1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ark

ARK (a word common to Teutonic languages, cf. Ger. Arche, adapted from the Lat. arca, chest, cf. arcere, to shut up, enclose), a chest, basket or box. The Hebrew word tebah, translated in the A.V. by “ark,” is used in the Old Testament (1) of the box made of bulrushes in which Pharaoh’s daughter found the infant Moses (Exodus ii. 3), and (2) of the great vessel or ship in which Noah took refuge during the flood (Genesis vi.–ix.).

Noah’s Ark.—According to the story in Genesis, Noah’s ark was large enough to contain his family and representatives of each kind of animal. Its dimensions are given as 300 cubits long, 50 cubits broad and 30 cubits high (cubit = 18–22 in.). It was made of “gopher” wood, which has been variously identified with cypress, pine and cedar. Before the days of the “higher criticism” and the rise of the modern scientific views as to the origin of species, there was much discussion among the learned, and many ingenious and curious theories were advanced, as to the number of the animals and the space necessary for their reception, with elaborate calculations as to the subdivisions of the ark and the quantities of food, &c., required to be stored. It may be interesting to recall the account given in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1771), which contained a summary of some of these various views (substantially repeated up to the publication of the eighth edition, 1853). “Some have thought the dimensions of the ark as given by Moses too scanty . . . and hence an argument has been drawn against the authority of the relation. To solve this difficulty many of the ancient Fathers and the modern critics have been put to miserable shifts. But Buteo and Kircher have proved geometrically that, taking the cubit of a foot and a half, the ark was abundantly sufficient for all the animals supposed to be lodged in it. Snellius computes the ark to have been above half an acre in area . . . and Dr Arbuthnot computes it to have been 81,062 tuns . . . if we come to a calculation the number of species of animals will be found much less than is generally imagined, not amounting to a hundred species of quadrupeds, nor to two hundred of birds. . . . Zoologists usually reckon but an hundred and seventy species in all.” The progress of the “higher criticism,” and the gradual surrender of attempts to square scientific facts with a literal interpretation of the Bible, are indicated in the shorter account given in the eighth edition, which concludes as follows:—“the insuperable difficulties connected with the belief that all the existing species of animals were provided for in the ark, are obviated by adopting the suggestion of Bishop Stillingfleet, approved by Matthew Poole, Pye Smith, le Clerc, Rossenmüller and others, that the deluge did not extend beyond the region of the earth then inhabited, and that only the animals of that region were preserved in the ark.” The first edition also gives an engraving of the ark (repeated in the editions up to the fifth), in shape like a long roofed box, floating on the waters; the animals are seen in separate stalls. By the time of the ninth edition (1875) precise details are no longer considered worthy of inclusion; and the age of scientific comparative mythology has been reached.

For a comparative study of the occurrence of the ark in the various deluge myths, in the present edition, see Deluge; Cosmogony; Babylonia and Assyria.

The Ark of the Law, in the Jewish synagogue, is a chest or cupboard containing the scrolls of the Torah (Pentateuch), and is placed against or in the wall in the direction of Jerusalem. It forms one of the most decorative features of the synagogue, and often takes an architectural design, with columns, arches and a dome. There is a fine example in the synagogue at Great St Helens, London.(X.) 

Ark of the Covenant, Ark of the Revelation, Ark of the Testimony, are the full names of the sacred chest of acacia wood overlaid with gold which the Israelites took with them on their journey into Palestine. The Biblical narratives reveal traces of a considerable development in the traditions regarding this sacred object, and those which furnish the most complete detail are of post-exilic date when the original ark had been lost. The fuller titles of the ark originate in the belief that it contained the “covenant” (bĕrīth) or “testimony” (ʽēdūth), the technical terms for the Decalogue (q.v.); primarily, however, it would seem to have been called “the ark of Yahweh” (or “Elohim”), or simply “the ark.” The word itself (ārōn) designates an ordinary chest (cp. Gen. i. 26; 2 Kings xii. 10), and the (late) description of its appearance represents it as an oblong box 21/2 cubits long, 11/2 cubits in breadth and height (roughly 1.2 by .75 metres). It was lined within and without with gold, and through four golden rings were placed staves of acacia wood, by means of which it was carried. A slab of the same metal (the so-called “mercy-seat,” kappōreth, Gr. hilastērion) covered the top, and this was surmounted by two Cherubim (Ex. xxv. 10-22, xxxvii. 1-9). The latter, however, are not mentioned in earlier passages (Deut. x. 1, 3), and would naturally increase the weight of the ark, which, according to 2 Sam. xv. 29, could be carried by two men.

