The Ark Symbol

The wedding ring, a circle with no end, symbolizes unending relationship. Right? What about the gold? Can the gold represent purity within the relationship? I’ve heard it both ways. Can it also symbolize commitment and promise? Well, yeah! And if we try to narrow the symbol down to one thing, will we miss some of the importance of the symbol? The marriage relationship should be thought of as unending and pure and a commitment. Everyone of these things is important. Symbols are like that. And yet, we sometimes want our Biblical symbols to embody only one meaning. Take the Ark of the Covenant for example. Does it symbolize the Presence of Yahweh? Does it symbolize mobility? Does it symbolize atonement? Does it symbolize the throne? Yes. Yes it does. And if we latch on to one of these meanings and declare, “This is what we are to understand with the Ark!” we may just miss something important.

In Exodus 25:10-22 Yahweh gives instructions for the construction of the ark. The word used in our text simply means chest or box. It was to be made out of acacia wood, which was light, strong, and durable. That’s a pretty good combination in a wood. The size of this chest was not impressive. Coming up with an exact measurement is impossible. Ancient measurements were not standardized. The measurement used here is the ammah which often gets translated “cubit” which comes to us from the Latin. It refers to the forearm. You see, not standardized. It could be anything from 17 to 22 inches. So, the chest would have been roughly 3 feet, 6 and a half inches long by 2 feet, 2 and half inches wide and high. Since it was overlaid with gold inside and out, it was probably a good thing it was not larger. The chest was to have four rings, two on each side, through which a pole, also overlaid with gold, were placed and kept permanently. The purpose of the poles was about holiness. Only the priest were allowed to carry it and even they were not allowed to touch the chest itself. Yahweh is too holy for their hands. And inside the chest they were to put the testimony; the tablet containing the Ten Words of Yahweh. The message of Yahweh is also intended to be considered holy.

Verses 17-21 are instructions concerning the covering of the chest. This covering often gets translated “mercy seat” or “atonement” and that is because the root word means “cover over sins.” It was before this chest that every year the high priest would make atonement for the sins of Israel. And here we have another symbol. This chest not only represents a holiness that cannot be touched, but it also represents a mercy, a covering over the sins of the people. Holiness and mercy dancing together in the same symbol. The covering was made of solid gold. Of course, this covering is the same length and width of the chest. On this covering, two cherubim of gold were placed. These are not chubby babies. I don’t know where that came from. These are the guardians of the garden after the fall. They are guardians of the temple in Ezekiel 10. They also appear to be transportation for Yahweh’s holiness. Impressive spiritual beings. No chubby babies here. These two cherubim faced each other with their faces looking down toward the covering and their wings spread out over the covering. This covering is to be placed on top of the chest. And it is here, above the covering, between the cherubim, that God would meet with the high priest who would represent the people. In Ancient Near Eastern literature and art similar chests have been described and depicted. The picture seems to be of a deity sitting above the chest, which would be a throne-footstool. God often used symbols that would be recognizable to the people. They would see in this box, not merely a container for the holy Ten Words, but a throne-footstool of Yahweh. They would see holiness and mercy. And most of all they would understand that Yahweh was present to meet with them.

So, God took a recognizable symbol and made it his own. Today, our symbol of atonement is the cross. Before Jesus the cross was already a symbol; a symbol of death; a symbol of punishment; a symbol of shame. God picked up that symbol and he made it his own. It still symbolized death, punishment and shame, but in God’s hands it also symbolized forgiveness, sacrificial love, and covering. He took a symbol that was meant to terrify and threaten and turned it into a symbol that offers grace and invites. And it is a rich symbol that ought not to be reduced to one meaning. The question we face is; how do we respond to the symbol? Later, the Israelites would be guilty of reducing the Ark of the Covenant to a mere magic amulet. Some wear a cross with similar intent. God is present. God atones. God loves. Peace, Walter