The Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant

Exodus 25 discusses the Ark of the Covenant, including detailed instructions on how to build this gilded and jewel-encrusted box designed to carry around godly energy and objects such as the tablets with the 10 commandments.

Housed in the tent/tabernacle, the ark was used to lead the Israelites in their conquest of the Promised Land, according to the Bible. The ark was utilized also to fell Jericho, carried around the city for six days before horns were blown on the seventh, to take down the walls.

The marvelous ark was covered with a blue cloth and animal skins, and, as with the priestly vestments, one wonders where in the desert all the fine materials came from to build it, with its precious metals and splendid appointments. Was it too created out of the mass of Egyptian booty, implausibly dragged around the desert for forty years?


Fig. 29. Henry Davenport Northrop, The Ark and the Mercy Seat, 1894. (Treasures of the Bible)

According to the Bible, the ark’s lid was used as Yahweh’s footstool and “mercy seat.”   The Bible claims God spoke to Moses from “above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim” decorating the “ark of the testimony” ( ' ארן העדת arown 'eduwth).

22 And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.      Exodus 25:22

 This odd imagery is vivid enough to have been taken literally by many over the centuries, including those who see in the ark a type of short-wave radio, possibly from extraterrestrials. Because of the story in which some men of Beth Shemesh (“House of the Sun”) are struck down after looking into the ark, a mythology has been created that this “alien” artifact contained some type of weapon of mass destruction, possibly a laser.  Among other magical powers, the ark was said also to levitate, another miraculous attribute used to assert its divine or “alien” origin.

19 And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.      1 Samuel 6:19

Philistine Capture of Ark

According to the Bible (1 Sam 5), the Philistines eventually captured the ark but returned it after a series of plagues was sent upon them by Yahweh.

Ark in the Holy of Holies

After King David defeated the Philistines and took over Jerusalem, his son Solomon built his temple and put the ark in the “holy of holies” with the 10 commandments, after which point there are no references to the ark, until the seventh century BCE.

Idols Drove Away the Ark?

We next learn that Manesseh’s pagan idols drove away the ark, after the Judean king built the altars to “all the host of heaven”

21 Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.      2 Ki 21:1

 He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists.      2 Ki 21:6

For he built up again the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; and he reared up altars for Baal, and made a grove, as did Ahab king of Israel; and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them.      2 Ki 21:3

As stated, this latter term  שמים shamayim is the same as the heavenly deities in Canaanite mythology. Manasseh also set up the asherah or sacred groves dedicated to the Semitic goddess of the same name. It is hard to fathom how the powerful ark could be driven off by these false pagan deities.

Speaking of the ark, German theologian and Hebraist Dr. Friedrich Delitzsch (1813–1890) comments:

When the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant and place it in the temple of Dagon at Ashdad, they find on the second morning following the image of the god Dagon lying in fragments before the ark of Yahveh [1 Sam 5ff] and then when it is brought to the little Jewish border-town of Beth Shemesh and the inhabitants look at it, seventy of them pay for their presumption by death—according to another account fifty thousand (!)

Was it 70 ..... or ... 50,070 ???????????????  Make up your mind God!

19 And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.      1 Sam 6:19

Even one who touches the ark from inadvertence is slain by the wrath of Yahveh       2 Sam. 6–7 

But as soon as we touch the soil of the historical period, history is silent. We are told in detail that the Chaldaeans carried away the treasures of the temple at Jerusalem and the gold, silver and copper furnishings of the temple, the fire pans and basins and shovels [2 Kings 24:14, 25:13ff].

13 As the Lord had declared, Nebuchadnezzar removed the treasures from the temple of the Lord and from the royal palace, and cut up the gold articles that Solomon king of Israel had made for the temple of the Lord.       2 Kings 24:13

But no one is concerned about the fate of the ark with the two God-given tables.  The temple goes down in flames, but not a single word is said of the fate of the two miracle-working tables of the Almighty God, the most sacred treasure in the Old Covenant.

 The fertility and fish god Dagon or Dagan was a popular Eblaite, Amorite and Ugaritic deity whose reverence extended from at least 2250 BCE into the first millennium BCE. One can see that the biblical pericope serves to demonstrate Yahweh’s dominion over this powerful Semitic god.

Ark Just Disappeared?

As concerns the ark, for thousands of years, it has been asked, how could this centerpiece of Jewish religion disappear? After all the detailed instructions for its design, given by the Lord himself, in a series of dramatic meetings in the tabernacle, the ark simply vanishes and is forgotten. And, if it were real and truly so powerful as to kill tens of thousands, why does the hypothesized textual source E or “Elohist” make no mention of it?

