Gold-covered acacia wood box measuring 2.5 x 1.5 x 1.5 cubits that for the Israelite people symbolized the presence of God. It is first mentioned in Exodus 25:10-22 among the furnishings of the tabernacle. The ark's top cover supported two winged creatures called cherubim. They faced each other across the top of the ark and their outstretched wings touched at the tips. The mobility of the ark was insured by two permanently attached carrying poles, reflecting the fact that the people of Israel and their God had no fixed dwellingplace. Even when the ark was permanently located in the Holy of Holies, the poles remained (1 Kings 8), a visible reminder that God was "tenting" among his people, but that his presence could be withdrawn.
The practical function of the ark was to protect and preserve various sacred objects. In the early accounts of the ark only the Mount Sinai covenant tablets are so protected, giving rise to the common epithet, the "ark of the covenant" (Exod 25:16; 1 Kings 8:9), or a variant, "ark of the Lord's covenant" (Num 14:44). Later traditions also mentioned a portion of preserved manna and Aaron's rod as being in the ark (Heb 9:4). The ark also had a military role, leading the march of the people of Israel in the wilderness (Num 10:33), circling the walls of Jericho (Jos 4:6), and going forth to battle against the Philistines (1 Sam 4:5).
Scripture associates God's physical presence with the ark. Moses addressed the ark as "the Lord" in the wilderness (Num 10:35). The ark was sacred, indeed, dangerous to friends and foes alike. The Philistines recognized its holiness, and to neutralize its power they placed it in the temple of Dagon, to Dagon's distress (1 Sam 5:8). The awesome holiness of the ark was demonstrated when Uzzah was killed for touching the ark when he tried to prevent it from falling (1 Ch 13:10).
In the temple, the ark occupied the Holy of Holies. With a permanent location, the theological understanding of the ark changed. The cover of the ark was seen as the throne of God with the cherubim supporting him and setting aside the space between their wings as his seat. Interestingly, Solomon placed huge cherubim to flank the ark in the temple, thus setting apart the entire ark and its surrounding space as God's seat. Solomon aimed to make a place where God could "dwell forever" (1 Kings 8:13). Hezekiah, seeking divine aid against the Assyrians, called on the "God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim" (2 Kings 19:15).
The ark disappears from post-Solomonic biblical history except for a passing reference in 2 Chronicles 35:3, where the Levites are charged by Josiah no longer to carry the ark about. This may be as much a reflection of a postexilic understanding of Josiah (the new David who would correct the behavior of the Levites) as that of the actual ark itself.
In the return, according to the prophet Jeremiah, the ark would not be remembered or replaced, because Jerusalem would be "The Throne of the Lord" (3:16; the only prophetic mention of the ark). In the new temple envisioned by Ezekiel, no ark is mentioned. There will be no ark because in the new kingdom God will no longer be just a God of Israel, dwelling in a limited space, but will reveal himself as the God of all nations ruling with a new covenant. In Revelation 11:19 (the only New Testament mention) the ark has returned to the direct care of God, sacred, but no longer functional. In the New Testament, Christ himself is the bearer of the new covenant and the focus of God's presence.
Thomas W. Davis
Bibliography. R. G. Boling and G. E. Wright, Joshua; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel; M. Haran, Temple and Temple Service in Ancient Israel.