Ark of the Covenant
Everett R. Turnbull & Ray V. Denslow
Since the great Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem had been constructed for the purpose of housing a great Jewish Treasure — the Ark of the Covenant — it is perfectly natural for the average reader to want to know more about the Ark, its purpose, and how it fits into the Masonic picture.
As Freemasons of the Craft degrees, we concern ourselves little with the story of the Ark; it is not used as an article of furniture, or even as a symbol, in the degrees of the lodge, but in the chapter — the Capitular Degrees — it not only is used as an article of furniture, but much of the symbolism of the degrees revolves around this small box, or coffer, which contained treasures sacred to the Jewish people. And even after the Temple had been destroyed, the Ark (although an imitation of that which dwelled in the First Temple) continues to be a Great Symbol of Capitular Freemasonry, and to figure largely in the drama of the Royal Arch Degree.
And it is to this drama of Discovery that the Royal Arch degree owes much of its interest and value to the Craft Mason. In no other rite or degree does the Ark enter so much into our symbolism as it does in the Royal Arch. True, there are explanations given in the degree of Select Master as to how the imitation Ark came to be deposited, but it does not enter into the work of the degree.
WHAT WAS THE ARK?
We first learn of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus (25:10–21), where, after commanding the people to build Him a sanctuary "that may dwell among them," it is commanded:
"And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the hight thereof. (3 feet 9 inches by 2 feet three inches by 2 feet 3 inches. )"
"And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, within and without shalt thou overlay it' and shalt make upon it a crown of gold round about.
"And thou shalt make staves of shittim wood, and overlay them with gold.
"And thou shalt put the staves into the rings by the sides of the Ark, that the Ark may be borne with them. The staves shall be in the rings of the Ark; they shall not be taken from it.
"And thou shalt put into the Ark the testimony which I shall give thee.
"And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof.
"And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. "
"And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof.
"And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.
"And thou shalt put the mercy seat above the Ark; and in the Ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee."
And then, by way of explaining the use for such an article of furniture, as well as explaining the origin of the name "Ark of the Covenant," it is added (Exodus 25:22):
"And there I will meet with thee, and I will command with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the Ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel."
And thus did God enter into a Covenant with his people Israel to commune with them at the place of his visible Presence — the Ark — and thereafter the Ark of the Covenant represented to the Jewish People, the Great Symbol and a Covenant which God was pleased to keep so long as the Jewish people remained faithful to their part of thc Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant was fashioned by a Master Craftsman, Bezaleel, referred to in Exodus 37:1–5:
"And Bezaleel made the Ark of shittim wood." (Here follows a description of how he made it after the order given in Exodus 25:10–21.)
The Ark was seated in that section of the Tabernacle, or Temple, known as the Most Holy Place, or Sanctum Sanctorum (Holy of Holies). We are informed by tradition that the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies but once a year and that on such occasions he pronounced aloud the Great and Sacred Name, but the multitude on the outside did not hear the Name for the reason that bells were sounded and only the walls of the Holy Place responded to the pronunciation of the Name which only the High Priest knew.
High Priests did not enter the Holy of Holies without due preparation, a form set up by Holy Writ (Leviticus 16:1–2):
"And the Lord spake unto Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered before the Lord, and died.
"And the Lord said unto Moses, speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil before the mercy seat, which is upon the Ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat."
And then he proceeds to set forth the method of preparation and sacrifice (Leviticus 16:3):
"Thus shall Aaron come into the Holy Place; with a young bullock for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering, etc.
A certain tribe was charged with custody of various Holy Vessels. The Bible tells us of those who looked after the Ark. (Numbers 3:27–32):
"And of Kohath was the family of the Amramites . . . and the chief of the house of the father of the families of the Kohathites shall be Elixaphan, the son of Uzziel. . . . And the families of the sons of Kohath shall pitch on the side of the tabernacle southward . . . and their charge shall be the Ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary wherewith they minister, and the hanging, and all the service thereof. And Eleszar the son of Aaron the priest shall be chief over the chief of the Levites, and have the oversight of them that keep the charge of the sanctuary."
