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!