The Lodgings of the Holy Ark

In the desert, after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses was instructed to make a ceremonial ark or aron – a wooden chest – as a sign of the covenant made at Mount Sinai.[1] The ark was made of acacia wood, a metre long, and overlaid with gold. On top was a solid-gold cover called the kapporet, where two golden keruvim or ‘cherubim’ faced each other, wing-tips touching.

The keruv or cherub is a being whose general type is well known to us from ancient eastern iconography. It was not a winged man; much less a little flying putto or baby boy. Rather it was a being combining human characteristics with those of fierce animals and birds, and representing a solar or stellar deity. The best-known example is the great man-headed lion the ancient Egyptians called Re-Hor-Akhty – ‘Ra-Horus of the two horizons’ – better known nowadays as the Great Sphinx of Giza. And while the Egyptians do not seem to have had a generic name for such creatures – ‘sphinx’ is a Greek word – they had many of them, winged and wingless. King Tut-ankh-amun’s throne is upborne by winged sphinxes. Further eastward, the Levantine sphinx or lamassu is routinely a winged man-headed bull or lion. The king of 13th century BC Megiddo sits on a throne supported on each side by lion-bodied lamassu: stellar deities to attend a heavenly king. He sips his wine, as if unaware that the sword of the Israelites is raised to cut him from his celestial throne.[2] 

Figure 3. The King of Megiddo on keruvim throne

The ‘Ain Dara temple in northern Syria, which stood from about 1300 to 740 bc, has man-headed, eagle-winged, bull-bodied lamassu on either side of the entrance. Similar images were made in Assyria, to Israel’s north-east. Two colossal winged man-headed lions, from the entrance to the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) at Nimrud are preserved in the British Museum. Colossal man-headed bulls, from Ashurnasirpal’s palace and from the palace of Sargon II in Khorsabad, can also be seen there.[3] Further east, Persian sphinxes featured the head of King Darius upon the lion body.

The Israelite keruv must have shared similarities with its ancient counterparts, but it had distinctive features of its own. The keruvim seen by Ezekiel, for instance, have the form of a man, with calves’ feet, human hands, four wings, and four faces; the faces are those of a man, a lion, a bull, and an eagle; or alternately, of a man, a lion, an eagle, and, yes, a keruv.[4] Israelite artisans apparently knew what keruvim even their faces – looked like. After all, they embroidered and carved their images throughout Moses’ Tabernacle and the temple. But no image of Israelite keruvim has survived to this day. Yet, like sphinx or lamassu, Israel’s keruvim were guardian deities, manifestations of heavenly bodies, waiting upon the divine king. Given Israel’s cultural and geographical proximity to Canaan, it is likely that the keruvim of Moses’ and Solomon’s time resembled the creatures flanking the Megiddo throne.

The ark was carried by means of gold-plated acacia poles which ran along the sides of the ark, inserted in the rings attached to its feet; these poles were a permanent feature of the ark and were not removed from their rings.[5] Inside the ark, beneath the kapporet cover and the keruvim, Moses placed the two stone tablets of the ten commandments – Israel’s covenant obligations to their divine king together with Aaron’s staff and a jar of manna. The ark, borne aloft on the shoulders of the Kohathite Levites, accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness, thrice-shrouded from prying eyes beneath coverings of sanctuary curtain, dugong skins, and cloth of heavenly blue.[6]

     The Israelites also made a magnificent tent, the Tent of the Tabernacle of Meeting to house the ark when resting. (This ornate tabernacle should not be confused with the simpler Tent of Meeting set outside the camp.[7]) Inside the great Tabernacle, once a year, the blood of the sacrifice of atonement was sprinkled upon the kapporet, so that the Holy One, looking to the commandments beneath, might see the atoning blood and pardon his people.


What did this artifact represent? Some suggest that it represented a portable throne for the deity. Such an idea finds support in the ancient prototypes that lay behind Moses’ ark, not only the thrones of Tut-ankh-amun and Megiddo but also the sphinx-palanquins in which the Pharaohs were borne forth. 

Ramses on sphinx palanquin
Figure 4. Ramses III on sphinx palanquin, from Medinet Habu

Various Bible verses in English translation initially seem to support this idea.

                         1 Sam. 4.4   The ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts enthroned upon the cherubim.

                         2 Sam. 6.2   The ark of God which is called by the name, the name of the Lord of hosts enthroned upon the cherubim upon it.

                         2 Kgs 19.15 Lord God of Israel, enthroned upon the cherubim

                         Isa. 37.16    Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned upon the cherubim.

                         Ps. 80.1       O One enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth.

                         Ps. 99.1       He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake.

 It was perhaps such an understanding of the ark that led the King James Bible to translate kapporet – the ark cover – as ‘mercy seat’. But the Hebrew and Septuagint Greek terms, kapporet and hilasterion, contain no idea of a seat. They speak rather of atonement, of the place where the atoning blood was sprinkled. And indeed, the whole idea of the Holy One sitting on the ark is suspect. For why would one sprinkle blood on a seat? And while a one-metre-wide seat might be fine for a man, it suggests a smallish deity. Nor do these phrases contain any Hebrew word meaning ‘on’ or ‘upon’. In fact, the verb yashav, above translated as ‘sit enthroned’, can also mean ‘dwell’. A neutral translation would be as follows.

