script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Tzemah Yoreh





The Two Arks: Military and Ritual



APA e-journal

Tzemah Yoreh





The Two Arks: Military and Ritual






Edit article


The Two Arks: Military and Ritual

Tradition and source criticism both see two ark traditions in the biblical text: The Ark of the Covenant and the Ark of the Testimony. The former accompanies Israelite troops into battle; it appears in Numbers 10 (וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן) and in the stories of battles against the Philistines and Ammonites in Samuel. The latter remains in the Tabernacle, serving as a seat for YHWH’s glory and revelation.


The Two Arks: Military and Ritual

Crossing of the Jordan River with the Ark of the Covenant, Juan Montero de Rojas, c. 1667. Museo del Prado/ Wikimedia

The Ark of the Covenant

In Numbers 10, the Israelites begin their journey from the Mountain of God (also known as Horeb) to the Promised Land. As they begin their march, we are told that the ark travels in front of them:

במדבר י:לג וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר יְ־הוָה דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים וַאֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה נֹסֵעַ לִפְנֵיהֶם דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לָתוּר לָהֶם מְנוּחָה. י:לד וַעֲנַן יְ־הוָה עֲלֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּנָסְעָם מִן הַמַּחֲנֶה.
Num 10:33 They marched from the mountain of YHWH a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of YHWH traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them; 10:34 and YHWH's cloud kept above them by day, as they moved on from camp.

The Ark leads the Israelites who follow behind, the way they were earlier led by the cloud (Exod 13:21–22), which now travels above them.[1] The text continues:

במדבר י:לה וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה קוּמָה יְ־הוָה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ. י:לו וּבְנֻחֹה יֹאמַר שׁוּבָה יְ־הוָה רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 10:35 When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: “Advance, O YHWH! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!” 10:36 And when it halted, he would say: “Return, YHWH, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands!”

These two verses, which bookend the Jewish Torah reading ceremony, imply that the Ark has a military function; YHWH accompanies the Ark into battle, and thus scatters the enemies of Israel before him. Accordingly, YHWH is described as equal to Israel’s myriads, an army in himself.

The Military Ark

The Torah never describes the ark serving a military function in the course of the wars fought in the Negev against Arad (Num 21:1–3) or the Transjordan against Sihon and Og (Num 21:21–35) and the Midianites (Num 31). Such a function, however, may be implied at the end of the scout story.

After YHWH declares that the current generation of Israelites will not be permitted to enter the land, because they doubted YHWH’s ability to help them defeat the Canaanite natives, the people have a change of heart and appear before Moses ready to enter the land (Num 14:40). But Moses warns them against this plan:

במדבר יד:מא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לָמָּה זֶּה אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת פִּי יְ־הוָה וְהִוא לֹא תִצְלָח. יד:מב אַל תַּעֲלוּ כִּי אֵין יְ־הוָה בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וְלֹא תִּנָּגְפוּ לִפְנֵי אֹיְבֵיכֶם. יד:מג כִּי הָעֲמָלֵקִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי שָׁם לִפְנֵיכֶם וּנְפַלְתֶּם בֶּחָרֶב כִּי עַל כֵּן שַׁבְתֶּם מֵאַחֲרֵי יְ־הוָה וְלֹא יִהְיֶה יְ־הוָה עִמָּכֶם.
Num 14:41 But Moses said, “Why do you transgress YHWH’s command? This will not succeed. 14:42 Do not go up, lest you be routed by your enemies, for YHWH is not in your midst. 14:43 For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will be there to face you, and you will fall by the sword, inasmuch as you have turned from following YHWH and YHWH will not be with you.”

Twice, Moses says that YHWH is or will not be with them. Whereas this could be understood metaphorically, in the sense of God will not help you in your battles, the following verse implies that this is a reference to the Ark:

במדבר יד:מד וַיַּעְפִּלוּ לַעֲלוֹת אֶל רֹאשׁ הָהָר וַאֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא מָשׁוּ מִקֶּרֶב הַמַּחֲנֶה. יד:מה וַיֵּרֶד הָעֲמָלֵקִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּהָר הַהוּא וַיַּכּוּם וַיַּכְּתוּם עַד הַחָרְמָה.
Num 14:44 Yet defiantly they marched toward the crest of the hill country, though neither the Ark of YHWH’s Covenant nor Moses stirred from the camp. 14:45 And the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow at Hormah.

