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.

Where “Indiana Jones” Gets Archaeology Wrong

When you imagine an archaeological site, do you see white tents, pith helmets, and sand dunes? Is the dig director a middle-aged man with a thick British accent, bossing around his local workers and charging into newly opened tombs with abandon? That image isn’t too far from the truth of the late-19th- and early-20th-century excavations that sought to find ancient, beautiful objects for national museums and personal collections.

Those first archaeologists were romanticized by writers and inspired some great film characters (Boris Karloff’s The Mummy and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones leap to mind). They popularized the field, inspired Halloween costumes, and had children like me answering “archaeologist” when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Unfortunately, the linen-clad men and women were mere treasure hunters. Their methods of extraction disconnected their finds from the historical calendar and left spectators to marvel at the items instead of understand who had created them and why.

Archaeology means “the study of ancient history.” It is a branch of anthropology that attempts to reconstruct the lives of ancient people based on what they left behind. The further one goes back in time, the fewer written records remain, so archaeologists study mundane objects and architectural ruins to discover who people were, how they lived, and why they died.

Archaeology has become increasingly scientific in the last century. In the 1930s, William F. Albright invented the first method of dating ancient sites based on the shapes and colors of the ceramics excavated. He found that cities throughout a region could be connected to one another in time based on their styles of pottery. Today archaeologists still do their primary dating based on the pottery, but they can learn even more about artifacts with technological tools such as radiocarbon dating, DNA testing, GPS location, and microbiology.

Within the field of archaeology is biblical archaeology, which was also “created” by William F. Albright. It exists to contextualize Scripture—to come alongside God’s Word and help us better understand it.

Read this description of the water-basin stands that Hiram created for Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 7:27-30:

And he made ten bases of brass; four cubits was the length of one base, and four cubits the breadth thereof, and three cubits the height of it. And the work of the bases was on this manner: they had borders, and the borders were between the ledges: And on the borders that were between the ledges were lions, oxen, and cherubims: and upon the ledges there was a base above: and beneath the lions and oxen were certain additions made of thin work. And every base had four brasen wheels, and plates of brass: and the four corners thereof had undersetters: under the laver were undersetters molten, at the side of every addition (KJV).

Based on those words, artists and theologians and Sunday School children would draw wildly different versions of the stands because that description is unintelligible unless the object has been seen in real life. But in the 1980s, such a stand was found in Ekron. Informed by that discovery, read how a more recent Bible translation describes the stands:

Each water stand was 6 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 4½ feet high. The stands had side panels and panels between the crossbars. On the panels between the crossbars there were lions, oxen, and winged creatures. There was a pedestal over the crossbars that would support the basin, and there were garlands of ornaments below the lions and oxen. There were 4 bronze wheels and 4 bronze axles for each stand. The 4 legs of each stand also had 4 bases. There were bases with garlands on all sides below the basin (The Voice).

What Trude Dothan and her team found at Ekron helps us to envision what Scripture is describing. Her find may not be exciting, but it helps us to imagine ourselves worshiping at Solomon’s Temple among God’s other followers.

Neither Albright nor Dothan were adventure-seeking, artifact-stealing rogues wearing leather jackets and escaping rivals (or authorities) on motorcycle. They didn’t find the ark of the covenant, but they and their successors have helped Bible readers understand God’s Word just a bit better.

Originally published on the Harvest House Publishers Blog.