The Ark of the Covenant is something that has captured the imagination of generations of people in the Judeo-Christian faiths. I chose to research this for a class last year, and I can tell you with confidence that no one really knows where it is today. There is no evidence of a fedora-wearing archaeologist discovering it in Egypt during the 1930s, and it is not stored in a government warehouse in Area 51. Well, probably not. We think of it as a “lost treasure,” but the real treasure is what we have instead today!
Visually, the Ark of the Covenant is a fancy box covered in gold that was carried around with the ancient Israelites as they wandered for decades in the wilderness after being freed from Egypt. God made a covenant with Moses and the Israelites, and the Ark was a human-made sign of that covenant. In Exodus, God commanded Moses to build the Ark and it became a focal point for communication between God and God’s chosen priestly people. Over the ages, even though the chosen people of God would stray from the path, the Ark would remain and remind the people of God’s presence with them. It became an important symbol for the ancient Israelites.
Inside the Ark were stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The size and weight of the entire Ark is debated, as it has been depicted as large as a coffee table and as small as a couple of shoe boxes put together. Remember, this was something carried for hours each day, so while larger and heavier might look impressive, it would not necessarily have been the wiser option for travel. Often, the Ark is depicted with two winged beings on top bowing in reverence to God. There might not be too much to the Ark, but it is certainly something more than a common treasure chest.
Most of my study of the Ark of the Covenant is based on a narrative text in the book of 1 Samuel. In this text, which happens long after the years of wandering and Moses, the ancient Israelite tribes are going to war with one of their neighbors (which happened fairly often). This time it was the Philistines, and long story made short, the Israelites are defeated after many of their soldiers were killed. To make things worse, the Ark of the Covenant is captured and taken by the Philistines! The Israelite army brought the Ark to the battlefield thinking that with God’s presence they would not be defeated… but it would appear that none of them thought to consult with God about this first. Thousands of Israelite people might have been slaughtered in that battle, but to lose the Ark of the Covenant was an unimaginable defeat! When the prophet Eli hears that his own sons were killed in the battle, he mourns, but when he hears that the Ark was captured, he falls over dead! Again, long story made short, God is not happy that the Ark was taken from God’s chosen people, and God ends up making life terrible in the cities of the Philistines until it is sent back.
There’s a great lesson that we can learn from this about making assumptions. The Israelites were correct to assume that God’s presence would be “with” the Ark. That was something that God said would happen. This assumption is based on solid scripture. There was, however, an incorrect assumption made that God’s presence would ensure a victory for conflicts between people (all nations are children of God, after all!) and that clearly was the case in this text. We do not know why the Israelites and the Philistines were fighting this time, but it is clear that if the people wanted God to be more involved in the battle, this is not the way it should have been done. As explained to Moses, the Ark acting as a focal point for communications between God and humanity was to allow God to tell God’s people what needed to be done, not for the people to tell God what enemy needed to be defeated. The Ancient Israelites might have thought of the Ark as a weapon against their enemies, but they learned having the Ark is really a sign of God’s love.
Looking at this all through the lens of Christianity today, we can know that we are in possession of a mightier sign of a covenant than the Ark ever was, one that cannot be lost to our enemies or to time in a desert. This sign is all because of God’s love for all of humanity. Jesus the Christ ushered in a new promise of God, and Jesus became a sign of that new promise. God loved the world, came into the world, was a part of the world, and taught God’s truth to all peoples of the world. God became flesh and blood, and then suffered and unjustly died the death of a criminal, to prove that God’s justice and fairness goes beyond even death. God did these things, giving us new life in this world as well as the next.
While the relics of the previous age are all fascinating, and if the Ark of the Covenant is ever found, it should be and would be highly venerated. Ultimately, objects like the Ark are like the bones of dinosaurs. They can tell us about the past, but the future belongs to God and God’s people. They are interesting and fuel our imaginations, but something new and everlasting has replaced them.
Vicar Matt Milbrodt