The implication here is that had it been a campaign sanctioned by YHWH, the Ark would have accompanied them in battle, and that this is what Moses means by YHWH not being in their midst.

The Ark against the Philistines

The classic example of the Ark serving a military function is in the war between the Philistines and the Israelites. After the Philistines defeat the Israelites in the first battle, we are told:

שמואל א ד:ד וַיִּשְׁלַח הָעָם שִׁלֹה וַיִּשְׂאוּ מִשָּׁם אֵת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת יֹשֵׁב הַכְּרֻבִים וְשָׁם שְׁנֵי בְנֵי עֵלִי עִם אֲרוֹן בְּרִית הָאֱלֹהִים חָפְנִי וּפִינְחָס. ד:ה וַיְהִי כְּבוֹא אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְהוָה אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיָּרִעוּ כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל תְּרוּעָה גְדוֹלָה וַתֵּהֹם הָאָרֶץ.
1 Sam 4:4 So the troops sent men to Shiloh,[2] and they brought down from there the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH of Hosts Dwelling among the Cherubim; there Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were in charge of the Ark of the Covenant of God. 4:5 When the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH entered the camp, all Israel burst into a great shout, so that the earth resounded.

The Philistines are aware of the fame of the Ark and react accordingly:

שמואל א ד:ו וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ פְלִשְׁתִּים אֶת קוֹל הַתְּרוּעָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֶה קוֹל הַתְּרוּעָה הַגְּדוֹלָה הַזֹּאת בְּמַחֲנֵה הָעִבְרִים וַיֵּדְעוּ כִּי אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה בָּא אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה. ד:ז וַיִּרְאוּ הַפְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי אָמְרוּ בָּא אֱלֹהִים אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אוֹי לָנוּ כִּי לֹא הָיְתָה כָּזֹאת אֶתְמוֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם. ד:ח אוֹי לָנוּ מִי יַצִּילֵנוּ מִיַּד הָאֱלֹהִים הָאַדִּירִים הָאֵלֶּה אֵלֶּה הֵם הָאֱלֹהִים הַמַּכִּים אֶת מִצְרַיִם בְּכָל מַכָּה בַּמִּדְבָּר. ד:ט הִתְחַזְּקוּ וִהְיוּ לַאֲנָשִׁים פְּלִשְׁתִּים פֶּן תַּעַבְדוּ לָעִבְרִים כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ לָכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם לַאֲנָשִׁים וְנִלְחַמְתֶּם.
1 Sam 4:6 The Philistines heard the noise of the shouting and they wondered, “Why is there such a loud shouting in the camp of the Hebrews?” And when they learned that the Ark of YHWH had come to the camp, 4:7 the Philistines were frightened; for they said, “Gods have come to the camp.” And they cried, “Woe to us! Nothing like this has ever happened before. 4:8 Woe to us! Who will save us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the same gods who struck the Egyptians with every kind of plague in the wilderness! 4:9 Brace yourselves and be men, O Philistines! Or you will become slaves to the Hebrews as they were slaves to you. Be men and fight!”

In this story, the Philistines triumph anyway. This is a sign of YHWH’s displeasure with Israel, and makes clear that the Ark does not function as an automatic guarantee of Israelite victory: It is assumed by both the Israelites and the Philistines that YHWH accompanies Israel upon the Ark, but this story clarifies that YHWH’s aid is not automatic, and that it will only be given if he approves of Israel at the time.

Later in the chapter, YHWH makes it clear to the Philistines that despite their having captured the Ark, they have no power over Him: After the Ark is brought back as a trophy to Philistia, YHWH strikes city after city with a plague, until the Philistines agree to send the Ark back to the Israelites.

We see the Ark accompanying Israel in a military campaign again during Saul’s battle against the Philistines. When Saul wishes to find out something:

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 Ahijah, “Bring the Ark of God here”; for the Ark of God was at the time among the Israelites.

Later in the book, when David attempts to convince Uriah the Hittite to return home for the night to sleep with Bathsheba, we learn that the Ark is with Joab in the military camp while the Israelite army is laying siege to Rabbah, the capital city of Ammon:

שמואל ב יא:יא וַיֹּאמֶר אוּרִיָּה אֶל דָּוִד הָאָרוֹן וְיִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוּדָה יֹשְׁבִים בַּסֻּכּוֹת וַאדֹנִי יוֹאָב וְעַבְדֵי אֲדֹנִי עַל פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה חֹנִים וַאֲנִי אָבוֹא אֶל בֵּיתִי לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת וְלִשְׁכַּב עִם אִשְׁתִּי חַיֶּךָ וְחֵי נַפְשֶׁךָ אִם אֶעֱשֶׂה אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה.
2 Sam 11:11 Uriah answered David, “The Ark and Israel and Judah are dwelling in booths, and my master Joab and Your Majesty’s men are camped in the open; how can I go home and eat and drink and sleep with my wife? As you live, by your very life, I will not do this!”

