Category: What is the Ark of the Covenant?

The story of Uzzah and the Ark of the  Covenant is found in 2 Samuel  6:1-7 and 1  Chronicles 13:9-12. As the ark was being transported, the oxen pulling the  cart stumbled, and a Levite named Uzzah took hold of the ark. God’s anger burned  against Uzzah and He struck him down and he died. Uzzah’s punishment does appear  to be extreme for what we might consider to be a good deed. However, there are  the reasons why God took such severe action.

First, God had given Moses  and Aaron specific instructions about the Tent of Meeting and the movement of  the Ark of the Covenant. “After Aaron and his sons have finished covering the  holy furnishings and all the holy articles, and when the camp is ready to move,  the Kohathites are to come to do the carrying. But they must not touch the holy  things or they will die. The Kohathites are to carry those things that are in  the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers  4:15). No matter how innocently it was done, touching the ark was in direct  violation of God’s law and was to result in death. This was a means of  preserving the sense of God’s holiness and the fear of drawing near to Him  without appropriate preparation.

Notice how David took men with him to  collect the ark, rather than allowing Abinadab and his sons to bring it to him.  That was a great mistake, since it ought never to have been put upon a cart, old  or new. It was to be borne upon men’s shoulders, and carried by Levites only,  and those of the family of Kohath (Exodus  25:12-14; Numbers  7:9), using the poles prescribed. Failing to follow God’s precise  instructions would be seen as (a) not revering God’s words when He spoke them  through those such as Moses, whom He had appointed; (b) having an independent  attitude that might border on rebellion, i.e., seeing and acting on things from  a worldly, rather than a spiritual, perspective; or (c) disobedience.

Second, the ark had stayed for a period of time at Abinadab’s house (2 Samuel 6:3), where his  sons, Uzzah and Ahio, may well have become accustomed to its presence. There’s  an old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt,” that could apply in this case.  Uzzah, having been around the ark in his own home, could very likely forget the  holiness that it represented. There are times when we, too, fail to recognize  the holiness of God, becoming too familiar with Him with an irreverent attitude.

Third, the account tells us the oxen stumbled. The cart didn’t fall and  neither did the Ark, just as the boat carrying Jesus and the disciples rocked  fiercely in the storm, though it wasn’t necessarily in danger of sinking (Matthew 8:24-27). And  yet, just as with the disciples who failed to put their faith in their Master,  Uzzah, for a moment, felt it was his responsibility to save the integrity of  God, and that our almighty God somehow needed Uzzah’s assistance. He presumed  that, without his intervention, God’s presence would be dealt a blow. As Job  asks, “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?” (Job 11:7). “His  greatness no-one can fathom” (Psalm  145:3). “His understanding no-one can fathom” (Isaiah  40:28). Moses lost his right to enter the promised land because he felt his  intervention was needed when he struck the rock, instead of speaking to it as  God had commanded (Numbers  20:7-12). We need to listen carefully to what God has to say to us, and in  obedience strive to do all He commands. Yes, God is loving and merciful, but He  is also holy and He defends His holiness with His power, and affronts to His  holiness sometimes bring about His holy wrath. “It is a dreadful thing to fall  into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews  10:31).

Something of God’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant seems  to be lost in the church today. In the time of Moses, the people knew the  awesomeness of God’s absolute holiness. They had witnessed great miracles when  the ark was with them. They respected that God’s ways and thoughts are much  higher than ours (Isaiah  55:8-9). In truth, the more we try to bring God down to our worldly way of  thinking or reasoning, the further away He will seem to us. Those who would draw  near to God and have Him draw near to them are those who approach Him in  reverence and holy fear. Uzzah forgot that lesson, and the consequences were  tragic.

What happened to the Ark of the Covenant is a question that has fascinated  theologians, Bible students, and archeologists for centuries. In the eighteenth  year of his reign, King Josiah of Judah ordered the caretakers of the Ark of the  Covenant to return it to the temple in Jerusalem (2  Chronicles 35:1-6; cf. 2 Kings  23:21-23). That is the last time the ark’s location is mentioned in the  Scriptures. Forty years later, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captured Jerusalem  and raided the temple. Less than ten years after that, he returned, took what  was left in the temple, and then burnt it and the city to the ground. So what  happened to the ark? Was it taken by Nebuchadnezzar? Was it destroyed with the  city? Or was it removed and hidden safely away, as evidently happened when  Pharaoh Shishak of Egypt raided the temple during the reign of Solomon’s son  Rehoboam? (“Evidently” because, if Shishak had managed to take the Ark, why did  Josiah ask the Levites to return it? If the Ark was in Egypt—à la the plotline  of Raiders of the Lost Ark—the Levites would not have possessed it and  therefore could not have returned it.)

