12 Former Sites of the Ark of the Covenant

The Ark of the Covenant series (post #2)

While there is a major debate over the current whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, there is no debate as to the sites at which the Bible specifically places it. There are at least 12 of these sites. So, I thought I’d devote a post to listing the sites. In addition to the list itself, I’ll also throw in some details about the effects the Ark had upon the sites. Those details will help explain the supernatural aura the Ark has always held.

Site #1: Mount Sinai

In Exodus 25:10-22, God gives Moses the instructions for building the Ark as part of His whole list of instructions concerning the construction of the Tabernacle and everything that went along with it (Exodus chapters 25 through 30). Then, in Exodus 31:1-11, God explains that He has specially gifted two men — the tribe of Judah’s Bezalel and the tribe of Dan’s Aholiab — to supervise Israel’s other craftsmen and artisans in the building of the Tabernacle and all its components, including the Ark. Of course even Bezalel and Aholiab worked under the supervision of Moses (Deuteronomy 10:3).

All the work on the Tabernacle was done as the Israelites were encamped at the base of Mount Sinai for approximately eleven months (Exodus 19:1-2; Numbers 10:11) before they pushed on to Canaan. The story of the actual building of the Ark is recorded in Exodus 37:1-9. Since Bezalel’s name is exclusively cited in reference to who built it, that might mean that he personally did all the work.

Site #2: The Jordan River

God’s plan was for the Israelites to leave Mount Sinai, journey straight to the border of their promised land of Canaan, conquer Canaan via a series of battles, and then settle down in Canaan and occupy the land. However, fear prevented the Israelites from conquering Canaan (Exodus chapters 13 and 14), and so God punished them by having them wander in the surrounding wilderness for the next 40 years. During those 40 years all the Israelites 20 years old or older died off. The only exceptions were Joshua and Caleb, the two men who had tried their best to get Israel to take Canaan from the start on God’s original schedule.

At the end of the 40 years Israel’s time of judgment came to an end. They were then able to conquer Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. To begin that conquering, Israel’s priests carried the Ark (under veil) to the banks of the Jordan river to lead the people in crossing over the Jordan. Miraculously, as soon as the soles of the feet of those priests stepped into that river — which was overflowing its banks at that time of year — the waters parted (Joshua chapters 3-4), just as the waters of the Red Sea had done during Israel’s exodus from Egypt four decades earlier (Exodus 14:1-31). The Israelites were thus able to march into Canaan on dry land and begin their conquest of the land.

Site #3: The City of Jericho

Once the Israelites had crossed the Jordan river, the first Canaanite city they faced to conquer was the seemingly impregnable Jericho. Historical reports say the city was double-walled, with the outer walls being six feet thick and the inner walls being twelve feet thick. The walls were so massive that houses were actually built atop them.

At the Lord’s instructions, Israel’s army marched around Jericho’s walls once a day for six straight days. The Ark of the Covenant was carried (under veil) by a group of priests as a part of this procession, with seven additional priests bearing seven trumpets of rams’ horns ahead of the Ark. On the seventh day, the army and the priests marched around the walls seven times, after which the priests with the horns blew the horns loudly. That blasting of the horns was then followed by a great shout from all the soldiers. At the moment of that shout God miraculously caused Jericho’s walls to fall down flat. Israel’s army then proceeded to kill all of Jericho’s inhabitants, including even the livestock, and burn the city (Joshua 6:20-21).

Site #4: Shiloh

Once the Israelites had conquered Canaan and settled it, Joshua had the Tabernacle erected at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1). Since there was no longer a need for Israel’s army to carry the Ark into battle, the Ark was taken there and placed inside the Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies. Shiloh would serve as the location for the Tabernacle for the next few centuries (1 Samuel 1:3).

Site #5: Ashdod

By the time young Samuel arrived on the scene, Israel’s priesthood had become corrupt. Hophni and Phinehas (the two sons of the High Priest, Eli) were especially wicked men (1 Samuel 2:12-17). This resulted in God setting Himself against Eli’s household and priesthood. Because of this Israel’s army was soundly defeated by the Philistines, resulting in the deaths of approximately 4,000 Israelite soldiers (1 Samuel 4:1-2).

Even though the rout was the direct result of God’s judgment against Israel’s priesthood, Israel’s elders wrongly determined that the defeat had occurred because Israel’s army hadn’t carried the Ark into battle. So they had the Ark removed from the Tabernacle in Shiloh and brought to their battle encampment in the area of Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4:3-5). Hophni and Phinehas supervised the move.

However, the next battle against the Philistines proved to be an even worse slaughter for Israel than the previous one had been, this time resulting in the deaths of 30,000 soldiers as well as the deaths of Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 4:10). To make matters worse, the Philistines actually captured the Ark, took it to their city of Ashdod, and placed it in the temple of their god Dagon. When Eli, Israel’s high priest, heard the news that his sons had been killed and the Ark been taken, he fell off his seat backward, broke his neck, and died (1 Samuel 4:14-18).

