In Search of the Ark of the Covenant

Archaeologists, sponsored by Christian organizations, are searching (again!) for the Ark of the Covenant. However, in my opinion, they are searching for the Ark in the wrong place. Below is an excerpt of the article in which the new search for the Ark was announced:

Archaeologists funded by Christian organizations are taking a shovel – again – to Tel Shiloh, an archaeological site that was a major center of worship for ancient Israelites.

They’re looking for the ark of the covenant, the holy chest containing the two stone tablets on which Moses is said to have written the Ten Commandments, which was stationed at the ancient city of Shiloh for 400 years.

According to this news report, these archaeologists and their Christian supporters are looking for the Ark of the Covenant in the ruins of the ancient city of Shiloh in order to demonstrate the historicity of the biblical account.

Shiloh was a town in the tribe of Ephraim where a sanctuary dedicated to the worship of Yahweh was located: “Then the whole congregation of the people of Israel assembled at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there” (Joshua 18:1). “The house of God was at Shiloh” (Judges 18:31). It was at Shiloh that Eli and Samuel ministered before the Lord.

Shiloh was an important Israelite sanctuary in the time of the judges. According to the book of Samuel, the people of Israel would make a pilgrimage every year to offer sacrifices to Yahweh at Shiloh: “Now [Elkanah] used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh” (1 Samuel 1:3).

In the days of Samuel, the Ark of the Covenant was housed in the sanctuary at Shiloh: “Samuel was lying down within the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was” (1 Samuel 3:3).

During the days of Eli there was a war between the army of Israel and the Philistines: “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines; they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who slew about four thousand men on the field of battle” (1 Samuel 4:1-2).

When the elders of Israel saw that the battle was going against Israel, they decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant from the temple to the battlefield in order to ensure that Yahweh “may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3). Accepting the suggestion of the elders of Israel, the people brought the Ark from Shiloh, accompanied by Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s two sons, believing that the presence of the Ark would give the army of Israel a great victory against the Philistines.

However, although the Philistines were afraid that the presence of the Ark in the battlefield would give the Israelites the victory, the Philistine army fought against the army of Israel “and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home; and there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers” (1 Samuel 4:10).

The Ark of the Covenant was one of the most important religious symbols in Israel. The Ark represented God’s presence with his people. In the battle at Ebenezer, the Ark was captured and brought to Ashdod, where the temple of Dagon, the Philistine god, was located: “then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon” (1 Samuel 5:1-2). The Ark remained in possession of the Philistines for “seven months” (1 Samuel 6:1). When the Ark was returned to Israel, the Ark was brought to Kiriath-jearim and remained there “some twenty years” (1 Samuel 7:2).

As for Shiloh, the remainder of the book of Samuel is silent about the fate of the city after it was conquered by the Philistines. However, two texts in the Bible indicate that the Philistines destroyed Shiloh at the time the Ark was captured.

The first text, Psalm 78:60-61, says: “He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh, the tent where he dwelt among men, and delivered his power to captivity, his glory to the hand of the foe” (Psalm 78:60-61).

The second text is found in Jeremiah’s temple sermon in which the prophet declared that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed as Shiloh was destroyed. Jeremiah said: “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, says the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house which is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh” (Jeremiah 7:12-14).

At this time, it is not my intent to discuss the fate of Shiloh and the reasons the town was destroyed. My purpose is to discuss the search for the Ark of the Covenant in Shiloh. If these Christian archaeologists are digging in Shiloh to search for the Ark of the Covenant, they should read what happened to the Ark after it was captured by the Philistines.

After David became king of a united Israel, David realized the need to provide a religious legitimation for his reign in Jerusalem, the former capital of the Jebusite nation. He also needed to establish a link between his kingdom and the Mosaic traditions of Israel. So, in order to bring religious legitimacy to his kingdom, David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, with an elaborate ceremony, “with shouting, and with the sound of the horn” (2 Samuel 6:15). With the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem, the center of the religious life of Israel moved from Shiloh to Jerusalem.

After Solomon finished building the temple in Jerusalem, he assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes “to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion,” into the new temple he had built for God (1 Kings 8:1).

After Solomon brought the Ark to Jerusalem, the Ark practically disappeared from Israelite history. Some people believe that the Ark was taken to Egypt by Shishak, the Egyptian pharaoh who invaded Judah in the days of Rehoboam: “In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, King Shishak of Egypt came up against Jerusalem; he took away the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king’s house; he took everything” (1 Kings 14:25-26). However, there is no evidence that Shishak took the Ark to Egypt.

Jeremiah mentions that in the last days the Ark of God will no longer be needed: “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).

The statement, “nor shall another one be made,” seems to indicate that the Ark had been lost, that it had disappeared, or that it no longer existed. The traditional view is that the Ark was taken to Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar captured the city and took away “all the vessels of the Lord’s house” (Jeremiah 28:3).

A later Jewish tradition says that Jeremiah hid the Ark, the tabernacle, and the altar of incense in a cave on Mount Nebo: “It was also in the same document that the prophet, having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance” (2 Maccabees 2:4-5). According to this Jewish tradition, the Ark will remain hidden until the Lord gathers his people again: “The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy” (2 Maccabees 2:7).

No one knows what happened to the Ark of the Covenant. One thing we know: the Ark of the Covenant is not in the ruins of the ancient city of Shiloh.

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

 

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