These sources all show that the Ark would accompany the Israelites into battle, assisting them in defeating their foes by conveying the powerful YHWH in their midst.

The Priestly Ark: Communication with YHWH

This image of a Battle Ark contrasts with Exodus 25:10–22, where the Ark is first introduced. Here YHWH commands Moses to tell the Israelites to build the Tabernacle, and the Ark is one of the many pieces of furniture inside the Tabernacle, alongside a table, a lamp, and an incense altar.[3] This ark is a wooden box overlaid with gold, upon which is the kapporet, a solid gold cover with figures of two cherubs facing each other, wings spread and touching.[4] The end of the passage explains the function of the Ark and its kapporet:

שמות כה:כא וְנָתַתָּ אֶת הַכַּפֹּרֶת עַל הָאָרֹן מִלְמָעְלָה וְאֶל הָאָרֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר אֶתֵּן אֵלֶיךָ.
Exod 25:21 Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Testimony (ʿedut) that I will give you.

Here, the Ark is a receptacle for the ʿedut, “testimony,” an obscure term generally understood to refer to the tablets of the Decalogue. The kapporet is designed to be a place of revelation, where YHWH will meet Moses, and speak to him:

שמות כה:כב וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ שָׁם וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים אֲשֶׁר עַל אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
25:22 There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you— from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.
במדבר ז:פט וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים וַיְדַבֵּר אֵלָיו.
Num 7:89 When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Testimony between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him.

The Tabernacle houses the deity, more specifically, the deity’s “glory” or “presence” (כבוד, kavod).[5] Whenever the Tabernacle is stationary, YHWH’s Kavod is occupying the premises, with his cloud above the structure.

שמות מ:לד וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
Exod 40:34 The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of YHWH filled the Tabernacle.

When YHWH wants the camp to move, the cloud lifts and everything, including the Ark, is packed and transported by the Levites.[6] When Israel reaches the land of Canaan and settle there, the Tabernacle is set up in Shilo (Josh 18:1), and the Ark ostensibly becomes its permanent fixture.

Nothing in the texts about the Ark in Exodus implies that it should be carried by the army during battle. If anything, we are told that when YHWH is occupying the Tabernacle, even Moses may not enter it:

שמות מ:לה וְלֹא יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן.
Exod 40:35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Glory of YHWH filled the Tabernacle.

Even the High Priest could only enter it once a year for an atonement ritual, and even this had to be accompanied by elaborate preparations lest he encounter YHWH and die (Lev 16). This rule that nobody could enter the precinct while YHWH is occupying the Tabernacle is in tension with the image of Israelites carrying the Ark with them to use in battle.

Two Arks: The Traditional Solution

The tension between the two descriptions of the Ark was noticed by the rabbis. For example, Tosefta Sotah (7:18) records the following suggestion:

ר' יהודה בן לקיש או' שני ארונות היו אחד שיצא עמהן למלחמה ואחד ששרוי עמהן במחנה שיצא עמהן למלחמה היה בו ספר תורה שנאמ' וארון ברית ה' נסע לפניהם וגו' וזה ששרוי עמהן במחנה זה שהיו בו לוחות ושברי לוחות שנ' וארון ברית ה' ומשה לא משו מקרב המחנה.
R. Judah ben Lakish says: “There were two arks. One of them would go out with them to war and the other would remain with them in the camp. The one that went out with them to war had in it the scroll of the Torah, as it says (Num 10:33) “the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH was travelling before them”; the one that remained with them in the camp had in it the tablets and the broken tablets, as it says (Num 14:44) “neither the Ark of the YHWH’s Covenant nor Moses stirred from the camp.”

The same solution appears in the 3rd century C.E. halakhic midrash, Sifre Numbers 82, in a gloss on Numbers 10:33,[7] and twice in the Yerushalmi (Shekalim 6:1, Sotah 8:3),[8] which also quotes a dissenting opinion:

ורבנן אמרי ארון אחד היה ופעם אחת יצא בימי עלי ונשבה.
But the Rabbis say: “There was only one Ark, and once it was taken out, in the days of Eli, and was captured.”

