Oh, yes. The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it… is invincible.
—Marcus Brody, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Undoubtedly the Ark was electrically charged!
—Erich von Däniken, Chariots of the Gods (1968)
The Ark of the Covenant
Fewer and fewer Americans learn Bible history in Sunday school, but more than a few get their ideas about the Bible from the movies. Take the Ark of the Covenant, for example:
Colonel Musgrove: The Lost Ark?
Indiana: Yeah, the Ark of the Covenant. The chest the Hebrews used to carry the Ten Commandments around in.
Major Eaton: All right now, what do you mean, “the Ten Commandments”? You’re talking about THE Ten Commandments?
Indiana: Yes, the actual Ten Commandments. The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Horeb and smashed, if you believe in that sort of thing. Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday school? Look, the Hebrews took the broken pieces and put them into the Ark.
Well, not quite. When Moses descended from Horeb (Mt. Sinai), he found Israel worshipping an idol, a golden calf. He did smash the tables of stone at the base of the mountain (Ex. 32). Later, Moses ascended Horeb again, and Yahweh gave him a second set of stone tables (Ex. 34). They, too, bore the Ten Commandments, the covenant law.
At God’s instructions, Moses placed the stone tablets in a gold-covered wooden chest, the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 37:1-9). The Ark was two and a half cubits in length and a cubit and a half by a cubit and a half on the end (so roughly 18” x 27” x 27”). It was covered by a golden lid called the mercy seat. On the mercy seat were two winged cherubim facing each other. The Ark was to rest in the Tabernacle’s innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies.
Yahweh promised to manifest His glory above the mercy seat (Ex. 25:22; 1 Sam. 4:4). He would sit enthroned between the cherubim. No one was to pass through the veil that concealed the Ark. Only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), did the high priest go through the veil and stand before the Ark. He came with the blood of a sacrificial goat and sprinkled that blood on the mercy seat between the glory of God and the covenant law (Lev. 16; cf. Heb. 9). God saw the demands of His law through the sacrificial blood and was content to dwell in the midst of His people for another year.
The Ark was holy. No one was to touch it—or any of the Tabernacle furniture, for that matter (Num. 4:15). When the Ark had to be moved, the priests carried it on long poles that slipped into rings in its corners.
Only once did God order Israel to take the Ark into battle. That was during the siege of Jericho. The Ark represented the presence of God, but it didn’t actively participate in the battle. It didn’t shoot our lighting or death rays; it didn’t release ghouls or death angels. It had no magical properties. But God’s warnings did govern the Ark, and on different occasions God killed one man for touching it and more than 50, 000 for looking into it (2 Sam. 6:7; 1 Sam. 6:19).
“It Will Save Us”
As the age of the Judges drew to a close, the Philistines became a major threat to Israel, particularly in the south. There came a day when the elders of Israel decided they needed divine help in an upcoming battle. They came up with a plan:
Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies. (1 Sam. 4:3)
Israel decided they could use the Ark as a talisman. It would position God on their side. It would overthrow their enemies. It would be their salvation.
When the request for the Ark came to Shiloh, the two priests, Hophni and Phinehas, went into the Holy of Holies and brought out the Ark. These were the priests who had been stealing meat from Yahweh’s sacrifices and committing fornication with the women who served at the Tabernacle gate (1 Sam. 2:12-17, 22-25). Apparently, no one was surprised or concerned when these two reprobates were able to violate the Holy of Holies and remove the Ark without suffering any sort of judgment. They should have been.
The priests brought the Ark to the battlefield. The armies of Israel shouted with excitement and confidence. The Philistines heard the shout and made the appropriate inquiries. They learned that the Ark of the Covenant had come into Israel’s camp, and they were afraid. “God is come into the camp!” they concluded. “Nothing like this has ever happened before!” The remembered in a somewhat garbled form the victory of Yahweh over the Egyptians 300 years earlier (1 Sam. 4:8). “Woe to us!” they said again and again. They purposed to fight very hard.
