Ark of the Covenant, Bible Archaeology, Temple of Jerusalem


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Bible Study Resource

Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant disappeared from the Jewish Temple somewhere before or during the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 586 BC. It may or may not have survived. There has been much speculation about it.

What was the Ark?

The Ark had its place in the Holy of Holies in the centre of the tabernacle, and was removed only when the whole shrine was dismantled to be moved somewhere else. 

 As to its religious significance, different scholars have put forward two conflicting interpretations: 

  1. according to one school, it was a lidded chest 

  2. Ark of the Covenant, Auch Cathedral, gilded panelaccording to another, a sort of throne. 

Both views draw their evidence from different passages in the Bible text. In Exodus 25:10-11; 37:1-9, the Ark is described as a chest made of acacia wood, about 4 ft. long and 2.5 ft. wide and high, covered with gold plates and fitted with rings through which poles could be fixed so that it could be carried. 

Kapporeth — Mercy Seat and Cherubim

Over the Ark was the Kapporeth, a gold plate the same size as the Ark, called in some translations the 'mercy seat'. The golden cherubim stood one at either end of the 'mercy seat' covering it with their outspread wings. This tradition is clearly influenced by the realities of the Temple of Solomon where the Ark stood in the Holy of Holies, sheltered by the wings of the cherubim. 

Creatures strongly resembling the Bible's description of the cherubim, on the side of the Egyptian pharoah Tutankhamun's tomb

Creatures on the shrine doors in the Egyptian pharoah Tutankhamun's tomb. 
They strongly resemble the Bible's description of the cherubim. 

The Bible specifies 'two cherubim of hammered gold with wings spread upward, facing each other at the ends of the cover'

The Bible specifies 'two cherubim of hammered gold with wings spread upward, 
facing each other at the ends of the cover'

Deuteronomy 10:1-8 simply refers to an Ark made of acacia wood as a container for the two stone tablets of the Law. This became known as the Ark of the Covenant, and Deuteronomy gives no further description of it, and does not connect it with either tent or tabernacle. Archaeology has furnished many parallels to the placing of the tablets of the Law in the 'holy place' of the nation. Among ancient peoples, legal bonds and documents were frequently deposited beneath statues of the gods who were witnesses to the agreements. 

The Ark was the oldest of the symbols. It stood, apparently without being covered by any tent, in the camp of Gilgal (Joshua 7:6) right at the beginning of the Conquest. It was transferred to Bochim near Bethel (Jud. 2:1-5), then Bethel (Jud. 20:27) or according to Joshua 8:33 to Mt. Ebal near Shechem. In Samuel’s time it was kept at Shiloh (ll Samuel 1-3) until it was taken into the Battle of Aphek (1 Samuel 4:3) and captured by the Philistines (4:11). They returned it to the Israelites at Beth-Shemesh (6:11-l4) and from there it was taken to Kiriath-Gearim (7:1) where it remained until David took it to Jerusalem and installed it in "his" city. 


Floor plan of the Temple of Jerusalem

Floor plan of the Temple of Jerusalem. The Ark was kept in the inner-most part of the sanctuary


Remains of the Great Temple at Palmyra

Remains of the Great Temple at Palmyra. Though this particular temple was looted hundreds of years ago, its most sacred objects would have been kept in the now-open niche (above) at the rear of the temple cella. The same was done with the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Jerusalem.

After the Temple had been built, the Ark was placed in the innermost sanctum (I Kings 8:3-4, 6-8) and lay there until it was destroyed along with the Temple in 587-586 BC. No new Ark was made for the post-Exilic Holy of Holies (Jeremiah 3:16) but in the post-Exilic period, the phrase, 'the room for the mercy-seat' (Kapporeth) stands for the Holy of Holies of Solomon"s Temple. Its memory remained, but Josephus (Wars 5, 5, 5) records that in Herod's Temple, there was nothing in the Holy of Holies. 

The Wanderings of the Ark

While biblical tradition insists that the Ark was housed in a tent or tabernacle and was, therefore, clearly portable, there is never any notion of taking it out of the sanctuary. Before their settlement in Canaan, the Israelites had no sanctuaries (Deuteronomy 12:8-11). Presumably, when the Israelites halted during their wanderings, the Ark containing the Covenant was temporarily covered by tent curtains and this remained the situation until it reached a more permanent resting place at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1).