There is Biblical evidence of the communion of Moses with God before the mercy seat (Numbers 7:89):
"And when Moses was gone into the Tabernacle of the congregation to speak with him, then he heard the voice of one speaking unto him from off the mercy seat that was upon the ark of testimony, from between the two cherubims: and he spoke unto him."
The Ark accompanied the Israelites on their various wanderings (Numbers 10:33–36):
"And they departed from the mount of the Lord three days' journey; and the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them.
"And the cloud of the Lord was upon them by day, when they went out of the camp.
"And it came to pass, when the Ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered ; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.
"And when it rested, he said, Return O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel."
In Deuteronomy 10:1–8, we learn that the tables of stone found refuge in the Ark and became an additional treasure for the sanctuary. In the same Book (31:24–26) it is written:
"And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of the Law in a book, until they were finished. That Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, saying: Take this Book of the Law, and put it in the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee."
It is left to Joshua (3:1–17) to tell of the power vested in the Ark when the passage was made through the waters of the Jordan. But care had to be exercised in carrying the Ark. The Book of Samuel II (6:6–8) describes what happened to one of the carriers of the Ark.
"Uzzah put forth his hand to the Ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it (it was being removed and Uzzah attempted to keep it from tipping over by holding forth his hand against it.) And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the Ark of God."
This act so disturbed David who was superintending the removal of the Ark, that he took tke Ark into the home of Obed-edom where it remained for several months. The household of Obed-edom became so blessed that David decided upon again attempting the removal to Jerusalem, which act was successfully carried out. Here it remained during the Tabernacle period.
The story of the building of the Temple is told in the Book of Kings; in Chronicles (6: 1–49) is given a complete list of the sons of the Kohathites and the appointment of Aaron and his sons to priesthood duties. In Chapter 13 of Chronicles I we have the story of the bringing up of the Ark, and in Chapter 15 of the same book is the story of its being seated in the new tabernacle.
One of the most pathetic scenes of the Bible is told in Chapter 28 of Chronicles I. It is the story of David and why he was not permitted to engage in the work for which he had devoted most of his life. Here, David tells his own story:
"And David assembled all the Princes of Israel, the Princes of the Tribes, and the captains of the companies that ministered to the king by course, and the captains over the hundreds . . . then David the King stood up upon his feet, and said: `Hear me, my brethren, and my people: as for me, I had in mine heart to build an house of rest for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord and for the footstool of our God, and had made ready for the building, but God said unto me: "Thou shalt not build an house for my name, because thou has been a man of war and hast shed blood; . . . and he said unto me `Solomon, thy son, he shall build the house for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father.'"
And so it remained for Solomon to build the House of God, and later to bring up the Ark and place it within what was expected to be its final resting place. If our readers are interested in the dedication, and all Most Excellent Masters should be, we suggest a reading at this time of II Chronicles.
THE ARK IN JEWISH LIFE
The Ark was to the Jewish people their greatest treasure. When the Ark disappeared from Jewish history, something went out of the Jewish people that was never replaced. Nothing ever proved to be a substitute.
From a long association with the Ark, from the traditions which grew up about it, and from the fact it was identified so closely with the religious life of the people, it became the very center around which the religion of the Jews was builded and maintained. By reason of this, it became a sort of fetish to which the people looked for guidance and protection.
When the people marched from Sinai, the Ark preceded and became the signal for the advance; when the Jordan was reached, it is recorded that the waters dried up when the feet of the priests carrying the Ark first touched the waters. When Jericho was besieged, the Ark was carried daily in procession around the walls preceded by armed forces and followed by priests. It was present when Joshua read the law to the people at Mt. Gerizim; it was at Shiloh when the Israelites fought and were defeated by the forces of Benjamin; it was present in battle when the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines. Here the Ark was captured but it proved to be such a questionable treasure that the Philistines soon returned it to its original owners.
