When Did We Lose the Ark?

The night before I left for Israel in 2019, my husband and I snuggled up to watch Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is such a fun film and has no doubt been that proverbial “seed” of inspiration that grew inside many future archaeologists (although it features zero actual archaeology and takes a lot of Scriptural liberties).

The Bible tells us that the Ark of the Covenant was a fancy gold-covered wooden box made by the Israelites to protect and carry the second set of God’s Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 10:1-5) while they were waiting to conquer Canaan. For the next 700-or-so years, wherever the ark went, so did the presence of God. When the ark was taken by the Philistines, their cities were afflicted with something like the bubonic plague. When it rested inside Moses’ Tent of Meeting, or at a sanctuary in Shiloh, or later at its permanent home in the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple, it acted as God’s footstool on earth (1 Chronicles 28:2). It was not a weapon of war capable of melting the skin off Nazis’ faces, but more like a royal standard reminding friends and foes alike that God was with His people (and, of course, God Himself could do plague-striking or even face-melting if necessary!).

This holy of holies at Tel Arad was the first holy of holies to be discovered in Israel. After the Temple was built in Jerusalem, its use was illegal, but Judahites apparently worshiped there throughout the Israelite and Persian reigns.

According to the books of Kings and Chronicles, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was attacked at least 3 times by foreign armies before being flattened by the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. I always unconsciously assumed that the Ark of the Covenant somehow survived all the attacks and the exile to be placed in the Second Temple by Ezra, but I was wrong. No Ark ever rested in the second Holy of Holies; the Jewish Mishna describes only a stone foundation “three fingers high” that sat empty until that Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

The Bible doesn’t tell us when or how it went missing, but an Apocryphal text (accepted as Scripture by Catholics and traditionally attributed to Ezra) records a lamentation over the desecration of the Temple and the plundering of the Ark of the Covenant:

Do not do that, but let yourself be persuaded—for how many are the adversities of Zion?—and be consoled because of the sorrow of Jerusalem. For you see how our sanctuary has been laid waste, our altar thrown down, our temple destroyed; our harp has been laid low, our song has been silenced, and our rejoicing has been ended; the light of our lampstand has been put out, the ark of our covenant has been plundered, our holy things have been polluted, and the name by which we are called has been almost profaned...  (2 Esdras 10:20-22 NRSV).

The disappearance of the Ark is explained in many Jewish traditions; some are historically plausible while others are quite fantastic. All agree that the Ark of the Covenant was gone prior to the Babylonian Exile, never to be seen again.

This post was adapted from the May 2021 edition of The Red-Haired Archaeologist’s Journal. Get it in your inbox each month when you subscribe here!

Armageddon

Few words evoke such strong feelings of terror, dread, and pain as Armageddon. We envision asteroids colliding with Earth, sea levels rising to Lady Liberty’s chin, machines exterminating us, and aliens nuking our cities. In our vernacular it means Doomsday. Dystopia. End of the world. Fire and brimstone. Apocalypse Now. (Thanks, Hollywood.)

But for all that notoriety, the word Armageddon only appears one time in one primary source. It is in the last book of the New Testament, called the Revelation of Jesus Christ: “And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon” (16:16, NKJV). Every other instance of its use is derivative.

For many hundreds of years, readers of the Revelation have longed to know more about the prophecies within John’s letter. This single verse contains many unknowns: Who are “they,” and who (or what) are being gathered together? Are “kings” gathering their “forces”? Are “evil spirits” gathering the “kings”? (The Greek itself is unclear because the pronouns have no clear antecedent.) And where is this otherwise-unmentioned Armageddon?

Although the location of Armageddon was debated by some Early Church Fathers, most people agree today that Armageddon corresponds to the Old Testament city of Megiddo. John’s spelling of Armageddon in the letter agrees with the Greek spelling of the word Megiddo in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible from c. 300 BCE that is quoted by Jesus Himself in the Gospels and was used by John and other Jews and early Christians in the first century).

In the Old Testament, we read about Megiddo as a Canaanite city eventually conquered by Joshua (Joshua 12:7, 21), as one of Solomon’s great military cities (1 Kings 9:15), and as the place where kings Ahaziah and Josiah were killed in battle (2 Kings 9:27; 23:29). It is later mentioned in a prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction (Zechariah 12:11). All of these references and stories describe a well-fortified city that was often involved in wars.

Archaeology agrees that Megiddo was an important city in the ancient world. It was located at one of the few passes through the Carmel mountains, and it was part of Via Maris trade route connecting Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. It sat 60m above the surrounding valley, so inhabitants could easily see approaching armies or traders. For these reasons, everyone wanted Megiddo. The city’s name appears in the records of all of Israel’s neighbors’ war annals, and excavations have found many destruction layers that correspond to written descriptions of the city’s invasions. Megiddo was famously war torn.

