Moses constructs the Ark of the Covenant
Ex 25:1-40 Moses receives instructions on building a sanctuary where God can dwell among his people. The ‘Ark of the Covenant’ – a portable gold-covered wooden chest containing the two tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments – is to rest in the innermost part of this sanctuary. It is to be accompanied by a gold-covered table containing an offering of twelve loaves of unleavened bread (the ‘shewbread’ – see Leviticus 24:5-9), and a gold lampstand (a ‘menorah’) with seven candles – a central candle and those on its six branching arms.
Replica of the Temple menorah
Ex 26:1-37 The ‘Tabernacle’ – a structure of curtains made of the finest linen and expensive yarns – surrounds the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ and forms the Most Holy Place at the heart of the ‘Tent of Meeting’ or the ‘Tent of the LORD's presence’. This outer tent consisted of rams’ skins with a covering of fine leather made from the hides of sea cows (dugongs).
Ex 27-30 Moses receives further instructions about altars, handbasins, priestly garments and the consecration of the priests to minister in the ‘Tent of Meeting’.
He is told to construct two types of altar – a large bronze sacrificial ‘four-horned’ altar for burnt offerings (about 7.5 feet / 2.3 metres square and 4.5 feet / 1.4 metres high), and a smaller ‘four-horned’ gold-covered incense altar (about 1.5 feet / 0.5 metres square and 3 feet / 0.9 metres high) for burning fragrant incense every morning.
The priests (Aaron and his sons) are to be provided with a bronze washing bowl mounted on a portable bronze ‘laver’ stand so they can make themselves ceremonially ‘clean’ when entering the Tabernacle.
Their elaborate priestly garments include a linen ‘ephod’ (a sleeveless top with golden shoulder straps incorporating onyx gemstones engraved with the names of the Twelve tribes of Israel), a gold and linen breastpiece, a woven linen tunic, a blue robe, an embroidered sash and a linen turban.
In addition, every man aged twenty or over is to pay a tax for the upkeep of the Tabernacle.
Ex 31:1-11 Craftsmen are appointed to construct the ‘Ark of the Covenant’, the ‘Tabernacle’ and the ‘Tent of Meeting’.
The Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant was constructed in c.1446 BC to hold the two tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments that were given to Moses by God on Mt Sinai. The guidelines inscribed on the two stone tablets formed part of the solemn covenant agreement (or ‘testament’) undertaken between the Israelites and God. The Israelites, as God’s chosen people, agreed to follow these guidelines, while God, for his part, promised to bless them.
The Ark housing the two stone tablets was, essentially, a portable wooden chest made from acacia wood - a thorny tree which grows in the desert. It was carried on wooden poles, attached to the chest on each corner through a golden ring, and protruding at the front and rear. The chest and the poles were overlaid with gold to show how much the ark was valued and esteemed. On top of the cover, facing each other, were two golden cherubim – lions or bulls with human heads and outstretched wings – forming a throne (the ‘Mercy Seat’ or ‘Judgement Seat’) on which God could sit and dispense justice (see Exodus 25:10-22). The ark could be carried from place to place as the Israelites travelled towards the ‘promised land’ of Canaan.
An Egyptian sacred ark
Every time the Israelites made an encampment, the Ark of the Covenant was housed inside the ‘Tabernacle’ – a structure of fine linen curtains – inside a sheepskin and leather tent – called the ‘Tent of the LORD’s presence’ or the ‘Tent of Meeting’. The portable altar for burnt offerings, the smaller incense altar and the movable ceremonial washing stand were also housed inside the Tabernacle.
When the Israelites attacked Jericho in c.1406 BC during their conquest of Canaan, the Ark of the Covenant – symbolising God’s presence with his people – was carried into battle to encourage the Israelites and to strike terror into their enemies (see Joshua 6:4). On a later occasion in c.1024 BC, the Ark and (presumably) the other treasures inside the Tabernacle were captured by the Philistines at the Battle of Ebenezer, and were then taken via Ashdod and Gath to Ekron. The Ark was only returned to the Israelites after debilitating diseases broke out in these Philistine cities (see 1 Samuel 4:1-11 & 5:1-12).
When David conquered Jerusalem and became king of the United Monarchy of Israel and Judah in c.1004 BC, he brought the Ark from Kiriath Jearim to his new capital (see 2 Samuel 6:1-19). It was some years, however, before his son Solomon, in c.968 BC, began building the magnificent Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant (see 1 Kings 6:1-38).
After the overthrow of Jerusalem in 587 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Solomon’s Temple was demolished and there is no further reference to the Ark of the Covenant in the Jewish Tanakh (the ‘Old Testament’).
There are many theories concerning the whereabouts of ‘The Lost Ark’. Some suggest that the Ark, together with other Temple treasures, was taken with the Jewish exiles to Babylon. The Ethopian Orthodox church claims that the Ark was taken to Ethiopia by Solomon’s son Menelik, and today lies in the Church of Mary of Zion at Aksum.
Chapel of the Ark of the Covenant at Aksum, Ethiopia (Adam Cohn)
The apocryphal Second Book of the Maccabees, however, records that the prophet Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant and the Tent of Meeting from the Temple before Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem in 587 BC, and hid them in an unmarked cave on Mount Nebo (see 2 Maccabees 2:4-8).
Ex 31:11-18 The Israelites are commanded to observe the Sabbath day (Saturday) as a day of rest.
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