From  the  book  by  the  same  name 

Archeology and the Ark

Sacred Superstition or Ancient Artifact?

Parallels to the Tabernacle have been drawn from archaeological and other sources; Gold-plated wooded containers or portable shrines also boast a comparable degree of antiquity.... The concept was very close indeed to that of the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant, except that the latter was the most sacred object in preexilic Hebrew ritual and worship.

—E.M. Blaiklock

The powerful presence of the Ark of the Covenant served to part the Jordan River, crumble the walls of Jericho, destroy Philistine cities, and kill irreverent Israelites. With that kind of history, the Ark was destined to become the centerpiece of scripts written for Hollywood movies. Unfortunately, this has left some people to assign this ancient artifact to the realm of sacred superstition. Then there are scholars who view the Ark as simply, a literary creation, a piece of religious fiction designed for a theological drama. Others say that the armies of other ancient Near-Eastern cultures carried images of their gods into Battle, and believe that the Israelites either borrowed or shared this regional mythology and carried their version of this pagan practice (the Ark) into difficult situations.

To the contrary, the biblical account demonstrates the theological uniqueness of the Ark with respect to other cultures. In addition, archaeologists have found artifacts that parallel the Ark, lending credibility to its existence. Archaeology has also been able to draw a description of the Ark that's compatible with the biblical data.

First let's consider the biblical description of the Ark, and then we'll look at archaeological examples that illustrate its design.

The Description of the Ark

The Ark of the Covenant (or Ark of the Testimony) was made in the form of a rectangular box approximately 4 feet in length and 2 feet in height and width.2 This design is indicated in the Hebrew word 'awn,' which means "a box" or "chest."3 Our English word ark comes to us through the Latin area, which likewise means "chest." The lower portion of the Ark was constructed from acacia wood, which attests to its desert origin, for acacia trees are native to the Sinai region. This wood is so extremely durable that in the Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, the word is translated as "incorruptible" or "non-decaying." Added to this imperishable wood was a layer of gold, applied for practical protection and religious symbolism. According to some, the wood was gilded (i.e., overlaid like gold leaf).4 Others say the Hebrew text indicates that there were thin boxes of gold on both the inside and outside of the original wood repository, forming something like a "Chinese box."5 Thus, the Ark may have actually been a three-layered container (a gold box + a wooden box + a gold box).

44. Model of the Ark of the Covenant, prepared by Chaim Odemfor the Temple Institute, Jerusalem.

The upper portion of the Ark was a specially constructed slab of gold called "the Mercy Seat" (Hebrew kapporet, "covering"). This slab served as a flat lid for the box and fit into a rim or "crown" of gold that surrounded the top four corners of the outer box and helped hold the lid in place. This was to help keep the lid from accidentally falling off and exposing the contents of the Ark while in transport. The golden lid was topped by a pair of winged creatures called "cherubim." These were apparently formed out of one solid piece of gold. Is this a reliable description of a real object from antiquity? Comparison with similar relics unearthed in the ancient Near East will help to provide an answer.

Archaeological Parallels to the Ark

The Hebrew word for "ark" ('aron') was also used of Egyptian coffins (Genesis 50:26), and some of our best examples of ark-like objects come from Egypt. For example, in Luxor, in the

45. Miniature replica of the Ark showing its construction as a three-layered box. Inside the first gold box are the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Valley of the Kings, archaeologists discovered the tomb of the young Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen (1343-1325 B.C.).6 The objects from his tomb are on permanent display at the Cairo Museum in Cairo, Egypt. In this tomb was found an ark-like chest made of cedar some 32 inches long with transport poles that slid through bronze rings attached underneath. Also found was a larger shrine consisting of a rectangular wooden box overlaid with gold. The box had carrying poles, and there was an image of the god Anabis mounted on top. In addition, Egyptian sphinxes, usually appearing in pairs, adorned many of the ritual objects-—-in one case, another "ark." However, on this particular ark the sphinxes are engraved into the side.

