The question of what happened to the Ark of the Covenant has fascinated theologians and archeologists for centuries. It’s hard to imagine a more compellingly mysterious object than the Ark, a box that was supposedly built according to God’s own instructions.
For the Israelites, it was the ultimate holy vessel. But having featured prominently in the Bible throughout the Five Books of Moses, the Ark disappears from the Biblical narrative after the Books of Chronicles and its fate is left infuriatingly ambiguous.
What is the Ark of the Covenant?
In the Book of Exodus, the Ark is constructed by skilled workers using acacia wood and gold. The instructions for the construction of the Ark, given to Moses by God, were quite particular:
“Have them make an ark of acacia wood — two and a half cubits [3.75 feet or 1.1 meters] long, a cubit and a half [2.25 feet or 0.7 meters] wide, and a cubit and a half [2.25 feet] high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold moulding around it.” Exodus 25:10-11.
The construction of the Ark and the Tabernacle, the portable shrine in which it would reside, was entrusted to a man named Bezalel. According to Exodus 31:3-5, God filled Bezalel with “the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills — to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of crafts.”
Upon its completion, the Ark was carried – using two poles, also fashioned from acacia wood and gold – into the Tabernacle’s inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, where it was placed beneath a gold lid known as the kaporet or mercy seat. Atop the mercy seat, two golden cherubim figures were positioned as instructed by God: “The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover.” Exodus 25:20. It is suggested that the wings of the two cherubim form a space through which Yahweh would appear.
Finally, tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments were placed inside the Ark, beneath the outstretched wings of the cherubim, and the ark was covered by a veil.
A holy weapon
The Ark plays a significant role in the biblical stories of the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan. In both cases, the Ark is used as a tool to defeat the enemy. In Exodus, the Ark is carried into battle by the Levites, and its presence causes the Egyptian army to flee. In Joshua, the Ark is carried around Jericho for seven days, and on the 7th day, the walls of Jericho collapse.
The Ark is also mentioned in the story of Samuel, when God uses it to reveal his will to Eli, and in the Book of Kings, when the Ark is captured by the Philistines but is eventually returned to Israel.
What happened to the Ark of the Covenant?
The Ark is only fleetingly mentioned in the Old Testament after 2 Chronicles 35:3, in which King Josiah orders its return to the Temple of Solomon: “Put the holy ark in the temple built by Solomon son of David king of Israel. It is not to be carried around on your shoulders.”
This narrative suggests that the Ark was kept in the Temple of Solomon until the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC. During the invasion, the Temple was looted and destroyed and the Ark’s whereabouts have been the subject of excitable speculation ever since.
Where is the Ark of the Covenant?
There are many theories about what happened to the Ark following the destruction of the Temple of Solomon. Some believe that it was captured by the Babylonians and taken back to Babylon. Others propose that it was hidden away before the Babylonians arrived, and that it’s still hidden somewhere in Jerusalem.
The Second Book of Maccabees 2:4-10 says that the prophet Jeremiah was warned by God that the Babylonian invasion was imminent and hid the Ark in a cave. He insisted that he wouldn’t reveal the cave’s location “until the time that God should gather His people again together, and receive them unto mercy.”
Another theory contends that the Ark was taken to Ethiopia by Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Indeed, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to possess the Ark in the city of Axum, where it is kept under guard in a church. The credibility of the Axum Ark has been dismissed by, among others, Edward Ullendorff, a former Professor of Ethiopian Studies at the University of London, who claims to have examined it: “They have a wooden box, but it’s empty. Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.”
Yet more questionable conjecture abounds: one theory posits that the Knights Templar took the Ark to France, another suggests that it ended up in Rome where it was eventually destroyed in a fire at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Alternatively, the British Historian Tudor Parfitt has linked a sacred artefact, ngoma lungundu, belonging to the Lemba People of Zimbabwe to the Ark. Parfitt’s theory suggests that the Ark was taken to Africa and that ngoma lungundu, the ‘box of thunders’, was built using the remains of the Ark following its explosion 700 years ago.
While the fate of the Ark of the Covenant may well remain a mystery, it seems certain to remain a potent religious symbol and an irresistible magnet for speculation and theorising for many years to come.