The non-canonical book of 2  Maccabees reports that just prior to the Babylonian invasion, Jeremiah,  “following a divine revelation, ordered that the tabernacle and the ark should  accompany him and…he went off to the mountain which Moses climbed to see God’s  inheritance [i.e., Mt. Nebo; cf. Deuteronomy 31:1-4]. When Jeremiah arrived there, he  found a room in a cave in which he put the tent, the ark, and the altar of  incense; then he blocked up the entrance” (2:4-5). However, “Some of those who  followed him came up intending to mark the path, but they could not find it.  When Jeremiah heard of this, he reproved them: ‘The place is to remain unknown  until God gathers his people together again and shows them mercy. Then the Lord  will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord will be seen in the cloud,  just as it appeared in the time of Moses and when Solomon prayed that the Temple  might be gloriously sanctified’” (2:6-8). It is not known if this secondhand  (see 2:1) account is accurate; even if it is, we will not know until the Lord  comes back, as the account itself claims.

Other theories concerning the  whereabouts of the lost ark include Rabbis Shlomo Goren and Yehuda Getz’s claim  that it is hidden beneath the temple mount, having been buried there before  Nebuchadnezzar could steal it away. Unfortunately, the temple mount is now home  to the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic holy site, and the local Muslim community  refuses to allow it to be excavated. So we cannot know if Rabbis Goren and Getz  are correct.

Explorer Vendyl Jones, among others, believes that an  artifact found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the enigmatic “Copper Scroll” of  Qumran Cave 3, is actually a treasure map of sorts detailing the location of a  number of precious treasures taken from the temple before the Babylonians  arrived, among them the lost Ark of the Covenant. Whether or not this is true  remains to be seen, as no one has yet been able to locate all of the necessary  geographical landmarks listed on the scroll. Interestingly, some scholars  speculate that the Copper Scroll may actually be the record referred to in 2 Maccabees  2:1, 4, which  describes Jeremiah hiding the ark. While this is an interesting speculation, it  remains unsubstantiated.

Former East African correspondent for “The  Economist,” Graham Hancock, published a book in 1992 entitled The Sign and  the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, in which he argued  that the ark had been stowed away in Saint Mary of Zion’s Church in Aksum, an  ancient city of Ethiopia. Explorer Robert Cornuke of the B.A.S.E. Institute,  also believes the Ark may now reside in Aksum. However, no one has yet found it  there. Similarly, archaeologist Michael Sanders believes the ark is hidden away  in an ancient Egyptian temple in the Israeli village of Djaharya, but he has yet  to actually find it there.

A doubtful Irish tradition maintains that  the Ark is buried under the Hill of Tara in Ireland. Some scholars believe that  this is the source of the Irish “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” legend.  Even less believable are the claims of Ron Wyatt and Tom Crotser, Wyatt claiming  to actually have seen the lost Ark of the Covenant buried under Mt. Calvary and  Crotser claiming to have seen it on Mt. Pisgah near Mt. Nebo. Both of these men  are held in low esteem by the archaeological community, and neither has been  able to substantiate the wild claims with any evidence.

In the end, the  ark remains lost to all but God. Interesting theories like the ones presented  above continue to be offered, but the ark has yet to be found. The writer of 2  Maccabees may very well be right; we may not find out what happened to the lost  Ark of the Covenant until the Lord Himself returns.

God made a covenant (a conditional covenant) with the children of Israel through  His servant Moses. He promised good to them and their children for generations  if they obeyed Him and His laws; but He always warned of despair, punishment,  and dispersion if they were to disobey. As a sign of His covenant He had the  Israelites make a box according to His own design, in which to place the stone  tablets containing the Ten Commandments. This box, or chest, was called an “ark”  and was made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. The Ark was to be housed in the  inner sanctum of the tabernacle in the desert and eventually in the Temple when  it was built in Jerusalem. This chest is known as the Ark of the  Covenant.

The real significance of the Ark of the Covenant was what took  place involving the lid of the box, known as the “Mercy Seat.” The term ‘mercy  seat’ comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to cover, placate, appease, cleanse,  cancel or make atonement for.” It was here that the high priest, only once a  year (Leviticus 16), entered the Holy of Holies where the Ark was kept and  atoned for his sins and the sins of the Israelites. The priest sprinkled blood  of a sacrificed animal onto the Mercy Seat to appease the wrath and anger of God  for past sins committed. This was the only place in the world where this  atonement could take place.

The Mercy Seat on the Ark was a symbolic  foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice for all sin—the blood of Christ shed on  the cross for the remission of sins. The Apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and one  familiar with the Old Testament, knew this concept quite well when he wrote  about Christ being our covering for sin in Romans  3:24-25: “…and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption  that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to  be received by faith.” Just as there was only one place for atonement of sins in  the Old Testament—the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant—so there is also  only one place for atonement in the New Testament and current times—the cross of  Jesus Christ. As Christians, we no longer look to the Ark but to the Lord Jesus  Himself as the propitiation and atonement for our sins.