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.
The Book of Exodus gives detailed instructions on how the Ark is to be constructed. It is to be 21⁄2 cubits in length, 11⁄2 in breadth, and 11⁄2 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 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
“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.