Did the Ark of the Covenant Contain Images of Pagan Gods?

The headline in a recent article published in Haaretz makes an amazing claim. Here is the headline as it appears in Haaretz:

The Real Ark of the Covenant May Have Housed Pagan Gods: The holy ark was likely kept in Jerusalem for much less time than the Bible tells us. And it may have contained something other than the Ten Commandments.

This claim contradicts everything the Hebrew Bible says about the Ark.

A group of archaeologists, led by Israel Finkelstein and Thomas Römer, is digging in the site of the ancient city of Kiriath-jearim, the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept after it was returned by the Philistines. According to 1 Samuel 7:2, the Ark remained in Kiriath-jearim for 20 years. After David became king of a united Israel, he brought the Ark to Jerusalem and placed it in a tent made to house the Ark, where it remained until it was placed in the temple Solomon built for Yahweh.

Both Finkelstein and Römer claim that the Ark remained in Kiriath-jearim much longer than the twenty years mentioned in the biblical text. In addition, they say that their findings indicate that David was not the one who moved the ark to Jerusalem. Rather, they believe that it was Josiah who brought it to Jerusalem at the time of his religious reforms, the time when he centralized the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem.

According to Römer, “The Bible itself, in what may have been an editorial slipup, appears to confirm Josiah’s role in bringing the ark to Jerusalem. It is he, not David, who tells the Levites in 2 Chronicles 35:3 to ‘put the holy ark in the house that Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built. You need not carry it on your shoulders.’”

The article asks whether the Ark contained the two tablets of the Law or the images of Baal and Asherah. Ariel David, the author of the article, wrote:

The biblical verses that claim the ark contained the Tablets of the Law are also considered to be late texts, dated to King Josiah’s era or possibly even later, Römer says. Furthermore, he notes, the apologetic verse in 1 Kings 8:9 stating that “There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb” (Mt Sinai) may be an indication that the Ten Commandments had substituted something else.

Early Israelites worshipped Canaanite gods like Baal and El, as suggested by the 8th-century Hebrew inscriptions found at a shrine in Kuntillet Ajrud, in northeast Sinai, and by both the biblical subtext and the archeological record.

In his book “The Invention of God,” Römer writes that throughout the Levant, it was common for pre-Islamic Arabs and Bedouins to carry holy chests that contained two sacred stones or the statues of two gods, that were later replaced by the Koran. Similarly, the ark may have originally contained two statues representing Yahweh and Asherah, he speculates.

One reason for the speculation that the Ark contained images of pagan gods is because of the Canaanite background of Kiriath-jearim. In Joshua 9:17, Kiriath-jearim is listed as one of the four Gibeonite cities. The other three cities were Gibeon, Chephirah, and Beeroth. The book of Joshua lists Kiriath-jearim as a city in Benjamin and in Judah. Most scholars believe that Kiriath-jearim was located initially in Benjamin and became a city in Judah after Benjamin joined with Judah after the division of the kingdom.

The name Kiriath-jearim means “The City of Forests.” But the city appears in Joshua 15:60 as Kiriath-baal, “The City of Baal.” In this text, the biblical writer explains that Kiriath-baal was the ancient name of Kiriath-jearim.

Kiriath-jearim also appears in Joshua 15:9 as Baalah: “then the boundary bends around to Baalah (that is, Kiriath-jearim).” The word “Baalah” is the feminine of Baal and it means “mistress,” and “wife.” The name Baalah may be a reference to Asherah who was the consort of Baal. This is the view adopted by Boling (1995:369), who believes the name Baalah reflects the worship of the Canaanite goddesses Asherah.

The Gibeonites were one of the original Canaanite inhabitants of the land of Canaan. In Joshua 9:7 they are identified as Hivites. This association of Kiriath-jearim with the Gibeonites probably indicates that the city had a temple dedicated to the worship of Baal. In his commentary on 1 Samuel, Tsumura (2007:228) wrote: “On the basis of its alternative names Baalah (Josh 15:9), Kiriath-baal (Josh 15:60), and Baale-judah (2 Sam 6:2), one might conjecture that this city was formally connected with Baal worship.”

After the Ark was brought to Kiriath-jearim, it was placed in the house of Abinadab, and his son Eleazar was set apart to care for the ark: “And the people of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD, and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. They consecrated his son, Eleazar, to have charge of the ark of the LORD” (1 Samuel 7:1). Leithart has suggested that Abinadad and his son Eleazar were not Israelites (2003:40). Thus the supposition that the Ark contained an image of Asherah.