The Yerushalmi continues by noting that, on one hand, the reaction of the Philistines in the story of Eli’s sons referenced above, seems to support the position of the rabbis, since if the Phillistines were panicking, the appearance of the Ark must have been unprecedented.[9] On the other hand, the stories of Saul and Uriah support R. Judah ben Lakish’s position.[10]

A hybrid position, which takes into account all of the Yerushalmi’s problems, can be found in the early 1st millennium midrash, Baraita deMalechet HaMishkan (ch. 6), which suggests that, as R. Judah ben Lakish suggested, there were two Arks. Nevertheless, it happens to be that Eli’s sons brought out the stationary ark and not the battle ark, which is what frightened the Philistines.[11]

The discussion in rabbinic texts shows that the rabbis noticed the problem, but due to their premise that all biblical sources must cohere, they were forced to invent a second Ark. Source criticism, however, allows for a different solution to the problem.

Critical Solution: Two Sources about the Ark

The non-Priestly stories in Samuel and Numbers 14 are working with the tradition of an Ark used in battle. This Ark is a vessel with extraordinary quasi-independent power not to be controlled by humans. This is why, for instance, Philistines are struck with plague when they take the Ark (1 Sam 5), Israelites die when they look inside it (1 Sam 6:19), and Uzza dies when he touches it, even though his intentions were good—he was trying to keep it from falling (2 Sam 6:6–8).[12]

Notably, the only non-Priestly source to describe what the Ark looked like imagines something much simpler than the Priestly Ark. This is from Deuteronomy, where Moses describes what happens after the sin of the Golden Calf:

דברים י:א בָּעֵת הַהִוא אָמַר יְ־הוָה אֵלַי פְּסָל לְךָ שְׁנֵי לוּחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים וַעֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה וְעָשִׂיתָ לְּךָ אֲרוֹן עֵץ. י:ב וְאֶכְתֹּב עַל הַלֻּחֹת אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ וְשַׂמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן. י:ג וָאַעַשׂ אֲרוֹן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים וָאֶפְסֹל שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים וָאַעַל הָהָרָה וּשְׁנֵי הַלֻּחֹת בְּיָדִי.
Deut 10:1 Thereupon YHWH said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. 10:2 I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark." 10:3 I made an ark of acacia wood and carved out two tablets of stone like the first; I took the two tablets with me and went up the mountain.

The text makes no mention of gold plating or a kapporet with golden statues of cherubim upon it.[13] Noting this, Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki 1040–1105) cites the Tosefta quoted above, and explains that this text is describing the Battle Ark.

Deuteronomy continues by describing that mobility is a feature of the Ark:

דברים י:ח בָּעֵת הַהִוא הִבְדִּיל יְ־הוָה אֶת שֵׁבֶט הַלֵּוִי לָשֵׂאת אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה לַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְבָרֵךְ בִּשְׁמוֹ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. י:ט עַל כֵּן לֹא הָיָה לְלֵוִי חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה עִם אֶחָיו יְ־הוָה הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לוֹ.
Deut 10:8 At that time YHWH set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the Ark of YHWH’s Covenant, to stand in attendance upon YHWH, and to bless in His name, as is still the case. 10:9 That is why the Levites have received no hereditary portion along with their kinsmen: YHWH is their portion, as YHWH your God spoke concerning them.

This text is envisioning the carrying of the Ark as a standard part of the Levites’ work, even once they enter the land, since this is meant to explain why they weren’t given land of their own. Carrying the Ark is not an incidental necessity during the wilderness wandering, but an essential function of the Levites, since the Ark may accompany Israelite armies into battle.

In contrast, the Priestly source is working with the stationary Ark, whose function is a place for God’s glory to dwell among the Israelites. The Priestly sources focus on the Ark’s aesthetic qualities, and the danger associated with it. The accompanying cloud remains above the Ark at all times to warn people off.

