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Ark of the Covenant *

1728 illustration of the Ark at the erection of the Tabernacle and the sacred vessels, as in Exodus 40:17-19 Public Domain

The Ark of the Covenant is a gold-covered wooden chest with lid cover described in the Book of Exodus as containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. According to various texts within the Hebrew Bible, it also contained Aaron’s rod and a pot of manna.

Moses and Joshua bowing before the Ark, painting by James Tissot, c. 1900 Public Domain

The Book of Exodus gives detailed instructions on how the Ark is to be constructed. It is to be 2​12 cubits in length, 1​12 in breadth, and 1​12 in height . Then it is to be gilded entirely with gold, and a crown or molding of gold is to be put around it. Four rings of gold are to be attached to its four corners, two on each side—and through these rings staves of shittim-wood overlaid with gold for carrying the Ark are to be inserted; and these are not to be removed. A golden lid, the kapporet (mercy-seat) which is covered with 2 golden cherubim, is to be placed above the Ark.

The priests brought in the ark (1 Kings 8:6) – Public Domain

The Ark is first mentioned in the Book of Exodus, and then numerous times in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, I Chronicles, II Chronicles, Psalms and Jeremiah.

The Babylonian Conquest

In 587 BC, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple. There is no record of what became of the Ark in the Books of Kings and Chronicles. 

Mount Nevo, Aksum, Temple Mount or Ireland???

The Ark of the Covenant in Second Maccabees

According to Second Maccabees, at the beginning of chapter 2: It was the prophet Jeremiah who … prompted by a divine message … gave orders that the Tent of Meeting and the ark should go with him. Then he went away to the mountain from the top of which Moses saw God’s promised land. When he reached the mountain, Jeremiah found a cave-dwelling; he carried the tent, the ark, and the incense-altar into it, then blocked up the entrance. Some of his companions came to mark out the way, but were unable to find it. When Jeremiah learned of this he reprimanded them. “The place shall remain unknown”, he said, “until God finally gathers his people together and shows mercy to them. The Lord will bring these things to light again, and the glory of the Lord will appear with the cloud, as it was seen both in the time of Moses and when Solomon prayed that the shrine might be worthily consecrated.”

The “mountain from the top of which Moses saw God’s promised land” would be Mount Nebo, located in what is now Jordan.

So where is the Ark of the Covenant?

In Rabbinic literature, the final disposition of the Ark is disputed.

  • Some rabbis hold that it must have been carried off to Babylon.
  • Others hold that it must have been hidden lest it be carried off into Babylon and never brought back. 
Treasure hunter Jim Barfield follows new clues to a ancient Qumran where he believes he has found the contents and location of the Ark of the Covenant.
  • A late 2nd-century rabbinic work known as the Tosefta states the opinions of these rabbis that Josiah, the king of Judah, stored away the Ark, along with the jar of manna, and a jar containing the holy anointing oil, the rod of Aaron which budded and a chest given to Israel by the Philistines. This was said to have been done in order to prevent their being carried off into Babylon as had already happened to the other vessels.
  • Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon, in the same rabbinic work, state that the Ark was, in fact, taken into Babylon.
  • Rabbi Yehudah, dissenting, says that the Ark was stored away in its own place, meaning, somewhere on the Temple Mount.
Search for the Ark of the Covenant underneath the Temple Mount and in far away Ethiopia
Conrad Schick – Public Domain
Schick participated in fifty years of archaeological investigations of Jerusalem and its surroundings. He worked for many years for the Palestine Exploration Fund. In 1872, Schick was permitted to conduct research on the Temple Mount, which was generally off limits to non-Muslims. Schick was involved in the discovery and initial study of the Siloam Inscription describing how the Siloam Tunnel was finished, probably in the days of King Hezekiah of Judah.
In 1874 Schick was the first scholar to publish a description of the Garden Tomb, and in 1901 he rejected General Charles Gordon’s theory of it being the tomb of Jesus.

Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant, or Tabot, in Axum. The object is currently kept under guard in a treasury near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. 

The Chapel of the Tablet at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum allegedly houses the original Ark of the Covenant. Photo: Adam Cohn

Is the Ark of the Covenant in Rome ?

The Ark of the Covenant was said to have been kept in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, surviving the sack of Rome by Alaric I and Gaiseric in 410 but lost when the basilica burned down.

In the twelfth century the canons of the Basilica of St. John Lateran claimed that the high altar housed the Ark of the Covenant and several Christian holy objects from Jerusalem (relic of the original wooden altar used by Saint Peter). The basilica was thus presented as the Temple of the New Covenant.

The high altar and the 14th-century Gothic ciborium

“Rabbi Eliezer ben José stated that he saw in Rome the kapporet of the temple. There was a bloodstain on it. On inquiry he was told that it was a stain from the blood which the high priest sprinkled thereon on the Day of Atonement.” Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai also visited Rome and reported seeing Temple vessels.

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