Ark of the Covenant: A Weapon, A Throne, A Temple – Part I

Ancient Origins Store

Ark of the Covenant: A Weapon, A Throne, A Temple – Part I

Ark of the Covenant: A Weapon, A Throne, A Temple – Part I

The Ark of the Covenant, also known as the Ark of the Testimony, is one of history’s most intriguing ancient mysteries. According to Biblical sources, it was constructed after Moses had freed the Israelites from Egypt in the wilderness, and items of spiritual significant were placed in the chest. The Ark would serve as the observable sign of Yahweh’s (the Hebrew name of God) presence to the Israelites until it went missing after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.

Why the Ark?

According to Exodus 19:5-6 Yahweh made a covenant with the Israelites: “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.” It was believed this covenant brought about the construction of the Ark.

Another reason for the Ark’s construction was political. The Israelites believed Yahweh to be their king, and by building it, gave them the ability to transport their monarchy were ever they went. This also made the Ark a military weapon. If Yahweh was their king/god, then he was their commander, which made the Ark a weapon. Therefore, the Israelites needed a symbol that they could look to and it put fear into the minds of their enemies. More on this later.

A 4th century BCE drachm (quarter shekel) coin from the Persian province of Yehud Medinata, possibly representing Yahweh seated on a winged and wheeled throne. An inscription lies on the face of the coin, either a Phoenician inscription on the coin reading "YHW" or an Aramaic inscription reading "YHD"

A 4th century BCE drachm (quarter shekel) coin from the Persian province of Yehud Medinata, possibly representing Yahweh seated on a winged and wheeled throne. An inscription lies on the face of the coin, either a Phoenician inscription on the coin reading "YHW" or an Aramaic inscription reading "YHD" (Public Domain)

The Construction of the Ark

According to the book of Exodus 25:10-22, construction of the Ark began at Mount Sinai:

Have them make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it. Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you.

Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.

A model of the Ark of the Covenant from biblical description

A model of the Ark of the Covenant from biblical description (Blake Patterson/CC BY 2.0)

What is interesting about this is that the manufacture of not just the Ark but weapons also, took place at Mount Sinai. The reason for this is that the Israelites faced a problem in the wilderness: obtaining the skills needed to manufacture bronze weapons. Casting bronze was not easy or a common skill. Exodus is silent when it comes to smiths. One could make the argument that there were no blacksmiths available within the camp. On the other hand, there could have been a few available that did not have the equipment to produce the much-needed weapons or they had no skill in forging armaments. So how did the Israelites produce enough weapons, let alone an Ark of Covenant? The answer can be found at Sinai.

Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horbe

Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horbe (Mohammed Moussa/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The reason why Moses led the Israelites into Sinai and to the base of Mount Horeb comes down to his relatives, the availability of copper, and the metalworkers who lived there. Moses knew well the area of Sinai and Mount Horeb (an alternative name for Mt. Sinai), for Moses used to lead Jethro’s flock “to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.” (Exodus 3:1) Moses father-in-law, Jethro, was a Kenite/Midian priest who lived in the lands of Midian. (Judg 1:16; Ex 3:1; Num10:29) This is why Moses led the Hebrews to Mount Sinai/Horeb, for he was familiar with the territory and familiar with the resources mined and forged at Sinai.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law (1659) by Rembrandt

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law (1659) by Rembrandt (Public Domain)

The approach to Mount Sinai, painting by David Roberts

The approach to Mount Sinai, painting by David Roberts (Public Domain)

While Moses and a few others with him were familiar with the sights and sounds at Mount Sinai/Horeb, most of the Israelites and those tagging along were not, especially on the morning of the third day. “And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.” (Exodus 19:16)

While it is possible that Yahweh did descend in a thunderous roar accompanied by spectacular lightning and smoke atop Mount Sinai/Horeb, perhaps there is another alternative to consider. Perhaps the reported sound of thunder the Israelites heard was none other than the metalsmiths atop the mountain who were smelting and hammering away. The flashes of what appears to be lightning, was nothing more than the flickering of the high flames produced by the furnaces. As for the cloud of smoke, that was caused by the furnaces, as it takes twice to four times as much charcoal to smelt copper as compared to iron, which would produce a heavy cloud of smoke. In all, the mountain landscape would have sounded and appeared eerie to the people below. The clue that links this possibility all together is the Kenites.

The name Kenite comes from the Hebrew word qayin, which means smith or metalworker. The Kenites lived in oasis towns in the lands of Midian and Sinai, where they mined the abundant rich copper ore at various spots located in southwestern and southeastern Sinai. Furthermore, their location at the copper mines was not far from the trade routes that passed through Sinai, which allowed them to sell their goods and purchase the expensive tin needed to produce bronze, which was rare in the Middle East.