The ark was borne by the Levites (Deut. x. 8), and the latest narratives amplify the statement with a wealth of detail characteristic of the post-exilic interest in this order. (See Levites.) An interesting passage relating the commencement of an Israelite journey vividly illustrates the power of the sacred object. As the ark started, it was hailed with the cry, ”Arise, Yahweh, let thine enemies be scattered, let them that hate thee flee from before thee,” and when it came to rest, the cry again rang out, ”Return, O Yahweh, to the myriads of families of Israel” (Num. x. 33-36). This saying appears to imply a settled life in Canaan, but both affirm the warlike significance of Yahweh and the ark. Thus it is the permanent pledge of Yahweh’s gracious presence; it guides the people on their journey and leads them to victory. It is no mere receptacle, but a sacrosanct object as much to be feared as Yahweh himself. To presume to fight without it was to invite defeat, and on one notable occasion the Israelites attempted to attack their enemy north of Kadesh without its aid, and were defeated (Num. xiv. 44 sq.). There are many gaps in its history, and although at the crossing of the Jordan and at the fall of Jericho the ark figures prominently (Josh. iii. sq., vi. sq.), it is unaccountably missing in stories of greater national moment. Once it is found at Bethel (Judges xx. 27 sq.). It is met with again at Shiloh, where it is under the care of Eli and his sons, descendants of an ancient family of priests (1 Sam. ii. 28; cp. Josh. xviii. 1). After a great defeat of Israel by the Philistines it was brought into the field, but was captured by the enemy. The trophy was set up in the Philistine temple of Ashdod, but vindicated its superiority by overthrowing the god Dagon. A plague smote the city, and when it was removed to Ekron, pestilence followed in its wake. After taking counsel the Philistines placed the ark with a votive offering upon a new cart drawn by two cows. The beasts went of their own accord to Beth-shemesh, where it remained in the field of a certain Joshua. Again a disaster happened through some obscure cause, and seventy of the sons of Jeconiah were smitten (1 Sam. vi. 19, R.V., margin). Thence it was removed to the house of Abinadab of Kirjath-jearim, who consecrated his son to its service (1 Sam. iv.-vii. 1). For many years the ark remained untouched—apparently forgotten. Shiloh disappears from history; neither Saul nor even Samuel, whose youth had been spent with it, takes any further thought of it. After a remarkable period of obscurity, the ark enters suddenly into the history of David (2 Sam. vi.). Some time after the capture of Jerusalem the ark was brought from Baal-Judah, but at the threshing-floor of Nacon (an unintelligible name) Abinadab’s son Uzzah laid hands upon it and was struck down for his impiety. On this account the place is said to have received the name Perez-Uzzah (“breach of Uzzah”). It was taken into the house of Obed-edom the Gittite (i.e. of Gath), and brought a blessing upon his house during the three months that it remained there. Finally the king had it conveyed to the city of David, where a tent was prepared to shelter it. Once at Jerusalem, it seems to have lost its unique value as the token of Yahweh’s presence; its importance was apparently merged with that of the Temple which Solomon built. The foundation of the capital would pave the way for the belief that the national god had taken a permanent dwelling-place in the royal seat. The prophets themselves lay no weight upon the ark as the central point of Jerusalem’s holiness. The real Deuteronomic code does not mention it, and to Jeremiah (iii. 16) it was a thing of no consequence. Later, in the age of the priestly schools, the ark received much attention, although it must obviously be very doubtful how far a true recollection of its history has survived. But nowhere is any light thrown upon its fate. The invasion of Shishak, the capture of Jerusalem by Joash (2 Kings xiv. 13, 14), the troublous reign of Manasseh, the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar, have found each its supporters. The wild legends of its preservation at the taking of Jerusalem (2 Macc. ii. and elsewhere) only show that the popular mind was unable to share the view that the ark was an obsolete relic. More poetical is the tradition that the ark was raised to heaven, there to remain till the coming of the Messiah, a thought which embodies the spiritual idea that a heavenly pledge of God’s covenant and faithfulness had superseded the earthly symbol.[1]