Over the centuries, many people have looked for the lost ark all over the world, from Ethiopia to Japan to America. Even if the most famous of these, the supposed ark of Ethiopia, truly exists and dates to a relevant period—the 13th to 15th century BCE, not the seventh century when the ark disappears or later—and can be proved to be Hebrew in origin, it would not represent a unique and specially magical artifact above all others, which we will see have been commonplace.

The powers of the ark are mythical attributes, no more real than Zeus’s thunderbolts or Thor’s hammer.

The Many Arks of Other Myths

We have seen that the tale of the magical ark of the covenant is implausible as “history.” It is further noteworthy that the ark’s importance is emphasized in the southern kingdom Yahwistic source text or “J,” while the northern Israelite Elohist or “E” never mentions this artifact supposedly vital to Israel’s existence.

Even if the artifact were real—and its omission in E indicates otherwise—it would not have been unique or original, as there were many such divine arks in antiquity, a ritualistic object continuing in use to this day in places like India and Tibet. The bible depicts the Lord as telling Moses to build the ark, “after the pattern for them”:

40 And look that thou make them after their pattern, which was shewed thee in the mount.     Exodus 25:40

About this verse, the churchman Clarke notes that there are many “imitations” of the ark of the covenant “among several heathen nations.” He cites the Latin writer of the second century AD/CE Apuleius (De Aur. Asin. 2) as “describing a solemn idolatrous procession, after the Egyptian mode” in which the author says: “A chest, or ark, was carried by another, containing their secret things, entirely concealing the mysteries of religion.”

The “Egyptian mode,” apparently, has to do with an “ark that carried the Egyptian god Amun during the Opet Festivals.” Since these processions date back far earlier than the biblical ark stories, it can be surmised that the “imitation” occurred from Egypt by the later Israelites.


Fig. 52. The ark, bark, barque or boat of Amun, carried in procession at the Opet Festival

The Latin word for “chest” or “ark” in Apuleius is cista, which can also be rendered “box” and “woven or wicket basket.” Jerome’s Latin Vulgate Bible uses the word arca to describe the biblical ark, both of Noah and Moses.

Aaron and Horus

The Hebrew word for “chest/ark” is ' ארון arown, which is not much different from the name “Aaron,” ' אהרון Aharown, Moses’s brother (Exod 4:14) and head priest of the ark cult and Mosaic law. It is possible that, rather than representing a real person, this mythical character was specifically named for his ark-keeping duty.

Aaron also could be taking the place of Horus, the name of not only Osiris’s son but also his brother, whose moniker in Greek is ῟Ωρος or ῟Ωρον in the accusative, which could be pronounced “Horon” or “Oron,” without the initial aspirant “h.” The name “Aaron” also has an aspirant and is pronounced “a·har·ōn’.” While etymology does not indicate a relationship, it is possible that speakers of Hebrew and Greek in antiquity likewise noticed the similarity between the names. Moreover, Aaron in Arabic is ھ ﺎرون Harun, similar to the Semitic god-name Horon, identified with Horus.

As noted, the name Aaron means “light bringer,” while Horus is significantly a solar deity, also the bringer of light, as is his Greek counterpart, Apollo.

Horus too had his own ark, a beautiful example of which was discovered at Edfu.

In addition, the Egyptian baby sun god Sokar, an alter ego of Horus, was brought out in an ark annually at the winter solstice.  Again, to this day, gods and goddesses in Hindu and Buddhist ceremonies likewise are paraded in such arks, as they have been since antiquity.


At Numbers 10:33, the Greek of the LXX for the “ark of the covenant” is ἡ κιβωτὸς τῆς διαθήκης, the first noun, κιβωτός kibotos, meaning “box, chest, coffer” and διαθήκης diathekes denoting “disposition,” as well as “arrangement; will; treaty; covenant.”

This same term κιβωτός kibotos can be found in Pausanias (1.18.2), for example, concerning the Samothracian gods called Dioscuri, in a story similar to one in the Bible at 1 Samuel 6:19:

The sanctuary of the Dioscuri is ancient.... Above the sanctuary of the Dioscuri is a sacred enclosure of Aglaurus. It was to Aglaurus and her sisters, Herse and Pandrosus, that they say Athena gave Erichthonius, whom she had hidden in a chest, forbidding them to pry curiously into what was entrusted to their charge. Pandrosus, they say, obeyed, but the other two (for they opened the chest) went mad when they saw Erichthonius, and threw themselves down the steepest part of the Acropolis.

Here the word “chest” is the preferred translation for kibotos. As discussed, in the Bible we are informed that it is deadly to look into the ark, as in this Greek story.

Erichthonius was a mythical early king of Athens said to be born of would-be rapist Hephaistos’s semen, as Athena wiped it from her thigh and threw it to the ground. Although she thus remained a virgin, Athena raised the child as her own, brought to her through miraculous intercession. Essentially, in this tale we have a virgin-mother goddess placing another deity into an ark/chest, which drives the beholder to fatal madness when opened. This myth of a baby secreted in a box or “ark,” invoking a boat, fits into the genre also of the infant cast away in a reed boat or chest.