The Different Names of the Ark

The name of the Ark differs between these sources.[14] The non-Priestly sources[15] use many different names.[16] Many of these include the term בְּרִית “covenant,” and the most common longer name is אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה, “Ark of YHWH’s Covenant.”[17] Variations on this name include:

  • אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת יֹשֵׁב הַכְּרֻבִים—Ark of the Covenant of YHWH who Dwells with the Cherubim,[18]
  • אֲרוֹן הַבְּרִית—Ark of the Covenant,[19]
  • אֲרוֹן הַבְּרִית אֲדוֹן כָּל הָאָרֶץ—Ark of the Sovereign of all the Earth’s Covenant,[20]
  • אֲרוֹן בְּרִית הָאֱלֹהִים—Ark of God’s Covenant,[21]

Another set of names mentions only God without the term “covenant.”[22] The most common of these are אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה “Ark of YHWH”[23] and אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים “Ark of the God,”[24] but other variants include:

  • אֲרוֹן אֱלֹהִים—Ark of God,[25]
  • אֲרוֹן אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל—Ark of Israel’s God,[26]
  • אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים.. יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת יֹשֵׁב הַכְּרֻבִים—Ark of the God… YHWH of Hosts who Dwells with the Cherubim,[27]
  • אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים יְ־הוָה יוֹשֵׁב הַכְּרוּבִים—Ark of the God YHWH who Dwells with the Cherubim,[28]
  • אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם—Ark of YHWH Your God,[29]
  • אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה אֲדוֹן כָּל הָאָרֶץ—Ark of YHWH, Sovereign of all the Earth,[30]
  • אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל—Ark of YHWH Israel’s God.[31]

These terms often appear in the same texts as the previous list, and may have the covenant in mind even without using the term. The term covenant seems to refer to something inside the ark, which may be clarified by 1 Kings 8, where Solomon says:

מלכים א ח:כא וָאָשִׂם שָׁם מָקוֹם לָאָרוֹן אֲשֶׁר שָׁם בְּרִית יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת עִם אֲבֹתֵינוּ בְּהוֹצִיאוֹ אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
1 Kgs 8:21 and I have set a place there for the Ark, containing the covenant which YHWH made with our fathers when He brought them out from the land of Egypt.

When a covenant / berit is enacted, there is almost always an active element involved in concretizing it. Covenants in the Bible involve sacrificing animals, circumcision, walking between rocks, spraying of blood, etc.[32] The most common verb associated with berit is כ.ר.ת, which means “to cut.” This active element is ever present in biblical covenants. You have to do something very concrete in order to enter into the covenant. This active image fits well with the depiction of the Ark as a sign of God’s active presence in the camp, assisting Israel in war.

In contrast, the Priestly source does not vary its terminology, but consistently calls the Ark אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת (Aron HaʿEdut), Ark of the Testimony.[33] Like berit, the term ʿedut is a reference to the object contained inside the Ark (Exod 25:16, 21). Deriving from the Hebrew word עד (ʿed), meaning “witness,” the Testimony in the Ark is a reminder of YHWH’s laws and presence.

Testimony has different connotations than covenant, implying stationary passivity. In Genesis 31:45–52, a stationary rock or pile of rocks serves as a “witness” (עד) for the covenant between Jacob and Laban. Similarly, in his final speech, Joshua sets up a stone to function as a “witness” or “testimony” (עדה) to Israel’s commitment to worship YHWH exclusively. This is the primary way the priests saw the Ark, as the holiest piece of furniture, a reminder of YHWH’s presence in their midst.[34]

Priestly Appropriation

The Priestly Ark is part of an attempt by the Priestly authors to tame problematic ritual objects by incorporating them safely into the Priestly world of the Temple. In this way, they consolidate their power over the holy. We see something similar with their treatment of cultic objects such as the Ephod and the Urim ve-Tummim, which in non-Priestly sources are divinatory objects, and in the Priestly source are part of the High Priest’s outfit.[35]

In this case, they turned the Ark of YHWH’s Covenant, a powerful magical weapon used by the Israelites in battle, into the Ark of the Testimony, a piece of furniture, hidden away in the sacred precinct of the Tabernacle. While they go into great detail about the beauty of the Ark and its golden cover, which contrasts sharply with Deuteronomy’s simple wooden box, at the same time, they remove this dangerous object from the hands of the people. The only access any human being has to the object in the Priestly text is through the medium of YHWH’s disembodied voice calling out from between the cherubim.


June 11, 2020


Last Updated

April 10, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh has a PhD in Bible from Hebrew University, as well as a PhD in Wisdom Literature of the Hellenistic period from the University of Toronto. He has written many books focusing on his reconstruction of the redaction history of Genesis through Kings. He is the author of The First Book of God, and the multi-volume Kernel to Canon series, with books like Jacob’s Journey and Moses’s Mission. Yoreh has taught at Ben Gurion University and American Jewish University. He is currently the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.