1 Sam. 4.4   The ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts dwelling the cherubim.

2 Sam. 6.2   The ark of God which is called by the name, the name of the Lord of hosts dwelling the cherubim upon it.

2 Kgs 19.15 Lord God of Israel, dwelling the cherubim.

Isa. 37.16    Lord of hosts, God of Israel, dwelling the cherubim.

Ps. 80.1       O One dwelling the cherubim, shine forth.

Ps. 99.1       He dwells the cherubim; let the earth quake.

This more neutral translation allows us to see the two passages from Samuel as somehow representing the Lord ‘dwelling’ the keruvim on the ark, without being actually seated upon them. What would this mean? Well, let us begin with the last four texts. They date from temple times, and one may therefore suspect that they are not speaking of the keruvim upon the ark at all. Rather, they are speaking of the great golden chariot of the keruvim that spread their wings, which David planned and Solomon built in the holy of holies.[8]

David’s golden keruvim-chariot was designed as the earthly counterpart of the divine chariot-throne on high, from which the Holy One rode out across his heavens. David believed that Israel’s God rode forth on a chariot to his defence (Ps. 18.10). But this idea neither began nor ended with him. Its roots lay in Mesopotamian beliefs of the third millennium bce, and it flourished later in the chariot visions of Elijah, Elisha, Ezekiel, and the medieval kabbalists.[9] So David, under the guidance of the divine spirit, designed a keruvim chariot-throne for the invisible deity who would dwell in the house in Jerusalem. And beneath it, under its overspreading wings, was the place of the ark.

Therefore a likelier explanation altogether is that the ark represented the footstool of the Holy One. In this sense, he could remain or dwell upon the ark, as in the texts from Samuel, for his feet rested upon it. For the footstool, like the sceptre and crown, is a perennial symbol of royal estate. The king puts his royal feet up, while others attend him, standing in the dust. No self-respecting monarch goes without one. Tut-ankh-amun had a footstool. The king of Megiddo, shown above, has a footstool. The kings of Israel had footstools.[10] Even in 1953, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was crowned with her feet on a footstool. And so the ark was the footstool of the Lord. We find this in the same passage of Chronicles that speaks of the keruvim chariot.

     1 Chr. 28.2 I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God.

We find it also in the Psalms, including one of the Songs of Ascents:

     Ps. 99.5       Extol the Lord our God and worship at his footstool.

     Ps. 132.7     Let us go to his dwelling place and bow down at his footstool.

       Arise, Lord, to your resting place, you and the ark of your power.

We find it too in the prophets, in Isaiah, where the Jerusalem sanctuary (where the ark sits) is the place of the Holy One’s feet, and in Lamentations, where he spurns his footstool, the ark, in the day of Jerusalem’s devastation.

     Isa. 60.13    The glory of Lebanon will come to you,…

                                    to adorn the place of my sanctuary;

                                                and I will glorify the place of my feet.

     Lam. 2.1     He has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger.

The idea of the ark as a footstool is confirmed by other ancient texts which show that a covenant or treaty was placed in a chest beneath the feet of the god who served as witness to it. Ramses II, making a treaty with the Hittite king Hattusil, wrote to him as follows:

The writing of the treaty which I have made to the Great King, the king of Hattu, lies beneath the feet of the god Teshup: the great gods are witnesses of it. The writings of the oath which the Great King, the king of Hattu, has made to me, lies beneath the feet of the god Ra: the great gods are witnesses of it.[11]

In the same way, the ark was a footstool, and Israel’s covenant obligations – the commandments within – rested under the invisible feet of Israel’s deity.

Seeing the ark as a footstool may help us better imagine what it looked like. The keruvim and their wings would not enclose all sides of the ark, as is sometimes depicted. Rather, the keruvim at the ends of the ark would have touched each other with one raised wing-tip each on one long side, while their other wing would have been lowered and not touching, so forming a periphery of keruvim wings and bodies on three sides of the ark, but leaving one long side of the cover open to receive the feet of the invisible king.[12] Indeed, it may be that the keruvim were not entirely located on top of the golden cover. It is more likely that, like the Megiddo throne, their heads, bodies and wings rose on the cover on three sides, while their legs and feet formed the feet of the ark itself (Exod. 25.12).

Finally, here is a statuette from Carchemish in Syria, dating from around the same time as Solomon’s temple, which may help to give a sense of the structure of the ark and of the keruvim chariot in the holy of holies. The Hittite storm-god Atarsuhis rides forth to battle on a great lion-headed chariot. Between the lion-keruvim, his feet rest on a footstool. 