The Ark headed the procession which marched from Kirjathjesrim to Jerusalem, where it was placed within the tabernacle. It is recorded that Solomon worshipped before the Ark, and Jewish tradition tells us that a processional hymn was sung dedicated to the Ark:
Rise, O rise, thou acacia chest! Move along, move along in thy great beauty! Skilfully wrought with thy golden ornaments! Highly revered in the sanctuary's recesses! O'ershadowed between the twin Cherubim!
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ARK
What happened to the Ark is one of the Biblical mysteries and various ideas have been advanced by writers ancient and modern. General tradition, and that of Freemasonry, teaches that it was taken, along with other holy vessels, to Babylon when the City of Jerusalem was captured. This idea has reason to back it up, for it is very probable that the Babylonians, having taken the Holy City, would attempt to punish the Jews by taking away those articles most revered by the Jewish people; then, again, the holy vessels and the Ark were made of gold, a metal esteemed highly even in the days of Nebuchadnezzar; there was no Fort Knox in those days, but the royal treasury offered a satisfactory place in which to deposit such treasures.
There was a school of Jewish thought which taught that the Ark was hidden in one of the underground apartments of the Temple when Jerusalem was sacked, and that the Babylonians were compelled to return to Babylon without the treasure chest. Others say that King Josiah hid the Ark fearing that if taken to Babylon it would never be returned.
Masonic tradition tells us that the Ark was taken to Babylon and we are taught that when the Israelites were permitted to return to rebuild the City, the holy vessels were taken back. But we have no statement of any kind to prove that the Ark constituted one of the articles of furniture which was restored, and we also know, if taken back, it never again occupied a place in any of the restored temples. As Royal Arch Masons we concern ourselves with a substitute Ark just as our craft brethren concern themselves with a substitute word. And so far as our traditions and symbolism are concerned we are just as well off with the substitute as with the original, and the whole story forms a mystifying and interesting tale of ancient times around which we have built some highly significant ritual.
WHAT DID THE ARK CONTAIN?
Biblical and Masonic references give complete descriptions of those things contained in the Ark, and of how they came to be placed there.
First, there was the omer full of manna, the story of which is related in Exodus (16:1–36). The Jewish people had been wandering in the wilderness and suffering for lack of food. It was then that God caused manna to fall from heaven by which they were fed. In order to perpetuate the memory of this act of God they were commanded to lay up an omer of it.
"To be kept for your generations; that they may see the bread wherewith I have fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you forth from the land of Egypt.
"And Moses said unto Aaron, take a pot, and put an omer full of manna therein, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generstions. As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the testimony, to be kept."
It seems that Moses had almost as many troubles as did Job. The people were always "murmuring" against him, much as some of our present-day elements murmur. Moses lacked a WLB, a WPB and an REA, but had the wisdom of a Solomon. When a dispute arose as to what tribe should serve as the priesthood, Moses diplomatically suggested that each tribe should select a rod, writing on it the name of the head of the tribe, and then lay these rods up before the Ark. When, Presto! All of the rods had withered, decayed and dried up, with the exception of that which contained the name of Levi — and his rod not only had budded, but had borne fruit. Such a miraculous appearance settled the vexed question — Levi got the priesthood and from then on became the favored tribe of all Israel. To perpetuate such an important event and also to impress the fact upon the people, we learn (Numbers 17:10):
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Bring Aaron's rod again before the testimony to be kept for a token against the rebels. . . . And Moses did so."
The most important article contained in the Ark was the Book of the Law and it was placed there by divine order. Just before Moses was taken to Nebo to die, he had completed writing the words of the law in a book and in Deuteronomy (32:24–26) we find:
"And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, that Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, saying Take this Book of the Law, and put it in the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee."
The Ark therefore contained Aaron's Rod, a Pot of Manna, and the Book of the Law, reminders of important events in the life of the people; first, when they were fed by divine assistance; again, when the question arose as to the priesthood, and finally, the writing of God's Laws in a Book by Moses who had communed with God on Sinai and who was unwilling to die without conveying to his people instructions which he had received from heaven. Some claim that the Ark contained only the two tablets of the Law but we follow the Masonic tradition and the Scriptures.
