The Ark of the Covenant: God’s Strength
What is God?
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Let’s talk about relics. What is a relic? It is a leftover from some culture or event of the past. There are a million and one of these relics. What is arguably the most famous is one that is commonly believed to no longer be in existence. It is a Biblical relic, indisputably the most famous relic of the Bible. It had a fascinating history when it was around and an even more fascinating history when it disappeared. It has been portrayed in books, movies, religious symbolism, poetry, song, and art. It is the Ark of the Covenant.
From the Templar Knights to Indiana Jones, the lure of finding the lost Ark has stirred the passions of the devout and the curious. It is the symbol of the Old Testament that still excites even the most skeptical non-believers. It had such remarkable powers that so suggest the supernatural that they defy belief even among believers. It was last seen, at least as far as the Bible is concerned, over 2600 years ago. Jewish tradition has it hidden away around that time. It virtually vanished from the pages of the Bible about 300 years before that distant time. Its very obscurity begs revelation.
The Ark was a box, a rectangular cube somewhat more than a meter by a half meter by a half meter (height). It was made of wood and plated with gold inside and out. Of this we can be sure from the description in Exodus. It was built to hold the Tablets of the Covenant, a fairly clear reference to the tablets of the Ten Commandments that Moshe brought down from Mt. Sinai. It had a cover that was elaborately shaped in a way that seems classically Biblical and borderline idolatrous. It was gold, with a delicate rim and two angelic figures cast out of the molten gold right in the middle. These figures, which are called ch’ruvim (cherubs), in the Torah, were facing each other and had wings spread above their bodies which shielded the cover. These angelic figures were not just a decoration, for the Torah states: ‘I will commune with you there, and I will speak with you from above the cover between the two cherubs that are on the Ark of the Testament, all that I command you concerning the Israelites’ (Exodus 25:27).
The Ark was made during the construction of the Mishkan and installed in the inner room of the central tent. It was made portable via two carrying poles that ran along its sides. The Mishkan itself was rebuilt in the area of Shiloh, in the center of Israel, where it remained for over 350 years. The Ark lay at its core the entire time until its capture by the Philistines. When it was returned, it was stored in various places until finally arriving in Jerusalem, where King David was building the capital of his kingdom. It was David's son, Solomon, who built a permanent house for the Ark.
This house, of course was the first temple. The installation of the Ark in the inner sanctum of the temple was done with great pomp and ceremony. This, after all, was the central purpose of building the temple to begin with. Surprisingly, when the Ark was finally secure in its permanent home, it ceases to be a part of the Biblical narrative. In fact, it is only mentioned twice in the Tanakh in the 400-year subsequent history of the first temple period. Both of these references are rather obscure. Probably the biggest mystery of the Ark’s mysterious history is its utter disappearance from the Biblical story.
It is unknown what happened to the Ark in subsequent centuries. There is a widely accepted Jewish tradition that the second temple did not contain the Ark. One Jewish tradition has it stored away in the secret passageways underneath the Temple Mount where it supposedly remains until today. Other traditions have it carted off to exile in Babylonia. Nobody really knows. What is probably the most continuous tradition has it schlepped to the highlands of Ethiopia way back in Biblical times where it has remained to this day, the last 1,000 years or so in the city of Axum. While this sounds like an unlikely location for the Ark, the tradition is quite solid among Ethiopians, both Christians and Jews.
But this does not concern us. Where does it come up in the Torah? Aside from the description associated with its construction, there are two verses towards the beginning of Numbers that zero in on the connection of the Ark with Hashem. These two verses are unique in the Torah. They are delineated off from the rest of the text by two upside-down and backwards Hebrew letters (the letter nun, the Hebrew equivalent of ‘n’). Why these letters are in the text is a fascinating matter in and of itself. What are the two verses that are so distinct? They are famous in Jewish circles, not so famous outside: ‘And when the Ark traveled, Moshe said, “Arise, Hashem, and let your enemies scatter and those who hate you flee before You”. And when it rested he said, “Return, Hashem, (to) the myriads of thousands of Israel”’ (10:55-56).
At the beginning of the section dealing with the High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur, there is fascinating verse that happens to mention the Ark: ‘And Hashem said to Moshe, “Speak to Aaron, your brother and say to him: Do not come at any time into the sanctuary between the curtains and the front of the cover on the Ark, lest he die, for I will appear in a cloud on the cover”’ (Leviticus 16:21). The following verses describe how Aaron is permitted to come into that part of the sanctuary (known as the Holy of Holies) only once a year wearing special garments, etc. But the problem with entering that area just any old time was that it was dangerous. He risked death because of the potential appearance of Hashem in a cloud on the cover. This image comes up a few times in the Bible – Hashem appearing in some sort of cloud over the Ark. We already know that Hashem spoke to Moshe from between the cherubs on the cover. Now we read that Hashem could possibly be seen, or felt in that same space.
