BIBLE HISTORY DAILY
The Ark of the Covenant in its Egyptian Context
The Ark of the Covenant as we know it from the Hebrew Bible is steeped in the culture and context of its time (Late Bronze Age, c. 1500–1200 B.C.E.). The people of that age believed in angelic snake spirits spitting fire, entrapped demons, and gods wandering the land. Into this milieu, Moses introduced the Ark of the Covenant, which takes many of these concepts and flips them on their head to create new religious meaning.
Most readers will be familiar with the ark as a reliquary (a box holding holy relics) that was used by Moses to contain and transport the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Yet the ark was constructed using a visual language that everyone knew 3,300 years ago but is mostly lost to us today. And although ancient writers said more about the ark than any other artifact from ancient history, little of this information is reliable apart from what is found in the biblical texts. Despite the immense progress in biblical studies over the past 200 years, modern scholars have produced relatively little of a serious nature on this subject. This gap provides an opportunity to ask exciting questions and explore the context of the ark in a new and meaningful way.1
Even though it might seem obvious, few of us ever consider that the Ark of the Covenant was a piece of furniture. Furniture is defined as a piece of large movable equipment that creates a space suitable for living or working. So if all you have is an empty room, the space in that room is not very useful. Add a chair, and you have a sitting room. Add a bed, and you have a bedroom. Add a religious altar, and now you have created a ritual space. In short: Furniture helps create and change the nature of a space.
In the ancient Near East, furniture was the preeminent status symbol of opulent wealth. Beds, chairs, and boxes were high-end luxury goods that only few could afford. And the best furniture was fit to be used in rituals to the gods. But to make the furniture suitable for the gods, it had to be decorated with sacred iconography. In ancient Egypt, this iconography included friezes of uraeus (cobras) that spat fire, to keep profane things out, and the Nekhbet (vulture) goddess, who made holy the space between her wings. These icons separated sacred space from profane space. And by using different icons, the Egyptians were able to create different kinds of sacredness. They could even intensify sacredness by putting one frieze inside another, creating a holy of holies.
This brings us to ritual furniture used in the Bible. For example, biblical Hebrew uses an Egyptian loanword tebah, meaning a “basket” or a “box.” A tebah (Egyptian: tebet) was the basket that the baby Moses is placed inside and floated among the reeds (Exodus 2:3), but it is also used of Noah’s ark (e.g., Genesis 6:14). With both Moses and Noah’s ark, the tebah was being used to sanctify the contents of the chests to consecrate them for God’s purpose.
However, the Ark of the Covenant is referred to as an aron, not a tebah, which offers different connotations. An aron can be a coffer, chest, or coffin. For the Egyptians, a coffin was more than simply a box for a corpse. A coffin was a proxy body that served as a place to where a spirit could return. Similarly, other chests had parallels to the ark.
A pega chest was a finely crafted piece of furniture that was draped in scarlet cloth, similar to the cloth that was used to cover the ark (Numbers 4:8). A djeser chest (see image [directional]) had tall legs that elevated items off the ground, and it was used for storing holy or sacred things. Yet another type of chest, the pedes chest, was used in a ritual that took profane offerings and sanctified them so that the offerings could be used in temple rituals. The pedes also had a uraeus frieze, which made the space inside it sacred, and carrying poles near the feet of the chest. This is remarkable because of the four pieces of the Israelite Tabernacle furniture, only the ark is said to have its pole rings attached to its feet (Exodus 25:12).
Finally, there is the Chest of Anubis, a special canopic chest that was used only to carry canopic jars (containing the body’s selected organs) to a tomb. It was covered in gold inside and out (as the ark in Exodus 25:11; 37:2), held sacred objects (as the ark in Deuteronomy 10:2, 5), and had its poles attached to its base. Its lid, which fit over the lip of the chest and was known as the “mercy seat,” bore a statue of Anubis (god who escorted the dead to the afterlife) made in one piece with the lid. These features are markedly similar to the ark.
As we have just demonstrated, the Ark of the Covenant was similar to ritual chests. But it was also similar to Egyptian shrines. Shrines are important in this analysis because they developed out of Late Bronze Age concepts of divinity. People in the Late Bronze Age believed in localism, the belief that a god could only be in one place at a time. This idea often manifested in idolatry. Like the Egyptian coffin, an idol acted as a physical body where a god maintained its presence, becoming one with the substance of the statue. In Egyptian rituals, this idol was “enthroned” on a standard and placed inside the holy space of a shrine. For small chapels or private worship, that shrine was housed inside a small tent, forming a tabernacle. For larger chapels and temples, the shrine was replaced with a barque.
A barque was a special shrine that was built as a model boat. It had a hull, rudders, and figureheads like a boat, all of which makes sense since Egypt was a river culture, where daily life and much of the religious beliefs revolved around the Nile River. Since Egypt’s earliest days, barques had been the ritual furniture par excellence. Every major temple in Egypt had a barque at its center, even the funerary temples of kings. And every day, the Egyptian priests fed and clothed their gods and placed them upon their thrones. Then at night, the priests put their gods to bed in naoses at the back of the temple.
Yet when the Israelites built their tabernacle, they did so without an idol. A sacred shrine without an idol was unprecedented in the ancient Near Eastern world. By excluding idols from the ark, Yahweh flipped the notions and symbols of ancient Near Eastern religion and demonstrated that he was not cared for by human hands, never slept, and was always on the throne. Thus, Yahweh worked within human religious understanding but utterly transformed it.
Furthermore, even though the Ark of the Covenant was a reliquary, the most important part of it was the space above the Mercy Seat, the lid. This is similar to Egyptian palanquin thrones, which incorporated the sacred iconography of barques to create a sacred space where the king (or image of a god) would be seated. Unlike barques, where the sacred space was enclosed and hidden, palanquin thrones had the king or god on full display but still protected in holy space—between a pair of winged goddesses. The Mercy Seat was a lid with a pair of cherubim (angels) whose wings stretched out over the lid of the box (Exodus 25:20). God met with his people from the sacred space between the wings of the cherubim.
When we look at Egyptian ritual furniture during its 3,000-year history, boxes, biers, shrines, barques, and palanquin thrones develop and change over time, augmented with distinct iconography. Sufficient examples of this iconography survive to allow for typological dating with granularity down to the reigns of specific kings. Likewise, some iconography and furniture types fall out of favor so that they form a terminus ante quem, or the latest possible date a particular object might have been made. This means that, when we consider the stylistic influences relevant for the Ark of the Covenant, the iconography as described above suggests a period no earlier than the reign of Amenhotep III (c. 1389–1351 B.C.E.) and no later than the end of Dynasty 20 (c. 1194–1073 B.C.E.). This means that the Ark of the Covenant is consistent with the kinds of ritual furniture that would be expected from Late Bronze Age Egypt.
Therefore, even though Yahweh is not bound to human limits, he condescended to mankind deferring to human expectations of divinity. The cherubim had wings that stretched out over the Mercy Seat, and the shekinah glory met with man from between the wings of the cherubim above the ark. God did not try to change the beliefs of the people before engaging them, but instead respected human frailty and human notions of the divine, inverting or modifying those beliefs to teach humanity new ideas about himself.
 I have recently addressed this subject in my book The Ark of the Covenant in Its Egyptian Context: An Illustrated Journey (Hendrickson Publishers, 2020).
A version of this post first appeared in Bible History Daily in May, 2021
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