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Yigal Levin





The Precursors of the Ark





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Yigal Levin





The Precursors of the Ark








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The Precursors of the Ark

At the battle against the Philistines at Michmas, Saul asks Ahiah the priest to bring forward the ark, so that he can consult YHWH. He is not referring to the ark of Shiloh, which was safeguarded in Kiryat-yearim at the time; in the early monarchic period, each worship site had its own priestly family with its own ark.


The Precursors of the Ark

Portable shrines/arks from Iron Age Israel: 1. Tell el-Far'ah North, biblical Tirzah. (Musée du Louvre) 2. Khirbet Qeiyafa, clay ark. (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) 3. Khirbet Qeiyafa, stone ark. (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) 4. Tel Rekhesh. (Israel Antiquities Authority) 5. Tel Rehov. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Ark from Shiloh to Kiryat-yearim

In the opening stories of the book of Samuel, the ark is in the temple in Shiloh (1 Sam 3:3). When the Philistines defeat Israel in battle, the Israelites have the priests of Shiloh bring the ark to the Israelite camp, so that YHWH will assist them with the next battle (1 Sam 4:4).

When the Israelites lose this battle as well, the ark is captured by the Philistines (1 Sam 4:11) and brought first to the city of Ashdod, and then to Gath, then to Ekron (1 Sam 5:1, 8, 10). In each city, the appearance of the ark brings plagues upon the local Philistine population, so they send the it back to the Israelites.

The ark arrives in Beth-shemesh (1 Sam 6:14), but as the people try to get a look at it, they are struck down for disrespecting the ark (1 Sam 6:19). The people then decide to send it to Kiryat-yearim (1 Sam 6:21–7:2), where it stays until David decides to bring it to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:2). In between, the ark appears in Saul’s camp at the battle of Michmas (1 Sam 13–14).

The Ark at the Battle of Michmas

The battle of Michmas begins when Saul’s son, Jonathan, kills the Philistine governor at Geba (1 Sam 13:3). Saul has 3,000 fighters, and Jonathan another 1,000 (13:2), but the Philistines encamp at Michmas with “thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen and as many people as the sand on the seashore” (13:4).

The people of Israel react with fear, “hiding in caves, among the thorns, among the rocks, in tunnels and in cisterns,” and some even flee across the Jordan (13:7). The Philistines then march their main troop towards Saul and his men in the Michmas pass (13:23).

With the 600 brave men who choose not to flee or hide, Saul makes his stand at Geba of Benjamin, just across the ravine from Michmas, (14:2). Unbeknownst to Saul, Jonathan takes his young armor-bearer and sneaks towards the Philistine camp (14:1) using two large stones on either slope of the ravine as cover (14:4). They kill some twenty Philistines in a surprise attack (14:14), which causes a panic to break out in the Philistine camp (14:15).

Back in Saul’s camp, the scouts notice the Philistine terror, and Saul learns that Jonathan has left the camp, and is presumably attacking the Philistines (14:16–17). Before Saul joins the attack, he wants to know what is happening in the Philistine camp, so he turns to Ahiah, the priest that was introduced earlier in the story:

שמואל א יד:ג וַאֲחִיָּה בֶן אֲחִטוּב אֲחִי אִיכָבוֹד בֶּן פִּינְחָס בֶּן עֵלִי כֹּהֵן יְ־הוָה בְּשִׁלוֹ נֹשֵׂא אֵפוֹד...
1 Sam 14:3 Ahiah son of Ahituv brother of Ichabod son of Phinehas son of Eli, the priest of YHWH at Shiloh, was there bearing an ephod…

Now Saul asks Ahiah to consult YHWH:

שמואל א יד:יח וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל לַאֲחִיָּה הַגִּישָׁה אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי הָיָה אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
1 Sam 14:18 Thereupon Saul said to Ahiah, “Bring the Ark of God here”; for the ark of God was at the time among the Israelites.

Before Ahiah has a chance to do anything with the ark, Saul sees that the Philistine camp is in total confusion, so he tells the priest to drop the attempt:

יד:יט וַיְהִי עַד דִּבֶּר שָׁאוּל אֶל הַכֹּהֵן וְהֶהָמוֹן אֲשֶׁר בְּמַחֲנֵה פְלִשְׁתִּים וַיֵּלֶךְ הָלוֹךְ וָרָב וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל אֶל הַכֹּהֵן אֱסֹף יָדֶךָ.
14:19 But while Saul was speaking to the priest, the confusion in the Philistine camp kept increasing; and Saul said to the priest, “Withdraw your hand.”

Instead, Saul leads his army straight for the panicking Philistines (14:20), defeating them in battle (14:31).

