For centuries, people have tried in vain to locate and recover the Bible's most sacred objects. Among the most sought-after of these religious antiquities is the famed Ark of the Covenant.
This legendary artifact is the ornate, gilded case built some 3,000 years ago by the Israelites to house the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. Biblical accounts describe the Ark as large, about the size of a 19th-century seaman's chest, made of gold-plated wood, and topped with two large, golden angels. It was carried using poles inserted through rings on its sides.
The Ark has been linked to several of the Old Testament's miracles. It was carried before the Israelites during the Exodus and is said to have cleared impediments and poisonous animals from their path. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, the Bible says that the river stopped flowing the moment the Ark-bearers set foot in it.
And when the Israelites besieged Jericho, they carried the Ark around the city for a week, blowing trumpets until, on the seventh day, the walls fell down, allowing easy conquest.
But in 597 and 586 B.C., the Babylonian Empire conquered the Israelites, and the Ark, at the time supposedly stored in the Temple in Jerusalem, vanished from history. Destroyed? Captured? Hidden? Nobody knows.
One of the strongest claims about the Ark's whereabouts is that before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, it had found its way to Ethiopia, where it still resides in the town of Aksum, in the St. Mary of Zion cathedral. Church authorities, however, say only one man, the guardian of the Ark, is allowed to see it, and they have never permitted it to be studied for authenticity.
Another claim is that the Ark was hidden in a warren of passages beneath the First Temple in Jerusalem before the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 B.C. But that theory can't be tested either, because the site is home to the Dome of the Rock shrine, sacred in Islam. Digging beneath it simply isn't an option.
A third claim came from the late Ron Wyatt, an amateur archaeologist who said that in 1982 he found the Ark beneath the hill on which Christ was crucified. Blood from the crucifixion, he claimed, had dripped from the cross through a fissure in the rock and onto the Ark. But nobody has ever seen it again, and Wyatt also claimed a number of other archaeological finds that most scholars find dubious.
"Perhaps the most famous quest for the Ark was on the big screen. In the 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, adventure hero Indiana Jones must find the Ark before the Nazis, who intend to use its power for world domination.
Searches for such biblical relics are compelling, says archaeologist and National Geographic Society fellow Fred Hiebert, but ultimately doomed to failure. Even if there is an ancient, Ark-like object in Ethiopia, he asks, how do you determine it's the one from the Bible?
"We are talking about things [at] the crossroads between myth and reality," he said. "I think it's great to have stories like [that of] the Ark of the Covenant. But I do not believe, as a field archaeologist, that we can use the scientific method to prove or disprove [them]."
Story continues below !
A newly translated Hebrew text claims to reveal where treasures from King Solomon's temple were hidden and discusses the fate of the Ark of the Covenant itself.
But unlike the Indiana Jones movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the text leaves the exact location of the Ark unclear and states that it, and the other treasures, "shall not be revealed until the day of the coming of the Messiah son of David …" putting it out of reach of any would-be treasure seeker.
King Solomon's Temple, also called the First Temple, was plundered and torched by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century B.C., according to the Hebrew Bible. The Ark of the Covenant is a chest that, when originally built, was said to have held tablets containing the 10 commandments. It was housed in Solomon's Temple, a place that contained many different treasures. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]
The newly translated text, called "Treatise of the Vessels" (Massekhet Kelim in Hebrew), says the "treasures were concealed by a number of Levites and prophets," writes James Davila, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, in an article in the book "Old Testament Pseudepigrapha More Noncanonical Scriptures Volume 1" (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013).
"Some of these (treasures) were hidden in various locations in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia, while others were delivered into the hands of the angels Shamshiel, Michael, Gabriel and perhaps Sariel …" writes Davila in his article.
The treatise is similar in some ways to the metallic "Copper Scroll," one of the Dead Sea Scrolls found near the site of Qumran in the West Bank. The Copper Scroll also discusses the location of hidden treasure, although not from Solomon's Temple.
The treatise describes the treasures in an imaginative way. One part refers to "seventy-seven tables of gold, and their gold was from the walls of the Garden of Eden that was revealed to Solomon, and they radiated like the radiance of the sun and moon, which radiate at the height of the world."
The oldest confirmed example of the treatise, which survives to present day, is from a book published in Amsterdam in 1648 called "Emek Halachah." In 1876, a scholar named Adolph Jellinek published another copy of the text, which was virtually identical to the 1648 version. Davila is the first to translate the text fully into English.
