The ark and the curtain in front of it are the last two things Moses puts into the new Tent of Meeting in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38). Then the portable sanctuary that will be God’s new dwelling place is complete.
Then Moses finished the work. And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the Dwelling Place. And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it and the kavod of God filled the Dwelling Place. (Exodus/Shemot 40:33-35)
kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, magnificence, honor, glory.
Thus all the Israelites who made things for the portable sanctuary, from the golden ark to the woven walls, did it right. God approved, and manifested inside.
The last thing King Solomon puts into the new permanent temple for God in this week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the Torah portion) is the ark. Then the first permanent temple for God in Jerusalem is complete.
And it was when the priests went out of the holy place, and the cloud filled the house of God. And the priests were not able to stand and serve in the presence of the cloud, because the kavod of God filled the house of God. (1 Kings 8:10-11)
Thus all the people who built and furnished the temple for King Solomonalso did it right; God approved, and manifested inside.
In both the tent and the temple, the ark is brought into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber in back. In both Exodus and 1 Kings, the ark is a box or chest with a lid and four feet. In both stories, it is carried by means of two poles that run through the rings attached to its feet. And in both stories, the ark contains the two stone tablets Moses brought down from his second forty-day stint on Mount Sinai.
Yet the two stories do not seem to be talking about the same ark.
The ark in Exodus
The master artist Betzaleil makes the lid of the ark in last week’s Torah portion in the book of Exodus, Vayakheil:
Then he made a kaporet of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And he made two keruvim of gold; he made them hammered out from the two ends of the kaporet. One keruv out of this end and one keruv out of that end; from the kaporet he made the keruvim, from its two ends. And the keruvim were spreading wings above, screening off [the area] over the kaporet with their wings. And they faced each other, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the kaporet.(Exodus 37:6-9)
kaporet (כַּפֺּרֶת) = the lid of the ark in Exodus and Numbers; the lid of the ark as the seat of reconciliation or atonement with God in Leviticus. (From the root verb kafar, כָּפַר = covered; atoned, made amends.)1
keruvim (כְּרוּבִים) = plural of kervuv (כְּרוּב) = “cherub” in English; a hybrid supernatural creature with wings and a human face. (Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, keruvim are guardians, steeds, or part of God’s heavenly entourage.)2
The bodies of the gold keruvim in Exodus are never described. Since each keruv sculpture has only one face, which gazes at the lid of the ark, it represents a different sort of hybrid creature from those in Ezekiel’s visions. The book of Ezekiel describes a keruv as having four faces, four wings with human hands under them, a single leg like a calf’s hoof, and eyes covering its whole body.3
The two gold keruvim on the ark in Exodus face one another, but they are looking down at the center of the lid. They might be guarding the stone tablets inside, or they might be guarding the empty space above the lid and below their wings. Earlier in the book of Exodus, God tells Moses:
And I will meet with you there and I will speak with you from above the lid, from between the two keruvim … (Exodus 25:22)
That means the gold keruvim in Exodus are not idols. In the Ancient Near East, an idol was a sculpture of a god that the god sometimes entered and inhabited. At those times, worshiping the idol was the same as worshiping the god.
But Exodus is careful to explain that God will not enter the ark or the keruvim sculptures on top of it; God will only manifest in the empty space between kaporet and the wings of the keruvim.
The ark and its lid are only two and a half cubits long—just under four feet (just over a meter)—so the empty space for God is not large. According to Exodus, God manifests there as a voice, but according to Leviticus 16:2, God appears there as a cloud.
The two small keruvim that Betzaleil hammers out of the extra gold on the ends of the lid of the ark are not mentioned again anywhere in the Hebrew Bible except once in the book of Numbers:
And when Moses came to the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he heard the voice speaking to him from above the kaporet that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; thus [God] spoke to him. (Numbers/Bemidbar 7:89)
Here, too, the Torah clarifies that neither the keruvim nor the kaporet nor the ark are idols.
The ark in 1 Kings
Many generations pass before David creates the first kingdom of Israel, and his son Solomon builds the first permanent temple for God. By the time King Solomon brings the ark into his new temple, there do not appear to be any keruvim on its lid. The first book of Kings reports the two large statues of keruvim in the Holy of Holies, and small keruvim decorations carved into the walls of the rest of the temple, but no keruvim on the ark.
Solomon has two colossal wood statues of keruvim brought into the Holy of Holies before the ark is carried in. Each keruv is ten cubits, about 15 feet (four and a half meters) tall, with a ten-cubit span from wingtip to wingtip.4
Then he placed the keruvim inside the House, in the innermost [chamber]. And the wings of the keruvim spread out so the wing of one keruv touched the wall, and the wing of the second keruv was touching the second wall, and in the middle of the chamber their wings touched. And he overlaid the keruvim with gold. (1 Kings 6:27-28)
Meanwhile the ark remains in King David’s tent of meeting, in another part of town, until the rest of the temple and its furnishings are completed.
That was when Solomon assembled the elders of Israel—all the heads of the tribes, chiefs of the fathers of the Children of Israel—before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the Ark of the Covenant from the City of David … And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests lifted the ark. (1 Kings 5:1-3)
King Solomon leads the sacrifice of livestock on the altar outside the new temple.
