The Missing Ark

The Missing Ark
THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom evanhoffman@gmail.com Parshat Terumah – פרשת תרומה February 20, 2021 – ח אדר תשפא This essay is sponsored by Suzy Levin in memory of her father, Yosef David ben Azriel v’Chanah Z”L. The Missing Ark The search for the lost Ark of the Covenant has long intrigued both scholars and laymen. In popular culture, that search was made famous by the 1981 Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But of course the search for the Ark is not at all simply the subject matter for an action-adventure movie. In January 2021, reports emerged from the Tigray region of Ethiopia about a recent massacre of 800 civilians at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in the city of Aksum. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that the true Ark of the Covenant is housed in that building. Eritrean Defense Forces may have committed the atrocity in an attempt to sack the church and steal the Ark. It seems highly unlikely that we will ever find the original Ark. We have no way of knowing if it still exists. Several theories about the Ark’s current whereabouts are based on little more than fantastical legends. A question that might be answerable with greater precision is: When, and under what religio-political circumstances, did the Ark disappear from its resting place in the Holy Temple? The Ark must have disappeared at some point during the First Temple era because multiple sources confirm that the Second Temple did not house it (Yoma 52b). Rabbinic literature records the presence in the Second Temple of a “Foundation Stone,” three fingerbreadths in height, located in the space occupied, in the First Temple, by the Ark (Mishnah Yoma 5:2). Josephus described the innermost room of the Second Temple: “In this there was nothing at all. It was inaccessible and inviolable, and not to be seen by any; and was called the Holy of Holies (War of the Jews 5:219).” One might posit that the Ark disappeared in 586 BCE in conjunction with the destruction of the First Temple, wrought by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s military commander Nebuzaradan. This theory is weakened, however, by the absence of any mention of the Ark in the list of spoils taken from the Temple by the Chaldeans and spirited back to Babylonia (see II Kings 25:13-17; Jeremiah 52:17-23). Had the Ark still been in its usual resting place when the Babylonians conquered the Temple Mount, they surely would have seized Judah’s most sacred possession. Had that happened, it is not conceivable that the various Scriptural accounts of the Destruction would not have mentioned it. The First Temple was sacked on several occasions before its eventual destruction. In 926 BCE, King Shishak of Egypt pillaged the treasuries of the Temple and the royal house of Rehoboam (I Kings 14:25-26). In 786 BCE, King Jehoash of Israel attacked his former ally, King Amaziah of Judah. Jehoash seized the gold and silver from the Temple and the royal house, and took that booty back to Samaria (II Kings 14:13-14). In 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem for the first time and exiled the elite of Judahite society, including King Jehoiachin. He also despoiled the Temple and royal treasuries (II Kings 24:12-13). Yet in none of these instances does Scripture state that the Ark of the Covenant was taken. II Maccabees claims that Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave on Mount Nebo, Moses’ final resting place. The precise location is to be “unknown until the time that God gathers His people again together (2:7).” The Apocalypse of Baruch claims that angels descended into the Holy of Holies and caused the earth to open its mouth and swallow up the veil, Ark, priestly raiment, altar of incense, and sanctified vessels. This miracle was wrought so that strangers would not gain possession of the sacred items and so that these highly important cultic objects might be restored in a future time of deliverance (II Baruch 6:4-10). Latin Ezra, however, admits that the enemy did gain possession of Israel’s holiest artifact. “The light of our candlestick is put out, the Ark of our Covenant is spoiled, our holy things are defiled (II Esdras 10:22).” The rabbis were not of one mind about the fate of the Ark (Yoma 53b). Rabbi Eliezer said that the Ark was taken to Babylonia at the time of Jehoiachin’s exile. He cited the verse “King Nebuchadnezzar sent to have him brought to Babylon with the precious vessels of the House of the Lord (II Chronicles 36:10).” Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai agreed that the Ark was taken to Babylonia. He cited the prophetic warning Isaiah issued to Hezekiah: “A time is coming when everything in your palace which your ancestors have stored up to this day will be carried off to Babylon; nothing will remain behind (II Kings 20:17).” Rabbi Simeon read the word דבר “thing,” as an allusion to the עשרת הדיברות, the Ten Commandments inscribed on the tablets housed inside the Ark. Rabbi Judah said that the Ark was put away “in its place,” meaning that it was buried in a subterranean chamber directly beneath the Holy of Holies. He cited a verse describing the Temple’s dedication in the days of Solomon: “The poles projected so that the ends of the poles were visible in the sanctuary in front of the Shrine, but they could not be seen outside; and there they remain to this day (I Kings 8:8).” The verse ought to be understood as reflecting the perspective of an author living while the Solomonic Temple still stood. Yet Rabbi Judah took the verse to mean that, even in his own lifetime, the Ark and its poles were still located near the spot where the Holy of Holies had been in that First Temple. The sages claimed that the Ark was buried on the Temple Mount under the Wood Chamber and that several priests died upon discovering the exact spot. The most popular rabbinic theory about the fate of the Ark is that it was put away in a secret location by King Josiah (circa 608 BCE). The righteous Judahite king read the warnings of tokhechah, “The Lord will drive you, and the king you have set over you, to a nation unknown to you or your fathers, where you shall serve other gods of wood and stone (Deuteronomy 28:36).” Josiah knew that if the Ark were ever captured it would never be returned (Yerushalmi Shekalim 49c). The only solution was to conceal the Ark and thereby save it for future use upon the ingathering of the exiles and the restoration of the Temple. The Talmud supports this view by citing Josiah’s instructions to the Levites: “Put the Holy Ark in the House that Solomon son of David, king of Israel, built; as you now no longer carry it on your shoulders, see now to the service of the Lord your God and His people Israel (II Chronicles 35:3).” The plain meaning of the verse, however, as noted by Rashi and Radak, is that Josiah ordered the return of the Ark to the Holy of Holies after it had been away for many years during the idolatrous reigns of Manasseh and Amon. Professor Menahem Haran theorized that the Ark was last seen in the days of King Manasseh, who reigned for 55 years until his death in 643 BCE. Several kings of the Davidic line, Solomon included, tolerated foreign worship. But, except for Manasseh, they all kept non-Israelitish religion out of the Holy Temple. Manasseh emphatically broke with tradition. “He built altars for all the hosts of heaven in the two courtyards of the House of the Lord (II Kings 21:5).” Worse yet, he put the sculpted image of Asherah[i] in the Sanctuary (21:7), likely in the Holy of Holies. While Scripture does not say so explicitly, it seems likely that Manasseh removed the Ark and cherubim and replaced them with new iconography of the Asherah. What did Manasseh do with the Ark? Did he destroy it? That is certainly possible. The account in II Kings of Josiah’s cleansing of the Temple of the pagan influence fostered by his father and grandfather makes no mention of the restoration of the Ark to its usual abode (23:6-12), possibly because the Ark no longer existed.[ii] Another Scriptural proof for the early disappearance of the Ark is Jeremiah’s prophecy about a glorious future. “And when you increase and are fertile in the land, in those days – declares the Lord – men shall no longer speak of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, nor shall it come to mind. They shall not mention it, or miss it, or make another (Jeremiah 3:16).” Implied in Jeremiah’s words is that in his own generation people did miss the Ark, spoke of it, and contemplated making a replacement for it. Assuming Jeremiah’s words were not uttered at the end of his career but sometime earlier, the verse is inconsistent with the notion that the Ark was taken to Babylonia, and may even be inconsistent with the notion that Josiah hid the Ark. The verse would be consistent with the theory that Manasseh’s era of astral worship led to the permanent loss of the Ark. While other Temple vessels (e.g., menorah, table, altar) were replaced when necessary, no replacement Ark was ever fashioned and installed in the Sanctuary. One possible explanation is the discomfort experienced by strict monotheists with the prestigious positioning of the cherubim. An empty inner room was likely regarded as more consistent with an incorporeal Deity. Moreover, the Ark was sacred because it was a repository of items of national-religious significance including the tablets of the law, the vial of manna, Aaron’s staff, the anointing oil, and original Torah scroll. A replacement chest devoid of the treasured artifacts would be nothing more than a gold-plated box. [i] The meaning of “Asherah” is a famous crux in Biblical studies. It has been claimed to refer, inter alia, to a) a wooden cult-symbol standing near local altars, b) the name of a Canaanite goddess, and c) the supposed female “consort” of God. [ii] The account in II Kings is far more reliable than the account in II Chronicles, which was written centuries later and departs dramatically from the earlier version of events.