A story of legends
The writer of the text likely was not trying to convey factual locations of the hidden treasures of Solomon's Temple, but rather was writing a work of fiction, based on different legends, Davila told LiveScience. [In Photos: Amazing Ruins of the Ancient World]
"The writer draws on traditional methods of scriptural exegesis [interpretation] to deduce where the treasures might have been hidden, but I think the writer was approaching the story as a piece of entertaining fiction, not any kind of real guide for finding the lost Temple treasures," he wrote in the email.
The structure of the story is confusing. In the prologue it states that Shimmur the Levite (he doesn't appear to be a biblical figure) and his companions hid the treasures, "but later on the text mentions the treasures being in the keeping of or hidden by Shamshiel and other angels," Davila said. "I suspect the author collected various legends without too much concern about making them consistent."
Similarities to the Copper Scroll
The Copper Scroll, which dates back around 1,900 years, and is made of copper, shows several "striking parallels" with the newly translated treatise, Davila said.
The treatise says that the treasures from Solomon's Temple were recorded "on a tablet of bronze," a metal like the Copper Scroll. Additionally, among other similarities, the Treatise of the Vessels and Copper Scroll both refer to "vessels" or "implements," including examples made of gold and silver.
These similarities could be a coincidence or part of a tradition of recording important information on metal.
"My guess is that whoever wrote the Treatise of Vessels came up with the same idea [of writing a treasure list on metal] coincidentally on their own, although it is not unthinkable that the writer knew of some ancient tradition or custom about inscribing important information on metal," wrote Davila in the email, noting that metal is a more durable material than parchment or papyrus.
An ongoing story
The study of the treatise is ongoing, and discoveries continue to be made. For instance, in the mid-20th century a copy of it (with some variations) was discovered and recorded in Beirut, Lebanon, at the end of a series of inscribed plates that record the Book of Ezekiel.
Those plates are now at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Israel, although the plates containing the treatise itself are now missing. Recent research has revealed, however, these plates were created in Syria at the turn of the 20th century, about 100 years ago, suggesting the treatise was being told in an elaborate way up until relatively modern times.
According to the sacred narrative recorded in Exodus 25:10-22, God Himself had given the description of the Ark of the Covenant, as well as that of the tabernacle and all its appurtenances. God's command was fulfilled to the letter by Beseleel, one of the skilful men appointed "to devise and to work in gold, and silver, and brass, and in engraving stones and in carpenters' work (Exodus 37:1-9). On that day God showed His pleasure by filling the tabernacle of the testimony with His Glory, and covering it with the cloud that henceforward would be to His people a guiding sign in their journeys. All the Levites were not entitled to the guardianship of the sanctuary and of the Ark; but this office was entrusted to the kindred of Caath (Numbers 3:28).
Whenever, during the desert life, the camp was to set forward, Aaron and his sons went into the tabernacle of the covenant and the Holy of Holies, took down the veil that hung before the door, wrapped up the Ark of the Testimony in it, covered it in dugong skins, then with a violet cloth, and put in the bars (Numbers 4:5, 6). When the people pitched their tents to sojourn for some time in a place, everything was set again in its customary order. During the journeys the Ark went before the people; and when it was lifted up they said: "Arise, O Lord, and let Thy enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee from before Thy face!" And when it was set down, they said: "Return, O Lord, to the multitude of the host of Israel!" Numbers 10:33-36). Thus did the Ark preside over all the journeys and stations of Israel during all their wandering life in the wilderness.
As has been said above, the sacred chest was the visible sign of God's presence and protection. This appeared in the most striking manner in different circumstances. When the spies who had been sent to view the Promised Land returned and gave their report, murmurs arose in the camp, which neither threatenings nor even the death of the authors of the sedition could quell. Against the will of God, many of the Israelites went up to the mountain to meet the Amalecites and Chanaanites: "but the ark of the testament of the Lord and Moses departed not from the camp". And the enemies came down, smote, and slew the presumptuous Hebrews whom God did not help. The next two manifestations of Yahweh's power through the Ark occurred under Josue's leadership. When the people were about to cross the Jordan,
the priests that carried the ark of the covenant went on before them; and as soon as they came into the Jordan, and their feet were dipped in part of the water, the waters that came down from above stood in one place, and swelling up like a mountain, were seen afar off . . . but those that were beneath ran down into the sea of the wilderness, until they wholly failed. And the people marched over against Jericho; and the priests that carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, stood girded upon the dry ground, in the midst of the Jordan, and all the people passed over through the channel that was dried up. (Joshua 3:14-17)
A few days later, Israel was besieging Jericho. At God's command, the Ark was carried in procession around the city for seven days, until the walls crumbled at the sound of the trumpets and the shouts of the people, thus giving the assailing army a free opening into the place (Joshua 6:6-21). Later again, after the taking and burning of Hai, we see the Ark occupy a most prominent place in the solemn assize of the nation held between Mount Garizim and Mount Hebal (Joshua 8:33).
