The Temple Institute has just ordered production of the plans needed to build a new Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The group that is dedicated to seeing a temple rebuilt has already gone ahead and manufactured most of the furniture needed for the temple including the massive sacrificial alter.
The only thing they have not made is the Ark of the Covenant. And there is a reason they didn’t build one.
One of the great mysteries of the Bible is the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant, the most important piece of furniture in the Jewish Temple.
The Ark consisted of a chest made of acacia wood, about 4′ x 2.5′. It was overlaid with gold inside and out (Exodus 25:11). There was a lid on top made of pure gold referred to as the Mercy Seat (v 17) where two-winged cherubim (angelic beings) made of hammered gold sat on each end (v 18).
The Presence of God rested on the Ark between the two Cherubim which was why it was referred to as the throne of God (1 Samuel 4:4; Jeremiah 3:16).
The ark, which contained the Ten Commandments, was placed in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle of Moses and later in the Tabernacle of David. Its final resting place was the temple built by King Solomon (1 Kings 6:19). After placement, the temple was so filled with God’s Glory, the priests were forced to leave (1 Kings 8:10-11).
The last mention of the ark was in Josiah’s day (620 BC) who placed the ark in the temple (2 Chronicles 35:3). This implies that an earlier king had removed the ark from the temple, the guilty person was probably King Manasseh who set up idols in the temple.
The mysterious disappearance of the ark
However, this is when the mystery starts. When Israel fell to the Babylonians (36 years later) in 586 BC, they plundered the city including the palace and the temple and deported most of the Israelis into captivity.
The Jeremiah listing is particularly detailed down to the pots, spoons and pans.
But missing from each of these records is any mention of the Ark of Covenant. Considering the gold and its important religious significance, this would have been a prized item for the Babylonians.
As the most important item in the temple, it was not one the writers would have overlooked THREE times. So it seems the Babylonians never took the Ark.
Adding to this mystery was a prophetic word by by the false prophet Hananiah that all items taken from the House of the Lord to Babylon would be returned (Jeremiah 28:3).
When Ezra returned to build the second temple in 535 BC, he brought with him all the items taken and the list did not include the Ark of the Covenant (Ezra 1:7-11).
According to Jewish historian Josephus, after the temple was rebuilt the Holy of Holies sat empty. In 19 BC, King Herod renovated the temple and this was the one that Jesus visited. When the temple was razed to the ground in 70 AD by the Romans, the Roman General Pompey commented he couldn’t understand all the fuss as the Holy of Holies was empty.(4)
Since neither of these last two versions of the Temple had the Ark, somewhere between 620 BC (Josiah’s mention) and 586 BC (the Babylon conquest), the Ark mysteriously disappeared.
The Jews were well aware of its disappearance and rumors and conspiracy theories circulated about what happened to the Ark. One of the primary suspects was none other than the Prophet Jeremiah who ministered during the years the ark disappeared. Jeremiah was born about 650 BC and died sometime after 580 BC..
Hidden by Jeremiah the prophet
One of these conspiracy theories surfaces in the book of 2 Maccabees, an apocryphal book not considered part of the Bible, but with some historical significance.
In 2 Maccabees 2:2, the writer records that before Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon, Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant along with other sacred items and hid them in a cave on a mountain outside the city and sealed the entrance. (5)
Though the mountain is not mentioned by name, it is described as the one from which Moses saw Canaan — Mt Nebo (Numbers 33:47, Deuteronomy 32:49, 34:1). This required Jeremiah to remove the ark before Babylon began its year-long siege of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:1, 2).
The writer adds to the conspiracy suggesting that later some of Jeremiah’s companions — who helped hide the items — went back, but couldn’t find the cave.
The writer of 2 Maccabees says he got this information from the “Memoirs of Nehemiah” — an unpublished sequel to the Book of Nehemiah — as there is no mention of hiding the Ark in the Bible’s Book of Nehemiah.
Another apocryphal book — “The Paralipomena of Jeremiah” — which claims to be the final words of Jeremiah also states he hid the ark.
Though of questionable heritage, these documents nevertheless tell us that many Jews believed Jeremiah was behind the Ark’s disappearance.
Why would Jeremiah even be a suspect?
Well, there are a couple of reasons. First he had opportunity.
In order to steal the Ark of the Covenant, you needed access to the temple. Jeremiah was from the priestly tribe. He was born in Anathoth considered the ancestral home of the priests (Jeremiah 1:1, 29:27; 32:7).
This lineage would give him direct access to the temple or at the very least connections with those who had.
Secondly there was motive. Jeremiah had prophesied a day would come when the Ark of the Covenant would no longer be needed.
“It shall be in those days, when you are multiplied in the land, declares the Lord, ‘they will not say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord,’ And it will not come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made again.” (Jeremiah 3:16 NASV)
This is a curious verse because Jeremiah was prophesying the end of the Ark of Covenant as the most significant religious icon in Israel. Since the Presence of God rested on the ark it provided a vital connection with Jehovah.
What could replace it?