Atarsuhis on chariot
Figure 5. Atarsuhis on keruvim chariot 

Thus the gods of the ancient east went forth to war. In the same way Israel’s God in his throne room sat on a chariot of
keruvim, attended head and foot by these heavenly beings, ever ready to go forth, as the prophets depict him, his footstool borne aloft by his earthly ministers, to save his people and execute judgment upon the earth.[13]


From the day of its construction, the ark was the central object of Israel’s faith. The second commandment prohibited Israel from having images of the deity, as other nations had. Instead, Israel had the ark, the invisible deity’s footstool. Where the ark went, the Lord went (Num. 10.34); its presence ensured his (1 Sam. 4.3). He spoke from between the keruvim on the ark, amidst a glowing cloud (Exod. 25.22; 30.6; 40.35). The honour due him was paid to the ark. When the ark appeared in public, sacrifices were offered before it, people bowed to it and cried on every side, Yehovah Ts'vaot! Yehovah Ts'vaot![14] Wherever it went, it was fêted by singing and shouting, by praising and praying, by blowing of trumpets and ramshorns, by rattling of sistrums, drumming of drums, and striking of tambourines.[15] Israel’s entire life and faith revolved round this most sacred object.

Since the ark equalled the presence of the Holy One, it was particularly associated with Israel’s military campaigns. Like any king, the Lord took his footstool with him to war, so that he might sit in state above the field and command his hosts. At such times, Moses would send forth the ark with the words,

                Arise, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered;

                May your foes flee before you (Num. 10.35).

And when the ark returned victorious to camp, Moses would say,

        Return, O Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel (Num. 10.36).

In the desert, the ark’s presence gave Israel victory in every campaign, while its absence brought defeat (Num. 15.44). It spear-headed the conquest of the promised land under Joshua. During the period of Joshua and the Judges, it rested in Joshua’s town, Shiloh, from where it went briefly to Bethel in Benjamin, and then back to Shiloh again.[16] From Shiloh it went against the Philistines and, for the sin of Eli’s house, was captured. But, in Philistine territory, plague broke out around it. The panic-stricken Philistines shunted it from one city to another before returning it to Israel, to the priestly town of Beth Shemesh. There the townsmen who thought they might peek inside it did not live long enough to regret their presumption. The survivors bundled it off to Kiryat-Ye‘arim, to the house of Abinadab, where it stayed throughout Saul’s reign, undisturbed.[17] Finally, David, having conquered Jerusalem, sought out the ark to bring it to his new capital. But the ark, illicitly borne and touched, asserted its power by striking the offender dead, and was hastily deposited at the house of Obed-Edom.[18] Finally, after a three-month regroup, it was carried to Jerusalem by its poles on the shoulders of the Levites, as the law prescribed. Amidst psalms and rejoicing, the gatekeepers of Zion citadel theatrically challenged the ark’s approach, while the ark’s Levite entourage replied that the approaching conqueror was not to be defied.

            Gates:              Who is this King of Glory?

            Bearers:           Yehovah, mighty and a hero;

                                    Yehovah, hero in battle (Psalm 24.8).[19]

The ark was brought into the city and placed in the tent which David had set up some months before.[20] There it remained throughout David’s reign, going out to battle, as in former times, and quelling Israel’s enemies on every side.[21]

Meanwhile, since the ark’s Philistine captivity, Moses’ Tabernacle and altar of burnt offering had made their own way, first to Nob, and then, after Nob’s destruction, to the priestly city of Gibeon in Benjamin, where they became the focus of Israel’s foremost shrine until Solomon’s temple was dedicated. Thereafter, if Josephus is correct, the Gibeon ministry ceased and its artefacts and personnel were transferred to the newly-built temple.[22]



After the ark was installed on Zion, David conceived the idea of building a dwelling for it. However, Nathan the prophet brought word that the Lord himself would build a house – an eternal dynasty – for David, but that the house of the Lord would not be built by David but by his son. David therefore did all he could to enable his successor to complete the task. He made ‘extensive preparations’ and went to ‘great pains’, working ‘with all his resources’ and denying himself every comfort to achieve this goal.[23]

He purchased land for the site. First, for the sum of fifty silver shekels, he bought the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite, near the summit of Mount Moriah, for the site of an altar. Then, for the much greater sum of 600 shekels of gold, he bought the entire mountain.[24] He built up the Mount on all sides – a vast feat of engineering – to provide a level upper surface 500 cubits square, almost ten times the size of a soccer field.[25] And through the supporting substructures and through the limestone rock – soft to the chisel, but hardening in the air – he constructed a network of secret tunnels and chambers.

Under divine direction he drew up architectural plans for the building, its ministry, and the golden keruvim-chariot.[26] He amassed, we are told, unimaginable quantities of precious metals: three and a half thousand tons of gold, thirty-four thousand tons of silver, and vast quantities of bronze, iron, fragrant cedar, and noble stone; he received the plans for the building under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; he provided craftsmen of every kind to do the work: builders, masons, carpenters, and gold­smiths.[27] He provided detailed plans for the future ministry of the kohanim and Levites; he set apart 4,000 Levites to support the ministry of song, with the 288 best and strongest singers selected to minister in twenty-four courses of twelve, serving in rotation a week at a time, and playing fine instruments provided by the king.[28] He provided gatekeepers, treasurers, and accountants. In short, he provided everything required for the temple and its worship, and then he committed the execution of the plan to his son Solomon at his accession.[29]