The Israelites having settled in the Promised Land, it became necessary to choose a place where to erect the tabernacle and keep the Ark of the Covenant. Silo, in the territory of Ephraim, about the centre of the conquered country, was selected (Joshua 18:1). There, indeed, during the obscure period which preceded the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, do we find the "house of the Lord" (Judges 18:31; 20:18), with its High-Priest, to whose care the Ark had been entrusted. Did the precious palladium of Israel remain permanently at Silo, or was it carried about, whenever the emergency required, as, for instance, during warlike expeditions?
This point can hardly be ascertained. Be it as it may, the narrative which closes the Book of Judges supposes the presence of the Ark at Bethel. True, some commentators, following St. Jerome, translate here the word Bethel as though it were a common noun (house of God); but their opinion seems hardly reconcilable with the other passages where the same name is found, for these passages undoubtedly refer to the city of Bethel. This is no place to discuss at length the divers explanations brought forward to meet the difficulty; suffice it to say that it does not entitle the reader to conclude, as many have done, that there probably existed several Arks throughout Israel. The remark above made, that the Ark was possibly carried hither and thither according as the circumstances required, is substantiated by what we read in the narration of the events that brought about the death of Heli. The Philistines had waged war against Israel, whose army, at the first encounter, turned their backs to the enemy, were utterly defeated, and suffered very heavy losses. Thereupon the ancients of the people suggested that the Ark of the Covenant be fetched unto them, to save them from the hands of their enemies.
So the Ark was brought from Silo, and such acclamations welcomed it into the camp of the Israelites, as to fill with fear the hearts of the Philistines. Trusting that Yahweh's presence in the midst of their army betokened a certain victory, the Hebrew army engaged the battle afresh, to meet an overthrow still more disastrous than the former; and, what made the catastrophe more complete, the Ark of God fell into the hands of the Philistines (1 Samuel 4).
Then, according to the Biblical narrative, began for the sacred chest a series of eventful peregrinations through the cities of southern Palestine, until it was solemnly carried to Jerusalem. And never was it returned to its former place in Silo. In the opinion of the Philistines, the taking of the Ark meant a victory of their gods over the God of Israel. They accordingly brought it to Azotus and set it as a trophy in the temple of Dagon. But the next morning they found Dagon fallen upon his face before the Ark; they raised him up and set him in his place again. The following morning Dagon again was lying on the ground, badly mutilated. At the same time a cruel disease (perhaps the bubonic plague) smote the Azotites, while a terrible invasion of mice afflicted the whole surrounding country. These scourges were soon attributed to the presence of the Ark within the walls of the city, and regarded as a direct judgment from Yahweh. Hence was it decided by the assembly of the rulers of the Philistines that the Ark should be removed from Azotus and brought to some other place. Carried successively to Gath and to Accaron, the Ark brought with it the same scourges which had occasioned its removal from Azotus. Finally, after seven months, on the suggestion of their priests and their diviners, the Philistines resolved to give up their dreadful trophy.
The Biblical narrative acquires here a special interest for us, by the insight we get therefrom into the religious spirit among these ancient peoples. Having made a new cart, they took two kine that had sucking calves, yoked them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. And they laid the Ark of the God upon the cart, together with a little box containing golden mice and the images of their boils. Then the kine, left to themselves, took their course straight in the direction of the territory of Israel. As soon as the Bethsamites recognized the Ark upon the cart that was coming towards them, they went rejoicing to meet it. When the cart arrived in the field of a certain Josue, it stood still there. And as there was a great stone in that place, they split up the wood of the cart and offered the kine a holocaust to Yahweh. With this sacrifice ended the exile of the Ark in the land of the Philistines. The people of Bethsames, however, did not long enjoy its presence among them. Some of them inconsiderately cast a glance upon the Ark, whereupon they were severely punished by God; seventy men (the text usually received says seventy men and fifty thousand of the common people; but this is hardly credible as Bethsames was only a small country place) were thus smitten, as a punishment for their boldness. Frightened by this mark of the Divine wrath, the Bethsamites sent messengers to the inhabitants of Cariathiarim, to tell them how the Philistines had brought back the Ark, and invite them to convey it to their own town. So the men of Cariathiarim came and brought up the Ark and carried it into the house of Abinadab, whose son Eleazar they consecrated to its service (1 Samuel 7:1).
