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!

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.