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24 | The mysterious disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant


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I made an unusual purchase the other day. I bought the Ark of the Covenant.

Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this podcast I want to talk about the mysterious disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant and the ancient conspiracy theories that swirled around at the time because of its disappearance.

The Ark was a gold-plated box with two winged cherubim that sat inside the Tabernacle of Moses, the Tabernacle of David and lastly the Temple in Jerusalem. Between the two Cherubim rested the very presence of God and because of this, the Ark is referred to as God’s throne on earth.

Of course, what I bought was a miniature replica about 4” x 2.5” in size proportional to the original which was 4’ by 2.5’. But the similarity stops there, because I am pretty sure for $21.77 Canadian, my replica is not gold-plated like the original, but other than that it looks kind of neat.

The top even comes off my replica showing where they stored the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod and a container of manna in the original ark.

There was a recent story in the media of a big discovery in Old Jerusalem.

What archaeologists found was a layer of ash. Now that could have been anything from the remains of an old garbage dump to the sacking and burning of the city.

What confirmed the latter was the discovery of Scythian arrowheads which were the type used specifically by the Babylonian army.

So how did several Babylonian arrowheads end up in a layer of ash in Jerusalem. It was obvious to these archaeologists that this was evidence of the sacking of Jerusalem in 586 BC by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

The Bible provides a detailed breakdown of Jerusalem’s harrowing destruction in 2 Kings 25.

This passage even provides the name of the victorious Babylonian Commander, who was a guy by the name of Nebuzaradon, and tells how after breaching the walls, the Babylonian army burned the city, destroyed the temple and hauled thousands of Jews into captivity.

But as we read the account, we are also given a description of the booty the Babylonians looted from the temple in 2 Kings 25:13-18. Three other passages also provide a listing, Jeremiah 52:17-23, II Chronicles 36:18-19 and 2 Kings 24:13.

In all four passages, one critical item is missing from the list — the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark was the most important piece of furniture in the temple and there no way it would have been inadvertently overlooked four times.

These writers were making a statement – Nebuchadnezzar did not have the fabled Ark of the Covenant. It seems that when the Babylonians sacked the Temple, the Ark was not inside the Holy of Holies.

And the mystery deepens, because after the Persians conquered Babylon, they allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. Nehemiah returned first and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and then around 535 BC Ezra returned from captivity to rebuild the Temple and when he showed up in Jerusalem, Ezra also brought with him the items the Babylonians looted from that temple (that hadn’t been destroyed) and that list recorded in Ezra 1:7-11 did not include the Ark of Covenant.

Ancient Jewish historian Josephus reported what basically we can conclude from the Biblical text that the Holy of Holies of the second temple was empty. It did not contain the Ark of the Covenant. The Temple built by Ezra was the one Jesus visited after it underwent a major renovation by King Herod.

After the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, the Ark of the Covenant completely disappeared from history.

So what happened to the Ark of the Covenant? Who stole it and where did they hide it?

Well there are three main theories. There are a bunch of theories, but three main ones.

Believe it or not, the prophet Jeremiah is a primary suspect. In fact, several ancient writings pointed their finger at the prophet Jeremiah as the culprit who stole the ark.

So why was Jeremiah considered a suspect?

Well, if we treat the Ark’s disappearance as a criminal investigation, he fits a couple of the main criteria:

First he had motive.

In the lead up to the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem, Jeremiah prophesied that one day the Ark of the Covenant would disappear:

“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

Notice how Jeremiah said the Jews will not miss it and he even added that it will never be remade, suggesting that its disappearance would be permanent.

So if Jeremiah was prophesying that the Ark would disappear, of course he would be a prime suspect in this great caper of what happened to the ark of the Covenant.

Secondly Jeremiah also had opportunity.

Why?

Because according to the Bible he was born in Anathoth which was t considered the ancestral home of the priests (Jeremiah 1:1, 29:27; 32:7). This meant Jeremiah was a member of the priestly tribe of Levi who looked after the Temple.

To be able to take the ark, you needed access to the Temple or at the very least connections with those who did.

And because of this there were rumors circulating around ancient Judah about Jeremiah’s involvement with the missing Ark of the Covenant and some of them actually made it to print.

Three ancient letters stated that Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant and hid it. The most reliable comes from 2 Maccabees, though not considered scripture, 1 and 2 Maccabees are considered legitimate historical documents and both the Orthodox and Catholic church have included these two books in their version of the Bible.

The author of Maccabees described what happened:

Jeremiah Hides the Tent, Ark, and Altar
4 It was also in the writing that the prophet, having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God. 5 And Jeremiah came and found a cave, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense, and he sealed up the entrance. 6 Some of those who followed him came up to mark the way, but could not find it. 7 When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall be unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. 8 And then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.”

2 Maccabees 2:1-8 RSV

In this passage, the writer states that Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant probably before Babylon started its year along assault of Jerusalem and hid it in a cave on Mt Nebo and after doing that, they then covered up the cave’s entrance.