This resembles what we have seen earlier with the glory of God appearing in the Mishkan. There it was described as some sort of created ‘presence’ that enabled Hashem to be perceived in some way. In the context of the Ark the word ‘glory’ is not mentioned. Rather, we read about this ‘cloud’ over the Ark cover. One gets the impression that it is more ‘concentrated’ than mere ‘glory’. This is more palpable than the barely palpable ‘shechina’ presence. The difference between them is not very clear, but there is no question that the cloud is more dangerous to tamper with than the presence.
Was it the simple cabinet that created the perfect conditions for this phenomenon? Was it the elaborate cover? Or was it the contents of the Ark, the tablets of the covenant? Maybe it was some combination of all of them that produced the magic formula. The Torah is totally vague on the source of the remarkable properties of the Ark. It’s all a little difficult to fathom, but then again, so is the Ark itself.
Perhaps the two verses between the upside-down backwards letters can help out a little. ‘And when the Ark traveled, Moshe said, “Arise, Hashem, and let your enemies scatter and those who hate you flee before You”. And when it rested he said, “Return, Hashem, (to) the myriads of thousands of Israel”’. Is Hashem the Ark? It doesn’t seem like it. When the Ark moved, Moshe told Hashem to ‘Arise’; when it rested Moshe told Hashem to ‘Return’. What was the relationship of the Ark to Hashem? It happens that there is another verse closely related to these two in the book of Psalms: ‘Arise, Hashem, to your rest, You and the Ark, your strength’ (132:8). The Ark was God’s strength. It was like God’s muscle in the world. It scattered enemies when it traveled onward. When it rested from its journeys Hashem could return back to the Israelites and dwell in the cloud.
The Ark was Hashem’s secret weapon, the divine right arm. Perhaps there was nothing special about it, nothing inherently supernatural. But it was special in that Hashem chose it as the place to call home. Hashem chose it as the vehicle to travel in. Hashem chose it as the weapon to deal with the problem cases. It couldn’t be messed with because Hashem, in some way, hovered about it as a palpable cloud. It wasn’t a physical thing that one could touch, just as a cloud is not really touchable. But it was there, like a cloud is there.
The image of God that the Ark generates is one that uses props to get things done. Perhaps God doesn’t really need these props, but they are used nevertheless. The Ark, as holy and as unique as it was, was the most powerful of these props. Why does God use props if He could get by just fine without them? Maybe this is just God’s way of getting us in on the action. The Israelites had to construct this thing, to make it out of wood and gold. They had to cast the cherubs out of the gold that made the cover. They made their contribution. It isn’t God doing all the dirty work and us just sitting back and enjoying the show. We have to put in our share in order for God’s power to manifest in the world. God’s Ark image is one of strength, but it only works if we put it together.
Perceiving the Image
How are we to relate to this image if the Ark of the Covenant is a vanished relic that shows no sign of returning any time in the near future? Are there other props in the world of God’s strength? By all appearances from the Bible, the answer to this question is an unqualified ‘no’. The Ark was unique. It was never constructed again even though it doesn’t seem all that impossible to duplicate it. It’s not the Ark - it is God hovering around the Ark. It’s the cloud. That Ark is gone and so is the cloud. God’s strength is not as apparent as it once was and we pay the price for that lack of evident strength.
Perhaps this is why those two verses are delineated off by those weird letters. Maybe these verses really don't fit in here at all. They tell us about the uniqueness of the Ark. When it traveled Hashem would go with it. When it rested, Hashem dwelt among the Israelites. There was a time when this was so. It no longer is so. It is an image that we can dream about, perhaps long for, or perhaps not; but we can no longer experience it, at least directly. It is a theoretical image that did exist at one time in a very palpable way. All we can do is read about the Ark and the cloud that hovered around it, and imagine what it could have been like to be there. It was God’s strength in the world – evident, real, palpable. We no longer have it, but we can imagine.
Looking back, this Ark of the Covenant is just as mysterious as ever. How is it that at one time the Torah used such an image, but as the centuries rolled on, the image became foreign – a relic of a forgotten era? Have we lost something essential or have we moved on?
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