.L. Seow, in: abd, 1, 386–93; J. Fitzmyer, in: The Aramaic Inscriptions of Sefire (1995), 57–59; H. Niehr, in: K. van der Toorn (ed.), The Image and the Book (1996), 73–95; T. Mettinger, ibid., 173–204. aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, index.

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