What is the ark doing in Saul’s camp near Michmas instead of in the house of Abinadab in Kiryat-yearim? The sudden appearance of the ark in this story bothered an early scribe, who added the gloss כִּי הָיָה אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “for the ark of God was at the time among the Israelites.”[1] But this gloss only highlights the problem.

Travelling Ark

The traditional Bible commentator Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 1809–1879) argued that really the ark had no fixed home and was always on the move:

...כי מעת חרב משכן שילה לא היה מקום קבוע לארון, והיו מוליכים אותו ביום ההוא רצה לומר בעת ההיא עם בני ישראל בכל מקום שהתקבצו, ולכן בעת הלכו הגלגל לחדש שם המלוכה הביאו הארון עמם וכשיצא שאול משם אל הגבעה הוליכו עמו.
...For from the time the Tabernacle in Shiloh was destroyed, the ark had no fixed place, and they would bring it with them on that day, meaning to say at that time, with the Israelites, wherever they would gather. Therefore, when they went to Gilgal to renew the monarchy, they brought the ark with them, and when Saul left there for Gibeah, they brought it with him.

But this interpretation contradicts the simple meaning of the earlier ark story which claims that the ark remained in Kiryat-yearim as its permanent dwelling place until David took it to Jerusalem.

Sent for the Ark

An alternative approach, suggested by Arieh Bartal, David Tsumara, and others, is that just before the battle, Saul sent to Kiryat-yearim to bring the ark to the battlefield, and returned it there after his victory.[2] However, this is never stated, and it would be strange that a text goes out of his way to explain how the ephod made it to the camp says nothing about how the ark made it there.

The Septuagint: “Bring the Ephod”

The Septuagint text avoids the problem. It lacks any reference to the ark here, and reads instead (v. 18):

“Bring the ephod,” for the ephod was among the Israelites at that time.[3]

This also Josephus’ understanding.[4] In his retelling, when Saul saw the ruckus in the Philistine camp and realized that Jonathan and his armor bearer were gone, he “ordered the high priest to don his high priestly robes (τὴν ἀρχιερατικὴν στολὴν) and to prophesy to him what would befall” (Ant. 6.115). The ephod is listed as part of the high priest’s outfit (Exod 28:6–7), and Josephus apparently understands the divination to be an act accomplished by the priest being in full regalia.

Replacing “ark” in verse 18 with ephod comports well with verse 3 which describes Ahiah as carrying an ephod. Moreover, we know from other biblical passages that the ephod is used for divinatory inquiries: Micah, for example, consults with YHWH using an ephod and teraphim (Judg 18:5) and David’s priest, Abiathar, uses an ephod (1 Sam 23:9–11).[5]

Several modern scholars have suggested that the LXX represents the original text, with the MT a scribal corruption.[6] As these scholars note, the MT of Samuel is generally considered to be problematic, as compared with the LXX and Qumran fragments of the book.[7]

This solution goes against the principle lectio difficilior potior, “the more difficult reading is the stronger one.” While we can easily understand a scribe changing the problematic “ark” into the more understandable “ephod,” it is hard to imagine why a scribe would have turned ephod into ark. While errors surely occur, it is difficult to make the argument in this case, the MT text cannot be explained by one of the common causes for scribal error—“ark” was not mentioned earlier in the text, the word אפוד (ephod) and ארון (aron) do not look or sound similar—we should take seriously the likelihood that “ark” is the original reading, and make every effort to understand it.[8]

Changing Ark to Ephod

Building on the work of Leonhard Rost,[9] Philip R. Davies suggests that the ark in our story is different from the ark described in the story of the Philistine capture of the ark (1 Sam. 4–6). [10] He suggests that the story of the wanderings of the ark and the story of Saul’s rise derive from two different sources, and thus the author of the Saul story is not aware of the tradition that the ark was captured at the battle of Ebenezer or that it should be anywhere else other than by the side of the Israelite king.[11]

Davies argues that the ephod mentioned in the stories of the judges, Saul and David is an ark. Originally, wherever we see ephod in the stories of Samuel, it originally said “ark,” but the editor of Samuel changed all of these mentions to ephod to avoid the contradiction with the ark account that has it remained in Kiryat-yearim until King David brings it to Jerusalem. 1 Samuel 14:18, then, is the one place that the editor missed, and left the original language.

While this explanation explains the jump from ephod to ark in 1 Samuel 14, it goes well beyond the textual evidence.