Many Near-Eastern cultures adopted the Ark's cherubim concept of human and animal attributes to represent the powerful guardians of the gods. Examples of sphinxes, winged bulls, and griffins come from Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Phoenicia as well as from Canaan. One especially beautiful ivory example from the eighth or ninth centuries B.C. was found in the palace of the Assyrian governor of Hadatu, at Arslan Tash in northern Syria.7

These symbols usually appear as combination creatures. For example, in Egypt the sphinx is a lion man, while in Babylon the primary figure is a bull man. In Israel, figures of ivory sphinx-like cherubim were discovered in the ruins which once were part of King Ahab's palace in Samaria. To what degree these later Israelite sphinxes represented an accurate depiction of the Ark's cherubim is difficult to determine. The images of winged creatures in comparative Near-Eastern cultures were influenced by their local pagan mythology, but the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant, according to Jewish tradition, were unique in form.8

Archaeology and the Concept of the Ark

46. An ark-like chest found in King Tutankhamen's tomb—circa 1334 B.C.

In the Bible the Ark is depicted as the place where the God of heaven touches the earth of men. For example, we read of "... the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of hosts who sits above the cherubim" (1 Samuel 4:4, emphasis added; see also 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; Psalm 80:1; 99:1; Isaiah 37:16). Therefore it is often referred to as "the footstool of... God" (1 Chronicles 28:2, emphasis added; see also Psalm 132:7-8).

This concept is illustrated in the ancient art of Israel's closest neighbors in Syria and surrounding Canaan.9 In Assyrian and Babylonian reliefs a king is usually attended by a representation of the nation's deity, which was depicted by a winged solar disk hovering above his head (such as was done on the relief of King Darius on Mount Behistun). At Byblus, Hamath, and Megiddo archaeologists have found representations of a king seated on a throne flanked by winged creatures.10 Similar images on the Megiddo ivories are of particular interest, because they reflect Phoenician craftsmanship, such as was employed in building both the First and Second Temples (1 Kings 5; Ezra 3:7). Thus they may give the nearest representation to what the Ark may have looked like. The purpose for this symbolism was to denote the divine status of the one enthroned, to show him as riding upon a heavenly chariot attended by a retinue of celestial beings.

Archaeology and the Contents of the Ark

The Ark contained sacred objects associated with God's presence with Israel in the desert. These objects were to serve as a witness of the Mosaic covenant to future generations of the Jewish people. The sacred shrines of other Near-Eastern religions held images of their gods, but because God forbade the Israelites to make physical representations of Him, the divine image was communicated through God's Law, which was contained within the Ark. This Law was comprised of ten words (Ten Commandments), which had been inscribed on a pair of stone tablets. These "tablets of the Law" remained a permanent fixture within the Ark (2 Chronicles 5:10). The Hollywood version of these tablets is usually exaggerated. Whether intentionally or not, the cinemagraphic portrait of an 80-year-old man liefting huge stone slabs weighing hundreds of pounds down a rugged mountain makes the Bible seem more fantasy than reality.

Archaeology, however, offers a more accurate picture. Based on discoveries of similarly inscribed stone tablets, the Ten Commandments were probably carved on stone flakes not much larger than the size of a man's hand.12 This size is implied by the relatively small size of the Ark itself. The rabbinic sages Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah debated the contents of the Ark; the former said that the stone tablets and the Torah scrolls were placed side-by-side within the Ark. The latter contended that in the fortieth year of the desert sojourn, a shelf was attached to an exterior side of the Ark to hold the Torah scroll.13 Either way, only small tablets could have fit within the Ark.

Archaeology also helps us to understand the reason why these tablets were deposited within the Ark. In the Near-Eastern cultures of Moses' time the custom was to put legal documents and agreements between rival kingdoms "at the feet" of their god in their sanctuary. This god acted as the guardian of treaties and supervised their implementation. Egyptian records provide an example of this in a pact between Rameses II and Hattusilis III. Their agreement was sealed by depositing a copy of the treaty both at the feet of the Hittite king's god Teshup and the pharaoh's god Ra. The tablets of the Law set within the Ark were likewise at the "feet" of God because the Ark was His footstool.14 Another possible example of this custom may be seen in 1 Samuel 10:25, where the prophet Samuel recorded the ordinances of the kingdom and set them "before the Lord"-—that is, at the foot of the Ark. King Hezekiah, too, may have been acting in accordance with this custom when he "spread out before the Lord" the threatening letter of the Assyrian Rabshakeh (Isaiah 37:14).