The Philistines prevailed. Israel lost 30,000 men and the Ark. Hophni and Phinehas lost their lives (v. 11). When their father, Eli, heard the news, he fell from his seat and broke his neck (v. 18). God’s judgments had begun.
The Ark among the Philistines
The Philistines took the Ark to the city of Ashdod and set it up in the temple of Dagon, their fishtailed god (1 Sam. 5). But when the priests entered the temple in the morning, they found that the statue of Dagon had fallen on its face before the Ark. Like good pagans, they set the idol back in its place. But the next morning they found that it had toppled over again. This time its head and hands had broken off. And then God smote the city with a horrible plague. It involved tumors or piles in the “secret parts” and ended in death (v. 9).
The Philistine lords took counsel and decided to move the Ark to Gath. But the plague followed. It brought great destruction. The men of Gath tried to pass the Ark on to Ekron, but the men of Ekron refused: “They’ve brought the Ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people!” (5:10). Again the Philistine lords took counsel together. They consulted their priests and fortunetellers (1 Sam. 6). In the end, they decided to send the Ark home with a golden reparation offering to atone for their sacrilege. They put the Ark and the gold on a cart and hitched the cart to two milk cows. The cows started lowing and pulled the cart straight back to Israel. The plague on the Philistines ended.
The Ark was back in Israel, but it was never returned to the Tabernacle. The outward forms of the Mosaic Covenant were unraveling, and Israel was still in a great deal of trouble. They needed God’s grace.
Why the Ark Was Lost
The moral character of a people is politically and militarily relevant. So is the character of a nation’s leaders, particularly its religious leaders. The Book of Judges shows us that Israel didn’t escape her cycle of apostasy and judgment because her pastors were morally compromised. Now 1 Samuel shows us that the compromise went all the way to the top. The priests were committing abomination, and the high priest, their father, refused to restrain them or bring sanctions against them (1 Sam. 3:13). The sins of these men moved Yahweh to abandon His sanctuary and surrender His people to military oppression. They committed abomination, and Yahweh left His house desolate (cf. Ezek. 8-11; Matt. 23-24). He allowed pagan armies to finish the work of destruction.
In truth, Israel’s sins deserved even greater judgment. Israel deserved exile, ejection from the Promised Land, and a return to the bondage of Egypt (Lev. 26; Deut. 28). But God took that judgment upon Himself. He went into exile in Israel’s place. And then Yahweh brought plague and destruction upon the Philistines and their gods. He left their land in triumph with spoil. This, of course, is a replay of the Exodus. It’s also the gospel. God saves His people by bearing their punishment. Judgment on the wicked follows, but it is never total until Jesus comes. Until then the gospel invitation remains open.
Under the New Covenant, the greatest abomination God’s people can commit is polluting the gospel. When a church does this, God may well abandon it to destruction (cf. Rev. 2-3). When the churches throughout a nation or region commit such an abomination, God may surrender both the churches and the whole region to military conquest and oppression. There were once strong flourishing churches throughout Syria, Palestine, and North Africa. But as the centuries passed, they generally embraced a false Jesus and a false gospel. They clung to Monophysite, Nestorian, and Arian conceptions of Christ, and God brought judgment. The bad news is that God hasn’t changed. Mark this well.
The Ark couldn’t save Israel. God’s sacraments and symbols aren’t magic talismans. The Eucharist, the cross, the name of Jesus—none of these has any power in itself to ward off evil, cast out demons, or overthrow the forces of darkness. God is not in things, and we shouldn’t try to use things to manipulate God. But God has a message of victory, and it’s the gospel. When we believe it, proclaim it, and live in terms of if, God throws down the Philistines—or coverts them. When we replace it with our own message—or our own magic—God gives us over to captivity. That’s the way the covenant works.
For Further Reading:
Peter Leithart, A Son to Me, An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003).
Peter Leithart, A House for My Name, A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000).
Clifford Wilson, “That surprising claim about the electrified ark,” in Crash Go the Chariots, An Alternative to Chariots of the God? (New York: Lancer Books, 1972).