Two Arks: Judah Ben Lakish’s Suggestion

In the Jerusalem Talmud, a little-known tannaitic sage named R. Judah ben Lakish suggests that there were two different arks in biblical times (j. Sotah 8:3 [=j. Shekalim 6:1]):

רִבִּי יוּדָה בֶן לָקִישׁ אוֹמֵר. שְׁנֵי אֲרוֹנוֹת הָיוּ מְהַלְּכִין עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר. אֶחָד שֶׁהָֽיְתָה הַתּוֹרָה נְתוּנָה בוֹ וְאֶחָד שֶׁהָיוּ שִׁבְרֵי הַלּוּחוֹת מוֹנָחִין בְּתוֹכוֹ. זֶה שֶׁהָֽיְתָה הַתּוֹרָה נְתוּנָה בְתוֹכוֹ הָיָה נָתוּן בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. הָדָא הִיא דִכְתִיב וַאֲרוֹן בְּרִית יי וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא מָשׁוּ מִקֶּרֶב הַמַּחֲנֶה. וְזֶה שֶׁהָיוּ שִׁבְרֵי הַלּוּחוֹת נְתוּנִין בְּתוֹכוֹ הָיָה נִכְנַס וְיוֹצֵא עִמָּהֶן.
R. Judah b. Lakish said: Two arks accompanied Israel in the wilderness. One that the Torah was in, and one that the pieces of the tablets were in. The one that the Torah was in was placed in the Tent of Meeting, as is written, “the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, had not left the camp” (Num 14:44). And the one that the pieces of the tablets were in would come and go with them.[12]
וְרַבָּנִן אָֽמְרֵי. אֶחָד הָיָה. וּפַעַם אַחַת יָצָא וּבִימֵי עֵלִי נִשְׁבָּה.
And the rabbis said, there was only one, and once it was taken out in the days of Eli, and it was captured.

The Talmud continues by finding textual support for each view. It notes that when the Philistines learn that the ark was brought to the battle against them, they reacted by saying that they never heard of such a thing happening before.

קִרְייָא מְסַייֵעַ לָהֶן לָרַבָּנִין. אוֹי לָנוּ מִי יַצִּילֵינוּ מִיַּד הָאֱלֹהִים [הָאַדִּירִים] הָאֵלֶּה. מִילָּא דְלָא חָמוֹן מִן יוֹמֵיהוֹן.
A reading that aids the rabbis is, “Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these [mighty] gods?” (1 Sam 4:8), since nothing like this had ever happened.

In support of R. Judah ben Lakish, the Talmud brings the verse about how Saul had the ark in his camp, despite the fact that the ark is supposedly in Kiryat-yearim.

קִרְייָא מְסַייֵעַ לְרִבִּי יוּדָה בֶּן לָקִישׁ. וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל לָאֲחִיָּה הַגִּישָׁה אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים. וַהֲלֹא אָרוֹן בְּקִרְיַת יְעָרִים הָיָה.
A reading that aids R. Judah b. Lakish is, “and Saul said to Ahiah, bring the ark of God” (1 Sam 14:18) – was not the ark in Kiryat-yearim!

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, R. Judah ben Lakish assumes that one ark was in Kiryat-yearim, while the other was with Saul in battle.

Eli’s Sons Brought the Wrong Ark: Yoel Bin Nun

Yoel Bin-Nun, a contemporary traditional scholar, adopts this view as the peshat reading. He draws a distinction between the ארון העדות “ark of testimony” with the cherubim, that was inside the tent of meeting, and ארון (ברית) האלהים “the ark of (the covenant of) God,” which held the ephod, the breastpiece, and the Urim veTummim, that the priests would take out to battle.[13]

In his reading, the sons of Eli took to battle the wrong ark, the one with the cherubim. This ark was then captured by the Philistines and eventually ended up at Kiryat-yearim. The ark of the covenant of God, however, remained in Shiloh, and was brought to Saul when he became king, and was thus in his camp during the battle.[14]

This suggestion is unlikely, and it reads too much into the story: Nowhere does the book of Samuel mention that the sons of Eli had two arks and brought the wrong one.

Multiple Arks

Over a century ago, William R. Arnold proposed that 1 Samuel 14:18 represents a tradition according to which Israel possessed many arks, which served as receptacles for various ephods and Urim ve-Tummim.[15] The latter idea goes back to rabbinic interpretation.

For example, Targum Jonathan translates v. 18 with the word קָרֵיב אֲרוֹנָא דַייָ “bring forth the ark of the Lord,”[16] but translates the phrase in the next verse אֱסֹף יָדֶךָ “withdraw your hand” as קריב אפודא, “bring the ephod.” Targum Jonathan is here imagining that the instruments of the high priest were stored in or with the ark.[17]

This is the dominant interpretation in the medieval commentators. For example, Radak (R. David Kimchi, 1160–1235) writes:

הגישה ארון האלהים – ר"ל האפוד האורים והתומים שהיו עם ארון האלהים לשאול בהם על יהונתן.
“Bring forth the ark of God”—meaning to say, the ephod and the urim ve-tummim, which accompanied the ark of God, so that he could ask them about Jonathan.[18]

This would explain why the ark was being brought over for divination—it carried the divinatory objects—the ephod mentioned earlier, and the Urim ve-Tummim, which will appear later in the story (1 Sam 14:41).