The writer then adds this tantalizing tidbit giving it a bit of conspiratorial twist by stating when Jeremiah’s supporters returned, they were unable to find the cave where Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant.

The writer of 2 Maccabees adds that he got this information from another book entitled the “Memoris of Nehemiah.” Since there is no mention of the Ark in the book of Nehemiah, this must be referring to another letter purported to be written by Nehemiah. We have not idea if it is fake or not, but that is just what the writer of Maccabees reported.

One other ancient letter also claims that Jeremiah hid the ark and that is the apocryphal book — “The Paralipomena of Jeremiah” — which supposedly contains Jeremiah’s final words and where he confesses to hiding the ark.

Though neither of these three books are considered absolutely reliable, they nevertheless provide evidence that many Jews suspected Jeremiah took the Ark of the Covenant.

However, there is a second theory floating out there that the priests working in the temple may have hid the Ark and I suspect this is probably what actually happened. This stems from the disappearance of the Ark that took place 300 years prior to Nebuchadnezzar’s attack on Jerusalem.

Around 926 BC, the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak sacked Jerusalem. Though he didn’t destroy the Jewish Temple, Shishak looted it and the Bible provides a break down of everything that was stolen from the Temple and similar to what happened with Nebuchadnezzar, there was no mention of the Ark of the Covenant.

But there was one big difference, after the Egyptians left, the Ark of the Covenant magically reappears in the Jewish Temple.

So where was it?

Under the Temple Mount there are several catacombs or caves and many suspect that the priests hid the Ark in the catacombs until the Egyptians left.

And having successfully hidden the ark once before, the priests may have hidden it again when the Babylonians attacked. Only this time it was different, the priests who knew were the Ark of the Covenant was hidden were either killed or hauled off into captivity (Jeremiah 52:24-27).

We also know the Babylonians completely destroyed the Temple and this may have resulted in several passages being covered over and cave-ins.

Some believe the ark is still buried somewhere in the Temple mount in Old Jerusalem.

There is a third theory, that the Ark of the Covenant actually ended up in Egypt. Of course, the block buster hit: Indiana Jones The Raiders of the Lost Ark is based on this premise. One of the spin-offs from this theory is that the Ark of the Covenant ended up in an Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, where according to reports it still remains today. Whether that is true or not who knows.

But where did the Egyptian theory come from. Well again, we got to turn back to Jeremiah, because it is based on something that happened to him.

With the growing threat of Babylon attacking Jerusalem, a bunch of rebellious Jews decided they would flee to Egypt. Jeremiah gave them a prophetic word that they should stay and added they would be in big trouble if they left. But they didn’t listen and then the strangest thing happens. According to Jeremiah 43:6-7, this band of men kidnapped Jeremiah along with members of the Royal court including some of the King’s daughters and took them to Egypt.

Now they may have kidnapped Jeremiah simply to keep him quiet about the fact they were fleeing Judah with members of the Royal court, but some have speculated that they did this because Jeremiah knew the location of the Ark of the Covenant.

Because this group and/or their descendants actually ended up building a fully functional Jewish temple on the Island of Elephantine in the middle of the Nile River that coexisted at the same time Nehemiah and Ezra were building the second temple in Jerusalem.

They actually created the furniture for this Elephantine Temple and it is possible they may have created a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, though we are not sure because there is not mention of it. This is all speculation of course.

This may be the basis to the church in Ethiopia that claims to house the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, it may just be the replica from Elephantine, or it may be the original, or who knows what it is.

But these are the three main theories on what happened to the Ark of the Covenant.

Curiously, there may be a subtle reference to the theory that Jeremiah hid the Ark in the Gospels. In Matthew 16:13-14, Jesus asked the disciples who the people were saying the Son of Man was. In addition to Elijah, one of the names thrown out was Jeremiah.

Why was Jeremiah mentioned?

Because tradition stated, based again on that story in 2 Maccabees that Jeremiah would return, restore the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant that he had hidden. Of course, that account in Maccabees contradicts what Jeremiah prophesied in the Bible.

The prophet said that the Jews would not remember it, nor would they miss it, nor would it be made again.

Jeremiah was essentially prophesying the end of the Ark of Covenant as the most coveted religious icon in Israel. Since the Presence of God rested on the ark it provided a vital connection with Jehovah.

What could replace it?

Is it possible Jeremiah’s prophetic word was looking ahead to the New Covenant? I believe the Apostle Paul was convinced it was when he wrote:

“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 Christ’s perfect sacrifice, the very presence of God no longer has to sit on top of a gold-plated ark in the Temple, the very presence of God can reside in each one of us.

We no longer need the Ark of the Covenant, and we don’t miss it. If this is true, then Jeremiah’s prophecy given to the Jews was fulfilled in the church, making the church the True Israel of God.

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