Solomon, in the fourth year of his reign, in the spring of 966 BC, began building according to the heavenly plan. The work was completed seven years later, in the late autumn month of Bul (October-November) 960 BC. Eleven months later, at the Feast of Sukkot in the month of Ethanim (September-October) 959 BC, the temple was dedicated. The books of 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles relate the event. Solomon instructed all Israel to come to Jerusalem for the great day. The ark was brought up from Zion citadel into the temple and installed in the place prepared for it, in the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, beneath the overspreading wings of the keruvim chariot.[30] With it went up the sacred vessels and Moses’ tent, to be stored in the temple.[31] Solomon dedicated the building with solemn prayer, the divine glory filled it, and vast numbers of sacrifices were offered on the altar and in the temple courts.[32]

After its installation in the temple, the next three hundred years of the ark’s comings and goings are cloaked in mystery. There is no record of it going out to battle after David’s time. Solomon’s reign was a time of peace. And when, after Solomon’s death, Shishak looted the temple and took many of the holy things, the ark was not among them, for we hear of it in Israel some three hundred and forty years later, during King Josiah’s reform, around 621 BC. At that time, Josiah instructed the Levites, Put the sacred ark in the temple that Solomon son of David king of Israel built; it is not to be carried on your shoulders (2 Chr. 35.3). Its whereabouts before Josiah’s time can only be guessed. But, since it was under the supervision of the Levites, we may imagine that it was kept outside the temple by the Levite ark-keepers, the Elizaphanite families of Shimri and Jeiel, and had been committed to them for protection during Manasseh’s reign of idolatry.[33] Then, after Josiah’s Levites returned the ark to the temple, it disappeared, for Jeremiah cryptically remarks that it will not be remem­bered or missed and that no replacement will be made.[34] The comments suggest more than its withdrawal from public view. Rather, Jeremiah the kohen is writing of something known to the kohanim: the ark’s complete disappearance.



What became of the ark? Some imagine that the Babylonians destroyed it when they sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC. This view is found as long ago as the first-century AD Apocalypse of Ezra and is mentioned among several competing talmudic views on the subject.[35] But this is unlikely. Jeremiah speaks of the ark’s disappearance during the reign of Josiah, who died in 609 BC, more than two decades before the Babylonian conquest (Jer. 3.16; cf. 3.6). Moreover, the ark is not listed among the holy things taken by the Babylonians, neither in Jeremiah’s lists (27.16–28.4; 52.17–23) nor in the official record (2 Kgs 25.13-17). These writers would hardly have detailed the wick-trimmers, firepans and shovels and forgotten the holy ark. Nor is it listed among the temple treasures in Babylon at the time of Belshazzar’s feast (Dan. 5.2–3). Nor is it included in Ezra’s list of the temple treasures restored by Cyrus (Ezra 1.7-11).

But if the Babylonians did not take the ark, what happened to it? Clearly, its absence was taken for granted even before the building of the second temple, for it is conspicuously absent from Ezekiel’s visionary restored temple (Ezek. 40–48). So we are not surprised to learn that the ancient authorities agree that no ark was seen in the second temple.[36] And although the Books of Maccabees, which represent the view of institutional Judaism in the second century BC, make the return of the glory of God dependent on the revelation of the ark, yet no replacement was ever made (2 Macc. 2.7–8). Instead, the Kohen Gadol sprinkled the Yom Kippur blood on the place where the ark formerly rested.[37] And so the ark was not removed by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC,[38] nor by Pompey or Crassus in their invasions in 63 and 54 BC respectively.[39] Indeed, when Pompey entered the holy of holies to see what was unlawful for men to behold, he was amazed to find nothing at all.[40] Nor was the ark among the treasures removed in the Roman destruction of 70 CE. Rome’s Arch of Titus shows the spoils: the golden menorah, the table of showbread, the silver trumpets. But no ark.

Ethiopians claim the ark is now in their land, in the church of St Mary of Zion in Axum. They certainly do have an ancient ark. The fourteenth-century Kebra Negast or ‘Glory of the Kings’ tells how Menelik I of Ethiopia, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, broke into Solomon’s temple at night with his friends, stole the ark, and left a forgery in its place. Another scenario to explain the Ethiopian ark is that it was taken from Jerusalem by invading Shishak in 925 BC and made its way to Ethiopia with Shishak’s Cushites (2 Chr. 12.3). (The Indiana Jones movie takes a similar line, with the ark ending up in Egypt.) Another theory is that the ark arrived in Ethiopia from the Jewish temple in Elephantine, Egypt, who received it from the Judeans before the Babylonian invasion. But these claims are contradicted by the fact that the temple kohanim and Levites would have known the true ark from a fake, that it was still in Judah in Josiah’s time, and that the Judeans would never have sent their most sacred artefact outside the Holy Land. We must conclude that the ancient Ethiopian ark is a copy, perhaps from the Elephantine temple.

And, of course, there are other views about the whereabouts of the ark. One is that the ark was stolen by Queen Athaliah and her henchmen.[41] (But Josiah still had it two hundred years later.) Or the ark is become the remnants of a burnt-out Lemba drum, mouldering in the basement of Harare Museum.[42] Other views involve Scotland, England, Ireland, Mexico, Japan, North America, and more.



