Biblical account relates that during the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, the Ark was carried by the priests some 2,000 cubits, or 1,000 m; 3,400 ft (Numbers 35:5; Joshua 4:5) in advance of the people and their army, or host (Num. 4:5-6; 10:33-36; Psalms 68:1; 132:8). When the Ark was borne by priests into the bed of the Jordan, water in the river separated, opening a pathway for the entire host to pass through (Josh. 3:15-16; 4:7-18). The city of Jericho was taken with no more than a shout after the Ark of Covenant was paraded for seven days around its wall by seven priests sounding seven trumpets of rams' horns (Josh. 6:4-20). When carried, the Ark was always wrapped in a veil, in tachash skins (the identity of this animal is uncertain), and a blue cloth, and was carefully concealed, even from the eyes of the Cohanim who carried it.
The Hebrew word aron as used in the Bible refers to any type of ark, chest or coffer (Book of Genesis 50:26; 2 Kings 12:9, 10).
The Ark of the Covenant is distinguished from all others by such titles as:
- Holy Ark, (2 Chronicles 35:3)
- Ark of God, (1 Samuel 3:3)
- Ark of thy God's strength, (2 Chronicles 6:41)
- Ark of the Covenant, (Josh. 3:6; Hebrews 9:4)
- Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of all the Earth, (Joshua 3:11)
- Ark of the Testimony, (Exodus 25:22)
Detailed instructions are given by God for the plan of the Ark: it is to be 2½ cubits in length, 1½ in breadth, and 1½ in height (as 21⁄2×11⁄2×11⁄2 royal cubits or 1.31×0.79×0.79 m). Then it is to be plated entirely with gold, and a crown or molding of gold is to be put around it. Four rings of gold are to be put into its four feet—two on each side—and through these rings staves of shittim-wood overlaid with gold for carrying the Ark are to be inserted; and these are not to be removed. A golden cover, adorned with golden cherubim, is to be placed above the Ark. The Ark is finally to be placed behind a veil (Parochet), a full description of which is also given.
The Ark of the Covenant is mentioned in both the Holy Bible and the Qur'an.
The Ark is first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament/Torah in the Book of Exodus, and then numerous times in: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, I Chronicles, II Chronicles, Psalms and Jeremiah.
In the Book of Jeremiah, it is referenced by Jeremiah, who, speaking in the days of Josiah (Jer. 3:16), prophesied a future time when the Ark will no longer be talked about or be made again.
In II Maccabees, chapter 2, "one finds in the records" that Jeremiah, having received an oracle of the Lord, ordered that the tent and the ark and the altar of incense should follow him to the mountain of God where he sealed them up in a cave, and he told those who had followed in order to mark the way, but could not find it, "The place shall be unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy, and then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated."
In the New Testament, the Ark is mentioned in the Book of Hebrews and the Book of Revelation.
Hebrews 9:4 states that the Ark contained "the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant."
Revelation 11:19 says the prophet saw God's temple in heaven opened, "and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple."
In chapter 2 (Verse 248), the Children of Israel, at the time of Samuel and Saul, were given back the 'Tabut E Sakina' (the casket of Shekhinah) which contained remnants of the household of Musa and Harun (Moses and Aaron) carried by angels which confirmed peace and reassurance for them from their Lord. It is mentioned in the middle of the narrative of the choice of Saul to be king. The Qur'an states:
And (further) their Prophet said to them: "A Sign of his authority is that there shall come to you the Ark of the covenant, with (an assurance) therein of security (Sakina) from your Lord, and the relics left by the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, carried by angels. In this is a symbol for you if ye indeed have faith. (Qur'an 2:248)
The Islamic scholar Al Baidawi mentioned that the Sakina could be Tawrat, Books of Moses. According to Al-Jalalan, the relics in the Ark were the fragments of the two tablets, rods, robes, shoes, mitres of Moses and the vase of Manna. Al-Tha'alibi, in Qisas Al-Anbiya (The Stories of the Prophets), has given an earlier and later history of the Ark.