As for the Ark in Ashdod, the first morning it was there the Philistines found the temple’s idol to Dagon toppled over on its face before the Ark (1 Samuel 5:1-3). They propped the idol back up to its rightful place, but the next morning they found it toppled over again before the Ark. This time the idol’s head and hands were broken off as well (1 Samuel 5:4-5). In addition to this, God struck the city of Ashdod and its surrounding territory with tumors (1 Samuel 5:6), which most commentators associate with some type of plague.

Site #6: Gath

Not surprisingly, the leaders of Ashdod wanted the Ark out of their city. So the decision was made to take the Ark to another Philistine city, Gath (1 Samuel 5:8). However, once the Ark was in Gath, God turned His anger upon the citizens of Gath and brought some type of unnamed “very great destruction” on the city. Furthermore, He struck the men of the city, both small and great, with tumors (1 Samuel 5:9). All this caused the citizens of Gath to want the Ark removed from their city.

Site #7: Ekron

Next, the Philistines moved the Ark from Gath to Ekron, yet another one of their prominent cities (1 Samuel 5:10). As soon as the Ark hit town the citizens of Ekron began crying out, saying, “They have brought the Ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people!” And they weren’t lying, either. The Bible says the hand of God became very heavy on the city, there was a deadly destruction, and the men who did not die from the destruction were stricken with tumors.

Site #8: Beth Shemesh

By the time the citizens of Ekron insisted that the Ark be removed from their city, the Ark had been in the possession of the Philistines for seven months. Needless to say, those seven months had produced nothing but misery for Philistia as the populations of three of the nation’s five major cities (Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron) had been decimated (1 Samuel 6:1). To say the Philistines were ready to send the Ark back to Israel would be an understatement.

Upon the advice of the Philistine priests and diviners, a cart was built to transport the Ark. This cart was pulled by two milk cows. The priests and diviners also advised that a trespass offering to the God of Israel be sent along with the Ark. This trespass offering consisted of the fashioned images of five golden tumors and five golden rats (1 Samuel 6:2-8). The number five corresponded to the number of major Philistine cities: Ashdod, Gath, Ekron, Gaza, and Ashkelon (1 Samuel 6:17-18).

Such an offering seems strange to us today, but ancient people oftentimes attempted to appease the gods by presenting an offering of whatever it was that was causing the destruction among the people. Evidently, the Philistines saw a direct correlation between their tumors and the rats. This leads many commentators to conclude that the tumors with which God struck the Philistines were caused by the bubonic plague, which medical science would eventually learn is carried by fleas on rats.

Just to ensure that it was really the God of Israel who was troubling Philistia, the Philistine priests and diviners built safeguards into their plan to return the Ark. First, the cart was pulled by two milk cows that were purposely separated from their calves. The calves were placed in the opposite direction of Israel, which should have meant that the cows would instinctively go in the direction of their calves. If, however, the cows took the cart in the direction of Israel, that would be a sign that the God of Israel was the one who had decimated Philistia (1 Samuel 6:7).

Second, the two milk cows were also animals that had never been hitched into a yoke. Two such animals shouldn’t immediately understand how to walk in step and pull the cart together. So, if they started pulling the cart without any problems, that would be another confirming sign that the Philistines were interpreting the situation correctly (1 Samuel 6:7).

Third, the Philistines watched to see if the cows, without being guided, would head in the direction of Beth Shemesh. Beth Shemesh was a Jewish town in northwest Judah that was near the border between Philistia and Israel. If the cows did head toward Beth Shemesh, without being guided, and despite the fact that their calves were in the opposite direction, that would be the final confirmation that Israel’s God was the one with whom the Philistines were dealing (1 Samuel 6:9).

And so how did it all turn out? Every part of the plan went perfectly for the Philistines, and the Ark was returned to Israel. The field in Beth Shemesh into which the two cows pulled the cart belonged to a man named Joshua. When the locals realized the cart was carrying the Ark of the Covenant they were overjoyed. In their ecstasy they used the cart as wood for a fire and offered up the two milk cows as burnt offerings to the Lord (1 Samuel 6:13-14). Later on, when the Levites (Israel’s priests) were summoned to the site, even more offerings and sacrifices were made (1 Samuel 6:15).

Unfortunately for the people of Beth Shemesh, their joy was short lived as they soon overplayed their hand in regards to the Ark. The mistake they made was removing the lid (the mercy seat) and looking inside the Ark. That act so angered God that He struck many of them dead with what is described as “a great slaughter” (1 Samuel 6:19). (The most commonly used Hebrew text that serves as the basis for our translations of the Old Testament says the number of Beth Shemeshites that God struck dead was 50,070. However, many other Hebrew texts cite the number as 70. Obviously the difference in the two numbers is the result of a scribal error in the copying process of some of the manuscripts, but it’s impossible for us to know today which number is the error. Either way, the point is that God was angry with the people of Beth Shemesh for looking inside the Ark.)