When we ask what really became of the ark, nothing is more striking than the Bible’s silence on the matter. How did the cynosure of Israel’s faith simply disappear so very quietly? An eloquent silence. It suggests that the ark was removed with the full knowledge of Judah’s rulers and temple authorities. If it had been otherwise, someone would surely have recorded the loss, as they did with the other artefacts, for later generations. In fact, it rather looks like Josiah’s decree of 621 BC had more behind it than the centralization of worship. In the time of Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah, around 700 BC, the prophets Micah and Isaiah had already foretold the looting and destruction of the temple by, Isaiah said, the Babylonians.[43] In Josiah’s own time, many others – Jeremiah, Uriah ben Shemaiah, Huldah, and Zephaniah – told of a coming catastrophe that would desolate city and temple.[44] Being so warned, Josiah and the temple authorities must have taken thought for the safety of the ark and concealed it quietly.[45] With this, the Talmud agrees.

Surely it has been taught: When the ark was hidden, there was hidden with it the bottle containing the Manna, and that containing the sprinkling water, the staff of Aaron, with its almonds and blossoms, and the chest which the Philistines had sent as a gift to the God of Israel, as it is said: And put the jewels of gold which you return to him for a guilt-offering in a coffer by the side thereof and send it away that it may go (1 Sam. 6.8). Who hid it? Josiah hid it. (B. Yoma 52b).

It is suggestive that the final chapters of the books of Chronicles, which close the Jewish Bible, contain the last information on the ark. It has been placed ‘in the temple’ and the people are told to go up to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (2 Chr. 35.3; 36.23). This is surely a sign to future generations of Judahites that they should go up to Jerusalem – as some have now done – and find there the ark, the reason for the temple’s existence, and rebuild the temple around it.

But if the ark remains hidden to this day in the same place where Josiah and his men hid it, where might this be? When David prepared the site for the temple he turned the mountain top into a flat surface supported by a substructure, with tunnels, chambers, and cisterns running beneath the Mount itself. A cross-section of the Mount would show it to be full of secret chambers and passageways, like one of the great pyramids.[46] David had good reason for doing this. The temple was to be the most important building in all Israel. It was to be the repository of vast sums of money, the national treasury. It was to be the repository of the sacred scriptures.[47] It was to be the repository of Israel’s genealogical records.[48] It was to be the stronghold of the nation’s most sacred artefacts, not least the ark. And so, in order to be secure against any possible threat, it was necessary that the Mount should be amply supplied with hidden vaults. Over the two millennia since the temple’s destruction in 70 AD, the Mount has been by turns neglected, profaned, disputed, conquered, and built upon. But it has never been excavated. The Byzantines, in reprisal for the Judeo-Persian attack on Christian Jerusalem in 614 AD, turned the Mount to a rubbish-heap. Afterwards, the Muslim conquest, Caliph Abd al-Malik built a shrine exactly where the temple once stood, preserving its location to this day. But throughout the ages the passages beneath the Mount remained sealed. And so the likeliest scenario by far is that the ark was hidden in the tunnels beneath the Temple Mount in Josiah’s time.

Indeed, the Bible itself implies such a thing. The books of Kings say that the poles of the ark remain in the holy place to this day.[49] Since these books were compiled after the Babylonian destruction, and since the poles might not be separated from the ark, we must conclude that the ark and its poles remained in the holy place before, during and after the Babylonian invasion, yet the Babylonians did not find it.[50]

How could this be? The Hebrew concept of sacred space sees the holiness of the temple extend vertically upward into the heavens above it and downward into the earth beneath. The area directly above and below the holy of holies is as holy as the part at ground level. (This is one reason why modern Israel allows no air traffic to fly over the Mount.) The implication, then, of the poles being in the holy place to this day is that the ark is hidden deep in the Temple Mount beneath the holy of holies.

Such a scenario is confirmed by the Mishnah, which tells how the families of R. Gamliel and R. Hananiah bowed toward the wood chamber as they had a tradition that the entry to the place of the ark was in there. It proceeds to tell how a kohen, noticing an irregularity in the paving stones, went to tell others but died before he finished speaking, from which they deduced that this was the place of the ark’s concealment (M. Shek. 6.1).

For rabbinic literature records that, inside the temple, the ark anciently rested on top of a great flat rock – the very rock summit of Mount Moriah – called the sh’tiyah or ‘Foundation’ stone, which formed the floor of the holy place.

Palestine is the centre of the world, Jerusalem the centre of Palestine, the temple the centre of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies the centre of the temple, the ark the centre of the Holy of Holies; and before the ark was a stone called the sh’tiyah stone, the foundation stone of the world (Midrash Tanhuma, Kedoshim 10).

Today this same stone or rock gives its name to the Islamic Kubbet es Sakhra or Dome of the Rock, built over the temple’s holy of holies. Upon this rock, the ark anciently rested, the tips of its poles pressing into the sanctuary curtain, to reassure the ministering kohanim on the other side of its presence, even when hidden from view.[51]

Figure 6. The sh'tiyah Foundation Stone within the Dome of the Rock. South is at the top. 
The pierced hole is visible at left (A). The entry to the cavern is by the caged stairway (B). 
The rectangular indentation (C) is said by Ritmeyer to be the ark’s emplacement.