According to most Muslim scholars, the Ark of the Covenant has a religious basis in Islam, and Islam gives it special significance. Shia sect of Muslims believe that it will be found by Mahdi near the end of times from Lake Tiberias.
After its creation by Moses, the Ark was carried by the Israelites during their 40-year voyage in the desert. Whenever the Israelites camped, the Ark was placed in a special and sacred tent, the Tabernacle. When the Israelites fought the Amalekites, the Ark provided them with God's protection.
When the Israelites, led by Joshua toward the Promised Land, arrived at the banks of the River Jordan, the Ark was carried in the lead preceding the people, and was the signal for their advance (Joshua 3:3, 6). During the crossing, the river grew dry as soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touched its waters; and remained so until the priests—with the Ark—left the river, after the people had passed over (Josh. 3:15-17; 4:10, 11, 18). As memorials, twelve stones were taken from the Jordan at the place where the priests had stood (Josh. 4:1-9).
In the Battle of Jericho, the Ark was carried round the city once a day for seven days, preceded by the armed men and seven priests sounding seven trumpets of rams' horns (Josh. 6:4-15). On the seventh day the seven priests sounding the seven trumpets of rams' horns before the Ark compassed the city seven times and with a great shout, Jericho's wall fell down flat and the people took the city (Josh. 6:16-20). After the defeat at Ai, Joshua lamented before the Ark (Josh. 7:6-9). When Joshua read the Law to the people between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, they stood on each side of the Ark. The Ark was again set up by Joshua at Shiloh; but when the Israelites fought against Benjamin at Gibeah, they had the Ark with them, and consulted it after their defeat.
The Ark is next spoken of as being in the Tabernacle at Shiloh during Samuel's apprenticeship (1 Sam. 3:3). After the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan, the Ark remained in the Tabernacle at Gilgal for a season before being removed to Shiloh until the time of Eli, between 300 and 400 years (Jeremiah 7:12), when it was carried into the field of battle, so as to secure, as they had hoped, victory to the Hebrews. The Ark was taken by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:3-11) who subsequently sent it back after retaining it for seven months (1 Sam. 5:7, 8) because of the events said to have transpired.
After their first defeat at Eben-ezer, the Israelites had the Ark brought from Shiloh, and welcomed its coming with great rejoicing.
In the second battle, the Israelites were again defeated, and the Philistines captured the Ark (1 Sam. 4:3-5, 10, 11). The news of its capture was at once taken to Shiloh by a messenger "with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head." The old priest, Eli, fell dead when he heard it; and his daughter-in-law, bearing a son at the time the news of the capture of the Ark was received, named him Ichabod—explained as "Where is glory?" in reference to the loss of the Ark (1 Sam. 4:12-22).
The Philistines took the Ark to several places in their country, and at each place misfortune befell them (1 Sam. 5:1-6). At Ashdod it was placed in the temple of Dagon. The next morning Dagon was found prostrate, bowed down, before it; and on being restored to his place, he was on the following morning again found prostrate and broken. The people of Ashdod were smitten with tumors; a plague of rats was sent over the land (1 Sam. 6:5). The affliction of boils was also visited upon the people of Gath and of Ekron, whither the Ark was successively removed (1 Sam. 5:8-12).
After the Ark had been among them for seven months, the Philistines, on the advice of their diviners, returned it to the Israelites, accompanying its return with an offering consisting of golden images of the tumors and rats wherewith they had been afflicted. The Ark was set in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite, and the Beth-shemites offered sacrifices and burnt offerings (1 Sam. 6:1-15). Out of curiosity the men of Beth-shemesh gazed at the Ark; and as a punishment, seventy of them (fifty thousand seventy in some ms.) were smitten by the Lord (1 Sam. 6:19). The Bethshemites sent to Kirjath-jearim, or Baal-Judah, to have the Ark removed (1 Sam. 6:21); and it was taken to the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar was sanctified to keep it. Kirjath-jearim remained the abode of the Ark for twenty years. Under Saul, the Ark was with the army before he first met the Philistines, but the king was too impatient to consult it before engaging in battle. In 1 Chronicles 13:3 it is stated that the people were not accustomed to consult the Ark in the days of Saul.
