We’ve learned a lot about the Ark, but now the big question on all our minds: Where is it?
SO, WHERE DID THE ARK GO?
In the last article, we learned about how King David had some major issues moving the Ark to Jerusalem. Later, when King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem, he had the Ark moved into the Most Holy Place – without incident, we should note! (See 1 Kings 8:1-6; 2 Chronicles 5:2-9.)
Solomon’s Temple was built around 968 BC. It was destroyed in 586 BC when Babylon conquered Israel and destroyed Jerusalem and took the Israelites into captivity for one of the darkest times in ancient Israelite history, known as the Babylonian Exile. This lasted from 586-538 BC, ending when the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland. Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the second Temple in Jerusalem was built, completed about 516 BC.
Curiously, there’s no mention of the Ark in the Temple during this time. Mention of the Ark is most notably missing in Chapter 3 of Ezra, which is specifically about the building of the second Temple.
We even find this record of a scroll recording the decree of Cyrus in Ezra 6, but still no mention of the Ark:
In the first year of Cyrus the king, Cyrus the king issued a decree: Concerning the house [Temple] of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices were offered, and let its foundations be retained. Its height shall be sixty cubits and its breadth sixty cubits, with three layers of great stones and one layer of timber. Let the cost be paid from the royal treasury. And also let the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple that is in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be restored and brought back to the temple that is in Jerusalem, each to its place. You shall put them in the house of God. (Ezra 6:3-5)
Notice Cyrus orders the treasures stolen from the first Temple by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to be returned to Israel to be put in the new Temple, but still no specific mention of the Ark here or anywhere else.
The last mention of the Ark’s physical existence in the Bible is during the reign of King Josiah, an upright, godly king of Israel, unlike the kings before and after him. Because Israel had wandered far from the ways of God, Josiah instituted major reforms by restoring the Temple, the Passover, and doing away with idols and other pagan practices. While doing so, Josiah said,
“Put the holy ark in the house that Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built” (2 Chronicles 35:3).
This took place during Josiah’s rule somewhere between 640-609 BC, 20-50 years before the Babylonian Exile.
Josiah had ordered pagan idols to be removed from the Temple and the Ark returned to it. Had Israel fallen so deeply into idolatry that they had actually removed the Ark from the Most Holy Place and replaced it with pagan idols? Or had loyal Israelites, disgusted by the blaspheming of their Lord’s Temple, removed the Ark?
Interestingly, in 2 Chronicles 35:3, Josiah says to the Levites when telling them to place the Ark back into the Temple, “it will be a burden on your shoulders no longer” (NASB). This certainly sounds like those loyal to God had been moving the Ark, perhaps by their own choice due to the idolatry desecrating God’s Temple or by forced expulsion from the Temple by the wicked kings before Josiah, like Manasseh.
As I said, this took place about 20-50 years before the Babylonian Exile. After the exile, we see nothing more of the Ark.
God had allowed this exile to happen to Israel. Israel hadn’t kept their part of the covenant agreement; they had promised to be God’s representative people on the earth, but they had forgotten God and had turned to pagan gods. Thus, God took his blessings and protection from them.
As God removed his blessing and presence from Israel, the Ark lost its significance, and as the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and God’s Temple, it’s quite possible they destroyed the Ark or carried it off as a spoil of war, perhaps stripping the gold from it and destroying the rest.
Or perhaps the Ark was placed in the new Temple after the Exile, and it simply isn’t mentioned in Ezra’s account. But arguments from silence rarely make good cases; it’s odd that such a prominent part of the Temple (and Israel’s history) should be ignored in the biblical record. Plus, we find no mention of the physical Ark after – ever.
Or had the Ark not even been in Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian attack?
ACCORDING TO INDY
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy explains to the U.S. Army agents that one possible fate of the lost Ark was that the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak took it when he invaded Jerusalem in about 980 BC. He then took the Ark to the ancient city of Tanis and placed it into a chamber called The Well of Souls. A year later, Tanis was “consumed” by a year-long sandstorm and disappeared. As Indy’s colleague Marcus Brody says, Tanis and all traces of the Ark were “wiped clean by the wrath of God.” Since, Indiana finds the Well of Souls with the Ark in it, it seems to be the explanation the movie sticks with.
Tanis is, in fact, an ancient Egyptian city, and Shishak (more widely known as Shoshenq I or Sheshonk I or Sheshonq I – pick your favorite spelling) is a historical pharaoh. In 1 Kings 14 and 2 Chronicles 12, we’re told during the reign of rotten King Rehoboam (930-913 BC), the son of Solomon, Pharaoh Shishak invaded Jerusalem and “took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house. He took away everything. He also took away the shields of gold that Solomon had made” (2 Chronicles 12:9).
Shishak founded the Twenty-Second Dynasty, reunifying Egypt. With this new stability, he decided to go out and conquer other lands. Shishak's records list 150 cities that he battled throughout Israel and Judah. He took a significant amount of spoils of war, whether through looting or leaders paying him off to leave them alone.
