Season 3, Episode 12
Unsolved Jewish Mysteries: the Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark is the golden box containing the original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Moses had it built to exact specifications and carried by the Israelites throughout their journey to the Promised Land. It served a variety of functions: beacon, weapon, and religious altar. The presence of God would appear in a cloud of mist between the two cherubim (angel-like figures) atop the lid. Eventually placed in the center of the Temple of Jerusalem, it disappeared from the Hebrew Bible’s record around the time of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. No further mention of it is made, and there are no clues as to its fate or location.
WHY WE CARE
Dude, it’s the single most sacred religious object in history, the source of immense, divine-like power, and a foil for everyone from the Knights Templar to Indiana Jones — how you could you NOT care?!
The ultimate holy vessel of the Jewish People, it was central to God’s temporal power on earth and played an essential role in Jewish ritual, worship, and tradition. The fact that it disappeared so suddenly and completely from the biblical record has led to centuries of speculation, search, and wonder. There was also a theological element ascribed to its disappearance: why did God allow the Jews’ holiest object to be lost to us?
THEORIES ABOUT WHERE IT IS
Mt. Nebo, Jordan: the Second Book of Maccabees reports that the prophet Jeremiah had the Ark hidden here before the Babylonian invasion. Mt. Nebo is the place from which Moses saw the Promised Land but was not permitted to go further. He is supposedly buried there in an unmarked grave.
Tanis, Egypt: the setting for Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tanis is a real place, and connected with a pharaonic dynasty. But there’s no connection with the Ark — that was entirely fictionalized by the film.
Zimbabwe: The Lemba people trace their origins to ancient Israel and today practice customs similar to Jews and Muslims. They believe that they brought from the Middle East a sacred object, called a ngoma (drum), that they associate with the original Ark. Destroyed 700 years ago, they made an exact replica which now resides in a museum in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Ethiopia: The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that the Ark rests in a small chapel in the city of Axum. Brought over by Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in the 10th century BCE, it has resided in Ethiopia ever since. Guarded by a single monk, it has not been seen for hundreds of years, though replicas abound in Orthodox churches.
Jerusalem: King Josiah may have hidden the Ark in an underground room beneath what is today the Temple Mount, just prior to the Babylonian invasion. Though rebuilt several times, it has never been found, but we know there is a network of tunnels and side rooms there today. But Muslim authorities forbid archaeology on or under the Temple Mount, so we are unable to search for it.
The Ark had a bad habit of electrocuting anyone who touched it. Some historians have suggested that its gilded construction combined with the dry heat of the desert led to a buildup of static electricity — is the Bible recording the discovery of electromagnetism?
Like the Red Sea, the Jordan River also parted to allow the Israelites to cross it — with the help of the Ark, which temporarily caused the river to stop flowing.
The last mention of the Ark comes from the Second Book of Chronicles, in which King Josiah orders the priests to return the Ark to the Temple — but we don’t know why it was taken from there in the first place.
Having been lost during the 1900s, the Lemba’s replica of the Ark was found in a storage room in 2007, and dates to the exact time — about 700 years ago — that the Lemba claim that the original was destroyed.
© Jason Harris 2019