What Happened to the Ark of the Covenant?
Let’s face it: any religious conspiracy thriller writer worth their salt cannot not write about the Ark of the Covenant. I mean…come on! So, here we are, another tome to add to the shelves of Ark lore. And yet this one is a bit of a departure from the Indiana Jones variety.
As with all of my novels, I root them in a bedrock of exhaustive research and historical fact. The same was true for my latest religious conspiracy thriller, Hidden Covenant—a propulsive adventure on the trail of the fabled lost Ark of the Covenant. Here are some of those important facts about that lost Jewish relic:
FACT: the Ark of the Covenant was a real religious object, a wooden box overlaid with gold and crowned with two golden cherubim. FACT: the Ark served as the central religious artifact of the ancient Israelites for worship and sacrifice. FACT: around 586 BC the Ark vanished from Israel’s temple, never to be seen again.
So what happened to it and where did it go?
Here is some of the research I discovered that made its way into Hidden Covenant that informed some of Silas Grey’s adventure—and some of the theories answering our questions about what happened to the Ark and where it might be located.
Shishak and Egypt
As recorded in 1 Kings 14, around 926 BC the southern kingdom was indeed invaded by Shishak of the Egyptians, also known as Sheshonk. As the biblical text clearly states, the king not only carted off the treasures of the royal household but “carried off the treasures of the temple of the Lord.” Apparently, the temple of Karnak in Luxor confirms this account, recording that Shishak offered the spoils of his campaign to the god Amun. And in 1939 Shishak’s tomb was discovered in Tanis, where his sarcophagus and mummy were adorned with gold‚ presumably from the Temple treasures. This account serves as the backdrop for George Lucas’s Raiders of the Lost Ark blockbuster, which centered around Tanis.
However, there are good reasons why the Ark probably never made its way to Egypt. Some have maintained that Shishak never entered Jerusalem since it wasn’t among his own list of captured cities. Others believe those temple treasures were merely the gold and other valuables stored in the treasury outside the Temple, not the sacred ones from the inner sanctuary. And as Silas said, there’s 2 Chronicles 13:11, which says the altar of incense, the menorah, and the table of showbread were still in use in the temple. Further, 2 Chronicles 35:3 shows the Ark itself was still being used as late as Josiah’s reign. He instructed the Levites, “Put the sacred ark in the temple that Solomon son of David king of Israel built,” clearly posing a big problem for this theory.
King Manasseh and Levite Protectors
Another major theory revolved around the desecration of the Temple by King Manasseh, as recorded in 2 Kings 21:7 and 2 Chronicles 33:7. This king followed in a long line of Israel’s rulers who led the nation into pagan idolatry. What was different about this king was that he brought those idols into the Temple itself! Some believe he went so far as to place a pagan image inside the Holy of Holies itself—where the Ark of the Covenant would have been kept.
One scholar, Menachem Haran believes Manasseh would have destroyed the Ark and other Temple vessels in order to fill the Temple with the pagan deities and attendants. However, the Bible doesn’t say Manassah destroyed the vessels—only that he was trying to make changes to the religion through syncretism by incorporating the Canaanite religion into the traditional religion of Israel. This leads Randall Price and others to conclude that he could not have removed the Ark or destroyed it, because it had already been secreted away by Levites who were caretakers of the Temple. This seems to be implied in 2 Chronicles 35:3 when the priests returned the Ark to the purified Temple.
The Babylonian Invasion
Another widely assumed answer to the disappearance and location of the Ark is that it met its end sometime during the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem between 605 and 586 BC. There are usually two variations of this proposal: 1) the Babylonians removed the Ark along with the other Temple treasures from the Temple when they sacked and looted Jerusalem, carrying it back to Babylon as the spoils of war; 2) the Ark was either destroyed when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple or destroyed when it reached Babylon, being stripped of its gilding and melted down for the imperial treasury. There are several reasons why either theories don’t make sense, mostly because the listed of captured Temple treasures didn’t include theArk (2 Kings 25:13–17; Jeremiah 52:17–23) and all the vessels taken from the Temple were later returned by the Persians when Israel returned from exile (Ezra 1:7–11).
A final theory is similar to the one above regarding King Manassah and the Levite protectors: if the ark was not stolen or destroyed by the Babylons, then perhaps it was secreted away beforehand—removed from the inner Temple and hidden away for safe keeping. The caretakers of the Temple could have moved it secretly sometime before Babylon invaded the city and brought to a secret chamber constructed for such a time, all in order to keep it safe for a leter reappearance. This has led many to believe it is still hidden within a secret chamber beneath the Temple Mount.
Menelik and Kebra Negast
There is an interesting thirteenth-century manuscript that is greatly revered among the Ethiopian people and written, known as the Kebra Nagast. Written in an ancient Semitic language, called Ge’ez, a dialect originating in the Horn of Africa, it reveals a fascinating legend centering on the relationship between King Solomon of Israel and Queen of Sheba. 1 Kings of the Hebrew Scriptures tell of this story when the queen visited Solomon. Now, what the Bible does not say, but the Kebra Nagast suggests is that King Solomon gave the Queen something else, a son named Menelik. This ancient manuscript tells this story about the birth of their son, as well as the legend of Menelik abducting the Ark from the First Temple in Jerusalem and bringing it to Aksum in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia and the Ark
Without question, the Ethiopian people believe they possess the Ark of the Covenant. It is said that the Ark was taken and hidden away in safety on the far-off Egyptian island of Elephantine along the mighty Nile. There, a new temple was built to house Yahweh’s hidden covenant, one that lasted for two hundred more years, until it was carried southward into the Kingdom of Aksum to Tana Kirkos. There it was installed in a simple tabernacle based on the design from the Torah in the Hebrew Scriptures, and worshiped there according to Jewish customs. For the next eight hundred years, the hidden covenant stood at the center of a large Jewish religious system in the Kingdom of Aksum, the ancestors of all Ethiopian Jews today.