In Shiloh, the Ark provided the cultic centre for the tribal federation. By the period of the early chapters of I Samuel, it was housed in a sanctuary under the care of the priest, Eli. Some time in the middle of the 11th century BC, the Philistines defeated the Israelite tribes, destroyed Shiloh and captured the Ark. In fact, the period after the destruction of Shiloh is largely a gap in the story of the central sanctuary. It seems likely that after its return and until the building of the Temple, the Ark continued to be housed in a temporary tent, not a permanent shrine. 

Some fifty years later, David formed his new official cultic centre. He connected the new worship with the ancient desert traditions of a tabernacle, and transferred the Ark to his new shrine in Jerusalem (II Samuel 6:17; 7:2), thus preserving all the awe and authority of the old sanctuary. The tent in Jerusalem under which the Ark was housed was evidently meant to represent the desert sanctuary.

What did the Ark look like? 

There is a detailed description in the Bible, but of course no-one knows exactly what it looked like. On the other hand... 

People tend to think of the Temple in Jerusalem and its furnishings as unique, different from anything around at that time. That was not so. Then, as now, sacred architecture was influenced by what was happening in nearby countries and states.

Take an example: every Christian church is different - designed by a different architect, catering to different congregations and beliefs. But then again they are all similar, or have features in common. 

So it was in the ancient world - and the Temple of Jerusalem and its ancient furnishings were no exception. The people who built probably borrowed ideas and designs from surrounding cultures. 

Specifications for the Ark of the Covenant

What are the specifications in the Bible description of the Ark, in Exodus 25:10-21? 

  • a chest of acacia wood

  • an overlay of pure gold, inside and out, with gold molding

  • four gold rings fastened to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other

  • poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold, inserted into the rings

  • an atonement cover of pure gold

  • two cherubim of hammered gold with wings spread upward, facing each other at the ends of the cover.

See the full Bible text, listing the specifications, at end of this page. 

Shrine of Anubis from the tomb of Tutankhamun; note the poles at either side

Shrine of Anubis from the tomb of Tutankhamun; note the poles at either side, 
used for carrying the shrine from place to place

Shrine of Anubis was clearly meant to be portable

The Shrine of Anubis was clearly meant to be portable, as the Ark of the Covenant was

These are the specifications. So what was around at the time? What might the designers of the Ark been influenced by?

Tutankhamun's Tomb

One of the most startling examples comes from the tomb of Tutankhamun. 

When Howard Carter opened the inner chamber, he found a statue of Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, sitting on top of a large box covered with pure gold. It had poles inserted into rings so that it could be easily carried.

The Bible tells us that the Ark was originally transported from shrine to shrine, before David's son Solomon built a permanent home for it in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The poles of acacia, specified in the Bible, were used in much the same way as the poles on the Shrine of Anubis - to lift and carry.

The outer casings around Tutankhamun's coffin were covered with hammered gold leaf. At each corner, and on the doors, were winged female figures (cherubim?) who stretched their wings out and over the surface of the casings, as if to protect its contents. 

Surely this cannot be coincidence? Each item described in the Bible

  • the winged protectors

  • the hammered gold and

  • the poles fitted onto moveable shrines

appears in Tutankhamun's tomb. One must assume that the Egyptian designs were copied and adapted by the Hebrew tribes of the time when they created their own religious artifacts. 

Bible Text describing the ArkExodus 25:10-21 

James Tissot, 'Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle'

An artist's recreation of the Ark: James Tissot, 'Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle'

10 Have them make a chest of acacia wood--two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.
11 Overlay it with pure gold, inside and out, and make a gold molding around it.
12 Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other.
13 Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.
14 Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it.
15 The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. 
16 Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. 
17 Make an atonement cover of pure gold--two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. 
18 And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 
19 Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. 
20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover.
21 Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. 

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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: Ark of the Covenant; The Mercy Seat and Cherubim; Tutankhamun's tomb; the Bible text

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher