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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

The Ark of the Covenant

Two issues arise from this description. First, if the cherubim can be seen as guardians, what were they guarding in this case? It is helpful at this time to take note of the different names of this sacred box. In nearly all the traditions, this object is referred to as "the ark of the covenant," or variations thereof.14 As previously noted, the Hebrew term `arôn is translated by the English "chest" or "box", implying that its principle function was, indeed, to serve as a container. The name "Ark of the Covenant," therefore, denotes the ark as containing the tablets of the covenant, or testimony.15 Yahweh, in Exodus 25:21, explicitly commands Moses "to put in the ark the Testimony." The association of this aspect of the object, then, is seemingly most representative of the Mosaic tradition.16 For 1 Kings 8:9 (2 Chronicles 5:10) to stress that the ark contained nothing in it but the two stone tablets placed there by Moses is to possibly suggest that the ark may have once held more.17 However, passages such as Exodus 16:32, and Number 17:10 do not specifically state that items such as the manna and Aaron's staff are to be placed within the ark itself - only that they are to be kept as reminders of God's work.18 Still, in Hebrews 9:10, while describing the earthly priesthood's sanctuary and vessels, there is an account of the ark containing the "gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant." The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (AD 37-95), however, attests that the two tablets alone were inside ark.19 Whatever the ark truly held, it is obvious to see that it did, indeed, hold something, namely the tablets of the law. Thus, the ark's function as a container is well documented, and is its most common conception - even, perhaps, the central function for which it was built. As the "ark of the covenant", the box shared in a rich meaning conveyed by the covenant notion, and thus this should have proved to serve as a constant defense against a misuse of the ark.20 The name itself related God with the people in a way no other item does. These laws represented Israel's divine election, and a pledge by God that He would be with them if they would but keep His commands.21 The Israelites had to be careful, however, for this was no ordinary banner proclaiming their chosen status: it was also to serve as witness against Israel, for the covenantal law contained within the ark was a standard the people were required to submit to.22 Still, it by no means limited the meaning, or significance of the ark to merely a filing cabinet.23

Yahweh explicitly states that He will meet with Moses between the cherubim to give His commands regarding Israel. The ark is more than just a chest. Somehow, the ark takes a function of being God's meeting place, giving rise to the notion of the ark being a sort of throne for God. It is the one place that Yahweh chooses to be present; therefore, it is designated as the place for God's self revelation.24 The cherubim once again play a role in this opinion of the ark as a throne, for Israel believed that Yahweh was enthroned upon the cherubim.25 As noted above, the cherubim were signs of majesty. The cherubim, then, were visible manifestations of the heavenly sanctuary on earth.26 The cherubim were heavenly beings which served God, most notably as either guardians or a sort of chariot, but were also conceived of as supporting the throne; that is, they were guardians and bearers of Yahweh's kingly seat.27 The ark moved ahead of the people when they marched, and rested amidst the people when camped, as a king was known to do.28 This perception of God's enthronement served to focus the attention of kingship onto Yahweh, instead of any human being, or other god, and therefore focused the attention of the worshiping community towards Yahweh alone.29 It is important here to note that the ark was kept within a sanctuary. Initially, it was a tent-like structure, known by Mosaic tradition as "the Tabernacle." Later on, the ark was placed within the luxurious Temple of Solomon. Of course, the ark was positioned at Shiloh for some time, in between these two eras, as is seen in 1 Samuel 2:3, and 4:3. It is believed that Shiloh was chosen to house the ark for its central location, both for political and religious reasons.30 Despite the fact that the tabernacle is explicitly mentioned as being at Shiloh in Psalm 78:60, it is debated as to what form the tabernacle was in at this point in time, with most speculating that the structure had taken on a more temple-like form.31

  1. Fretheim, Cultic Use, p.8, 9.
  2. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.79.
  3. Fretheim, Cultic Use, p.249.
  4. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.79.
  5. Ibid, p.80.
  6. Jackson, Ark Narratives, p.10.
  7. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.80.
  8. Ibid, p.102.
  9. Fretheim, Cultic Use, p.189.
  10. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.101.
  11. Ibid, p.102.
  12. Gnana Robinson. Let Us Be Like the Nations, A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel (Grand Rapids: W.M.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), p.31.
  13. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.73.
  14. Fretheim, Cultic Use, pp.230-231.
  15. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.91.
  16. Fretheim, Cultic Use, p.244.
  17. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.126.
  18. Ibid, p.134.