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Judi's Journal 08-05-2011

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Readers of the Lost Ark

By Judi Siegal

It is a box like no other in history. Shrouded in mystical power, holiness and spirituality, it has captivated the minds of archeologists and lay people alike. While its exact whereabouts is unknown having been lost in antiquity, moderns are left with only reading about the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant, called aron habrit in Hebrew, was a box or coffer that contained the Ten Commandments and the budded rod of Aaron. (The staff miraculously budded as a sign of Aaron’s lineage’s claim as the priestly class.) Though Judaism frowns upon physical images of any sort, the Ark was an exemption to this rule as it was felt that the ancient Hebrews needed a physical sign of God’s presence in their midst after the incident with the Golden Calf when they had tried to make a god out of the statue while waiting for Moses to return to the camp while up on Mount Sinai. This physical presence, called the shechinah, took the form of a cloud that hovered over the Ark indicating to them when to travel as they set foot on route to the Promised Land. At night, the cloud became a pillar of fire. According to legend, as they traveled, the mystical power of the Ark cleared the way of scorpions, snakes and thorns by emitting bolts of flame that shot from underside of the Ark and was carried into battle as a symbolic sign to motivate the Israelites.
Bezalel built the Ark as per God’s command. Its dimensions were two and a half cubits in length, by one and a half cubits in height by one and a half cubits in width, a cubic measuring about 18 inches. It was made of acacia wood and plated with pure gold inside and out. At the bottom of the box were four gold rings through which two poles of acacia wood were set allowing men of the tribe of Levi to carry the box on their shoulders. The top of the box had a covering of pure gold on which rested the figures of two cherubim, angels, facing each other with their wings touching. The space between the two angels was called the mercy seat and it was from there that the Lord appeared to the High Priest in the form of a glowing cloud on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.
Because of its holiness and power, no one was allowed to gaze upon it or touch it and to do so meant death. It is believed by some, that the Ark was a conductor of static electricity, so powerful that it could emit a jolt of power serious enough to cause death. This, of course, led credence to its mystical power and has captivated our attention even today.
After serving as a beacon for travel, the Ark’s final resting place was the first Temple built by King Solomon. It had served them well during their wanderings in the desert having been part of the famous march around the captured city of Jericho and as a conduit for Moses’ encounters with the Divine. Here the Ark was stored and used for ritual purposes until the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. After this act of destruction, the whereabouts of the Ark became part of history.
There are some who believe that during the reign of King Manasseh, the Ark was smuggled out of the Temple by way of the Well of Souls and taken to Egypt, eventually ending up in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Axum, Ethiopia, claims to have the Ark based on a story that Menelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought the Ark to Ethiopia. Once paraded around before the town once a year, it is now kept in a special guarded building where only the head priest of the church is allowed to view it. A recent segment on the National Geographic Channel had the Templar Knights bringing the relic to Ethiopia but many scholars debate this.
Other theories purport that the Ark is buried beneath the earth under the Moslem holy place, The Dome of the Rock, which some archeologists believe, is the site of the Temple Mount. This is the view of archeologist Leen Ritmeyer whose research has led him to conclude that he has found the spot on the Mount where the Holy of Holies was located. Unfortunately, this area cannot be fully excavated due to Muslim and Jewish sensitivities about this holy spot.
Today in the modern synagogue, the last vestiges of the Ark of the Covenant can be seen in the special cabinet that houses the holy Torahs. Often decorated with the Tables of the Law, it is a direct reminder of the fabled past of the Ark. Before the Torahs are taken out of the cabinet, the congregation rises in respect and a verse about the original Ark and its movements before the people (Num. 10:35) is chanted. A modern ark faces in the direction of Jerusalem where the Holy Temple once stood.
In pop culture, the Ark has been the subject of books and the iconic Indiana Jones 1981 adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the movie, the intrepid hero, Indiana Jones, rescues the Ark from the nefarious Nazis who want to harness the Ark’s power for evil. The box ends up in a storehouse somewhere lost in U.S. government bureaucracy.
Wherever the whereabouts of the Ark, one thing is certain. In time it will be revealed, perhaps in a messianic age of peace. Until then, I will just have to hum the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Sources: various online references including Jewish Virtual Library and New World Encyclopedia.