Site #9: Kirjath Jearim (also known as Baale Judah)

Following the deaths of many of their neighbors, the remaining people of Beth Shemesh sent messengers to the Jewish city of Kirjath Jearim, which was located about ten miles northeast of Beth Shemesh. The message was simple: Please come and take the Ark of the Lord from us (1 Samuel 6:20-21). The people of Kirjath Jearim agreed, and the Ark was then brought inside the house of a man named Abinadab. Abinadab promptly consecrated his son, Eleazar, to guard and keep the Ark, and the Ark ended up staying in the home of Abinadab for twenty years (1 Samuel 7:1). No doubt the reason for such an allowance was the fact that by this point in history the Ark had reeked so much havoc and struck so many people dead that most people were terrified to even get near it.

Site #10: The House of Obed-Edom

When David became the king over all Israel, he led an army against the city of Jerusalem and won the city from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:1-8). He then set about making Jerusalem the capital city of his kingdom. For one thing, he had a beautiful house built for himself in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:11-12). For another, he determined to transport the Ark from the home of Abinidab in Kirjath Jearim (Baale Judah) to Jerusalem. There David would make the Ark the center of Israelite worship by housing it in a specially prepared tent. This tent would be different than the actual Tabernacle, which at the time stood at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39).

There was nothing wrong with David’s desire to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, but there was plenty wrong with how he went about doing it. Rather than follow the law of Moses and have the Kohathites (a branch of Israel’s priestly tribe of Levites ) carry the Ark on their shoulders via poles (Numbers 4:1-20; 7:9), David had a special cart built to transport it. This cart was pulled by oxen. He then took 30,000 choice men of Israel and made the journey to Abinidab’s house.

Once at the house, David supervised as the Ark was carefully removed from the house and placed onto the cart. Two of Abinidab’s sons — Uzzah and Ahio — were assigned to drive the cart (2 Samuel 6:3). The grand procession back to Jerusalem was accompanied by much pomp and pageantry and music played on various kinds of instruments (2 Samuel 6:5).

Things went well until the procession reached a certain threshing floor along the way to Jerusalem. There, for whatever reason, the oxen stumbled, the Ark wobbled atop the cart, and Uzzah reacted by reaching out to touch the Ark to steady it. At the very moment he touched the Ark he was struck dead by God (2 Samuel 6:6).

As soon as David realized what had happened he became very angry with God (2 Samuel 6:8). In David’s way of thinking God’s judgment had been too harsh for Uzzah’s offense. But he also became afraid, afraid that God would never allow him to get the Ark into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:9). And so right then and there David shut down the entire procession and had the Ark placed inside the home of a man named Obed-Edom, who just happened to live near the site of the tragedy.

The Ark remained in the house of Obed-Edom for the next three months, and God blessed Obed-Edom and his entire household (2 Samuel 6:11). In the meantime, David went to work thinking about what he had done wrong. Somewhere along the way he figured out that his error was in not allowing the Levite-Kohathites to carry the Ark on their shoulders by way of the poles (1 Chronicles 15:1-2). So, he sought the counsel of all the Levites and set about to fix his error (1 Chronicles 15:1-15).

    Site #11: The Tent In Jerusalem

David’s second attempt to bring the Ark to Jerusalem and place it inside the tent that he had prepared for it was successful as this time he allowed the Levite-Kohathites to carry the Ark. Again many thousands of people were involved in the procession, and the entire journey from the house of Obed-Edom into Jerusalem was marked by music, singing, dancing, and much joy. Upon its arrival in Jerusalem, the Ark was placed inside the tent (1 Chronicles 16:1). Offerings were then offered up and thanks was rendered to God (1 Chronicles 16:1-43).

Site #12: Solomon’s Temple In Jerusalem

The Ark hadn’t been in Jerusalem long before David started planning to build a Temple in which to house it (2 Samuel 7:1-2; 1 Chronicles 17:1). It bothered him that the Ark sat in a tent while he himself lived in a fine home. He then consulted the prophet Nathan about the idea. At first Nathan told David to do all that was in his heart, but later that night God spoke to Nathan and told him to go back and tell David that David shouldn’t build the Temple (2 Samuel 7:3-11; 1 Chronicles 17:2-4.) The reason was that David had shed too much blood in his rise to the throne (1 Chronicles 22:6-8; 28:1-3; 1 Kings 5:1-3).

God, however, was pleased with David’s desire to build a Temple. Therefore, He made two major promises to him. First, the kingdom would never depart from the Davidic family line (2 Samuel 7:8-12; 1 Chronicles 17:11). Second, the son that would succeed David upon Israel’s throne would be the one to build the Temple (2 Samuel 7:12-17; 1 Chronicles 17:11-12).

The record of how David’s son, Solomon, got that Temple built in Jerusalem is recorded in 1 Kings chapters 5-7 and 2 Chronicles chapters 2-4. Once the Temple was finished the Levite-Kohathites carried the Ark from its tent in Jerusalem and placed it inside the Holy of Holies room inside the Temple (2 Chronicles 5:1-14). Again the transport was accompanied by much fanfare and celebration. The entire process ended with the cloud of the glory of the Lord filling the Temple so much that the priests had to temporarily stop ministering inside the building (1 Kings 8:1-11; 2 Chronicles 5:11-14). That was God’s seal of approval that the Ark was now exactly where He wanted it to be, and there it would remain until it became lost to history at some point.            

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