The Ark of the Covenant



Dr. John Hoole – May 5, 2013







To begin our lesson today on the Ark of the Covenant, I want to look at the historical background.  The Book of Genesis takes us from Creation to the Jews becoming slaves in Egypt.  In Exodus 3, we find Moses at Mt. Sinai tending his father-in-law’s sheep.  It is at this mountain that Moses sees the burning bush that didn’t burn up, and where he receives his call from God.  And it is there that God gives one of His many promises to Moses.


Exodus 3:12 NIV


12        And God said, "I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain."


God tells Moses he will return to the mountain of Sinai, but next time he won’t worship here alone – the Israelites will be with him.  That tells us that Moses is familiar with the area to which he will lead the Israelites.  He had roamed and tended sheep in these deserts for many years.


As I mentioned, it is at this mountain that God appears to and speaks to Moses from a burning bush.  Fire will be a recurring theme in the Book of Exodus.  We will see it on the Mountain.  And in the last chapter of Exodus (40), we find the fire of God descending over the Tabernacle.  Sinai is the focal point of much of the revelation documented in the Torah.


Let me ask you a question.




They stayed at Mount Sinai for 11 months, 20 days – just less than one year.  Do you know how much of the Torah is given just for that one-year period?  The Israelites arrive at Sinai in Exodus 19, and they take leave in Numbers 10.  That’s 59 chapters out of a total of 187 in all of the Torah.  Almost one-third of the Torah is dedicated to the narration of only one year in the history of Israel.  And you will see that what happened at Sinai will put its stamp on the subsequent history of Israel


It is here at Sinai that God gave specific directions to Moses to create several sacred objects.  This was especially true of the Tabernacle in the wilderness and its furnishings, which were to be constructed after the pattern Moses saw in Heaven. Each of these objects express various parts of God’s covenant with His chosen people.


Israel carried these through the wilderness until they reached the Promised Land where they could place them in a sanctuary befitting their importance.  God gave to Moses explicit instructions to build a sanctuary for Him.


Exodus 25:8-9 NKJV


8       And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.

9       According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it.


Notice the last half of verse 9.  The word translated “pattern” means “model.”  Moses did not have documented plans but was to build each object according to the model God showed to him.


The very first object Moses was commanded to build, and probably the most significant, was the Ark of the Covenant.


Ex 25:10 NKJV


         10     And they shall make an ark of acacia wood…..


The Hebrew word for the Ark is “ARON” which signifies a box or chest.  Our English word “ark” comes to us through the Latin ARCA, meaning a chest.  In Genesis 50:26, the same Hebrew word (aron) is used for the coffin in which Joseph was buried.  I bring this up because our English Bibles do not distinguish between the ark of Noah and the Ark of the Covenant.  The Hebrew word, aron, is never used to designate the ark of Noah.  The Hebrew for Noah’s ark is Tebah.  Teba is also used of the basket into which Moses was placed on the River Nile.


A number of name variations are used in the Bible to describe this object.


                   The/an Ark (Exodus 25:10)

                   Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 10:33)

                   Ark of the Lord (Joshua 3:13)

                   Ark of the Covenant of God (Numbers 10:33)

                   Ark of the LORD’s covenant (1 Kings 3:15 NIV)

                   Ark of the God of Israel (1 Samuel 5:7)

                   Ark of the Testimony (testimony is a synonym for covenant) (Exodus 25:22)

                   Ark of God’s strength (2 Chronicles 6:41)

                   Ark of God (1 Samuel 3:3)

                   The Holy Ark (2 Chronicles 35:3)


The next word I want to investigate in the verse we read a moment ago is “ACACIA.”  The ark was to be constructed first from this kind of wood.  Acacia trees are native to the Sinai Desert, and was considered very durable.  It was so durable, that when the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) was done, the word “acacia” was translated as “incorruptible wood.”




The rest of verse 10, which we just read says:


         And they shall make an ark of acacia wood – two and a half cubits shall be its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height.  




Do we really know the size of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6:15), or the height of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:4), and the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:2)?  Each of these use the measurement of a cubit.


While the Bible tells us that the length of Noah’s Ark was 300 cubits, its width 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits, we must first ask, “How long is a cubit?”  The answer, however, is not certain because ancient people groups assigned different lengths to the term “cubit.”  Both the Babylonian and Egyptian cubit was longer than the standard Hebrew cubit.  The Hebrew word אמה [ammah], is the primary unit of measure in the Old Testament.




A cubit is a measure of length, representing the distance from the elbow to the tip of the fingers.  That is about 18 inches.  This is sometimes referred to as a standard cubit.  Ezekiel 40:5 mentions a non-standard cubit, which is defined there as a standard cubit plus a hand’s width, or about 22 inches.


Assuming the use of a standard cubit, what is the length, width and height of the Ark of the Covenant?  At 18 inches per cubit, it was 45 inches long, 27 inches wide and 27 inches tall.




Exodus 25:11 NKJV


11     And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and shall make on it a molding of gold all around.


The wood is to be overlaid with gold both inside and out.  We are not told how thick the gold is – whether thin gold leaf or much thicker.  The Talmud indicates two thin but substantial boxes, one placed on the outside of the wood and the other inside.


In the New Testament, Hebrews 9:4 reiterates the fact that the ark was covered with gold, both inside and outside.


Hebrews 9:4 NKJV


4       which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold,…




         The ark had a lid on it.




         Exodus 25:17 calls this lid a “mercy seat.”  This mercy seat was made of pure gold.


The mercy seat is described as a separate object from the Ark, but the command to build the mercy seat immediately follows the command to build the Ark.  And once they were joined, the mercy seat became inseparable from the Ark.  The Mercy Seat was held in place by a rim or crown of gold that surrounded the outer box.  This assured that if the Ark was jostled as they carried it, the lid would not fall off and expose the contents of the Ark.


The Hebrew words for “mercy seat” is KAPPORET.  Kapporet is found 27 times and always translated “mercy seat” in the New King James Version.  This Hebrew term has the same root as the Hebrew word KIPPUR, as in Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.”  And Kapporet (the mercy seat) could be translated “place of atonement.”  This should make sense since this is where the High Priest placed the blood once each year on the Day of Atonement as an atonement for sin.  The NIV actually translates Kapporet as “Atonement Cover.”


In the New Testament, the word Propitiation is the equivalent of “mercy seat” because it represent the sin offering1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10 refer to Jesus as our propitiation, or sin offering.




Verse 18 tells us that two cherubim, of pure gold, sat on the mercy seat.  Our English word “cherubim” is a transliteration of the Hebrew “keruvim.”


Exodus 25:18-20 NKJV


18     And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat.

19     Make one cherub at one end, and the other cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim at the two ends of it of one piece with the mercy seat.

20     And the cherubim shall stretch out their wings above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and they shall face one another; the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy seat.


We don’t know exactly what the Ark of the Covenant looked like.  Some models show the cherubim kneeling.  Other show them standing.  What we do know is that the wings of the Cherubim were stretched out above and over the Mercy Seat.  Some models show the wings touching each other, others with a gap between them.




The Two Staves  (Exod. 25:12-15)


Exodus 25:12-15 NKJV


12     You shall cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in its four corners; two rings shall be on one side, and two rings on the other side.

13     And you shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold.

14     You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, that the ark may be carried by them.

15     The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.


On each side of the Ark two gold rings were constructed.  Through these rings two staves made of acacia wood, overlaid with gold were placed for carrying the ark.  We don’t know if the staves went length-ways or side-ways.


In the wilderness, the staves were always left in the rings while in the Tabernacle.  This implies they were ready to carry it when God said it was time to move.  Numbers 7:9 says it was to be carried on the shoulders of the Kohathites.  These were the priests who were descendants of Aaron.


The Arks Contents


The Ark contained several sacred objects that demonstrated God’s presence among the Israelites in the desert.  They also served as a witness to future generations about God’s covenant with His people.


Pagan shrines held images of their gods, but in the Ark no such image was present because God forbid making an image of Him.  Rather, the objects in the Ark represented God’s demonstration of His Word.




1.      The two stone tablets on which the 10 Commandments were etched (Ex. 25:16).


Exodus 25:16 NKJV


16     And you shall put into the ark the Testimony which I will give you.


At the beginning, these two tablets were all that was placed in the Ark.  The words on these stone tablets had been written by the finger of God (see 31:18).


2.      Aaron’s rod that budded (Numbers 17:10).


Numbers 17:10 NKJV


10     And the Lord said to Moses, "Bring Aaron's rod back before the Testimony, to be kept as a sign against the rebels, that you may put their complaints away from Me, lest they die."


What did Aaron’s rod look like?  What kind of wood was it made of?  Almond wood – when it sprouted buds, it produced ripe almonds.  If you picture it as you would a shepherd’s staff, you probably would have a hard time putting it into the 45-inch ark.  It would have been more like a cane or walking stick.


3.      A golden pot filled with Manna (Exodus 16:33).


Exodus 16:33-34 NKJV


33     And Moses said to Aaron, "Take a pot and put an omer of manna in it, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generations."

34     As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept.


In the New Testament, Hebrews 9:4 mentions all three as being placed in the Ark.


Hebrews 9:4 (NKJV) speaks of “the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant.”


While all of these were associated at one time with the Ark, only the two tablets remained permanently with the Ark.


2 Chronicles 5:10 NKJV


10     Nothing was in the ark except the two tablets which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel, when they had come out of Egypt.