The Ark of the Covenant is perhaps the Israelites’ most precious artifact. An acacia-wood chest covered in gold which could be carried by two men, covered in gold, it was revered for what it contained, what it represented, and what it could do to Israel’s enemies.
According to the Book of Exodus, the Ark contained two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments received in Mount Sinai by Moses from God himself. The two tablets represented the specific covenant between the Hebrew God and his chosen people, and His commands to them.
Also held within the Ark was It also held Aaron’s rod, imbued with miraculous healing powers, and a pot of the divine manna which fed to Hebrew slaves during their time in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. According to the biblical story, the Ark was built around one year after this departure, according to the pattern revealed to Moses by God while the Israelites were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Following this the Levites, the tribe responsible for particular religious duties among the twelve tribes of Israel, carried the chest by its staves approximately 2,000 cubits (approximately 800 meters or 2,600 feet) ahead of the people when on the march, or ahead of the Israelite army.
On the Ark’s lid, God spoke to Moses directly from between the two cherubim carved there. And, through the Ark, the Israelite army was able to defeat the walled city of Jericho. After six days of preparation, the Ark destroyed the walls and allowed the Israelite army to take the city.
The Ark at the head of the Israelite army (ruskpp / Adobe Stock)
What could have done such a thing? What could make rivers run dry to allow the wandering peoples to pass, and was so powerful that simply touching it would kill? And how, given the sheer power of the artifact, could it have come to be lost?
Finding History in the Bible
Firstly, it is important to distinguish between myth and reality within the Bible. Many of the events in the Old Testament do not match the archaeological record of the ancient Middle East and are considered mythological.
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There is considerable doubt over the dating, the duration, the extent and even the very fact of an exodus from Egypt by a Hebrew people, as described in the second book of the Bible. On the other hand, later events in the Bible are clearly historical, such as the conquest by the Assyrian Empire and the “lost” ten tribes of Israel, of the period of the Babylonian captivity before the Jews were freed by Cyrus the Great.
The Ark of the Covenant falls somewhere between these two extremes. On the one hand, it was ultimately housed in the Temple of Jerusalem, a building that definitely existed, and was attended by kings and priests who also almost certainly existed.
On the other hand, while Jericho was definitely real and was destroyed by fire at some point, this does not match the time of the exodus, and the location of Mount Sinai is not even certain, reliant instead on later tradition.
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On balance them, it would seem that there is a need to draw a distinction between the existence of the Ark, which is likely, and the divine powers attributed to it. And the easiest way to resolve this issue would be to examine the chest itself, and try to understand how it did what it did. So, where is the Ark today?
And here we have a problem: when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 587 BC, the Ark vanished. While the ark had been captured before, notably by the Philistines, it had always been recovered by the Israelites, but in this instance it disappears completely.
What Happened to the Ark of the Covenant?
Could such a holy relic have simply been destroyed? It is noted that the Babylonians carried off many treasures when they ransacked the city, but the Ark is not mentioned among them. Surely the capture of such an important artifact would have been referred to.
There is also a tantalizing mention of an Ark later in the Biblical narrative. In the Second book of Maccabees, which chronicles a (definitely historical) Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire which rose following the death of Alexander the Great, the Ark is also referred to.
In this narrative the Ark is carried to the slopes of Mount Nebo in modern day Jordan and, along with other treasures, is concealed in a cave on the mountain by the prophet Jeremiah. Perhaps the Ark remains hidden there to this day, awaiting discovery.
Other claims have been made down the years. For instance, when Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon opened the royal tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 1922 a processional ark, designated “Shrine 261” and known as the Anubis Shrine, was among the treasures.
Almost immediately after the images of this astounding archaeological find were published, some speculated that the Anubis Shrine could be the Ark of the Covenant. However this artifact was clearly Egyptian in origin and the suggestions were quickly disproven.
However, a much more intriguing possibility also presents itself. There are some Christians living today who, according to long tradition, know exactly where the Ark is: they have it.
Where Is It Now?
According to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ark of the Covenant is currently housed in a shrine in Axum, ancient capital of the Aksumite empire and an Ethiopian holy city. This Ark was replaced with a forgery in Jerusalem and transported, with divine assistance, to the shrine in the 10th century by the first king of the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia.
The authenticity of 14th century narrative which outlines the journey of the Ark has been questioned, and although it does appear to be based on an earlier text there are clearly supernatural elements which cannot be rationalized. However there are accounts which apparently predate this claim which also place the Ark in Ethiopia.
It does not help that the current protectors of the Ark do not allow anyone to view the artifact, which has led many to question whether they possess anything at all. Forging saintly relics has been a cottage industry for Christian churchs for centuries, so could this be another such fraud?
However, could there be some truth under the myth? Could the Ark of the Covenant have survived to this day, under the watchful eyes of the church elders of Ethiopia?
Only they can know for sure.
Top Image: The Ark of the Covenant. Source: pamela_d_mcadams / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri