The Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant is as mysterious as the God to whom it belongs. Despite it being the most predominantly mentioned of all of Israel's sanctuary furnishings, little is known about the true nature of the ark itself. The relationship between the object and God is merely speculation, though certain aspects of it can, indeed, be drawn out from a number of Biblical passages. Still, there are varying traditions regarding the ark. One could conclude that the ark perhaps had varying functions within the Israelite religion; whether seen as a container, throne, a footstool, or a palladium, one thing is certain: the ark in no way provided a means for Israel to control Yahweh, the almighty God, but was merely a symbol of His pledged presence with them. Its direct relationship with God is largely unknown, and therefore mostly speculation; but this relationship is what made it as significant as it was.
We are first introduced to the ark in Exodus 25:10-22, where Moses is given the instructions from God for building the item, followed by Exodus 37:1-9, which describes the ark's construction. The sacred object is described as being 3 3/4 feet (1.1 meters) long, with 2 1/4 feet (0.7 meters) in width and height. The English word "ark" conjures up the image of Noah and the large boat used to carry the animals in the Book of Genesis. However, the Hebrew word `arôn means a chest, or box.1 It is interesting to note that only in two instances outside of those involving the Ark of the Covenant, is the term `arôn used.2
The first is prior to our meeting the ark in Exodus, in Genesis 50:26 where the Hebrew word is used to denote the "casket" where Joseph's bones were laid.3 The second occurrence is II Kings 12:10ff (II Chronicles 24:8ff), where `arôn describes a container used in collecting money for the Temple.4 Both of these passages illustrate that the ark was a box-like structure. This is further indicated by the near cube-like dimensions given in the Exodus passages mentioned above.
This rectangular box, however, was no ordinary structure. The ark was made of setim wood, which was an incorruptible form of acacia wood.5 Exodus 37:2 tells of how the ark was given a gold layer for both its exterior as well as the interior, along with a golden rim formed around it. At the corners of the ark were placed four rings, cast of gold, through which two gold-coated wooden poles were positioned. This was to allow the ark to be carried, for the Israelites were a nomadic people at the time of its construction, thus, they needed to take this holy object with them through their journey. The lid was then made, named either "mercy seat" or "atonement cover" depending on which English translation of the Bible is used. It is also known as the "propitiatory", whose corresponding Hebrew term is closely related to the English "cover" as well as "that which makes propitious."6 This word, kapporet (or kapporeth), is, indeed, translated by most as "mercy seat".7 Regardless of name, this lid was also plated with gold, in keeping with the rest of its body. Upon this kapporet were attached two cherubim so that they were as one piece with the cover, as we are told in the Exodus account. It is important to note that the use of all this gold is symbolic in itself, as gold was believed to indicate wisdom.8
The cherubim are the focus of much speculation. The forms they took upon the ark are largely unknown. However, some have hypothesized that they had a likeness of winged persons, either kneeling or standing,9 and it has been claimed that the cherubim were symbols of vast knowledge and science.10 It is agreed by all that they were a winged creature, as the Exodus description states their wings were spread outwards, overshadowing the cover of the ark. These golden creatures were to be facing each other, as though overlooking the kapporet. It is here, between the cherubim that Yahweh would meet with Moses, and presumably the designated priest, to convey His commands for the Israelites. The Hebrew is somewhat ambiguous as to whether God dwells "at" or "with" the cherubim, and this was likely on purpose, in that it allowed various associations of thought regarding God and the cherubim.11 The cherubim were signs of majesty, with Yahweh described as riding upon them in Psalm 18:10. In this Psalm the cherubim are representative of fiery thunderclouds, for Yahweh "rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind." (KJV) These mysterious, and heavenly creatures were not mere symbols, however, as Genesis 3:24 gives them a real existence: they were guardians of the Garden of Eden.12 Thus, they were both symbolic and a reality. Upon the ark, they seemed also to partially play the role of guardian, as they sat overlooking the sacred item. It is also interesting to observe that here is seemingly the only exception to the law forbidding the manufacture of carved, or graven images.13 In any case, it was at this mercy seat, between the two overlooking cherubim, that God would meet with His appointed representative.
- Marten H. Woudstra. The Ark of the Covenant from Conquest to Kingship (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reform Publishing Company, 1965), p. 85.
- Terence Erling Fretheim. The Cultic Use of the Ark of the Covenant in the Monarchial Period (New Jersey: Princeton, 1967), p.7.
- Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.85.
- Chas L. Souvay. "The Ark of the Covenant," New Advent, transcribed by Michael T. Barrett (http://newadvent.org/cathen/01721a.htm)
- Fretheim, Cultic Use, p.198.
- Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.15.
- Souvay, "The Ark of the Covenant."
- Jared Judd Jackson. The Ark Narratives, An Historical, Textual, and Form-Critical Study of I Samuel 4-6 and II Samuel 6 (New York: Union Theological Seminary, 1962), p.9.
- Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.73.
- Ibid, p.75.
- Souvay, "The Ark of the Covenant."