During the excavation at Kiriath-jearim, Israel Finkelstein found the remains of a massive retaining wall that may have supported a temple at the site. Thus, it is possible that the Ark was kept in a former Canaanite sanctuary, served by a priest who may or may not have been an Israelite.

The views presented by Finkelstein and Römer are based on their revisionist views of the history of Israel based on their interpretation of the archaeological work which is reshaping the way many biblical scholars look at the biblical text.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, there was a general consensus among biblical scholars that Israel’s exodus from Egypt occurred in the thirteenth century B.C., that Israel conquered the land of Canaan through the work of Israel’s army, and that David and Solomon were kings of a united monarchy.

Today, many archaeologists and biblical scholars do not accept the historicity of the biblical narrative. One of these archaeologists who denies the historicity of the biblical narrative is Israel Finkelstein. Finkelstein denies that there is any historical evidence for the kingdom of David and Solomon as presented in the books of Samuel and Kings. Finkelstein’s work in Megiddo led him to conclude that the builder of Megiddo was Ahab and not Solomon.

Finkelstein also believes that most of the biblical literature was composed during the reign of Josiah. This means that most of the biblical narrative, the history of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the land, and the united monarchy reflect the ideology that existed in Judah in the seventh century B.C., an ideology that grew out of the religious reform under Josiah, king of Judah. Finkelstein believes that some of the events mentioned in the biblical narrative may have some historical background, however, the biblical narrative was rewritten in order to promote the ideology that gave meaning to the religious reform that centralized the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem.

Archaeology is a mute witness of the past. Archaeological findings require evaluation and interpretation. However, when the findings are based on ideology, “the house of David” becomes “the temple of Dod,” a view adopted by Römer in the past, even though a god named “Dod” does not appear in the Bible nor in any surviving text from the Ancient Near East.

Thus, the statement in 1 Kings 8:9 that “There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone,” may be just that, that there were only the two tablets in the Ark, not “that the Ten Commandments had substituted something else.”

The statement that Josiah commanded the Levites to “put the holy ark in the house that Solomon the son of David, king of Israel, built” (2 Chronicles 35:3), may be based on the actions of Manasseh. Manasseh placed a carved image of Asherah in the temple that Solomon built for God in Jerusalem (2 Kings 21:7).

According to Haran, in the Ancient Near East, the images of God were placed in the inner room of a temple, the holy of holies. Thus, when Manasseh introduced the vessels of Baal and placed the image of Asherah in the holiest place of the temple, he did so by removing the Ark. Haran wrote: “It was Manasseh who set up vessels of Baal and Asherah in the outer sanctum and introduced the image of Asherah into the inner sanctum of the Temple, and it was probably through him that the ark was removed” (1963:50). So, it is possible, as Holladay says, that Josiah was returning the Ark to its original place in the temple after it was removed by Manasseh (1986:120).

However, the statement in 2 Chronicles 35:3 may reflect the Chronicler’s ideology. Referring to the Ark, Jeremiah wrote: “And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, says the LORD, they shall no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made” (Jeremiah 3:16). This text implies that in the days of Jeremiah the Ark was no longer in the temple or that it was probably destroyed by the Babylonians since Jeremiah says that the Ark will not be remembered, that it will not be missed, and that another Ark would not be made to replace the original Ark.

This brings me to my original question: “Did the Ark of the Covenant contain images of pagan gods?” I doubt it! If one is willing to rewrite the biblical text, then, everything is possible. There is not a shred of evidence in the archaeological remains that the Ark of the Covenant contained images of pagan gods.

If you want to read more about Finkelstein’s view on the history of Israel, the Society of Biblical literature is offering a free book written by Finkelstein: Israel Finkelstein, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel. Atlanta: The Society of Biblical Literature, 2013. Click here to download a free PDF copy of Finkelstein’s book.

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Boling, Robert G. Joshua. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1995,

Haran, M. “The Disappearance of the Ark.” Israel Exploration Journal 13 (1963): 46-58.

Holladay, William L. Jeremiah 1. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Leithart, Peter J. From Silence to Song: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.

Tsumura, David Yoshio. The First Book of Samuel. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

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This entry was posted in Archaeology, Ark of the Covenant, Asherah, Hebrew Bible, Old Testament and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Did the Ark of the Covenant Contain Images of Pagan Gods?

  1. Joe Cathey says:

    Claude,

    Wonderful summary of the minimalist position. You adroitly laid the pitfalls of mute archaeology. Thank you for giving a measured view. I completely agree with your assessment, well done my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

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