Start at Part 1. Back to part 7. This is part eight of a talk I gave at Beit Yeshua in January 2017, or at least I got through what I could in the time limits available, and what I did get through was well received. (The above image is of the ‘Chapel of the Tablet’ next to the St Mary of Zion church, in which the ark is believed to reside.)
I think this is potentially a clue as to what happened to the ark of the covenant. There are all sorts of theories out there, and one of them I think is the most likely. Before we look at the last Old Testament reference to the ark, I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I think that the most likely candidate for where it is, if it still exists, and I suspect it still does, is the Ethiopian town of Axum – or at least, it has been there until very recently. This is quite a popular theory, since for centuries the Ethiopian church has been absolutely adamant that the ark of the covenant has been in Ethiopia for 3000 years, since the time of Solomon, and has been guarded and seen only by a long succession of guardians, special monks who are virgins and guard and worship before the ark until the day they die – literally a job for life. The story that they firmly believe in is that when the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, she slept with him and conceived a son, Prince Menelik. He returned to visit his father many years later, and took the ark back with him. Some accounts say he or some from his entourage stole it and left a replica in its stead, others say that the Jerusalem priests, fearful of Solomon’s power and growing idolatry and apostasy entrusted it to the Ethiopians for safekeeping. We’ll come back to that later, but I have to say, I think that story is false; however, I do think the evidence for the ark being in Africa, and specifically Ethiopia, for a long time is pretty strong. I first became convinced of this as a teenager, and have never changed my view. I was persuaded by a book called ‘The Sign and the Seal’. It was written by a kind of journalist who was into sort of not exactly New Age, but that type of ideas – sort of esoteric Egyptology, Da Vinci Code and secret society stuff. The book has a lot of dross in it, but it also made some very telling points. Even if the ark has been there for a long time, it may not be now. There are several stories out there, and at least some of them must be disinformation. One story says that a mystery military team in helicopters knocked out the armed guards and the guardian with advanced knock-out gas, jack hammered through to the underground chamber in which the ark was kept and took it away by air in an operation that lasted an hour. Another story says that in 1991 a team of Israeli special forces, all Levites, arrived by air to take the ark secretly to Israel ready for a new Temple in a pre-arranged operation cleared with the church. Or it happened in August 2015, says another story. However, Ethiopian officials, including the Patriarch of the nation’s Orthodox churches, have repeatedly affirmed to this day that the ark of the covenant is still there, and the guardian monk is still there in his lonely office, and will on occasion still talk to Western tourists and journalists. In fact, in the last few years a new temporary chapel has been built to house it as the one built in the 60’s has developed a leaky roof. Now that’s a familiar tale to many UK churchgoers! My point in talking about this now is that you can see why such confusion and contradictory messages might be beneficial for the guardians of the ark. The Ethiopian church has faced in its history all sorts of challenges, including missions in medieval times of the Knights Templar, possibly looking to seize the ark for their own. Let’s say the ark is still there in Axum. The stories about it being spirited off to Israel could have been deliberately circulated because it would be protection – if hostile powers were interested, they now have reason to believe – wink wink, nudge nudge – from an unconfirmed and shady report that the ark is now under the protection of a mighty military nation. Similarly the story of theft – it’s already gone, don’t bother us. Sure, we still have the monks and the armed guards for show, but it ain’t here. On the other hand, if it has gone, if someone in the hierarchy of the church did deem it better for it to be back in Israel – and the Ethiopian church has always maintained that its long custody was only that of a caretaker and that the ark would go back to Israel at some point, then there would be good reason to keep that fact a secret and to offer deception. For a start, Ethiopian Christians would and have laid down their lives to protect the ark. It is said that the entire town of Axum would be prepared to die in its defence. They may not be happy with their leaders if they found out it had gone. And if confirmation that Israel had the ark in its possession, well, you can imagine what would happen. Jewish fanatics would demand the Temple now and the Arabs and Palestinian reaction would be …. well, you get the picture. Of course, it could also be that it’s all hogwash for the gullible – you can readily understand how vivid stories about a fabled object would quickly circulate – because you (probably)and I are just the sort of audience likely to be interested and / or willing to believe them. (We should also understand that it could be a replica – every Ethiopian church, and some other African churches – have a symbolic replica of the ark).
But this kind of situation, I suggest, why the priests and the bible writers were prepared to be disingenuous about the ark, precisely to protect it. The impression is given that the ark and its poles are still in the Temple, and were to the end, and yet that Temple had been destroyed when the relevant biblical passages got to their current form. For the final mention of the ark in the Old Testament, we have to go forward centuries to the time of King Josiah, the great reforming king who sought to banish idolatry, and restore the true worship of God to the Temple. The bible gives us two accounts of his reign and religious reform. The one in 2 Kings 22-3 does not mention the ark at all. The later account in 2 Chronicles 34-5 does mention the ark. When Josiah prepares to re-institute the national celebration of Passover, he has this to say to the Levites in 35v3:
Put the sacred ark in the temple that Solomon son of David king of Israel built. It is not to be carried about on your shoulders. Now serve the Lord your God and his people Israel.
For this reason, many will say that the ark of the covenant was in the Temple at Josiah’s time, and since it was only a pretty short time before the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, most likely the ark was seized or destroyed when the Babylonians took the treasures of the Temple to Babylon. A few argue that Jeremiah, who was from a priestly tribe, arranged for the ark to be moved to Egypt when he and others fled there after the Babylonian conquest, but the bible is quite clear that Jeremiah was forced against his will to go to Egypt, and besides there is not a hint of such an action in the biblical material that the ark went with them. Granted, if the bible writers were trying to keep quiet what happened, that wouldn’t be surprising, but still, Jeremiah did not go willingly. The passage in 1 Chronicles 35 goes on to describe in detail how the Levites obeyed King Josiah, emphasizing that they obeyed him in every detail about the Passover, but it never says that anything about obeying with regard to the ark of the covenant. It gives the impression that the ark was placed in the Temple at this time, but it never actually says that!