The English word “ark” translates two Hebrew words that differ from each other both in form and in usage, though the Septuagint employs one Greek word (kibōtos) for both.
Tēbâ means “box” or “chest.” Apart from its use to designate the papyrus basket in which Moses, as an infant, was left to float among the bulrushes of the Nile (Exod. 2.3, 5), this word is used in the Bible solely as the designation of the vessel that God commanded Noah to construct of gopher wood (Gen. 6.14), a wood not mentioned elsewhere. It was to be large enough to contain one representative human family along with one pair of every species of animals (Gen. 6.18–21). Another form of the story speaks of seven pairs of clean animals, sufficient quantity for the sacrifice after the Flood, and one pair of unclean animals (Gen. 7.2–3). These would ride out the rainstorm of the wrath of God. The description of Noah's ark (Gen. 6.14–16) is rather hard to understand. Its dimensions, roughly 140 m (450 ft) long, 22 m (75 ft) wide, and 12 m (45 ft) high, make it literally a very large “box.” The ark had three decks (Gen. 6.16), and also naturally a door. An opening, about .5 m (18 in) high, apparently ran all around the ark just below the roof and gave light and air to the vessel. There are certain points of resemblance, but more of dissimilarity, between Noah's ark and Utnapishtim's gigantic boat of the Gilgamesh flood story.
ʾĂrôn, apart from its use in the sense of “coffin” (Gen. 50.26) and in the sense of “chest” for receiving money offerings (2 Kings 12.9–10; 2 Chron. 24.8, 10–11), is employed as the name of the sacred box that is variously called the ark of God, the ark of the Lord, the ark of the covenant, and so on. Data concerning this ark come from different sources and periods. It was in form a rectangular box or chest, measuring about 1 by .7 by .7 m (45 by 27 by 27 in), and made of acacia or shittim wood.
As the years went by this object became ever‐more venerated. It symbolized the presence of the living God at one particular spot on earth; for the God who dwelled “in the high and holy place” was also present at the ark in the midst of his people. As a result, later generations embellished descriptions of it in their traditions, seeing it as overlaid with gold both within and without (Exod. 25.10–16). The ark was transportable; it could be carried on poles overlaid with gold, which passed through rings on its side. It was considered to be of such sanctity that were an unauthorized person to touch it, even accidentally, this infraction would be punishable by death (2 Sam. 6.6).
The ark seems at one time to have contained only the two tablets of the law (1 Kings 8.9), but according to other traditions (Heb. 9.4) it contained also Aaron's rod that budded (Num. 17.1–10) and a golden urn holding manna (Exod. 16.32–34).
The history of the ark parallels many of the vicissitudes of Israel. It was carried by the sons of Levi on the wilderness wanderings (Deut. 31.9); borne over the Jordan by the priests (Josh. 8.1); captured by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4); brought to Jerusalem by David (2 Sam 6; 1 Chron. 13.3–14; 15.1–18). After being kept in a tentlike sanctuary (See Tabernacle), it was finally installed in the holiest chamber of Solomon's Temple.
The ark had a cover or lid. Its name (Hebr. kappōret) is actually a theological term (cf. kippēr, “to purify, atone”), so we do not know what this cover looked like (Lev. 16.2, 13–15). Martin Luther described it in his German Bible as the “mercy seat” because the Lord “sat” enthroned over it in mercy, invisibly present where the wingtips of two cherubim met above it, guarding the divine presence. So the ark represented for Israel the localized presence of God in judgment, mercy, forgiveness, and love; and because it contained the Ten Commandments, it was a visible reminder that their life was to be lived in obedience to the expressed will of God. Since the Ten Commandments were incised on stone so as to last for all time, Israel carried in her midst God's demands for total loyalty and obedience to himself and for social justice and love of neighbor.
The ark is thought to have been captured when Jerusalem fell in 587/586 BCE, and nothing is known of its later history. Later legend reports that Jeremiah rescued it and hid it on Mount Nebo (2 Macc. 2.4–8; but cf. Jer. 3.16).
George A. F. Knight