Beneath the sh’tiyah stone is ‘the cavern’, in Arabic al-maghara, which is sometimes open to visitors, who enter by the stairs leading down behind the rock.[52] Muslims believe that whoever prays in this place will be guaranteed a place in Paradise. But the cavern is not the result of the Rock’s wish to fly heavenward with Islam’s prophet. It is more ancient. For the hole in the rock leading to the cavern below, was already there in the fourth century, when the anonymous Bordeaux Pilgrim saw the Jews lamenting over the ‘pierced stone’ on the Temple Mount.[53]

Beneath the Rock, the floor of the cavern features a circular marble slab of almost two metres diameter which, when knocked, produces a hollow noise. The circular slab, which is not known ever to have been lifted, is said to cover another chamber, the bir el-arwah or Well of Souls.[54] Lady Burton, who visited al-maghara with her audacious husband, Sir Richard Burton, in 1871, recorded, ‘My husband did his best to procure the opening of the hollow-sounding slab in the centre, but the time has not yet come.’[55] But it is rumoured that the ark rests in the secret chambers below, undisturbed for two and a half millennia, only a stone’s fall from its original place.

Figure 7. The al-maghara cavern beneath the sh’tiyah Foundation Stone. The marble slab covering 
the Well of Souls is directly beneath the kneeling figure on the carpet.[56]


Whether the ark will be seen anytime soon depends on several things, all linked with modern Middle Eastern politics.

During the six-day war of 1967, Israeli forces gained all Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount and its surrounding walls. But, ten days later, Israel’s Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, the epitome of the secular Jew, returned the whole temple area, except for the Western Wall, to the Jordanians to ensure their aquie­scence over the land taken. This may have made Israel’s 1967 gains more secure, but it earned Dayan everlasting opprobrium in the eyes of religious Jews. The Jordanians, with the Palestinians and other Muslim nations, set up a trust, the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, to manage the Temple Mount. To this day, the Waqf controls the Mount, prohibiting Jewish prayer there, and any kind of archaeological activity. Any challenge to their authority provokes immediate retaliation in Jerusalem and beyond.

However, in the sumer of 1981, some archaeological activity did take place without the Waqf’s consent.[57] At that time, excavations of the tunnel running the length of the Western Wall were being carried out in accordance with Israeli authority over the Western Wall. The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Yehuda Getz, secretly opened a stone-sealed doorway, Warren’s Gate, about 150 metres into the Wall Tunnel. This disclosed the entrance to a tunnel running perpendicular to the Western Wall, directly north-east, right under the centre of the Temple Mount. It was a huge affair – six metres wide and twenty-eight metres long – carved out of the solid rock. Getz identified it as the Tunnel of the Priests, recorded by Josephus, the Mishnah, and the Talmud, built to allow ritually-clean kohanim to enter the temple precincts without risk of defilement. Motivated by a desire to ascertain the location of the Holy of Holies and find the ark, Getz, together with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren and their helpers, made a way through the tunnels, clearing the dirt and detritus that had fallen from shafts in the precincts above. But, after seven weeks of excavation, Waqf guards on the Mount heard, by one of these shafts, the sound of digging. By the same shafts, they sent youths down into the tunnel. Some fighting ensued, and worse was avoided only by the appearance of the police. The Israeli government immediately ordered the entrance to this momentous archaeological discovery to be sealed with six feet of reinforced concete, in response, it was said, to UN pressure. The excitement of the excavators had been unbounded. ‘It was the greatest day of my life,’ they wrote. ‘I thank God that I lived to see it.’ Now their disappointment was without bounds. Yet Goren announced that their excavations had allowed them to identify precisely the location of the holy of holies on the Mount above. And rumours circulated that they had discovered the whereabouts of the ark. Goren died in 1994, Getz in 1995, but their work continues in their spiritual heirs, the Temple Institute, who are dedicated to rebuilding the temple in our time. They state:

In reality, the expression “lost” ark is not an accurate description for the Jewish people’s point of view - because we have always known exactly where it is. So the Ark is “Hidden,” and hidden quite well, but it is not lost…. This location is recorded in our sources, and today, there are those who know exactly where this chamber is. And we know that the ark is still there, undisturbed, and waiting for the day when it will be revealed.[58]

In tacit confirmation of their claim, the Temple Institute show no sign of searching for the ark, either inside or outside Jerusalem. They have made modern replicas of all the ancient temple artefacts, but not another ark. Other Jewish authorities show the same attitude. Israel’s President, its Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem have all independently appealed to the Pope for the return of the menorah, but not for the ark, even though in medieval times St John Lateran boasted both ark and menorah among its treasures.[59]

But would not the ark have rotted away after twenty-six centuries of concealment? Perhaps not. The portable ark found in Tut-ankh-amun’s tomb, made around the same time as Moses’ ark, was found well-preserved after a longer concealment. And while some of the underground chambers of the Temple Mount were water-filled cisterns, others like the al-maghara cavern were dry and insulated from water, and the Holy Land had lower rainfall over the last two millennia. The ark’s construction from dense, water-resistant acacia wood would also have favoured its survival.