Eventually the name of the place called Armageddon became conflated with the world-ending battle that will happen there (much as the word Waterloo now means a “decisive defeat” because of Napoleon’s famous loss near that Belgian city). Armageddon means “world annihilation” to most of us today, thanks to popular culture and centuries of widespread misuse by arm-chair apocalypse enthusiasts. But that definition isn’t accurate; it is simply the name of a place. We do well to remember that what we say about the Bible is not and never will be Scripture.

Armageddon will be the place where the final battle occurs, as it was the location of so many critical battles in the past. That is all the Bible tells us!

Esau’s Lost “Death-right”

Today’s Western Christian culture has a habit of using Bible stories to justify rules and traditions humans have created. This is ironic, as Scripture describes how God Himself habitually violates societies’ expectations in the advancement of His Kingdom. One tradition He frequently ignores (especially in the Old Testament), is our law of primogeniture (the idea that the firstborn inherits all or most of his father’s estate). God has a habit of exalting and favoring younger brothers (whether or not we think they deserved such special treatment!).

The Cenotaph of Jacob at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

In Genesis 25, twin brothers Esau and Jacob are born to Rebekah. Esau enters the world first, but under the prophecy that “the older shall serve the younger” (v. 23). What follows are stories of how Esau sells his inheritance to Jacob for a bowl of lentils (v. 29-34) and then misses his father’s deathbed blessing when Jacob and his mother conspire to steal it (Gen. 27).

We can’t help but feel sorry for the twice-duped Esau, the firstborn who was the favorite of his father, Isaac. He wasn’t perfectly innocent–he had married two Canaanite wives (which would have mortified his dead grandfather, Abraham)–but the way he is outwitted by his mother and “weaker” brother feels unfair, mostly because it is easy to miss that he and Isaac had conspired to do the exact same thing to Jacob.

In the Old Testament, fathers on their deathbeds called all of their sons to their sides for blessings, but Isaac only called Esau (27:1-4). Isaac seems to be playing favorites, attempting to circumvent the prophecy, and cutting Jacob out of any blessing. Esau goes along with Isaac’s plan enthusiastically! It is only because Rebekah overheard Isaac’s plan (27:5) and outwitted him that Esau was left with nothing.

A deep exegetical study of these stories reveals that not one of these four family members is perfect or heroic, and no one escapes the negative effects of his or her actions. It also shows how God–once again–overturned human convention to exalt Jacob no matter where he came from or when he was born. The stories aren’t in Genesis to exemplify justice but to explain why the prophecy of 25:23 was necessary.

Esau did okay for himself. He married a third woman (a daughter of Ishmael of whom Abraham would have approved), and he made peace with Jacob (Gen. 33). He became the father of the Edomites (Gen 36), a sometimes-friend sometimes-foe of Israel. Then he disappeared from Scripture–but not tradition.

The cenotaph honoring either Joseph or Esau.

According to Jewish tradition, Esau’s frustration with Jacob did not end in Genesis 33. In a midrash (which is ancient, revered Jewish rabbis’ commentary about Scripture), Esau challenged the sale of his birthright as Jacob’s body was being interred in the Cave of Machpelah with his parents’. Read the story in Sotah 13a:7-10:

Once [Jacob's sons] reached the Cave of Machpelah, Esau came and was preventing them from burying Jacob there. He said to them, "It says: 'And Jacob came unto Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiryat Arba, the same is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac sojourned.'" . . . Esau said, "Jacob buried Leah in his spot, and the spot that is remaining is mine."
     The children of Jacob said to Esau, "You sold your rights to Jacob."
     Esau said to them, "Though I sold the birthright, did I also sell my rights to the burial site as an ordinary brother?" 
     The brothers said to him, "Yes, you also sold to Jacob those rights, as it is written that Joseph stated: 'My father made me swear, saying: "Behold, I die; in my grave that I have dug for me in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.”'"
     Esau said to them, "Bring the bill of sale to me" [i.e., you can’t prove your claims]. 
     They said to him, "The bill of sale is in the land of Egypt, and who will go to bring it? Naphtali will go, for he is as fast as a doe, as it is written: 'Naphtali is a doe let loose, he gives goodly words.'”
     Hushim, the son of Dan, was there and his ears were heavy [i.e., he was hard of hearing]. He said to them, "What is this that is delaying the burial?"
     And they said to him, "This one, Esau, is preventing us from burying Jacob until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt with the bill of sale."
     He said to them, "And until Naphtali comes back from the land of Egypt will our father’s father lie in degradation?" He took a club and hit Esau on the head, and Esau’s eyes fell out, and they fell on the legs of Jacob. 
     Jacob opened his eyes and smiled. And this is that which is written: “The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.”

This gruesome story (and subsequent slightly different versions of it) began the legend that Esau’s head–and only his head–rests in the Cave of Machpelah with his brother and ancestors. It is honored with a cenotaph on the synagogue-side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

However, the very Muslims who constructed that cenotaph in the late 14th century disagree about whom it memorializes. Islamic traditions hold that Joseph’s body was removed from Shechem and reburied in Hebron’s Cave of Machpelah.

Learn more about the Tomb of the Patriarchs by listening to S2E9 of my podcast!