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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

The Ark of the Covenant

The ark and tent can be seen as mutually exclusive ideas, and yet, necessary to each other to function theologically.32 The ark as the throne of Yahweh meant that where the ark was, there God was also. The tent was a meeting point for God and Moses, but that meeting only worked if God was distant, for a meeting consists of two persons converging at one point - and God was not far off if He was already enthroned within the tent upon the ark.33 Regardless, the ark and its sanctuary were somewhat inseparable, for the ark could not have existed without the protection of the tent, or temple.34 The tent was, indeed, God's dwelling place, and the impermanence of this dwelling is expressed by the Hebrew mishkan, meaning "tabernacle", which comes from the root shkn, meaning "to pitch tent, to encamp."35 This impermanence, of course, goes back to the Israelites' nomadic existence. The Hebrew word also, however, denotes a permanent dwelling place, which is normally expressed by the term yshb.36 When speaking of Yahweh as enthroned upon the cherubim, the term yshb is normally used, and most frequently in regards to that cherubim-enthronement being in heaven.37 The cherubim here take upon a role of throne.

This is an interesting shift, for there are two throne theories regarding the ark: one holds the ark is the throne, as briefly discussed, and the other deems the cherubim as the throne. In this second throne theory, the ark takes on a role of a sort of footstool. In the Ancient Near East, the throne was seen as incomplete without a footstool: even Solomon's throne had a footstool.38 The description of the ark like a chest is even said to resemble the size of a footstool in those times.39 The ancient custom was to place the important documents of the nation under the feet of the gods; thus, this was similar to the ark experience, for it was holding the important documents of the law, written on two stone tablets.40 Lamentations 2:1 speaks of God forgetting His footstool in the days of Jerusalem, while Psalms 99:5, and 132:7 describe worship at the footstool of God. The most explicit example is 1 Chronicles 28:2, where the Temple is said to "be a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, for the footstool of God." Here, the ark as container and the ark as throne are interrelated, in a way that is not present when the ark itself is viewed as being the throne. However, the ark being the throne represents the relationship between it and God more closely.

The throne-ark was taken before the people in procession for the very reason of its intimate relationship with Yahweh. The ark was used as a palladium in battle during the time of the Judges and the early monarchy.41 The account in Joshua 6 is a well-known example of this, where the ark was carried in the procession around the city of Jericho when the Israelites sacked it by the power of God. In this example, the ark is following the marching army, where in Joshua 3 the ark leads the people across the Jordan. The ark is used as a palladium in the accounts of its capture by the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4. In this case, however, we see the degrading faith of the Israelite people, and how this affected their use of the Ark of God. The ark is most noticeable for its presence in the most decisive battles, such as the one Israel fights against the Philistines. The ark was seen as giving assurance to victory, but in the time of this account, the Israelite faith had shifted towards the ark, and not the God who was represented by the ark - a change from faith to superstition.42 The personal God of Mount Sinai and the relational covenant had been reduced to a "god-in-a-box".43 The first defeat of the Israelite tribes at the hands of the hated Philistines raised the question of why God would allow them to be overtaken. The leaders concluded that their defeat was due to the absence of the ark. Thus, they have the ark brought up to the battlefield. With the arrival of the object, the Israelites were overjoyed, even giving a ground-shuddering cry: they were assured the upper hand now that God was in their camp. Interestingly, the Hebrew text is ambiguous as to what the subject is in this act of bringing the ark up to the camp; the subject can be either Yahweh or `arôn.44 If it is `arôn, or the ark, then the Israelite elders are expressing a belief in a magical power of the ark; if it is Yahweh, or the LORD God, then the elders are expressing a belief in the near-identity between the object and Yahweh: either way, God is to effect the outcome somehow.45 The elders have presumed that wherever the ark is, there God is also, but the end result of the account proves that this is not necessarily so.46 The Israelites suffer another defeat, but this one more disastrous than the first, for now the Ark of the Covenant is taken into Philistine possession. These Philistine warriors also mistakenly believed that the ark was a military tool, and the capture of it was a capturing of the God of the Exodus; therefore, they understood that they had in their possession a weapon for power of domination over the entire region.47 With the capture of the ark, Yahweh is seen to have departed from Israel, abandoning them for what seems to be unknown reasons. What was certain was that the Israelites were left with no God to protect and prosper them, for the ark was the visible presence of their God among them.48 Not only was this a loss of their God, but a loss of independence and a subjection to foreign powers.49

  1. Fretheim, Cultic Use, p.85.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, p.92.
  4. Ibid, p.77.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, p.236.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid, p.237.
  10. Ibid, p.245.
  11. Eugene H. Peterson, First & Second Samuel (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), p.42.
  12. Ibid, p.43.
  13. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.44.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid, p.46.
  16. Peterson, First & Second Samuel, p.46.
  17. Julian Morgenstern, The Ark, the Ephod and the Tent of Meeting (Cincinnati: The Hebrew Union College Press, 1945), pp.85-86.
  18. Ibid.