This prophetic word was looking ahead to the New Covenant, when the Apostle Paul explains that Christians are now the Temple of God, because the Holy Spirit is resident inside them.
“Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16 NASV)
Because of this, Christians have no need or even desire for an ark.
However, the same can’t be said for the nation of Israel, where conservative Jews have long standing plans to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
However, in his prophecy Jeremiah also said the Ark of the Covenant would not be rebuilt again, which may be the reason the Temple Institute has not build a new Ark of the Covenant and are hoping to find the original one.
Of course, because of Jeremiah’s prophecy it would be easy for the cynics in Jeremiah’s day to immediately suspect the prophet was behind the disappearance.
Now, it is possible God told Jeremiah to hide the ark because a time was coming when Israel would no longer need it. That part of the prophecy, for obvious reasons, was never publicly delivered.
Hidden by the priests
Another theory is that the Ark was hidden by priests in numerous underground catacombs underneath the Temple Mound before Jerusalem fell to Babylon. We know it involved a year long siege, sufficient time to hide the Ark.
We even have Biblical evidence that may support this theory. Three hundred years earlier, 926 BC, when Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak sacked Jerusalem there is another record of items taken from the temple, but again there no mention of the ark (1 Kings 14:25-26, 11 Chronicles 12:1-9).
However, when the Ark of the Covenant resurfaces later it tells us that Jews had hidden it somewhere in the city before the Egyptian army breached Jerusalem’s walls.
It is possible the same spot was used again when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem three centuries later. But, this time there were two significant differences.
When Babylon sacked Jerusalem, the priests were dragged off into captivity and with them any knowledge of the ark’s location. Secondly, the temple and city were demolished possible covering up the access to underground caverns. (6)
And because of this the Ark of the Covenant was never found.
The Ark ended up in Egypt
Others have speculated the Ark of the Covenant ended up in Egypt. In fact, the Indiana Jones movie — Raiders of the Lost Ark — is based upon this premise.
It again involves the prophet Jeremiah. After Israel fell in 586 BC, the Babylonians set up a puppet government in Israel. This didn’t go well with the Israelis still living in the land and they assassinated this Babylonian appointee (Jeremiah 41:1, 2).
At this point, the Jewish insurgents decided to flee to Egypt (v 17). But before leaving, they approached Jeremiah for a word and he prophesied they should remain in Israel and God would protect them and use the group to set the stage for Israel’s restoration to the land (42:10-12). If the group refused to stay, Jeremiah prophesied God’s judgment on them in Egypt (11-22).
They ignored Jeremiah’s word and packed their bags for Egypt.
But then a strange thing happened: they actually kidnapped Jeremiah and took him along (43:6).
Why would anyone drag along a disgruntled prophet who is railing on you for your decision?
Did the fleeing Jews — believing Jeremiah had hidden the ark — take him along hoping to find out where it was? In fact, the journey to Egypt would take them past Mt. Nebo.
In reality, they may have kidnapped Jeremiah for no other reason than to keep him from spilling the beans on their departure.
One interesting fact is that the descendants of this group of Jews eventually built a second Jewish Temple on the Island of Elephantine in Egypt. Yes, there were actually two Jewish temples in operation, as this second temple existed at the same time the Jews were rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah.
Did the Elephantine Jews have the Ark of the Covenant? From the letters found it doesn’t seem likely, but it provides room for speculation.
We even have a vague reference to the conspiracy about Jeremiah and the Ark of the Covenant in the Gospels.
In Matthew 16:13-14, Jesus asked His disciples who the people were saying the Son of Man was? One of the names they gave was “Jeremiah.”
A tradition widely held about Jeremiah is that at a future time he would appear and restore the Tabernacle and of course the Ark of the Covenant which the prophet had hidden.
More in this series:
- German archaeologist on the trail of the Ark of the Covenant by Roger Boyes (The Times: May 13, 2008)
- Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, Charles Pfeiffer ed. (Moody Press: Chicago, Ill)
- For example, Psalm 45:9, the word translated Queen is the Hebrew word “shegal” which simply means the king’s wife.
- Where is the Ark of the Covenant? by Thomas McCall, Th.D. (www.levitt.com)
- The history of the ark (Wyatt Archaeological Research: www.wyattnewsletters.com)
- According to Thomas McCall, Rabbi’s Shlomo Goren and Yehuda Getz feel the Ark is hidden somewhere in a cave in the Temple Mound. They believe it has been there since the Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon. Based on their understanding of the Talmud, the two believe there is a cave directly below the Holy Holies. In 1982, Rabbi Getz said he was close to this underground chamber, but his excavations were stopped by the Muslims. McCall says, “There is a large and growing group of Orthodox Jewish adherents who believe that the Ark is in the cave below the Holy of Holies, and awaits the right time for it to be found.” — Where is the Ark of the Covenant by Thomas McCall, Th.d. (www.levitt.com)
- The Ark of the Covenant altar found in Sheba’s palace (May 12, 2008: www.worldnetdaily.com)