Ark of the Covenant: Mystical Object or Historical Artifact?
The Ark of the Covenant means different things to different people. For some, the Ark is a mystical object that contains supernatural powers too terrifying to comprehend. For the pop-culture minded, it is the priceless treasure sought after by the fearless Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. To others, it is an ancient artifact that is highly coveted for its "religious" significance, similar to the "holy grail." With all the societal myths surrounding the Ark, it is worthwhile to take a moment to investigate its true origin and purpose. Is the Ark of the Covenant as powerful and terrifying as some have portrayed it to be? Is it merely something dreamt up by Hollywood to lure our movie-going dollars? Or could there be more to this ancient object that has relevance for us today?
Ark of the Covenant: The History Behind it
The Ark of the Covenant is first mentioned in the Bible in Exodus 25. Following Israel's deliverance from slavery in Egypt, God instructs Moses to build a Tabernacle (or tent) in which the Israelites will worship God. Placed in a special area known as "the Holy of Holies," the Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred object in the Tabernacle. Detailed instructions were given by God to construct the Ark. It was to be made with acacia wood and overlaid with gold. Dimensionally, the Ark was to be 2.5 cubits (1 cubit is approximately 18 in.) long and 1.5 cubits wide and high. Atop the Ark were two gold cherubs that stood with their wings covering an area of the Ark known as the "Mercy Seat."
The Ark of the Covenant contained three items of extreme significance to the Israelites. The first was two stone tablets bearing the divine inscription of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments formed the foundation of God's covenant with Israel, commonly referred to as "The Law" (Exodus 31). The second item in the Ark was the rod of Aaron. God miraculously caused Aaron's rod to bud with blossoms to show the rest of the tribes of Israel that it was God's will for Aaron to be in charge of the Priesthood (Numbers 17). The last item was a golden pot of manna. Manna was the starchy food God miraculously provided for the Israelites during their 40 years of desert wanderings (Exodus 16).
The Ark of the Covenant was where God manifested His presence on earth. The Ark went ahead of the Israelites wherever they traveled. Not only was it the center of worship when it resided in the tabernacle, but the Ark also protected the Israelites in battle, supernaturally defeating any adversaries that came before them (Joshua 6:3-4). The Israelites also went to the Ark to seek God's guidance and wisdom for the nation (Numbers 7:89, Exodus 25:22).
Ark of the Covenant: A Temporary Means of Forgiveness The Ark of the Covenant was more than just a special furnishing with supernatural powers -- It was also the Israelites' means of relating to God. The Ark of the Covenant could only be approached once a year by the high priest on "Yum Kippur"- the Jewish Day of Atonement. On this day, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of a sacrificed lamb. It was also only on this day that God's presence manifested between the two Cherubs. The high priest would sprinkle the blood of the sacrificed lamb on the Mercy Seat. Once received by God, the blood of the lamb atoned (covered) for the sins of the high priest and the entire nation of Israel. This ritual was performed continuously, year after year. The Ark of the Covenant played a key role in the forgiveness of sins.
Ark of the Covenant: Foreshadowing the Coming Messiah At first glance, the blood sacrifices associated with the history of the Ark of the Covenant may seem somewhat disturbing. Slaughtering animals and offering their blood on an altar begs of the occult. It is important to note, however, that these sacrifices were not intended to appease the wrath of a bloodthirsty deity. God does not desire the blood and suffering of helpless lambs (Hebrews 10:8). The biblical text repeatedly shows that where there is sin, the unavoidable result is death. The sacrifice of the lamb points to the severity of sin. Sin must always be atoned (paid) for in order for God to be just (Hebrews 9:22). God's compassion enabled the sins of Israel to be transferred upon the lamb. More importantly, these sacrifices were foreshadowing a greater sacrifice yet to take place -- the sacrifice of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. God knew that these continual sacrifices would be insufficient to pay for the sins of Israel, much less the sins of all humanity. Therefore, God provided Jesus Christ as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, which became the greatest act of love in all history. A Roman cross became the ark on which Christ was sacrificed. The blood of Christ, once and for all, atoned for the wrongs of all who would accept Him as their Savior (John 3:16).
Ark of the Covenant: Replaced by God's New Covenant The Ark of the Covenant disappeared from the Jewish Temple somewhere before or during the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 586 BC. In anticipation of the Ark's disappearance, the prophet Jeremiah wrote: "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 it come to mind: neither shall they remember it; neither shall they visit it; neither shall that be done any more" (Jeremiah 3:16). Even before Jesus, Jeremiah's prophecy revealed that there would be no more need for the Ark of the Covenant in the future. God had a better covenant He would bring to pass -- the new covenant in His Son, Jesus Christ.