At the beginning of his reign, King David removed the Ark from Kirjath-jearim amid great rejoicing. On the way to Zion, Uzzah, one of the drivers of the cart whereon the Ark was carried, put out his hand to steady the Ark, and was smitten by God for touching it. David, in fear, carried the Ark aside into the house of Obed-edom the Gittite, instead of carrying it on to Zion, and there it stayed three months (2 Samuel 6:1-11; 1 Chronicles 13:1-13).
On hearing that God had blessed Obed-edom because of the presence of the Ark in his house, David had the Ark brought to Zion by the Levites, while he himself, "girded with a linen ephod," "danced before the Lord with all his might" — a performance that caused him to be despised and scornfully rebuked by Saul's daughter Michal (2 Sam. 6:12-16, 20-22; 1 Chron. 15). This derision of David on her part prompted God to take away her fertility. In Zion, David put the Ark in the tabernacle he had prepared for it, offered sacrifices, distributed food, and blessed the people and his own household (2 Sam. 6:17-20; 1 Chron. 16:1-3; 2 Chron. 1:4).
The Levites were appointed to minister before the Ark (1 Chron. 16:4). David's plan of building a temple for the Ark was stopped at the advice of God (2 Sam. 7:1-17; 1 Chron. 17:1-15; 28:2, 3). The Ark was with the army during the siege of Rabbah (2 Sam. 11:11); and when David fled from Jerusalem at the time of Absalom's conspiracy, the Ark was carried along with him until he ordered Zadok the priest to return it to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 15:24-29).
When Abiathar was dismissed from the priesthood by King Solomon for having taken part in Adonijah's conspiracy against David, his life was spared because he had formerly borne the Ark (1 Kings 2:26). Solomon worshiped before the Ark after his dream in which God promised him wisdom (1 Kings 3:15).
During the construction of Solomon's Temple, a special inner room, named Kodesh Hakodashim (Eng. Holy of Holies), was prepared to receive and house the Ark (1 Kings 6:19); and when the Temple was dedicated, the Ark—containing the original tablets of the Ten Commandments—was placed therein (1 Kings 8:6-9). When the priests emerged from the holy place after placing the Ark there, the Temple was filled with a cloud, "for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord" (1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chron. 5:13, 14).
When Solomon married Pharaoh's daughter, he caused her to dwell in a house outside Zion, as Zion was consecrated because of its containing the Ark (2 Chron. 8:11). King Josiah had the Ark put in the Temple (2 Chron. 35:3), whence it appears to have again been removed by one of his successors.
In 586 BC, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem and, once captured, plundered and destroyed Solomon's Temple. Some historians suggest that the Ark was probably taken away by Nebuchadnezzar or perhaps destroyed in battle. Consequently, the rebuilt Second Temple did not house the Ark in its Holy of Holies room.
According to the Book of Revelation, the Ark is in the Temple of God in Heaven in vision: "Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the Ark of his Covenant" (Rev. 11:19 NIV).
Since its disappearance, the Ark entered the domain of legend, and some have claimed to have discovered or have possession of the Ark. Several possible places have been suggested for its location. However, the Second Book of the Maccabees and the Book of Revelation state that the ark is no longer on Earth.
2 Maccabees 2:4-10, contains a reference to a document saying that the prophet Jeremiah, "being warned by God" before the Babylonian invasion, took the Ark, the Tabernacle, and the Altar of Incense, and buried them in a cave on Mount Nebo (Jordan) (Deut. 34:1), informing those of his followers who wished to find the place that it should remain unknown "until the time that God should gather His people again together, and receive them unto mercy."
Modern excavations near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have discovered the existence of tunnels. However, digging beneath the Temple Mount itself is heavily restricted due to the religious and political sensitivity surrounding the area. One of the most important Islamic shrines, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, sits in the location where Solomon's Temple is thought to have stood.