Because of this, it is possible to suggest that the Ark of the Covenant was designed and the metals collected atop Mount Sinai, due to the Kenites who lived and worked within the vicinity. The reason for this speculation is that Moses was believed to be atop the Sinai for 40 days. However, the Bible gives two different accounts as to who partook in the construction of the Ark. According to Exodus 31, Moses instructed Bezalel and Oholiab to construct the Ark but the book of Deuteronomy 10:1-5 says Moses constructed it while Bezalel and Oholiab are not mentioned. 40 days allow plenty of time to help in not only the design and manufacture of the weapons but also the Ark, along with other items of religious significations. Therefore, it seems reasonable that Moses knew what he was doing when he arrived at Sinai to pay for weapons and the Ark with the gold they stripped from Egypt.

Power of the Ark

The power of the Ark is another intriguing matter. In biblical sources, the Ark divided the Jordan River for the Israelites to cross. In another instance, it brought down the walls of Jericho. It is said to have killed the Bethsames when they opened it. The Philistines are said to have acquired “hemorrhoids” (as shall be explained) after capturing the Ark, which caused them to quickly return it back to the Israelites. And finally, there is the story of Uzzah, who was stuck down for placing his hands on the Ark as he tried to prevent it from falling. However, how true are these stories and if true, is there another explanation worth considering?

Moses and Joshua bowing before the Ark.

Moses and Joshua bowing before the Ark. (Public Domain)

The Ark and the Jordan River

According to the book of Joshua 3:16, “the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the sea of the plain, even the salt sea, failed, and were cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho.” So, did the Jordan River miraculously divide, allowing them to march across a dry riverbed, or is there more to the story?

Earthquakes are common along the Dead Sea depression and might be the contributing factor to the Jordan splitting for Joshua. In 1927, an earthquake cut off the river for twenty-two hours. In 1546, an earthquake triggered a landslide which stopped the river from flowing for two days. In 1267, the river stopped once again at midnight and would not flow again until 10:00 the following morning. While this is plausible, the Book of Joshua provides an overlooked possibility.

As mentioned, they left Shittim (ancient city in Moab, now Abil-ez-Zeit, Jordan), and encamped on the east bank of the Jordan River. Richard Gabriel points out that there is “no sound military reason for the three-day encampment.” From a military standpoint, it makes no sense to sit and wait for three days before crossing, considering that the king of Jericho easily could have mustered his forces and acquired the aid of local allies to deploy their forces along the west side of the Jordan River, thus using it as a tactical obstacle. However, the king evidently did not have the luxury of allies to assist him in preventing an Israelite crossing of the Jordan. Apparently, the lack of assistance was due to the disunity between the various Canaanite city-states. This is not to say that they could not unite to attack a common foe, but the military and political disunity shows their true weakness in preventing a foreign invasion. While Joshua’s decision seems a bit risky, he was no fool. So, what were the Israelites doing? The answer is they were taking advantage of a recent earthquake.

That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the sea of the plain, even the salt sea, failed, and were cut off. (Joshua 3:16)

With a natural obstacle in place, the flow of water slowed down and slowly receded, thus making the river shallow enough to build a barrier of some sort to hold back the slow, if not standing waters. Joshua indicates that the “Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest.” (Joshua 4:2-3) Knowing that the fords were flooded, Joshua decided that three days was sufficient to construct a barrier made of stone to hold back the waters and to allow the army to move fluidly across. Once the army crossed, Joshua gave the order to remove the stones:

“Take for yourselves from the people twelve men, a man from every tribe; and give them this order: ‘Take twelve stones from the middle of the Yarden riverbed, where the cohanim are standing, carry them over with you and set them down in the place where you will camp tonight.’”

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant.

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant. (Public Domain)

Joshua’s order to remove the twelve stones indicates that there is no retreat and no surrender. If you want to fulfill the promise, you must fight to the death. Joshua understood well that a force with its back against a wall would fight more ferociously. Moreover, removing the barrier that held back the waters, protected those Israelites on the east side of the Jordan if something went wrong.


Cam Rea is an author and military historian. He has written numerous articles for Ancient Origins, Classical Wisdom Weekly, and has authored several books, including: Hebrew Wars: A Military History of Ancient Israel from Abraham to Judges


Top Image: ‘The Ark Passes Over the Jordan’ ( Public Domain )

By Cam Rea


Gabriel, Richard A. The Culture of War: Invention and Early Development. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

—. The Military History of Ancient Israel. Westport: Praeger, 2003.

Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Historical Books: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther. Mich: Baker Academic, 2001.

Mayor, Adrienne. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. London: Duckworth, 2005.

Orent, Wendy. Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Sicker, Martin. The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Israelite States. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2003.

Sivertsen, Barbara J. The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of Exodus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Stager, Lawrence E. "The Archaeology of the Family in Ancient Israel. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research." JSTOR. Autumn 1985.

Ancient Origins Quotations