Is the Ark of the Covenant on Mount Nebo?

The Ark of the Covenant series (post #7)

The Apocrypha is a collection of 15 books that have a long association with scripture. They were written between approximately 400 B.C. and the time of Jesus. These books are not included in modern Protestant Bibles, but they are included in the Vulgate (the Catholic Latin Bible) by way of an Appendix. The official Catholic view, as settled as a doctrine of faith at the Council of Trent in 1546 A.D., is that 12 of the Apocrypha’s 15 books should be considered as canonical scripture. The three that were deemed doubtful were 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, and the Prayer of Manasseh.

While it’s true that no part of the Apocrypha is currently considered holy scripture by non-Catholic Christians, the entire Apocrypha was actually included in the 1611 King James translation. The books were positioned between the last page of the Old Testament and the first page of the New Testament. I mention this merely to point out that the books of the Apocrypha, particularly the ones granted full approval by the Catholic church at the Council of Trent, have traditionally rated a little higher with Christians than other non-canonical books that didn’t make the cut of the Protestant Bible.

As for me, I don’t believe that any of the books of the Apocrypha should be considered holy scripture. I have what in my opinion are solid reasons for this belief, and I cited several of them in a previous post (post #4) from this series. I won’t rehash all that, but I just wanted to restate my opinion that the books of the Apocrypha are not inspired by God, not 100% accurate, and thus not thoroughly reliable.

Okay, fine, but why am I bringing all this up? I’m doing it because one of the Aprocryphal books, 2 Maccabees, makes the claim that the prophet Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant in a cave somewhere atop Mount Nebo to prevent the Babylonian army from acquiring it. The passage reads as follows:

It was also in the same document that the prophet (Jeremiah), having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and seen the inheritance of God. Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent, the ark, and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.” 2 Maccabees 2:4-8 (New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition)

The descriptive phrase “the mountain where Moses had gone up and seen the inheritance of God” refers to Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 32:48-52; 34:1-4). God did not permit Moses to lead the people of Israel into the promised land of Canaan (Numbers 20:1-13), but He did grant him the privilege of climbing to the top of Mount Nebo and looking over across into Canaan. Mount Nebo is located just east of the northern end of the Dead Sea. The Bible refers to this country as Moab, but today we call it Jordan. Moses was also buried by God in an unknown grave in a valley in this same area (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).

So, according to the passage from 2 Maccabees, three historical artifacts are hidden in a cave with a sealed up entrance somewhere on Mount Nebo. Artifact #1 is the Ark of the Covenant. Artifact #2 is the Altar of Incense from Solomon’s Temple. The Altar of Incense was the small Altar that sat directly in front of the veil (curtain) that separated the Holy of Holies room from the rest of the Temple. Artifact #3 is the “tent.” This could be a reference to the original Tabernacle complex itself, which the Bible last places at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39; 2 Chronicles 1:1-6). More likely, though, it’s a reference to the special tent wherein David housed the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem for the entirety of his reign before the Temple was built (2 Samuel 6:16-17).

Now, to be fair, the idea of Jeremiah hiding these three items atop this specific mountain does make some scriptural sense. Consider the following facts:

  1. The ministry of the prophet Jeremiah spanned the entirety of the Babylonian invasion and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. If any prophet was going to receive a word from God to remove the Ark from the Temple’s Holy of Holies and hide it somewhere, Jeremiah would definitely have been the man.
  2. Since the Bible never mentions the Ark again after the destruction of the Temple, and since the Bible doesn’t mention the Ark being taken to Babylon either, it certainly isn’t out of the question that Jeremiah did something with it.
  3. Moses was the man to whom God gave the instructions for the building of the Ark. Therefore, it would make for nice symmetry if he and the Ark both ended up buried in secret, hidden locations in the area of Mount Nebo.

The problem, however, with the Mount Nebo theory is that the book of 2 Maccabees simply isn’t reliable. This is the same book, mind you, that teaches in 2 Maccabees 12:43 that money can be offered as a sacrifice for the sins of the dead. (By the way, the Catholics like that passage because it can be used to support their false doctrine of purgatory.) Also, 2 Maccabees 15:11-14 teaches that deceased saints are in heaven interceding for people on earth. Trust me, the only intercession that is being done by anybody in heaven is Jesus interceding for Christians: Hebrews 4:14-16; Hebrews 8:1-2; and 1 John 2:1-2.

Really, though, even if we grant 2 Maccabees full scriptural authority, there is still a serious problem with the passage in question. The passage says the cave wherein the Ark sits “shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy.” Obviously, then, everything hinges on the identification of when it is that God “gathers his people together again.” Well, let’s talk about that.

One possible fulfillment of that supposed prophecy occurred on May 14, 1948. That is when the United Nations formally recognized Israel once again as a nation. At that time, in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust, millions of Jews started pouring back into Israel. Therefore, that date might possibly fit the bill of God gathering his people together again and showing His mercy. But can we really claim that date as the starting point for the prophecy when over 69 years have now passed and the hidden location of the Ark still hasn’t been disclosed?

A second possible option is that the supposed prophecy speaks of saved Israel dwelling in its land during Christ’s 1,000 year reign upon the earth. Admittedly, that does make for a better interpretation than the May 14, 1948, date. However, in Jeremiah 3:14-18 the Bible teaches that in the days of Christ’s millennial reign the Ark of the Covenant will not be mentioned, come to mind, or be visited. It won’t be needed anymore because Jesus Himself will personally be sitting upon His throne in Jerusalem. Certainly this is a wonderful thought for those of us who are looking forward to Christ’s reign, but it sure does blow a hole in the idea that the Ark will be excavated from some supposed cave at the end of the tribulation period just before Jesus begins that reign.

In conclusion, when we really add everything up and take it all into account, there are just too many problems with the Mount Nebo theory to deem it credible. As with most theories regarding the current location of the Ark, the theory has enough strong points to make it worthy of discussion and possibly even investigation. In the end, though, we just can’t ignore the fact that the theory’s source, 2 Maccabees, is dubious to say the least.

Think of it this way: If we can’t trust The Kebra Nagast when it tells us the Ark is in Ethiopia, we can’t trust 2 Maccabees when it tells us the Ark is in a cave on Mount Nebo. Just because a piece of writing is old and weaves an interesting tale, that doesn’t make the words holy scripture. So, for now, we’ll cross Mount Nebo off our list of possible sites and keep on looking. I promise you that we have several other potential locations to consider. Next time we’ll look at one that doesn’t even have one thing to do with scripture. That, I hope, is enough of a tease to whet your appetite and keep you reading.

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