A Brief History of the Ark

The Ark of the Covenant was constructed by the craftsman Bezalel ben Uri ("In the Shadow of God, the Son of my Light") under the supervision of Moses at Mount Sinai. It was transported from place to place with the Tabernacle through the long years of the Israelites' journey to the Promised Land and throughout the periods of the Conquest and settlement. It may be that the Ark served as a substitute for the Sinai experience of the Lord's presence when the Israelites entered Canaan. While the presence of God was visibly present in the desert, it was representively present with the Ark.15 When King David conquered Jerusalem and made it the capital of the Jewish nation, he transported the Ark, with the Tabernacle, to Jerusalem. When David's son, Solomon, succeeded him on the throne, he built the First Temple and placed the sacred Ark within its innermost recesses in a room known as the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 6:19).

In the First Temple, the high priest would approach the Ark once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to bring before God the sacrificial blood that was to obtain another year of pardon for the sins of the Jewish nation. During the reign of the wicked Judean king Manasseh, the Ark was removed from the Temple and an idol put in its place (2 Kings 21:4-7). We don't know where the Ark was kept during this time, but it reappeared a generation later during the time of King Josiah and was returned to the Holy of Holies (2 Chronicles 35:3) after he brought about

47. One of the ivory cherubim (or sphinxes) from the palace of Ahab in Samaria.

reform and effected extensive repairs to the Temple structure (2 Kings 22:1-7). About 38 years later, the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian commander Nebuzaradan (2 Kings 25:8-9), and though the Temple treasures were taken to Babylon and later returned (2 Kings 25:13-17; Ezra 1:7-11; Isaiah 52:11-12; Jeremiah 27:16-22; Daniel 5:2-4), the Ark was never mentioned among these items.

Has Archaeology Found the Place of the Ark?

Ever since the Babylonian captivity 2,500 years ago, the exact location of the Ark has been unknown. Although rumors persist that the Ark of the Covenant has been located here or there, no archaeological evidence has been produced to substantiate any of the claims. However, we may now be able to figure out where the Ark once rested within the ancient Holy of Holies. If, as we saw in the previous chapter, it is possible, to deduce the location of the Temple building and its Holy of Holies, then it might be possible to locate where the Ark once was placed within this structure. According to ancient sources such as Josephus and the Mishnah tractate Middot, the Ark had rested on a bedrock platform. In Jewish tradition, this platform was called 'Even Ha-Shetiyah' ("the Foundation Stone"), and in Arabic, es-Sakhra ("the Rock"). According to research done by Leen Ritmeyer, former chief architect of the Temple Mount excavations and today director of Ritmeyer Archaeological Design in England, the huge rock within the present-day Islamic Dome of the Rock has to be the bedrock platform within the Holy of Holies. Ritmeyer explains how he came to this determination:

It took me 20 years to figure it out. I was convinced that the Temple must have stood here somewhere. I started to look at the measurements of the Rock and the interior measurements of the Temple. We know that the interior measurements of the Temple were 20 cubits wide. The Holy [Place] was 40 cubits long and the Holy of Holies was 20 by 20 cubits. If you use the measurements of the 500 cubits measurements from the Mishnah it would measure 10.5 meters [34 feet] thereabouts. Comparing that with the size of the Rock, the Rock is larger than the Holy of Holies. Yet, the Mishnah [Yoma 5:2] says that this stone is called 'Even Ha-Shetiyah,' "the Foundation Stone." Why would they call it the Foundation Stone? Because if the Holy of Holies was smaller than the Rock, then the Rock would have served as a foundation for at least one of the Temples. With that information in mind, I started looking closer at the Rock for a foundation.16

Ritmeyer's look at the Rock began first by eliminating the signs of Crusader quarrying on the Rock, which in A.D. 1099 had been captured from the Muslims and converted into a Christian church called Templum Domini ("the Temple of the Lord"). He attributed cuts in the Rock on the north, south, and west sides to their actions. The Crusaders thought that the rock disfigured the Temple of the Lord and shaped it into what they believed was a more acceptable size, then built an altar on top of the Rock. In 1187, when the caliph Saladin recaptured the Dome of the Rock for the Muslims, they found it covered with marble slabs. Upon removing the slabs they found that the Rock had been mutilated. This mutilation included the enlarging of a cave and some deep tunnels dug beneath the Rock, which may indicate that the Crusaders were trying to locate the suspected hiding place of the Ark. The natural cave below the Rock was identified by them as the Holy of Holies, where they commemorated the angel's visit to Zacharias. They enlarged this cave in order to use it as a sanctuary, and because they burned candles and incense in the cave, it was necessary for them to cut a vertical shaft for ventilation (this formed the present hole in the Rock).