A critical examination of the history of the Israelite ark renders it far from certain that the object was originally the peculiar possession of all Israel. Many different traditions have gathered around the story of the Exodus, and the ark was not the only divinely sent guide or forerunner which led the Israelites. Its presence at Shiloh, and its prominence in the life of Joshua, support the view that it was the palladium of the Joseph tribes, but the traditions in question conflict with others. The account of the commencement of the ark’s journey associates it with Moses and his kin (Num. x. 29 sqq.)—that is, with the south Palestinian clans with which the term “Levites” appears to be closely connected. (See Levites.) A distinct movement direct into Judah is implied by certain old traditions (see Caleb), but this is subordinated to the more comprehensive account of the journey round by the east of the Jordan. (See Exodus, The.) The narratives in 1 Sam. iv.-vi. stand on a plane by themselves, and the gap between them and 2 Sam. vi. has not been satisfactorily fixed. But it is not certain that the two belong to the same cycle of tradition; Kirjath-jearim and Baal-Judah are identified only in later writings, and the behaviour of Saul’s daughter (2 Sam. vi. 15 sqq.) may conceivably imply that the ark was an unknown object to Benjamites. It is of course possible that the ark was originally the sacred shrine of the clans which came direct to Judah, and that the traditions in 1 Sam. iv.-vi., Josh. iii. sqq. are of secondary origin, and are to be associated with its appearance at Shiloh, the fall of which place, although attributed to the time of Samuel, is apparently regarded by Jeremiah (xxvi. 6) as a recent event. Of these two divergent traditions, it would seem that the one which associates it with the kin of Moses and David may be traced farther in those late narratives which connect the ark closely with the Levites and even attribute its workmanship to Bezalel, a Calebite (Ex. xxxi. 2; 1 Chron. ii. 19 sqq.). The tradition in Psalms cxxxii. 6 of the search for the ark at Jaar (Kirjath-jearim) and Ephratah is not clear; but a comparison with 1 Chron. ii. 50 seems to show that it recognized the “Calebite” origin of the ark.

See, on this, S. A. Cook, Critical Notes on 0. T. History (Index s.v.), and, for other views, Kosters, Theol. Tijd. xxvii. 361 sqq.; Cheyne, Encyc. Bib. “Ark”; G. Westphal, Yahwes Wohnstätten, pp. 55 sqq., 85 sqq. (Giessen, 1908).

Whether the ark originally contained some symbol of Yahweh or not has been the subject of much discussion. Thus, it has been held that it contained stone fetishes (meteoric stones and the like) from Yahweh’s original abode on Sinai or Horeb. As the palladium of the Joseph tribes, it has even been suggested that the bones of Joseph were treasured in the ark. Others have regarded it as an empty portable throne,[2] or as a receptacle for sacred serpents (analogies in Frazer, Pausanias, iv. pp. 292, 344). That it contained the tables of the law (Deut. x. 2; 1 Kings viii. 9) was the later Israelite view, and the subsequent development is illustrated in Heb. ix. 4. It is enough to decide that the ark represented in some way or other the presence of Yahweh and that the safety of his followers depended upon its security (analogies in Frazer, Paus. x. p. 283). The Semitic world affords many examples of the belief that a man’s religion was part of his political connexion and that the change of nationality involved change of cult. He who leaves his land to enter another, leaves his god and is influenced by the religion of his new home (1 Sam. xxvi. 19; Ruth i. 16 sqq.), but strangers know not “the cult of the God of the land” (2 Kings xvii. 26). No nation willingly changes its god (Jer. ii. 11), and there are means whereby the follower of Yahweh may continue his worship even when outside Yahweh’s land (2 Kings v. 17). When a people migrate they may take with them their god, and if they conceive him to be a spiritual being who cannot be represented by an image, they may desire a symbolical expression of or, rather, a substitute for his presence. Accordingly the conception of the ark must be based in the first instance upon the beliefs of the particular clans or tribes whose sacred object it was.

See further, W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites, p. 37; Schwally, Kriegsaltertümer, i. p. 9; Revue biblique (1903), pp. 249 sqq.; and on the ark, generally, in addition to the literature already cited, Kautzsch, Hastings’ Dict. Bible, v. p. 628; A. R. S. Kennedy, Century Bible: Samuel (Appendix); E. Meyer, Die Israeliten, Index s.v. “Lade,”; and R. H. Kennett, Enc. of Rel. and Ethics.  (S. A. C.) 

  1. Cp. Rev. xi. 19, and W. R. Smith, Old Test. in Jew. Church, Index. For later traditional material, see Buxtorf, De Arca Foederis (Basel, 1659).
  2. But see Budde, Expos. Times (1898), pp. 398 sqq.; Theolog. Stud. u. Krit. (1906), pp. 489-507. The possibility must be conceded that there were several arks in the course of Hebrew history and that separate tribes or groups of tribes had their own sacred object.