The Ark of the Covenant by Maria Metzler

The ark of the covenant is perhaps the most famous object from the Hebrew Bible, due to its starring role in Steven Spielberg’s film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Indiana Jones seems to know exactly what the ark is supposed to look like. But the Bible contains two very different physical descriptions of this object. In Exod 25:10-21, the ark is splendidly ornate: a regal chest crowned with a pair of gold cherubim, mythical creatures that stretch their wings over its solid-gold cover. In Deut 10:1-5, however, the ark is a simple wooden box made by Moses to house the tablets of the law.

In the movie, Indiana Jones is warned about the ark: “Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this earth.” In the biblical accounts, the ark is indeed a dangerous object that was constructed according to divine blueprints. It is intimately associated with the divine presence. Yahweh speaks with Moses from between the outstretched wings of its cherubim (Exod 25:22, Num 7:89), and through the ark, Yahweh leads his people in the wilderness: “Whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, ‘Arise, O Lord, let your enemies be scattered, and your foes flee before you’” (Num 10:35).

In the book of Joshua, the ark is portrayed as a locus of fearsome divine power. Through it, Yahweh performs wonders that allow the Israelites to take over territory after years of desert wandering. When the feet of the priests who carry the ark touch the Jordan River, its rushing waters stand still so that the Israelites can cross over and enter the land of Canaan (Josh 3-4). The ark is also instrumental in the account of the conquest of Jericho, whose massive walls purportedly crumble after the ark is paraded around it seven times (Josh 6).

The ark plays a prominent—and largely destructive—role within the narratives of 1-2 Samuel, where it is referred to by the title “the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim” (1Sam 4:4). After being captured in battle against the Philistines, the ark embarks on a violent rampage. The Philistine god Dagon is the first to suffer Yahweh’s wrath; having placed the ark in Dagon’s temple, the Philistines awaken to find the statue of their god collapsed before the ark with severed head and hands (1Sam 5:1-5). Yahweh plagues the cities of the Philistines until they beg for the ark to be expelled. The residents of the Israelite town of Beth-Shemesh soon echo this request, since multitudes of rejoicing Israelites drop dead after seeing the ark on its return from Philistine territory (1Sam 6:19-21). This episode is the basis for the climactic scene in the Indiana Jones film, where the Nazis who look into the ark suffer gruesome deaths: their faces melt and explode.

When King David establishes Jerusalem as his capital, he is determined to secure the presence of the ark in his city, even after Uzzah is killed when he reaches out his hand to steady the ark in the process of transporting it (2Sam 6). Eventually David succeeds in settling the ark in Jerusalem, but it is his son, King Solomon, who provides a more permanent dwelling place for the ark when he builds the temple. After Solomon ushers the ark into the holy of holies, it is scarcely mentioned again in the Hebrew Bible. What finally became of the ark is a mystery; it does not appear in the list of items looted by the Babylonians when they destroy the temple in 586 B.C.E. (2Kgs 25:13-17; Jer 52:17-23). There are many theories concerning what happened to the ark, but as in the movie title, its fate to us remains lost.

Maria Metzler, "Ark of the Covenant", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2022]. Online:


Maria Metzler

Maria Metzler
Ph.D. candidate, Harvard University

Maria Metzler is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University and is writing her dissertation on the ark of the covenant. She is interested in the complex relationship between gods and objects in the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible. She has previously explored the topic of divine and royal furniture in her article “King Og’s Iron Bed” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 2011). Metzler draws on many types of literature to illuminate biblical texts, from Babylonian incantations and ancient Greek tragedy to modern American poetry.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A supernatural ability granted to a human by a deity, or exhibited by the deity.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Exod 25:10-21

The Ark of the Covenant
10They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.11 ... View more

Deut 10:1-5

The Second Pair of Tablets
1At that time the Lord said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the former ones, and come up to me on the mountain, and make ... View more

Exod 25:22

22There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my com ... View more

Num 7:89

89When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the ... View more

Num 10:35

35Whenever the ark set out, Moses would say,
“Arise, O Lord, let your enemies be scattered,
and your foes flee before you.”

Josh 3-4

Israel Crosses the Jordan
1Early in the morning Joshua rose and set out from Shittim with all the Israelites, and they came to the Jordan. They camped there bef ... View more

Josh 6

Jericho Taken and Destroyed
1Now Jericho was shut up inside and out because of the Israelites; no one came out and no one went in.2The Lord said to Joshua, “See ... View more

1Sam 4:4

4So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophn ... View more

1Sam 5:1-5

The Philistines and the Ark
1When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod;2then the Philistines took the ark of God and ... View more

1Sam 6:19-21

The Ark at Kiriath-jearim
19The descendants of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the people of Beth-shemesh when they greeted the ark of the Lord; and he killed sev ... View more

2Sam 6

David Brings the Ark to Jerusalem
1David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.2David and all the people with him set out and went from B ... View more

2Kgs 25:13-17

13The bronze pillars that were in the house of the Lord, as well as the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans broke in pie ... View more

Jer 52:17-23

17The pillars of bronze that were in the house of the Lord, and the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans broke in pieces, ... View more

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