What Arnold is adding to this ancient view is that we are not talking about one ark with one set of priestly divinatory objects, but multiple arks with multiple sets of such objects. Arnold’s view can be supported when we look at the historical-archaeological-sociological reality of the early Iron Age.[19]

Regional Cult Sites and Their Arks

In the 12th–11th centuries, the tribes of Israel were settled in the central hills, with no central authority.[20] They lived in dozens of tiny hamlets, with no material signs of a political or economic hierarchy, such as monumental architecture at any particular site.[21] These villagers would not have had one central site such as envisioned in Deuteronomy, but multiple regional and subregional cultic sites.[22]

Biblical sources mention multiple places of worship: Mizpah, Bethel, Mamre, Gilgal, Mount Ebal, Ophrah of the Abiezrites and more, and archaeological research has uncovered the remains of even more Iron I cultic sites in the hill country.[23] Various cultic implements, such as stone altars, “standing stones” and figurines have been found in many of the excavated and surveyed sites.

What About Shiloh?

Although Joshua 18 describes setting up of the Tabernacle in Shiloh, which is traditionally understood as a central worship site in the settlement period, it really only features in a small subset of stories from Judges 21 through 1 Samuel 4. Moreover, 1 Samuel 3:21 indicates that only after Samuel was revealed as a prophet did “all Israel from Dan to Beersheba” begin coming to Shiloh.

Until that time, Shiloh was simply one regional cultic site in the Ephraimite hills, where one family of priests officiates. And after the story of the battle of Ebenezer, when the ark is taken, Shiloh disappears. Instead, Samuel is described as circling the Ephraimite hills, visiting different villages (1 Sam 7:16–17). Archaeologically speaking, Shiloh may have been larger than most settlement sites, but it was hardly a national shrine.

In addition to Ephraimite Shiloh, regional centers in the Benjamin hills, at Bethel or Mizpah or Gibeah or Gibeon or Kiryat-yearim, or even in more than one of these places, likely had shrines. Accordingly, each sanctuary would have had its own set of cultic equipment. For example, in the story of Micah and his home shrine, he crafts his own ephod and teraphim (Judg 17:5). This would also have been the case with arks. Indeed, we can confirm this archaeologically.

Arks in the Iron I

The Priestly text of the Torah describes an ark of acacia wood overlaid with gold, and with a solid gold cover in the form of cherubim (Exod 25:10–22), Deuteronomy, in contrast, describes the ark as a plain wooden box (Deut 10:1–5). Whether such structures existed or not is unknown, but there is no reason that arks would need to have been made from these materials in the time before the biblical texts were written or canonized.[24]

Indeed, two possibly relevant objects, one pottery and the other stone, were discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Judean Shephelah.[25] They were found in a clearly cultic context, together with a small stone altar, standing stones, and additional cultic items. The short-lived settlement at the site has been dated to the Iron Age I – IIA transition (late 11th - early 10th centuries), which is the time in which Saul would have lived according to the biblical chronology.[26]

Originally, the excavators suggested that these objects were indeed “arks”, but in later publications, they changed the nomenclature to “model shrines.”[27] The conceptions are not mutually exclusive, however, since these model shrines are small enough to be transported, and have hollow parts that can be used to store ritual objects. Other such objects have been found at Tel Rekhesh in the Lower Galilee, at Tel Rehov in the Beth-shean Valley and at Tell el-Far‘ah (north), northeast of Shechem, usually identified with biblical Tirzah.[28]

From the biblical depictions, we understand that the objects symbolized the presence of YHWH and as they are clearly built to carry things, they likely held objects like the ephod or Urim veTummim by which YHWH could be queried. If what we call “arks” were items that symbolized the presence of YHWH, we can assume that any priesthood with a regional shrine dedicated to YHWH would have possessed one.

So it is not surprising that Ahiah, the priest accompanying Saul to war, would have had one as well, and would have stored his divining equipment inside it. Thus, this story preserves a reality from the period before Israel had centralized temple sites, before the conception that there could only be one “true” ark of YHWH developed.[29]


March 24, 2022


Last Updated

April 11, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Yigal Levin is associate professor at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University. He received his Ph.D. in Land of Israel Studies from Bar Ilan University. Specializing in historical geography and in biblical genealogies, Levin is the author of The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah: 2 Chronicles 10-36 and co-editor of War and Peace in Jewish Tradition from Biblical Times to the Present.