The Glossary of Terms


Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

ark. A ship or houseboat, as in the story of Noah. Gen., chs. 6 to 9.

Usually in the O.T., the ark of the covenant or ark of the testimony or ark of God. A chest or box mounted on poles for carrying. Other ancient peoples had similar portable shrines to carry idols of gods, especially into battle. The Israelites seem to have had a similar feeling for the ark. The box contained the stone tablets inscribed with the law, not an idol. It was also considered a throne for God. Carried before the Israelites when they moved from place to place in the time of Moses, and with the soldirers into battle, it symbolized the presence of God, who was leading his people like a king. David had the ark moved to Jerusalem, and it was later placed in Solomon's temple. In Num. 10:35-36 there is an indication of how the Israelites thought of the ark. The description in Ex. 25:10:22 was written much later, and may or may not be what the ark looked like in the time of Moses. In 1 Sam. 4:1 to 7:2 there are some stories about the ark. 2 Sam. 6:12-19; 1 Kings 8:1-9.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

ark, a container of indeterminate size. In the ot, ‘ark’ translates two Hebrew words, tebah and aron, both of which mean ‘box’ or ‘chest.’ The former is used only for Noah’s ark (Gen. 6-9) and for the ark of bulrushes in which Moses was placed (Exod. 2:3, 5). The latter designates a coffin (Gen. 50:26) and a chest (2 Kings 12:9), but it is usually employed for a religious object, called the Ark of Yahweh or the Ark of God in early sources, the Ark of the covenant in typically Deuteronomic language (Deut. 10:8), and the Ark of the testimony in priestly material (Num. 4:5).

Originally, the characteristic feature of the Ark was that it could be carried about. Portable shrines are known from Egypt and Mesopotamia and also from Canaan, where examples have been found decorated with cherubim, like those that eventually sheltered the Israelite Ark (1 Kings 8:6-7). The pre-Islamic Arabs had a portable tent-shrine, the qubba, which contained two sacred stones, was in the charge of a religious officiant, was used for divination, and was taken into battle. The Israelite Ark led the people in the desert (Num. 10:33), was carried round the walls of Jericho (Josh. 6), and was brought into the camp during military operations (1 Sam. 4:2-4). It was kept in a tent (2 Sam. 6:17) with an attendant (1 Sam. 7:1) and used for oracular enquiries (1 Sam. 14:18). According to biblical tradition, the Ark contained the two tablets of the law (Deut. 10:2, 5), but the wording of 1 Kings 8:9 suggests that it may once have held something else, perhaps the two stones that formed the sacred lots, Urim and Thummim.

The most striking fact about the Ark at an early period was that it was a direct manifestation of God’s presence and was virtually identified with him. Moses addressed the Ark as God (Num. 10:35-36), the Philistines equated the Ark with a god (1 Sam. 4:6-8), and those who desecrated the Ark were struck down by its divine power (1 Sam. 6:19; 2 Sam. 6:6-7). When we find the expression ‘before God’ in a sanctuary context, this often seems to refer to the Ark.

It is possible that at one time various sanctuaries each had their own Arks, but the one that becomes central in the ot is that of the Shiloh temple, where it had probably already become a national symbol of the tribal confederacy. From the so-called history of the Ark (1 Sam. 4:1-7:2), we learn of its capture by the Philistines, its devastating power in their territory, its triumphant return to Israel, and its concealment at Kiriath-jearim for some twenty years of Philistine occupation. After defeating the Philistines, David brought it from there and installed it in his new capital, Jerusalem, as part of his policy of uniting the tribes under his rule (2 Sam. 6). This event was probably reenacted annually, with Psalm 132 as the liturgy of the festival.

A decisive step in the story of the Ark came when it was transferred into the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s new Temple (1 Kings 8:4-7). From this time onward, it remains stationary and is viewed as a throne, on which God sits as an invisible deity above the two guardian cherubim (2 Kings 19:15). The belief that God resided permanently in the darkness of the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 8:12-13) led to the doctrine of the inviolability of the Temple and Jerusalem. The Ark was destroyed or captured in the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem in 586 b.c. Whether there was one in the second Temple is uncertain. In Jer. 3:15, which may well be postexilic and is the only reference to the Ark in all the prophetic literature, Jerusalem replaces the Ark as God’s throne. There is no mention of the Ark in the detailed vision of the new temple in Ezekiel 40-48, and a later Jewish legend tells of its being hidden until a remote future at the time of the Exile (2 Macc. 2:4-8). On the other hand, there is an Ark in the Priestly account of the tabernacle, which is in many respects an image of the Second Temple; in any case, the Ark holds an important place in Priestly theology. By now it has become an elaborate, gold-plated object (Exod. 25:10-15). But it is only a container for the ‘testimony,’ the tablets of the law (Exod. 25:16), and interest is focused on the gold ‘mercy seat’ or cover on top of it. This is now God’s throne, where he appears in a cloud (Lev. 16:2) to communicate his will (Exod. 25:17-22). As the Hebrew term kapporeth suggests, this was also the place where atonement was made, supremely by the sprinkling of blood on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:14-16). It is this representation of the ark that is found in Heb. 9:3-5 (cf. Rom. 3:25), which also reflects later Jewish tradition that, as well as the tablets of the law, it contained the manna (Exod. 16:33-34) and Aaron’s miraculous rod (Num. 17:10).

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