The movie has the date of this invasion a bit off, but the important thing to note is that this took place long before the rule of King Josiah – about 300 years before! As we saw above, the Ark was still in the possession of the Israelites at the time of King Josiah’s reign. Therefore, though Shishak “took away the treasures of the house of the Lord… He took away everything,” what constitutes “treasures” and “everything” must not have included the Ark because we have evidence of the Ark still being around at the time of Josiah. "Everything" is possibly some Jewish hyperbole (exaggeration), which was common especially in accounts of warfare. Even if Israel paid off Shishak with the treasures of the Temple, it's doubtful they would hand over something with such religious significance as the Ark. The account in the Bible is an extremely brief summary, so we aren't given many details.
Other than there being a historical Tanis, a historical Shishak, and a historical invasion and taking of treasures of Jerusalem by Shishak, the rest of Indy’s theory of the lost Ark is pure fiction — which unfortunately means no Well of Souls, no sandstorm, no map room, and no Staff of Ra either! Bummer.
OUTSIDE THE BIBLE
Of course, outside the Bible there are rumors and legends about the fate of the Ark, and I’m sure the popularity of the Indiana Jones movies have inspired many new searches and theories.
Second Maccabees, an ancient text that is not considered Scripture by both Jews and Protestant Christians says that before the Babylonian invasion, the prophet Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave on Mount Nebo, the mountain God had Moses climb to see the Promised Land.
Another theory is that the Ark was hidden under the Temple before the Babylonian invasion. Of course, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is now the location of the sacred Islamic site the Dome of the Rock. Good luck getting permission to dig under there! (Apparently, there’s a “partly natural, partly man-made cave located inside the Foundation Stone under the Dome of the Rock” called the Well of Souls! Did the writers of Raiders of the Lost Ark know this or is this just a coincidence?!)
The Bible Archaeology, Search & Exploration (BASE) Institute points out that though 2 Chronicles 35:3 is the last mention of the Ark in the Old Testament, Isaiah 37:14-16 is the last time we know for certain the Ark was actually in the Temple. When Hezekiah goes into the Temple to pray, he says, “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth.” This reference to the cherubim is may be a reference to the two winged cherubim on the lid of the Ark, the Mercy Seat. In other words, even though King Josiah requested that the Levites bring the Ark back to the Temple later in history, we don’t know for sure if the Ark ever got there. After all, sadly, good King Josiah was killed in battle, and the kings after him were evil, so who knows if the Ark ever made it back into the Temple as King Josiah wished (or, if it did, if it stayed there).
The BASE Institute believes the Ark was moved before Josiah’s rule during the reign of Israel’s evil King Manasseh (687-642 BC) to Elephantine Island in Egypt by a colony of loyal Israelites. They claim to have found archeological evidence of a duplicate Temple there.
The BASE Institute also visited a place called St. Mary’s of Zion church in Axum, Ethiopia where they met the current “Guardian of the Ark of the Covenant.” Apparently, this man is part of a long line of specially trained keepers of the Ark. (Sort of sounds like the Grail Knight, who guarded the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.) Unfortunately (or conveniently...?), only the guardian is allowed to lay eyes on the Ark. A 105-year-old priest, who claimed to have seen it after one of the guardians died, described the object similar to the description in the Bible. The BASE Institute concludes St. Mary’s of Zion in Ethiopia “is the resting place either of an incredible replica of the biblical Ark of the Covenant, or, of the actual Ark of the Covenant itself,” though they didn’t see the Ark themselves.
ONE LAST BIBLICAL MENTION
One last mention of the Ark is found in the Bible, at the very end of the Bible in the very last book, the Book of Revelation. In this section, we see heaven’s temple opened to John in a vision, and “the ark of his covenant was seen within [God’s] temple” (11:19).
The Book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to understand; it’s a highly symbolic book, and often it’s difficult to know what’s symbol and what’s to be understood literally. But the ESV Study Bible explains that this shows John being allowed to see deeper into God’s truth “to receive visions that expose the deepest perspectives on the church’s spiritual conflict.”
Does this mean the Ark is literally in heaven? Remember, Hebrews 8:5 tells us the earthly Temple was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.” But does that mean there’s a literal temple in heaven? Or is the Temple that existed in Jerusalem is a symbolic, physical representation of spiritual truths? I believe most theologians would lean towards the second.
Whether we understand this vision to be literal or symbolic, going closer to God in the earthly Temple would mean entering the innermost part of the Temple, the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant once resided as the meeting place between God and man. Thus, this would be an appropriate symbol in the Book of Revelation of God allowing John access to deeper spiritual truths.
The religious law and ritual of the Old Testament has been fulfilled by Jesus’ death on the cross. The curtain separating the Most Holy Place of the Temple was torn in two at Jesus' death, symbolizing this (Matthew 27:51). Then, God allowed the utter destruction of his Temple again (this time by the Romans) in 70 AD.
The Ark is no longer needed because it has lost its significance. Followers of Christ don’t need priests, the Temple, nor the Ark to communicate with their heavenly Father because of Christ's life and death (and the Holy Spirit). Because of this, I lean towards thinking the Ark has been destroyed and forever removed from history. But others believe the Ark is in hiding — laying in wait, if you will — only to be revealed again at the victorious return of Christ to reclaim his creation.