The ark of the covenant consists of two detachable parts. The lower portion is an acacia wood box, a rectangular chest 2.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits by 1.5 cubits (Exodus 25:10). The wood is overlaid, inside and out, with pure gold (Exodus 25:11).
The other part is a pure gold slab. At either end of the slab, a gold cherub is molded into one piece with the cover, their wings stretched out toward each other over the cover (Exodus 25:17-20). Together, the cherubim form a throne, like the sphinx thrones popular among Ancient Near Eastern kings. King Yahweh is enthroned above the wings of the cherubim, and receives visitors at His throne.
The word cover (kapporet) is often translated as “mercy seat” or “propitiatory” because of its etymological link with kaphar, “to atone.” These translations are misleading. The gold slab is not a “seat,” but the footstool of the winged throne. True, the high priest sprinkles blood on the cover during the rites of the day of atonement and so the kapporet is somehow involved in the rites that cover Israel’s sins and uncleannesses. Still, it’s better to translate the word in accord with the original physical sense of kaphar, “to cover.” The gold slab is simply the “cover” of the ark.
Though it consists of two physical pieces, the ark is a triple structure – the coffer below, which eventually contains the tablets of the law, a jar of manna, and (perhaps) the staff of Aaron; the slab that covers the ark; and the cherubim stretch above the cover.
These three sections of the tabernacle correspond to other threefold sections of the tabernacle complex. The box corresponds to the courtyard, the slab to the Holy Place, and the cherubim throne to the Most Holy Place. These three zones correspond, in turn, to the three zones of Sinai: The foot of the mountain where Israel gathers; the place midway up the mountain where the priests and elders feast in the presence of God; and the cloud that Moses alone enters to receive the Word of Yahweh. And these three zones reflect the cosmic structure of creation: the box is the earth below, the cover is the firmament that stretches between heaven and earth, and the cherubim throne parallels the highest heavens where Yahweh dwells in glory.
The ark is a microscosm and a micro-tent, a single item of the tabernacle that mimics the structure of the whole tabernacle.
Several verses in the description of the ark are taken up with a description of the four gold rings that are placed near the four feet of the ark and the acacia wood poles that slide through the rings and remain there permanently (Exodus 25:12-15). Practically, the rings are necessary to transport the ark (Exodus 25:14): Whenever Israel moves the tabernacle, priests cover the ark with layers of fabric and then hoist it onto their shoulders with the poles (Numbers 4:1-16).
But why spend four verses of a terse description on the rings? There are three related reasons. First, every major piece of furniture in the tabernacle is also equipped with rings and poles for portage (Exodus 25:26[table]
; 27:4-7 [bronze altar]; 30:4 [golden altar]). The rings of the table are “close to the rim” at the top of the table, and the rings of the golden altar are under the molding that separates the stand of the altar from the platform for burning incense. But the rings of the ark are at the feet of the ark.
Thus, when the furniture is being carried, each item is raised to a different height. The table, with its rings just under the table top, will rise only as high as the Levites’ heads. The altar, with its rings and poles beneath the molding, will stick up higher, above the Levite’s heads. And the ark, with its poles at the feet, will be almost entire above the priest’s. As the furniture of the tabernacle goes “on procession,” these items form an ascent – from table to altar to ark.
They form a “staircase” leading up to Yahweh’s throne. When the tabernacle is built, these items are all on the ground, but they form a symbolic ascent. When the tabernacle is disassembled and carried, the ascent is visible in the way the furniture is carried. Yahweh, raised on the shoulders of the priests, is enthroned above everything else.
Second, that “ascent” from table to altar to ark-throne is symbolically portrayed in the assembled ark. The tabernacle consists of boards held together by bars of acacia wood, overlaid with gold (Exodus 25:26-30). That is, the bars are of the same construction as the poles used to carry the furniture. That hints that we should imagine the bars as poles, as if the furniture were being “held up” by the bars. The table, altar, and ark are not literally being held up by the bars, but only in architectural symbols. If that’s the intent, the “staircase” that’s visible when the tabernacle is on the move is symbolized in the tabernacle-at-rest. Literally, a priest who moves west through the Holy Place into the Most Holy Place is walking on level ground. Symbolically, he ascends from the table through the incense of the golden altar, to appear before Yahweh’s throne.
Finally, the fact that the poles remain in the rings permanently (at least for the ark, Exodus 25:15) indicates that at this point in history Yahweh, like Israel, is always ready to be on the move. Yahweh has fulfilled His covenant promise to be with His people, to walk among them, and to walk with them through the trackless waste.
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