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The Ark of the Covenant

In the Hebrew Bible, the ark of the covenant is intimately associated with a divine presence that manifests in unpredictable and sometimes violent ways.

Relief from Auch Cathedral depicting the Ark of the Covenant
Relief from Auch Cathedral depicting the Ark of the Covenant

The ark of the covenant is perhaps the most famous object from the Hebrew Bible, due to its starring role in Steven Spielberg’s film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Indiana Jones seems to know exactly what the ark is supposed to look like. But the Bible contains two very different physical descriptions of this object. In Exod 25:10-21, the ark is splendidly ornate: a regal chest crowned with a pair of gold cherubim, mythical creatures that stretch their wings over its solid-gold cover. In Deut 10:1-5, however, the ark is a simple wooden box made by Moses to house the tablets of the law.

In the movie, Indiana Jones is warned about the ark: “Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this earth.” In the biblical accounts, the ark is indeed a dangerous object that was constructed according to divine blueprints. It is intimately associated with the divine presence. Yahweh speaks with Moses from between the outstretched wings of its cherubim (Exod 25:22, Num 7:89), and through the ark, Yahweh leads his people in the wilderness: “Whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, ‘Arise, O Lord, let your enemies be scattered, and your foes flee before you’” (Num 10:35).

In the book of Joshua, the ark is portrayed as a locus of fearsome divine power. Through it, Yahweh performs wonders that allow the Israelites to take over territory after years of desert wandering. When the feet of the priests who carry the ark touch the Jordan River, its rushing waters stand still so that the Israelites can cross over and enter the land of Canaan (Josh 3-4). The ark is also instrumental in the account of the conquest of Jericho, whose massive walls purportedly crumble after the ark is paraded around it seven times (Josh 6).

The ark plays a prominent—and largely destructive—role within the narratives of 1-2 Samuel, where it is referred to by the title “the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (1Sam 4:4). After being captured in battle against the Philistines, the ark embarks on a violent rampage. The Philistine god Dagon is the first to suffer Yahweh’s wrath; having placed the ark in Dagon’s temple, the Philistines awaken to find the statue of their god collapsed before the ark with severed head and hands (1Sam 5:1-5). Yahweh plagues the cities of the Philistines until they beg for the ark to be expelled. The residents of the Israelite town of Beth-Shemesh soon echo this request, since multitudes of rejoicing Israelites drop dead after seeing the ark on its return from Philistine territory (1Sam 6:19-21). This episode is the basis for the climactic scene in the Indiana Jones film, where the Nazis who look into the ark suffer gruesome deaths: their faces melt and explode.

When King David establishes Jerusalem as his capital, he is determined to secure the presence of the ark in his city, even after Uzzah is killed when he reaches out his hand to steady the ark in the process of transporting it (2Sam 6). Eventually David succeeds in settling the ark in Jerusalem, but it is his son, King Solomon, who provides a more permanent dwelling place for the ark when he builds the temple. After Solomon ushers the ark into the holy of holies, it is scarcely mentioned again in the Hebrew Bible. What finally became of the ark is a mystery; it does not appear in the list of items looted by the Babylonians when they destroy the temple in 586 B.C.E. (2Kgs 25:13-17; Jer 52:17-23). There are many theories concerning what happened to the ark, but as in the movie title, its fate to us remains lost.

  • Maria Metzler

    Maria Metzler is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University and is writing her dissertation on the ark of the covenant. She is interested in the complex relationship between gods and objects in the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible. She has previously explored the topic of divine and royal furniture in her article “King Og’s Iron Bed” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 2011). Metzler draws on many types of literature to illuminate biblical texts, from Babylonian incantations and ancient Greek tragedy to modern American poetry.