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!

Leveling Temples and Tels in Gaza

In 2004, five volunteers from the Ashkelon dig rented a car to go tour some archaeological sites in the Negev. We were barely outside Ashkelon’s city limits when we made a wrong turn and found ourselves approaching a heavily militarized crossing between Israel and the Palestinian territory called the Gaza Strip. Needless to say, we turned around and got out of the area as quickly as possible.

Today Gaza is frequently in our news feeds because of its clashes with the modern state of Israel, but it also appears in the Bible several times. It was a Canaanite stronghold before it became one of the Philistines’ five capital cities, but it is probably most famous as the site of Samson’s demise.

During the Late Bronze Age, Israel had been under Philistine oppression for a generation when their newest judge, Samson, arose. He was supposed to be a Nazirite, meaning he should never drink wine, cut his hair, or touch anything unclean (such as foreign women and dead things). But Samson married a Philistine, abandoned her, got mad when she remarried, and then killed 1,000 Philistines with nothing but a dead donkey’s jawbone (Judges 14-15).

At some point and for some unknown reason, Samson was in Gaza one day and decided to visit a brothel. The Philistine men plotted to murder him, but Samson slipped out of the brothel at midnight, picked up their city gate, and moved it from the edge of the city where it had been of use to the very center of the city. The Philistines knew he was a tough guy, but now they had witnessed his superhuman strength (Judges 16:1-3).

One last time, Samson “touched” a foreign woman. This time it was Delilah from the Valley of Sorek (the border between Israel’s tribe of Dan and Philistia). Philistines bribed her to find out the source of Samson’s strength–which was his uncut hair that resulted from his Nazirite vows–so they could capture him, torture him, and take him down to Gaza. The Philistines celebrated his capture at the temple of their god, Dagon, where Samson then killed them all (Judges 16:6-30).

No tumbled columns, collapsed Bronze-Age temples, or ill-placed gates have been found in Gaza yet. There are no well-funded, university-led archaeological expeditions to the area, as you will find in the other 4 cities of the ancient Philistine Pentapolis. Any artifacts that have been uncovered (too often by bulldozers) find their way onto the black market or are stored by history-loving Gazans who hope for a day when they can be properly studied and displayed. Archaeologists can’t even get the excavating tools they need through Israeli security and into Gaza for fear that militants would turn them into weapons.

The lack of archaeological excavation in Gaza is a result of complex and emotionally-charged political conflicts that have persisted for centuries. In brief, the 1994 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority, which was intended to govern both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as one Palestinian nation. But the territories are physically separated by Israeli land, and the PA did not exercise its political power or serve its citizens in remote Gaza as it did in the West Bank where it is headquartered. A power vacuum developed in Gaza, where over 1.8 million people live in an area that is only 130 square miles. (That’s like taking the entire population of Phoenix and cramming everyone into one-quarter of the city limits.) As Gazans struggled with failing or absent infrastructure that the PA was not addressing, Hamas seized political power by doing the civic projects the PA had ignored. In 2007, Hamas was officially elected to power in the Gaza Strip. Today there is concern that they might win wider elections in the West Bank and gain control of the entire PA.

In addition to being cramped and poverty-ridden, the Gaza Strip is physically and militarily blocked off from the rest of the world. Situated only 13 kilometers south of Ashkelon, Hamas’s rockets can (and frequently do) hit the Israeli city, but Gaza’s citizens cannot so easily go to Ashkelon themselves to shop, work, vacation, or worship.

Today Gaza is rich in archaeological artifacts but poor in livable space, so the city leaders and developers continue to level tels in favor of new construction. Preserving and improving the lives of the living takes precedence (as it should), but valuable information and historical context about the Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, and later inhabitants are being permanently lost so long as Gaza is isolated.

The Red-Haired Archaeologist Series

In February 2019, I was sitting in a Eugene, Oregon-coffee shop with my editor. Mary Mag was moving smoothly through editing and heading toward the printer, so Kathleen and I were reviewing a rough proposal for my next book, The Red-Haired Archaeologist: Digging Israel (as it was titled at that time).

cover.png

I had spent the previous two days in high-energy, encouraging meetings with almost everyone who worked at Harvest House, so I was ready to start my next project ASAP. Squinting at a complex-looking calendar-matrix of all her acquisitions, she told me, “It looks like my next slot is in Winter 2021.”

I went quiet, thinking about how far away that date seemed to be. Kathleen quickly assured me that the years would fly and the project would benefit from the extra time. Of course she was right. (Kathleen is always right!)

In February 2019, my next book was planned to be your typical 250-page black-and-white nonfiction paperback. I intended to write about archaeological discoveries and how they can impact our readings of Scripture.

In February 2021, I will present to you a still-pretty-typical 250-page black-and-white paperback; but this one has original photographs, history lessons, travel adventures, and cultural encounters…in addition to explaining how archaeology can illuminate Scripture!

The change in the book’s tone from scholarly to conversational and the expansion of its content from artifact-focused to culture-conscious are the direct results of the time I spent digging and traveling in Israel last summer. Fifteen years had passed since the last time I’d been similarly immersed in Israeli(te) history and culture, and I realized quickly that the book I had planned–which was initially based on what I had learned and experienced in my last years at Harvard–would not accurately reflect today’s practice of archaeology or the current inhabitants of the Land.

In Israel, ancient history and modernity coexist in ways they do not in Western nations, largely because the struggle for control of the land has never ceased. Thousands of years of wars and regime changes gave us the ancient tels we excavate, and they continue to define political boundaries and spheres of influence today.

All of this is simply too much to contain in one black-and-white book. Therefore, I’ve been working during our mutual COVID-containment time to develop a website. On February 23, 2021, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel will release and redhairedarchaeologist.com will launch. There you will find an online appendix of color photographs and links to Season 2 of The Red-Haired Archaeologist Podcast, all of which will enhance your reading experience. In the future, it will also be the home of all things RHA, including online Bible studies, future adult titles, children’s books, and more!