The reinforced concrete that seals Warren’s Gate is surely a matter of comfort to Israel. The appearing of the ark would trigger uproar, with the Waqf violently protesting the breach of their authority and opposing any attempt to revive Israel’s ancient cult. Surely it is better that the ark rest a little longer where it has rested these last twenty-six centuries, beyond the reach of the Waqf and the importunities of tourists, deep within the Temple Mount, beneath the Holy of Holies, until the time of its revealing.

[1] Exod. 25.10–22; 37.1–9. The ark’s having the same name as Noah’s boat derives from Tyndale, who employed English ‘arcke’ – a wooden vessel – for both. But the Hebrew words are as different as the objects themselves. The cultic chest is aron; Noah’s boat is tebaḥ.

[2] Other depictions of a king on a keruvim throne, dating from 1200 to 800 B.C., have been found at Byblos (King Hiram) and Hamath. See Albright 1961: 96.

[3] The bull-lamassu are each one of a separated pair, with their original twins in the Metropolitan Museum of New York and the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. Sargon’s lamassu weigh over forty tons.

[4] Ezek. 1.5–10; 10.14.

[5] Exod. 25.15. For the poles being on the short sides of the ark, see Appendix II.

[6] Num. 4.4–15.

[7] The first Tent of Meeting (ohel mo‘ed), outside the camp, is described in Exod. 33.7–11; 34.34–35. The ark’s Tabernacle of Meeting (mishkan mo‘ed) was built after it (Exod. 36.8–38; 39.32-43) and superseded it, as is implied in the repeated use of ‘Tent of Meeting’ and even ‘Tent of the Tabernacle of Meeting’ (ohel mishkan mo‘ed) to describe the newly-built Tabernacle (cf. Exod. 40.2, 6, 29, 34, 35).

[8] 1 Chr. 28.18; cf. 1 Kgs 6.23–28; 2 Chr. 3.10–13.

[9] Chilton 2011: 20.

[10] Ps. 110.1; 2 Chr. 9.18.

[11] De Vaux 1961: 301.

[12] Likewise Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1386–1349 BC) is shown seated upon a throne with sphinx side-arms (see Plate 111 in G. Steindorff und W. Wolf), as is King Ahiram on a stone sarcophagus from 12th century BC Byblos. All these kings, incidentally, are drawn with footstools.

[13] Ps. 18.10; Ezek.1.4–28; 10.9–22, where the wheels of the chariot, the ofanim, are heavenly beings; Dan. 7.9; Hab. 3.8, 13.

[14] 1 Sam. 6.15; 2 Sam. 6.13; 1 Kgs 8.5; 2 Sam. 6.2. Ts'vaot or ‘hosts’ is the plural of tsava, the standard word for Israel’s army, both in Bible times and now. The plural implies that Yehovah commands many armies. The name Yehovah Ts'vaot first appears in the mouth of Korahite Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Sam. 1.11). The Korahites held that the dead would ascend from Sheol to dwell among the stars (Mitchell 2006a: 365–84). Yehovah ts'vaot is therefore the head, not only of Israel’s army, but of the armies of heaven.

[15] 2 Sam. 6.5, 15; 1 Chr. 13.8; 15.16–22; 2 Chr. 5.12–13; 7.6.

[16] Josh. 18.1, 8–10, 21.1–2; Judg. 18.31; 20.26–28; 1 Sam. 1.3; 3.3. A sanctuary at Shechem served as a cultic centre in Joshua’s time, though the ark is not mentioned (Josh. 24.1, 25–26).

[17] 1 Sam. 4.1–7.2. The Hebrew of 1 Sam. 14.18 has Saul call for the ark in his war against the Philistines, while the Septuagint speaks of the high-priestly ephod, not the ark.

[18] Num. 4.4–15; 2 Sam. 6.3–11; 2 Sam. 6.3–12; 1 Chr. 13.7–14.

[19] Ps. 24 was certainly the liturgy of the ark’s ascent to Zion. The Holy One and his ark are entering for the first time. (If it were not the first time, there would be no demand to open and no enquiry as to who was entering.) And the ‘ancient doors’ (vv. 7, 9) must be the gates of Zion citadel, for the gates of the temple were new not ancient, when the ark first entered. The summons for them to ‘Lift your heads,’ suggests that they were lifting gates, portcullises or cataracta.

[20] 1 Chr. 15.1; 16.1.

[21] 2 Sam. 11.11.

[22] 1 Sam. 21.4–6; 22.18–19; Gibeon: Josh. 21.17; 1 Chr. 16.39-42; 21.29; 1 Kgs 3.4; 2 Chr. 1.3–6. Josephus (Ant. VIII.iv.1) says that ‘the tabernacle (skēnē) which Moses pitched’, which had been in Gibeon, accompanied the ark from Zion to the temple (1 Kgs 8.4). This is confirmed by the fact that Heman and Jeduthun, who initially ministered at the Gibeon shrine, went to join Asaph in Jerusalem in the ministry of the temple (see chapter nine).

[23] 2 Sam. 7.2; 1 Chr. 22.5, 14; 29.2; Ps. 132.1–5.

[24] 2 Sam. 24.24; 1 Chr. 21.25.