According to the Hebrew Traditions, King Solomon, when building the Temple, had the Ark of the Covenant put on a platform which could be lowered down into a tunnel system if the Temple were ever over-run. Such overrun did eventually come when King Nebuchadnezzar's troops destroyed the Temple and carried off its treasures, but no mention of the Ark of the Covenant was made, possibly because it had been lowered into the cave system below and secreted away by Levite priests.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant or tabot in Axum. The object is now kept under guard in a treasury near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, and used occasionally in ritual processions. But versions of the Axum tabot are kept in every Ethiopian church, each with its own dedication to a particular saint, most popularly Mary, George and Michael.
The Kebra Nagast, composed to legitimise the new dynasty ruling Ethiopia following its establishment in 1270, narrates how the real Ark of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I with divine assistance, while a forgery was left in the Temple in Jerusalem. Although the Kebra Nagast is the best-known account of this belief, this belief predates this document. Abu Salih the Armenian, writing in the last quarter of the twelfth century, makes one early reference to this belief that they possessed the Ark. "The Abyssinians possess also the Ark of the Covenant", he wrote, then after a description of the object describes how the liturgy is celebrated upon the Ark four times a year: "on the feast of the great nativity, on the feast of the glorious Baptism, on the feast of the holy Resurrection, and on the feast of the illuminating Cross."
The Lemba people of South Africa and Zimbabwe have claimed that their ancestors carried the Ark south, calling it the ngoma lungundu or "voice of God", eventually hiding it in a deep cave in the Dumghe mountains, their spiritual home.
On 14 April 2008, in a UK Channel 4 documentary broadcast, Tudor Parfitt, described his research into this claim. He says that the object described by the Lemba has attributes similar to the Ark. It was of similar size, was carried on poles by priests, was not allowed to touch the ground, was revered as a voice of their God, and was used as a weapon of great power, sweeping enemies aside.
In his book The Lost Ark of the Covenant (2008), Parfitt also suggests that the Ark was taken to Arabia following the Second Book of Maccabees, and cites Arabic sources which maintain it was brought in distant times to Yemen. One Lemba clan, the Buba, which was supposed to have brought the Ark to Africa, have a genetic signature called the Cohen Modal Haplotype. This suggests a male Semitic link to the Levant. Lemba tradition maintains that the Ark spent some time in Sena in Yemen. Later, it was taken across the sea to East Africa and may have been taken inland at the time of the Great Zimbabwe civilization. According to their oral traditions, some time after the arrival of the Lemba with the Ark, it self-destructed. Using a core from the original, the Lemba priests constructed a new one. This replica was discovered in a cave by a Swedish German missionary named Harald von Sicard in the 1940s and eventually found its way to the Museum of Human Science in Harare.
Parfitt had this artifact radio-carbon dated to about 1350 AD, which coincided with the sudden end of the Great Zimbabwe civilization.
Jewish sources in the Talmud, as well as the Jewish exegete Rashi (Rashi's commentary of Deuteronomy), suggest that there were two Arks: one was the original simple wooden Ark of Moses described in the Book of Deuteronomy, the other was the later golden Ark made by Bezalel as described in the Book of Exodus. Rabbinic opinion maintains that the first of these Arks was the Ark of War and the second was a ceremonial object which stayed in the Temple. Parfitt suggests that the Ark he found was the descendant of the Ark of War and that a wooden chest being used as a weapon was replicated at least once, and possibly many times. Parfitt offers the suggestion that the wooden ark may always have been a drum as well as a weapon of some sort, like the ngoma. It was often found in musical processions, David danced in front of it and it was covered over with a piece of leather. Parfitt, however, offers no explanation of the original principal contents of the Ark, the stone tablets.
Local claims exist that it is hidden within limestone caves under Mt. Tsurugi in ShiKoKu, Japan.
