There is (or was) a wooden chest, covered in pure gold, with an elaborately designed lid called the mercy seat. In history, it is called the Ark of the Covenant. This is believed to be the most sacred relic of the Israelites. But in 597 and 586 B.C., the Babylonian Empire conquered the Israelites. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Ark, stored in the Temple, disappeared from history. No one knows for sure whether it was moved, destroyed, or hidden. What we do know is that it is still missing. The Ark was so sacred that touching it meant instant death. Stored in the Temple of Jerusalem’s holiest chamber, only the high priest was allowed in its presence and only once a year. Everything about the contents of the Ark of the Covenant is a mystery. It hasn’t been seen for nearly three thousand years. All we know about the Ark and its contents is what the Bible tells us. And what is written in the Bible was written long after the Ark disappeared.
(Hebrews 9:1-5)1NIV New International Version Translations – “Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.”
According to the Hebrews, the Ark of the Covenant contained the two stone tablets with the original ten commandments written upon them, Aaron’s rod (staff), and a gold jar containing manna. Why these three items? Let’s see if we can understand the importance of the Israelites and our faith even today.
The Stone Tablets of the Ten Commandments
Rabbinical Judaism as found in the Talmud and Mishnah (written collection of the Jewish oral traditions known as the Oral Torah) teaches that the tablets of the Law were made of blue sapphire stone (also called lapis lazuli)2(Obadiah Bertinoro on Mishnah, Avot 5:6. Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 38a). Scripture supports this. “And saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.” (Exodus 24:10). Since the lapis is the only stone mentioned in this context, we can conclude that this is the stone that God used to write on. The Bible also says that God not only engraved the Ten Commandments, but He also made the stone: “The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.” (Exodus 32:16).
Why were there two Ten Commandments Tablets? It is not because the commandments would not fit on one. Hollywood got this all wrong. Half of the commandments were not on the front of each stone tablet. Scriptures describe the tablets in detail and tell us there is writing on both the front and the back of each tablet. The tablets, in Exodus 32:15, are more accurately described “Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back.” There were two copies of a Covenant Oath, where each party had a copy. This is not unlike our legal contracts of today. Both God and the descendants of Abraham had entered into a binding agreement. Both testimony documents would be required for the agreement to be lawful and enforceable on both parties to the covenant. They were kept together in the Ark of the Covenant. That is why it is called the Ark of the Covenant because it houses the two testimony tablets of the covenant. The agreement, the Covenant, was simply that God would be the eternal provider of care in exchange for the commitment of His people to follow the terms of the contract (covenant). If you had a written contract of any form that affected your livelihood, you too would consider it important.
Manna in a Gold Jar
The manna (mon) was the miraculous edible substance that fell each morning as dew from heaven during the 40 years between the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Israel of the promised land. You need to stop and think about that for a moment. For 40 years, God would provide sustenance to the people of Israel as they traveled across a desert. The manna would last only for that day and could not be stored up. One exception, the manna that fell as dew on the day before the Sabbath would last until the Sabbath was over. Each evening, the Israelites would find quail for meat. There could be no greater proof of God’s Covenant to His people than His demonstration of this sustenance for their travels and their faith in His provisioning.
(Exodus 16:33-34) – “So Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar and put an omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.”
Moses was instructed by God to preserve an omer (3.7 Quarts) of manna as a reminder of the bread He gave them to eat in the wilderness on their escape from Egypt. God had kept His Covenant with His people. Whether it would last beyond a day or not is often debated. But again, God could have preserved the manna forever if He wished.
The Budding of Aaron’s Staff
(Numbers 16:1-7) – “ Korah son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and certain Reubenites—Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”
Moses ran into a leadership problem. A few of the Levites became disgruntled about the extra authority given to Moses and his older brother, Aaron. Korah, who was also a Levite, joined with two others, Dathan and Abiram, to incite a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. To put an end to the unrest, God commanded Moses to have the leader of each tribe of Israel bring his rod or staff to the tent of meeting, with Aaron’s rod representing the tribe of Levi. Each of the twelve leaders was to have his name inscribed on his rod. The Lord told Moses, “The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.” (Numbers 17:5). They left their rods before the Lord, and in the morning, Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had blossomed and produced almonds. (Numbers 17:8). This was a clear demonstration of the power of the One who gives life. God then instructed Moses to place Aaron’s staff permanently with the Ark of the Covenant to serve as a warning to future rebels.
Aaron’s rod would become the perfect metaphor to represent the priesthood itself. It would solidify Aaron as the head of God’s church as the Israelites moved onto the promised land. Christ would later go on to ordain His apostles and ministers to those same goals, that they should go forth and bring fruit, and that their fruit should remain for the people.
(John 15:5-8) – “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me ,you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire , and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
No wonder the Ark of the Covenant was considered the most sacred of artifacts! But do we hold anything sacred anymore? What would you fill the ornate box with today?
- The Ark of the Covenant represented God’s contract with humanity.
- The Covenant included God’s Laws for humanity to follow.
- The gold jar of Manna would represent the outstanding patience, reliability, and provisioning of God to sustain us even when it seems impossible. That was God’s end of the bargain!
- Aaron’s Staff (rod) would serve to remind everyone that even death can be defeated by God. As it was through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and Christ’s resurrection, even a dead stick can bud, blossom, and bear fruit through God.
- What makes something sacred?
- Ideas to Explore: Is it up to God? Can humankind make something sacred without God? Who chose the items that would be gathered within the Ark of the Covenant?
- What things do you consider sacred in your life?
- Ideas to Explore: Are there examples of God’s handiwork or His provisioning in your life? Do they represent things along your faith journey when God seemed closest? Are they people, things to remember events by or actual items?
- Would it help or hurt your faith in God if the Ark was found?
- Ideas to Explore: Even when the Ark was with Israel, they still would periodically abandon God.
- What is it about human nature that would let someone forget forty years of God’s provisioning and abandon Him for a false God?
- Ideas to Explore: Is it the embedded sinfulness of humanity? Is it that we need constant reminders?
- What would society consider to be most sacred today?
- Ideas to Explore: Are they wealth like stocks, or bonds? Are they power, such as position or title? Are they physical things like land? Are they living things like people? Are they Godly things? Would the Constitution and Bill of Rights be considered sacred?
- 1NIV New International Version Translations
- 2(Obadiah Bertinoro on Mishnah, Avot 5:6. Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 38a).