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Ark of the Covenant: Definition, History & Location

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

More than perhaps any other artifact in history, the Ark of the Covenant has captured the imagination of the public. From the Crusades to adventure movies to Ethiopia, the Ark has made its mark on history.

What is the Ark of the Covenant?

According to tradition, the Ark of the Covenant is the container used to carry the Ten Commandments brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses. Believed to be endowed with certain powers, the box was taken before threatening armies, challenging rivers, and used as a source of inspiration for the Jewish people, as well as a method of communication between them and God. The word Covenant refers to the agreement made between the Israelites, another name for the early Jewish people, and God, in which the Israelites became God's chosen people.

The Ark itself is traditionally portrayed as requiring two strong men to carry it. After all, it does contain two stone tablets. Additionally, the chest is almost four feet long, and just over two feet high and wide. The box is covered by a lid of pure gold, built to securely cover the box. Capping the lid are two angels, sculpted from gold, from which (according to Exodus 25) God from time to time will speak to the Jewish people.

Portrayal of the Ark of the Covenant in art
Ark of the Covenant in Art

History

While the Ark is of central importance in parts of the Old Testament, there are no references of it in other sources of ancient history, especially from those groups whom encountered the early Jewish people. While some may maintain that this disproves the existence of the Ark, or that other peoples were too afraid of its power to comment on it, what is more likely is that the ceremonies in which the Ark was used were common to all ancient peoples, and therefore would have been of little note for the (often biased) chroniclers of ancient history.

In fact, during the early period of its existence, the Israelites were careful to take special care of the Ark, making sure it was placed in a special tent during their movements through the desert, known as the Tabernacle. Ultimately, the Ark of the Covenant would come to rest within the Temple. Following the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, however, the whereabouts of the Ark become shaded in mystery.

Location

A number of possible locations have been proposed for the current location of the Ark. Some maintain that the Ark was taken and hidden on Mount Nebo, the site from which Moses first saw the Promised Land. Others say that it remained in Jerusalem for quite some time thereafter, eventually reemerging during the Crusades, only to be whisked away to any number of Crusaders' homes.

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