[25] 500 cubits square is 68,906 m2 (Appendix II); Old Trafford field is 7,140 m2.

[26] 1 Chr. 28.2, 11–12, 19.

[27] 1 Chr. 22.3, 4, 14; 29.2–8; 28.14–19; 22.15–16. The temple and the royal palace were called the houses of Lebanon, for their quantity of cedar (Zech. 11.1; 1 Kgs 7.2; Jer. 22.23).

[28] 1 Chr. 28.13; 2 Kgs 11.5–9; 2 Chr. 23.4, 8; 1 Chr. 23.3–5; 25.7–31.

[29] 1 Chr. 22.6–23.1.

[30] 1 Kgs. 8.1–7; 2 Chr. 5.7–8.

[31] 1 Kgs 8.4. Josephus says (Ant. VIII.iv.1) that this was Moses’ tent, not David’s Zion tent. It would have been brought from Gibeon, whose shrine would have ceased to function as the temple ministry began.

[32] 1 Kgs 8; 2 Chr. 5.1–7.11.

[33] Num. 3.27–31; 2 Chr. 29.13; 2 Kgs 21.1–18; 2 Chr. 33.1–9.

[34] Jer. 3.16.

[35] 4 Ezra 10.22. This pseudepigraphic vision probably dates from the years after Titus’s destruction. It is debatable whether the author did think the Babylonians took the ark or whether he sought to put others off the scent. The talmudic discussion is in Yoma 52b–53b.

[36] M. Yoma 5.2 (B. Yoma 21b, 52b); B. Sanh. 26a; B. Men. 27b; Y. Shek. 1.1; cf. War, V.v.5.

[37] Sanders 1992: 141-43.

[38] Ant., XII.v.4; XII.vii.6; 1 Macc. 1.21–24; 4.49–51; 2 Macc. 5.16.

[39] War, I.7.6; Ant., XIV.iv.4; XIV.vii.1.

[40] Ant., XIV.iv.4; Tacitus, Hist., V.8–9.

[41] Ehrlich 2012: 175–78.

[42] Parfitt 2008.

[43] Isa. 39.5–6; 2 Kgs 20.16–17; Mic. 3.12; Jer. 26.18.

[44] Jeremiah (1.2–16; 25.8–14); Uriah ben Shemaiah (Jer. 26.20); Huldah (2 Kgs 22.11–20; 2 Chr. 34.22–28); Zephaniah (Zeph. 1.1–2.3). Jeremiah includes the southern Babylonians with ‘tribes of the north’ because the routes of the Fertile Crescent ensured that Israel’s eastern enemies entered the land from the north.

[45] Rambam also credits Josiah with hiding the Ark (Hilchot Beit Ha-Beḥirah, 4.1).

[46] The 19th-century explorers Warren, Wilson, Conder, and Schick discovered 45 subterranean cisterns, as well as caverns and structural remains (Wilson 1866: 42-45; Warren 1871: 204–17; Conder 1884; Schick 1887: 72–87; 1896: 292–305; Ritmeyer 2006: 221–39; Gibson & Jacobson 1996), not including those under the Dome itself. Some are so large that they bear the names ‘The Sea’ and ‘The Great Sea’. The Letter of Aristeas 88–91, an eye-witness account of the temple and its ministry from the 3rd or 2nd century BC, describes the copious amounts of water continually channelled around the base of the altar from the cisterns below.

[47] Nehemiah founded a library in the second temple, to which he added ‘the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings’ (2 Macc. 2.13). Since no mention is made of the writings of Moses, which had existed in some form since Joshua’s time (Josh. 8.32–35), it seems that the writings of Moses were stored in the temple before Nehemiah’s time, as 2 Kgs 22.8 confirms.

[48] Josephus (Con. Ap. I.7) states that the second temple held priestly genealogies going back 2,000 years. The records were largely destroyed by Herod the Great to obscure the shame of his own pedigree (Eusebius, Hist. I.13.5; III.12.32 [3-4]).

[49] 1 Kgs 8.8; 2 Chr. 5.9. This view is cited in B. Yoma 53b.

[50] 2 Kgs 24–26; Exod. 25.15.

[51] Visible in the surface of the sh’tiyah stone to this day is a niche which Ritmeyer (2006: 247, 264–77) maintains is the ancient emplacement of the ark; see Appendix II.

[52] Ritmeyer 2006: 262–63. A cross-section of the Mount, showing the cavern beneath the Rock, is in Ritmeyer 2006: 251.

[53] From the Itinerarium Burdigalense (Bordeaux Itinerary). The text is in Geyer & Kuntz 1965.

[54] The carpet in the 19th-century picture above has been replaced in modern times by a fitted carpet of red and yellow rectangular pattern covering the entire cavern floor, and preventing all access to the circular marble slab. It can be seen at www.islamiclandmarks.com/palestine/ jerusalem/dome_of_the_rock_underneath.html.

[55] Burton 1884: 376–377.

[56] Illustration from Lane-Poole 1883.

[57] Shragai 2006.

[58] www.templeinstitute.org/ark_of_the_covenant.htm

[59] Fine 2005: 18–25, 62–63. 

Back to the Songs of Ascents page