Thus, in brief, we have given you the story of the Ark, its beginning, its use, and its place in Jewish and Biblical history; at the same time we have touched upon its place in Freemasonry. Its place in symbolism is just what our readers care to make of it.
The Ark of the Covenant appears but once in the Freemasonry of the American Rite, and quite properly so, its appearance in one of the ceremonial processions of the degree of Most Excellent Master, constituting one of the high spots of the degree. The degree itself refers to the completion and dedication of the Temple; the Temple having been erected as a dwelling place for the Ark, it is only natural and proper that the reception of that Ark into the Temple should have been attended by a processional of the greatest magnificence. The placing of the Ark and the Holy Vessels, the ceremony of Dedication, and the inspiring things which happened on that occasion are well portrayed only in the degree of Most Excellent Master and the Master Mason who fails to receive this beautiful degree has left a great void in his Masonic life.
Capitular Masons are taught that the temple upon which they have labored for seven symbolic years is nothing more than the Temple of the Inner Life; that the countries into which they are expected to travel as Freemasons and Masters, is that Undiscovered country from which no traveler returns; that the wages they are to receive is the reward of a well-spent life and the knowledge of Divine Truth which the Grand Master Architect has promised to all who serve him faithfully and well. The last act in the construction of the physical temple was to place the keystone or copestone in its proper place, thereby completing the Temple.
The Keystone represents the work of each individual craftsman; it is his life's work. It is not just a plain stone planed and surfaced by an average craftsman, but it is a beautiful piece of work upon which the craftsman has expended his greatest and best labor. It is, in fact, the craftsman's character! And how appropriate it should be, that when the Inner Temple of the Craftsman was completed, that it should be bound together by the Keystone representing character, for no spiritual temple may ever be said to be completed without the presence of Character. Character may not in all instances be recognized in the individual, except after due trial and investigation, but however often it may be rejected, in the end it shall be discovered and appear to assume its proper place in the Arch of the Spiritual Temple.
The Temple of Solomon was built to house the Ark of the Covenant, as we have seen; it was not fully completed until the Ark had been safely seated. He has seen the Ark of the Covenant placed within the sanctum sanctorum completing the pledges and prophecies of the Jewish people, but he may not understand the significance of the act as applies towards himself. But the true student of symbolism does not overlook the fact that however beautiful a structure may be, it does not fulfill its destiny unless it is built for a definite purpose, and how well it may do so depends upon how well it fulfills that purpose. The Temple of Solomon proved to be the perfect structure so far as being adapted to contain the Ark and to offer every facility for carrying out the proscribed worship. But it was the Ark which gave life to the structure and strength and unity to the Jewish people.
In a like manner we may say that our Conscience, or our spiritual body, represents the Ark of the Covenant in its relations to the spiritual Temple which we are erecting. It is that Divine spark, the spark of life, without which there would be no reason for our spiritual body. And when the Divine spark or Ark is taken out of the body, then there ceases to be interest in that body. The spirit represents that Covenant which the Grand Architect has made with man — that so long as he labors in the cause of Truth, just so long will God continue to bless him and watch over him.
How joyful should be the Most Excellent Master as he carries up the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy Place, when he knows that he is symbolically carrying up and depositing in his own sanctum sanctorum a spark of the Divine, a spark which will illumine his soul so that he may indeed become a Son of God, an illumined soul, and a bearer of the Torch of Truth.
The Ark of the Covenant long ago disappeared, and today only a remembrance of it is maintained in the Ark of Testimony found in all Jewish synagogues, but to Royal Arch Masons the Ark of the Covenant continues to live in the heart of each initiate And there the God of our Fathers continues to commune with him as "that wee small voice," the voice of our conscience, and in that way the Ark is just as real to each of us as it was in the days when it was enshrined in the Most Holy Place and was venerated by the thousands.
The Ark has now become a personal Ark! And the Kingdom of God dwells in the hearts of all his people!