The ark of the covenant was an Old Testament symbol of God's presence with His people. It has also been called the ark of the Lord and the ark of the testimony. A covenant is a two-way promise with God, and an ark is the “container” of that promise. The children of Israel were delivered out of bondage, and they were to always remember and reverence God who had miraculously delivered them. The ark of the covenant was a physical reminder of their deliverance and continued blessings.
Moses was instructed by God to prepare a tabernacle as well as the ark of the covenant which was housed there. The tabernacle was to serve as a portable temple, which could travel with the people as they traveled in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt. In this tabernacle was a wooden chest about 4 feet by 2 ½ and 2 ½ feet. It was constructed of acacia wood and covered with gold, and fitted with a seat of gold, the mercy seat, where God was to sit to direct His people. Two cherubs were on either side of this lid or covering, facing one another, their wings touching. The design of the ark was revealed by God Himself, and (as was the serpent on the staff of Moses) unusual for its use of a graven image—the cherubim. This ark was kept in the innermost part of the tabernacle and later the temple, the holiest place called the Holy of Holies. Inside the chest were the symbols of God's interaction with Israel—the stone tablets that Moses brought from Sinai, the rod of Aaron which miraculously budded and then parted the Red Sea in Moses’ hands, and manna, the food given to Moses’ people to preserve them in the wilderness. Poles were fitted into rings on each corner, with which to lift the Ark. The poles were also made of acacia wood plated with gold, and the designated carriers of the ark were the family of Kehath, of the tribe of Levi. They would carry the ark on their shoulders using these poles.
The Old Testament people were very receptive to the physical symbols of God being with them, and those who understand this symbolism can see that they are a type and shadow (symbol) of Jesus Christ Himself. Jewish writings contain accounts of the miraculous power of the Ark of the Covenant:
- According to one midrash, it would clear the path for the nation by burning snakes, scorpions, and thorns with two jets of flame that shot from its underside (T. VaYakhel, 7); another midrash says that rather than being carried by its bearers, the Ark in fact carried its bearers inches above the ground (Sotah 35a). When the Israelites went to war in the desert and during the conquering of Canaan, the Ark accompanied them; whether its presence was symbolic, to provide motivation for the Jews, or whether it actually aided them in fighting, is debated by [Jewish] commentators.
- When God spoke from between the Cherubs, there was a glowing cloud visible there (Exodus 40:35); when the Jews traveled, they were led by the Ark and a pillar of clouds (Numbers 10:34); at night, the pillar of clouds was replaced by a pillar of fire, another common descriptor of God's appearance (Exodus 24:17); and when the High Priest entered presence of the Ark on Yom Kippur, he did so only under the cover of a cloud of incense, perhaps intended to mask the sight of the shekhina (or radiance of God) in all its glory (Leviticus 16:13).
- The holiness of the Ark also made it dangerous to those who came in contact with it. When Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, brought a foreign flame to offer a sacrifice in the Tabernacle, they were devoured by a fire that emanated "from the Lord" (Leviticus 10:2). During the saga of the capture of the Ark by the Philistines, numerous people, including some who merely looked at the Ark, were killed by its power. Similarly, the Priests who served in the Tabernacle and Temple were told that viewing the Ark at an improper time would result in immediate death (Numbers 4:20).
Modern scholars have speculated that the ark's construction caused it to harness electricity, since gold is a good conductor and wood is an insulator. The position of the cherubim could cause an electrical current to pass between them.
It is also significant that the Ark of the Covenant itself was the means of bringing the children of Israel across the Jordan River into their promised land (Joshua 3:3–17). Led by Joshua, the Levite priests lifted up the ark. As their feet touched the river, it became dry land, easy to cross. Again, the symbolism is unmistakable. Later, when the city of Jericho was conquered, it was the ark that was carried seven times around the walls as the trumpets sounded (Joshua 6:1–21).
When the temple of Solomon was built, the ark was put into this sacred edifice. There it remained until it was either destroyed or hidden away.
- The Ark remained in the Temple until its destruction at the hand of the Babylonian empire, led by Nebuchadnezzar. What happened to it afterward is unknown, and has been debated and pondered for centuries. It is unlikely that the Babylonians took it, as they did the other vessels of the Temple, because the detailed lists of what they took make no mention of the Ark. According to some sources, Josiah, one of the final kings to reign in the First Temple period, learned of the impending invasion of the Babylonians and hid the Ark. Where he hid it is also questionable – according to one midrash, he dug a hole under the wood storehouse on the Temple Mount and buried it there (Yoma 53b). Another account says that Solomon foresaw the eventual destruction of the Temple, and set aside a cave near the Dead Sea, in which Josiah eventually hid the Ark (Maimonides, Laws of the Temple, 4:1).
The Ark of the Covenant is a sort of "Holy Grail of Achaeology," in that there are many locations speculated for its hiding place. Ethiopian Christians in Axum, Ethiopia, claim to be closely guarding the Ark in the Church of Saint Mary of Zion. Archaeologist Leen Ritmeyer, claims to have found the spot on the Jerusalem Temple Mount where the Holy of Holies was located during the First Temple period. There is a space carved out deep in the bedrock that could be concealing the Ark. Irish legend holds that the Ark is buried under the Hill of Tara near Dublin, carried there by Jeremiah or others at the Babylonian captivity. At least one American Indian tribe claims to have it.
- The Ark of the Covenant itself plays no role in Jewish life today. Nonetheless, it remains a potent symbol of the Jewish peoples' past, and of the messianic era many believe is waiting in the future.
The Ark of the Covenant was kept at the center place of Israelite worship—the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and it was carried at the forefront of its armies as a powerful symbol, and even a literal manifestation of God's power. Because of this, the Ark is a profound type of Christ, who is at the center of true worship, and also the power that guides the believer and literally fights his battles for him.