Within Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and in some congregations of Anglicanism and Lutheranism, a tabernacle is a box-like vessel for the exclusive reservation of the consecrated Eucharist. It is normally made of metal, stone or wood, is lockable and secured to its altar to prevent the consecrated elements within from being removed without authorization. The "reserved Eucharist" is secured there for distribution at services, for availability to bring Holy Communion to the sick, and, especially in the Western Church, as the center of attention for meditation and prayer. The term "tabernacle" arose for this item as a reference to the Old Testament tabernacle which was the locus of God's presence among the Jewish people - hence, it was formerly required (and is still generally customary) that the tabernacle be covered with a tent-like veil or curtains across its door when the Eucharist is present within.
By way of metaphor, Catholics and Orthodox alike also refer to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Tabernacle in their devotions (such as the Akathist Hymn or Catholic Litanies to Mary), as she carried within her the body of Christ in her role as Theotokos.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Holy Mysteries (reserved Sacrament) are kept in a Tabernacle or Ark (Slavonic: Kovtchég) on the Holy Table (Altar) at all times. The tabernacle is normally wrought of gold, silver, or wood and elaborately decorated. It is often shaped like a miniature church building, and usually has a cross on the top of it. It may be opened using small doors, or a drawer that pulls out. Some churches keep the tabernacle under a glass dome to protect it (and the Holy Mysteries) from dust and changes in humidity.
Orthodox do not have a concept of Eucharistic adoration as a devotion separated from the reception of Holy Communion. But the Holy Mysteries are treated with utmost respect, as they believe in the Real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ. The clergy must be vested whenever they handle the Holy Mysteries. During the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (wherein Communion is received from the reserved Sacrament), when the consecrated Holy Mysteries are brought out during the Great Entrance, everyone makes a full prostration—even the chanters stop singing and prostrate themselves while the entrance is made in silence.
When Orthodox Christians receive Holy Communion, they always receive in both species: the Body and the Blood of Christ. This includes even when Communion is taken to the sick. Therefore, both are reserved in the Tabernacle. Every year on Holy Thursday, the reserved Mysteries are renewed. The priest will cut an extra Lamb (host) for that Liturgy and after the consecration, just before the clergy receive communion, the priest will take the extra Lamb and carefully pour a little of the Blood of Christ over it. This Lamb will then be cut into very small portions, allowed to dry thoroughly, and be placed in the tabernacle. The deacon (or priest, if there is no deacon) will consume whatever remains of the previous year's reserved sacrament when he performs the ablutions.
Typically, a sanctuary lamp is kept burning in the Holy Place (sanctuary) when the Mysteries are reserved. This may be a separate lamp hanging from the ceiling, or it may be the top lamp of the seven-branch candlestick which sits either on top of the Holy Table or behind it.
A small receptacle called a Pyx is used for taking communion to the sick. While designs may differ, this often consists of a metal case with a chain attached to it so it can be hung around the neck. Inside the case are several compartments. One compartment contains a small box with a tightly-fitting lid into which some of the reserved Holy Mysteries will be placed. There is also a place for a very small chalice, just enough to hold a small amount of wine and a particle of the reserved Mysteries. There will be a small bottle to hold ordinary wine (not consecrated) which is used to soften the particle before it is consumed, a small pair of tweezers with which to remove a particle of the Mysteries from the box to place it in the chalice without touching it with his hands, and finally a small communion spoon with which to administer Holy Communion. This sick call kit is normally kept on the Holy Table, or sometimes on the Table of Oblation (Prothesis).
Rather than using a kit like the one described above, a priest may use a small chalice with a tight-fitting lid. He pours a little wine into the chalice, places a particle of the reserved Mysteries in the wine, and attaches the lid. He will then take this chalice and a communion spoon to administer Holy Communion to the sick.
For other Christians, the tabernacle no longer has physical significance, but spiritual meaning. The tabernacle is regarded as a shadow and symbol of Jesus Christ. For example, The door of the tabernacle facing east represents entering into Christ who said He was the door. The east entrance represents the turning of the believer's back against the rising sun (Egypt), which for Christians means sin.