Then the priests brought the Ark of the Covenant of God into its place, into the back chamber of the house, to the Holy of Holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. For [each of] the keruvim was spreading a pair of wings toward the place of the ark, so the keruvim screened off the ark and its poles from above. (1 Kings 8:6-7)
Here the empty space reserved for God is larger than in Exodus, since the gap between the lid of the ark and the wings of the colossal statues of keruvim is about 11 feet (three and a half meters). Yet the Hebrew Bible does not mention God speaking from this space. Nor does a cloud appear there after God’s inaugural cloud of kavod has faded.
The contents of the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple seem to be merely symbolic. There is no mention of God manifesting in the empty space between the wings of the keruvim and the ark. Neither a statue nor the ark becomes an idol that God inhabits. According to one Talmudic source, ordinary Israelites can see the ark and the keruvim without any harmful consequences.5
Perhaps 1 Kings emphasizes that God does not inhabit the ark inside the new temple when it says:There was nothing in the ark but the two stone tablets that Moses set down there at Chorev [a.k.a. Sinai] which God cut … (1 Kings 8:9)
The ark as an idol
Exodus and 1 Kings reflect two different traditions about the relationship of the ark to its guardian keruvim. Current scholarship suggests both books were written in the 6th century B.C.E., and the descriptions of the Tent of Meeting in Exodus were modeled on the descriptions of Solomon’s temple, with adjustments to make the tent-sanctuary smaller and more portable. The descriptions of the ark in Exodus through Numbers are also more awe-inspiring than the bare mention of the ark in 1 Kings.
Both descriptions of the ark and the pair of keruvim make it clear that these furnishings are not idols. Yet other stories in the Hebrew Bible do treat the ark like an idol inhabited by God.
In the book of Joshua the priests carry the ark across the Jordan River, as the Levites had carried the ark (always covered from view by three layers of fabric)6 from Mount Sinai to the eastern bank of the Jordan. But then the priests carry it in a military parade around the walls of Jericho until God destroys the city.7
After the Israelites are unexpectedly defeated in a battle later in the book of Joshua, the ark apparently sits on the ground out in the open, rather than inside the tent-sanctuary:
And he fell on his face on the ground in front of the ark of God until evening, he and the elders of Israel, and they put dust on their heads. (Joshua 7:6)
In the first book of Samuel the ark is inside a sanctuary again: the temple at Shiloh, which has solid walls and doors, but a tent roof. However, the sons of the priest Eli take the ark out of the temple and onto the battlefield, where it is captured by the Philistines. In Philistine territory, the ark initiates two plagues and smashes an idol of the Philistine god Dagon.8 The God of Israel is working magic through the ark, which functions as an idol.
The Philistines send the ark back into Israelite territory, where its magic power kills at least 70 Israelite men who look inside. The ark is removed to a private house where the owner’s son is consecrated as a priest to guard it.9
This version of the ark can be safely seen from outside, but must not be opened—or touched, except by its attached carrying poles. When King David sets out to retrieve the ark and transport it to Jerusalem, its two current priests load it on a cart. Partway to Jerusalem the oxen pulling it stumble, and the priest who touches the ark to steady it dies instantly.
And David was afraid of God that day, and he said: “How could I bring the ark of God to myself!” (2 Samuel 6:9)
Although it is possible to interpret this verse as indicating David’s fear of a remote God who chooses to kill anyone who touches the ark, it makes more sense if David conflates God and the ark, treating the ark as an idol God is inhabiting. Fear of God and fear of the ark are the same thing.
Three months later King David succeeds in bringing the ark the rest of the way to Jerusalem, and installs it in the new tent-sanctuary he has set up there for God.10 This is the ark that King Solomon brings into the Holy of Holies in his new temple, and positions under the wings of two new statues of keruvim. At that point the ark is no longer an idol, but merely a sacred object, the most sacred object in the temple.
Which version of the ark appeals to you the most:
The holy work of art in Exodus and Numbers, which only a priest is allowed to see?
The idol that travels around naked in Joshua and the two books of Samuel, zapping people right and left?
Or the piece of furniture in 1 Kings, which must be treated as sacred because it contains the two stone tablets, the way an ark in a synagogue today is treated with respect because it contains the Torah scroll?
- The only occurrence of the term kaporet in the bible outside Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers is when 1 Chronicles, written about 200 years later, says King David gave his son Solomon plans for the temple including “the shrine of the kaporet” (1 Chronicles 28:11). This is not a locution used in Exodus through Numbers.
- Keruvim are definitely guardians in Genesis 3:24 and Ezekiel 28:14-16. A keruv is a steed for God in 2 Samuel 22:11, Ezekiel 9:3, Psalm 18:11, and 1 Chron. 28:18. Keruvim are part of God’s large supernatural entourage in Ezekiel 1:5-14, 10:1-20, and 11:22.
- Ezekiel 10:1-20 and 1:5-14.
- 1 Kings 6:23-26.
- Talmud Bavli, Yoma 54a.
- See my post: Bemidbar: Don’t Look!
- Joshua 3:3-4:18, 6:4-13.
- 1 Samuel 4:3-6:12.
- 1 Samuel 6:19-7:1.
- 2 Samuel 6:13-17.