The actual Hebrew text, as well as the Vulgate and all translations dependent upon it, intimates that the Ark was with the army of Saul in the famous expedition against the Philistines, narrated in 1 Samuel 14. This is a mistake probably due to some late scribe who, for theological reasons, substituted the "ark of God" for the "ephod". The Greek translation here gives the correct reading; nowhere else, indeed, in the history of Israel, do we hear of the Ark of the Covenant as an instrument of divination. It may consequently be safely affirmed that the Ark remained in Cariathiarim up to the time of David. It was natural that after this prince had taken Jerusalem and made it the capital of his kingdom, he should desire to make it also a religious centre. For this end, he thought of bringing thither the Ark of the Covenant. In point of fact the Ark was undoubtedly in great veneration among the people; it was looked upon as the palladium with which heretofore Israel's life, both religious and political, had been associated. Hence, nothing could have more suitably brought about the realization of David's purpose than such a transfer. We read in the Bible two accounts of this solemn event; the first is found in the Second Book of Samuel (6); in the other, of a much later date, the chronicler has cast together most of the former account with some elements reflecting ideas and institutions of his own time (1 Chronicles 13). According to the narrative of 2 Samuel 6, which we shall follow, David went with great pomp to Baal-Juda, or Cariathiarim, to carry from there the Ark of God. It was laid upon a new cart, and taken out of the house of Abinadab. Oza and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, guided the cart, the latter walking before it, the former at its side, while the King and the people that were with him, dancing, singing, and playing instruments, escorted the sacred chest. This day, however, like that of the coming of the Ark to Bethsames, was to be saddened by death. At a certain point in the procession the oxen slipped; Oza forthwith stretched out his hand to hold the Ark, but was struck dead on the spot. David, frightened by this accident, and now unwilling to remove the Ark to Jerusalem, he had it carried into the house of a Gethite, named Obededom, which was probably in the neighborhood of the city. The presence of the Ark was a source of blessings for the house to which it had been brought. This news encouraged David to complete the work he had begun. Three months after the first transfer, accordingly, he came again with great solemnity and removed the Ark from the house of Obededom to the city, where it was set in its place in the midst of the tabernacle which David had pitched for it. Once more was the Ark brought out of Jerusalem, when David betook himself to flight before Absalom's rebellion. Whilst the King stood in the Cedron valley, the people were passing before him towards the way that leads to the wilderness. Among them came also Sadoe and Abiathar, bearing the Ark. Whom when David saw, he commanded to carry back the Ark into the city: "If I shall find grace in the sight of the Lord", said he, "he will bring me again, and will shew me both it and his tabernacle". In compliance with this order, Sadoe and Abiathar carried back the Ark of the Lord into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 15:24-29).
The tabernacle which David had pitched to receive the Ark was not, however, to be its last dwelling place. The King indeed had thought of a temple more worthy of the glory of Yahweh. Although the building of this edifice was to be the work of his successor, David himself took to heart to gather and prepare the materials for its erection. From the very beginning of Solomon's reign, this wince showed the greatest reverence to the Ark, especially when, after the mysterious dream in which God answered his request for wisdom by promising him wisdom, riches and honour, he offered up burnt-offerings and peace-offerings before the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh (1 Kings 3:15). When the temple and all its appurtenances were completed, Solomon, before the dedication, assembled the elders of Israel, that they might solemnly convey the Ark from the place where David had set it up to the Holy of Holies. Thence it was, most likely, now and then taken out, either to accompany military expeditions, or to enhance the splendour of religious celebrations, perhaps also to comply with the ungodly commands of wicked kings. However this may be, the chronicler tells us that Josias commanded the Levites to return it to its place in the temple, and forbade them to take it thence in the future (2 Chronicles 35:3). But the memory of its sacredness was soon to pass away. In one of his prophecies referring to the Messianic times, Jeremias announced that it would be utterly forgotten: "They shall say no more: The ark of the covenant of Yahweh: neither shall it come upon the heart, neither shall they remember it, neither shall it be visited, neither shall that be done any more" (Jeremiah 3:16).