Thus, before the Crusaders disfigured the Rock, the upper level would have been larger and flatter. Ritmeyer then measured the flat areas in the southern part of the Rock, which he identified as foundation trenches. Their combined dimensions agreed perfectly with the known thickness of the walls of the Second Temple (6 cubits or 10 feet and 4 inches). This foundation trench revealed the location of the southern wall of the Holy of Holies. The back wall would then have rested against the unchangeable natural rockscarp to the west. The northern wall would have been adjacent to the northern end of the Rock itself. This placement of the walls also agreed with Ritmeyer's earlier calculations about the placement of the original Temple platform. He found that the direction of the western scarp was virtually identical to that of the steps, which he had identified previously, and the eastern wall of the Temple Mount. So, the First and Second Temples would have had the same orientation—the longitudinal axis of the Temple at right angles with the eastern wall. This axis is also aligned with the highest point on the Mount of Olives, where the sacrifice of the red heifer (necessary for ritual purification—Numbers 19) took place. This became a further confirmation to Ritmeyer of his location of the Temple.

The Site of the Ark Discovered

Having identified these structures, Ritmeyer began looking for additional clues to position the Holy of Holies. He tells the story of how this identification was first realized:

Once I began to research this problem in the Spring of 1994, the secrets of the Sakhra revealed themselves to me in such rapid succession that it was sometimes breathtaking. While flying to Israel, 30,000 feet high in the air, I got my first glimpse of the most spectacular of all the discoveries, namely that of the former location of the Ark of the Covenant! Averting my gaze from the in-flight video, I took out a large photograph of the Sakhra from my briefcase and tried to trace again those flat areas, which, of course, were familiar to me as foundation trenches sketched over the flat areas on the photograph of the Sakhra the line of the southern wall of the Holy of Holies. I drew the western edge of the Rock and the northern wall at the northern end of the exposed rock I also drew a dotted line where the veil, which separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy [Place], would have hung. I did not expect to find any remains as no wall had existed there. I then suddenly noticed in the middle of this square a dark rectangle! What could it be? The first thing that came to mind was, of course, the [place of the] Ark of the Covenant, which once stood in the centre of the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple. But that surely could not be true, I thought [However,] according to my plan, it falls exactly in the centre of the Holy of Holies. The dimensions of this level basin agree with those of the Ark of the Covenant, which were 1.5 x 2.5 cubits (27" " 4'4" or 79 cm." 131 cm.), with the longitudinal axis coinciding with that of the Temple. Its location is rather unique, as it could only have been the place where the Ark of the Covenant once stood. It is clear that without such a flat area the Ark would have wobbled about in an undignified manner, which would not conceivably have been allowed.17

According to Ritmeyer, then, this depression in the Rock served as a base to secure the Ark within the Holy of Holies. It could not have been created by the Crusaders because they covered the Rock with slabs to hide it, and would have placed a statue (in such a base) in the middle of the Rock, not at the north of the Rock (where the depression would have been at that time).18

We can summarize Ritmeyer's research in the accompanying diagram, which he drew. It depicts a north-south section through the Herodian Temple Mount and its Courts in relation to the present-day Dome of the Rock. One can see the original bedrock designated "Sakhra," which was the highest point on Mount Moriah—where Abraham had offered Isaac and the Angel of the Lord had stood in the days of King David. Inside is the natural cave from Solomon's time; the western scarp of which is where the western wall would have been built. The

48. The "Foundation Stone" (Sakhra) within the Muslim Dome of the Rock (viewed from northern scarp). Note the rectangular depression identified by Leen Ritmeyer as the setting place for the Ark of the Covenant during the First Temple period.

floor of the Holy of Holies has an indented area where the Ark of the Covenant would have been placed in Solomon's Temple. While it's impossible to archaeologically investigate the Rock to confirm Ritmeyer's conclusions, if he is correct, we now have for the first time identified the site of the Holy of Holies and of the former location of the Ark of the Covenant itself. In this case, the stone of stones has shouted with evidence that the Ark existed!






Keith Hunt