Treasure Chest

The Greek orator Lysias (c. 445–c. 380 BCE) in Against Eratosthenes (12.10) uses the term kibotos to describe what has been rendered as a “money-chest,” like a treasure chest or temple treasury, of which in Jerusalem the golden and jewel-encrusted ark of the covenant was the centerpiece.

Pelops and Cleomedes

Also according to Pausanias (6.22.1), a kibotos or chest/ark was used to hold the bones of the mythical Greek king Pelops near the sanctuary at the Greek city of Pisa, founded by Pisus.  Both Pausanias (6.9.7) and Plutarch (Rom. 28.4–5) recount the tale of the “mad man” Cleomedes of Astypaleia, who, after destroying a pillar holding up the roof of a children’s school, bringing it down upon them, hides in a large kibotos that no one subsequently can open. When finally the lid is removed, the chest is discovered to be miraculously empty. Afterwards, it was claimed this disappearing child-killer was a “hero” and “immortal,” yet again associating a divinity with an ark.

Ark of Osiris

To reiterate, the same basic concept and word, kibotos, were used to describe the biblical ark of Noah (Gen 7:7). Like Noah, Osiris too was “shut up in his ark,” as related by Plutarch (De Iside 39):

The story told of the shutting up of Osiris in the chest seems to mean nothing else than the vanishing and disappearance of water. Consequently they say that the disappearance of Osiris occurred in the month of Athyr, at the time when, owing to the complete cessation of the Etesian winds, the Nile recedes to its low level and the land becomes denuded. As the nights grow longer, the darkness increases, and the potency of the light is abated and subdued. 

Although the Egyptian calendar wandered, Athyr in this myth apparently refers to November, a dry month and the same time of the year when Noah was said to enter his ark, just before the rains (Gen 7). As we can see, this ancient source provides a naturalistic explanation for this motif: The annual vanishing and reappearance of water in the region.

Also in the same section of De Iside (39), Plutarch uses the term kibotos to describe the sacred rites of Osiris:

On the nineteenth day they go down to the sea at nighttime; and the keepers of the robes [stolists] and the priests bring forth the sacred chest containing a small golden coffer, into which they pour some potable water which they have taken up, and a great shout arises from the company for joy that Osiris is found.

Dionysus’s Ark

Osiris’s counterpart Dionysus also was placed in an ark, as in a tale recounted by Pausanias (7.19.6–9) about the Trojan Greeks who “found an ark sacred to Liber [Dionysus], which when Eurypilus opened it and saw the image of Bacchus hidden within, he was immediately insane.”  This Eurypilus or Eurupulos (Εὐρύπυλος) was a suitor of Helen of Troy and a hero from the Trojan War, as found in Homer.

As Pausanias states (7.19.6), this ark/chest story is credited with the cessation of human sacrifice to the goddess Artemis.  Note that Christianity too evidently was created in significant part in order to end widespread human sacrifice; hence, in this Greek tale we have a precedent for the later Christian effort.

We read further in Clarke about the sacred ark of the Trojans, which contained Dionysus’s image:

Pausanias likewise testifies [7.19.6] that the ancient Trojans had a sacred ark, wherein was the image of Bacchus, made by Vulcan, which had been given to Dardanus by Jupiter. As the ark was deposited in the Holy of Holies, so the heathens had in the inmost part of their temples an adytum or penetrale, to which none had access but the priests. And it is remarkable that among the Mexicans, Vitzliputzli, their supreme god, was represented under a human shape, sitting on a throne, supported by an azure globe which they called heaven; four poles or sticks came out from two sides of this globe, at the end of which serpents’ heads were carved, the whole make a litter which the priests carried on their shoulders whenever the idol was shown in public.

he Greek word in the pertinent Pausanias passage for “ark” or “chest” is λάρναξ larnax, meaning “coffer, box, chest.” Regardless of the preferred word, the concept is basically the same as in the story of Aglaurus, using the term kibotos. Moreover, here we learn about not only the ark of Dionysus but also that of the Mesoamericans, who share many rites, traditions and myths in common with the “Old World.”

As part of the Bacchic spring feast, a “sacred ship, steered by the priest of Dionysus, was carried aloft in procession round the marketplace.”  During this annual festival also, an image of Bacchus himself was borne as part of the procession through the streets, heralding the god.

Again, if we are going to depict the incredible fairytales of one culture as “history,” then we must be prepared to include the stories of other cultures in this category as well. Or, we could choose to accept them as mythical, allegorical, fictional and symbolic.

Rather than serving as historical events in which God sanctified the ark, the magical-chest story represents a literary device and motif found in other religions and myths.



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