When in the fourth century Christianity came to their lands, King Evan and the entire Kingdom of Aksum came to faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. According to the legend, shortly after that, they seized the Ark for themselves and took it to Aksum, placing it in the great church dedicated to Saint Mary the Mother of Christ.
But there are problems with the account, not the least of which is there is no such record in the biblical and extrabiblical Jewish sources. There are doubts that the Queen of Sheba had been an Ethiopian. Many question whether the Ethiopian civilization could have been advanced enough to have engaged with ancient Israel. Then there is the issue of Aksum itself since it wasn’t even in existence during Solomon’s time. Therefore, most believe the legend of the Ark having been brought to Aksum simply isn’t possible. However, every Ethiopian church does indeed have its own replica of the Ark, called a tabot. Some are made of wood, but most are made of stone.
So Where Is the Fabled Ark of the Covenant?
Your guess is as good as mine! Archaeologist Randall Price represents a number of people who seem to think the Ark of the Covenant lays hidden underneath the Temple Mount in a chamber beneath the original Holy of Holies. Several decades ago, an original passageway was discovered in July of 1981 by the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall, rediscovering the lost Warren’s Gate and a passage behind it quite by accident. This was an important find, for the Warren’s Gate was one of the original gates leading into the Temple Mount directly into the Temple courts and was used for bringing in wood, sacrifices, and other materials needed for the ancient sacred rites of the Jewish people in the Temple.
Those who have considered the location of the Temple treasures agree this gate is the most important of all because it is the nearest one to the former location of the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant used to reside. Many scholars of the Semitic period believe that underneath this locale King Solomon constructed a secret chamber to act as a secure vault for the Temple treasures should the need arise to steal them away, perhaps even in the event of the Temple’s destruction. And these biblical scholars believe the Ark was secreted away during a few possible instances with the intention of later returning it to its proper place within the Temple—during the reign of Manasseh and before the Babylonian invasion.
Jewish tradition holds that the Ark has continued to exist in hiding and that it would be rediscovered and restored to Israel when the Messiah appeared. The longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, known as the Temple Scroll, speaks of this very thing. It describes a new future Temple that will eventually be built containing the Ark of the Covenant. If such a holy place was to be considered legitimate, it must include the Ark, for without it the glory of God cannot return to take its appointed place between the glorious wings of the cherubim. No Ark, no true Temple. And this same Jewish tradition tells of the Ark being hidden away safely and secretly.
Is the Ark under the Temple Mount, then? “The historical accounts support the tradition that the Ark is presently hidden beneath the Temple Mount,” Randall Price insists. “If it was indeed stored away in the past—and has not yet been removed from its hiding place—then it must still remain under the Temple Mount today” (149). After several intriguing chapters in Searching for the Ark of the Covenant, he concludes with this: “No conclusive evidence exists for the existence of the Ark, nor can its hiding place be definitively located. Yet our survey of the biblical, historical, and traditional sources provide sufficient warrant for us to conclude that the Ark still exists and could be discovered” (207).
Perhaps the hidden Ark will one day be revealed!
Research is an important part of my process for creating compelling stories that entertain, inform, and inspire. Here are a few of the resources I used to research the Ark of the Covenant:
- Hancock, Graham. The Sign and the Seal. New York: Crown Publishers, 1992. www.bouma.com/ark1
- Haron, M. “The Disappearance of the Ark.” Israel Exploration Journal 13, January (1963), 46-58. www.bouma.us/ark2
- Price, Randall. In Search of Temple Treasures. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1994. www.bouma.us/ark3
- Price, Randall. Searching for the Ark of the Covenant. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2005. www.bouma.us/ark4
HIDDEN COVENANT NOW AVAILABLE
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Order of Thaddeus • Book 3
The Lost Ark is more than a Hollywood blockbuster.
FACT: the Ark of the Covenant was a real religious object, a wooden box overlaid with gold and crowned with two golden cherubim. FACT: the Ark served as the central religious artifact of the ancient Israelites for worship and sacrifice. FACT: around 586 BC the Ark vanished from Israel’s temple, never to be seen again. What happened to it and where did it go?
The world is about to find out.
Once again, ex-Army-Ranger-turned professor Silas Grey is drawn back into the fray with an urgent mission from the ancient religious Order of Thaddeus after a former professor makes headlines for unveiling the location of the Lost Ark. But soon it is clear things are not as they seem—and the struggle has never been greater for the Church. For not only is there a startling discovery. Matt Gapinski and a new SEPIO recruit track a high-value operative of the Order’s ancient nemesis that reveals the stakes are even higher for both the ancient Jewish relic and the Christian faith.
In this explosive third adventure in the groundbreaking Order of Thaddeus religious conspiracy thriller series, twists and turns spanning three continents will leave you wondering where the Ark of the Covenant has been hidden for two-and-a-half millennia—and what would happen to the world religious scene if it were found. Will Silas and the SEPIO operatives stop the threat against the Church and the Ark before it’s too late?
Once again emerging author J. A. Bouma combines the familiar elements of Dan Brown’s religious conspiracy with James Rollin’s special-ops suspense, informed by Steve Berry’s historical insights and Joel Rosenberg’s thrilling inspiration—delivering “a passionate historical fiction that draws you into the story from the very beginning.”
Engage this propulsive new archaeological thriller adventure straddling thrill and thought, faith and doubt.