The Ark (Part III) - The Ark of the Covenant and the Ark of the Testimony

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

 

Mikdash

 

 

Lecture 126: The Ark (Part III) –

The Ark of the covenant and the Ark of the Testimony

 

Rav Yitzchak Levi

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            In the previous shiurim, we dealt with the ark, examining the various appearances of the term "the ark of the Testimony." We encountered several understandings of this "testimony":

 

·           The tablets of the Testimony, either the first set or the second set.

·           The Torah scroll.

·           Ornament (adi).

·           Meeting (vi'ud).

 

We also saw that the connection between the ark and the testimony left its mark on the name of the structure as a whole, which is called "the Mishkan of the Testimony" and "the tent of the Testimony." From here we learned that there is a deep connection between the actual testimony (the tablets of the Testimony/the Torah scroll) and the structure as a whole.

 

The expression "the ark of the Testimony" is found not only throughout the parshiot dealing with the Mishkan (in God's command to Moshe, in Moshe's command to the people of Israel, when the Mishkan is brought to Moshe, and when the Mishkan is actually erected), but also in two additional contexts:

 

            1) When the Torah describes the role played by the descendants of Kehat when the camp sets forward, it states that the disassembling of the Mishkan in preparation for the journey involves covering the ark of the Testimony with the parokhet of the screen:

 

Aharon shall come and his sons, and they shall take down the parokhet of the screen, and cover the ark of Testimony with it. (Bamidbar 4:5)

 

            In other words, even when the Mishkan is taken apart in preparation for Israel's journey, the ark is covered by the parokhet of the screen, and it is still called the ark of the Testimony.

 

            In the context of the account of the dedication of the Mishkan by the tribal princes, the Torah states:

 

And when Moshe was gone into the Ohel Mo'ed to speak with Him, then he heard the voice speaking to him from off the covering that was upon the ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim, and it spoke to him. (Bamidbar 7:89)

 

            2. The expression "the ark of the Testimony" appears in God's command to Yehoshua to come up out of the Jordan:

 

And the Lord spoke to Yehoshua, saying, “Command the priests that bear the ark of the Testimony, that they come up out of the Jordan.” (Yehoshua 4:15-16)

 

            This is the only place, other than what is written in the Torah in the books of Shemot and Bamidbar, where the ark is called the ark of the Testimony. In all of the books of the Early Prophets (from Yehoshua to Melakhim), as well as in Divrei Ha-yamim, the ark is called by different names, but not by the name, "the ark of the Testimony." It is therefore important to question why the ark is called by this name in this context.

 

            In this shiur, we will examine the other names of the ark, working on the assumption that each of these names expresses the essence and meaning of the ark.

 

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT

 

            In many places, the ark is called "the ark of the covenant." "The ark of the covenant" appears both as "the ark of the covenant of the Lord [the Tetragrammaton]" and "the ark of the covenant of God [Elokim].

 

            It is interesting that the name "the ark of the covenant" does not appear at all in the book of Shemot in any of the parshiot dealing with the Mishkan. It first appears in the book of Bamidbar:

 

And they departed from the mountain of the Lord three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them. (Bamidbar 10:33)

 

            In this section, the Torah describes for the first time Israel's journey from Mount Sinai into the wilderness. As long as the ark is located in the Mishkan in the camp, it is called the ark of the Testimony (in the command regarding the Mishkan, in the execution of the building, in its two appearances in Bamidbar in connection with the dedication of the tribal princes, and in the disassembly of the Mishkan in preparation for the journey),[1] but as soon as it leaves the mountain of the Lord, it is called the ark of the covenant.

 

            Later in the book of Bamidbar, in the story of the ma'apilim who presumed to go up to the hilltop against God's command, the Torah states:

 

But they presumed to go up to the hilltop; nevertheless, the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moshe, departed not out of the camp. (Bamidbar 14:44)

 

            The expression “the ark of the covenant of the Lord” appears again in the book of Devarim, following the account of Moshe's carving a second set of tablets and placing them in an ark of wood:

 

At that time, the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to Him, and to bless in His name, to this day.[2] (Devarim 10:8)

 

            Here too, we are dealing with the bearing of the ark of the covenant of the Lord outside the camp on journeys and in battle, and therefore the ark is called here by the term, "the ark of the covenant of the Lord."

 

            The expression, "the ark of the covenant of the Lord," appears in one final context in the Torah at the end of the book of Devarim, in direct connection to the bearing of the ark:

 

And Moshe wrote this Torah, and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to the elders of Israel.[3] (Devarim 31:9)

 

            And in the continuation the Torah commands:

 

And Moshe commanded the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, “Take this book of the Torah and put it at the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.[4] (Devarim 31:25-26)

 

            The writing of the Torah is completed and the book is placed alongside the covenant of the Lord in anticipation of Israel's entry into the land.

 

            In the books of the Prophets, the expression "the ark of the covenant of the Lord" or the "the ark of the covenant of God" appears dozens of times (in the books of Yehoshua, Shoftim, Shmuel, Melakhim, Yirmiyahu, and Divrei Ha-yamim). This is the usual name of the ark in these books.

 

            In this context, what is stated in Divrei Ha-yamim is interesting:

 

And in it I have put the ark, in which is the covenant of the Lord, that He made with the children of Israel. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 6:11)

 

This verse relates to the house of God built by Shelomo, and it is clear that the reference is to the tablets, as we find in the Aramaic translation (Targum). Metzudat David (ad loc.) explains similarly:

 

The covenant of the Lord – The tablets of the covenant that was made with Israel when He gave them.

 

            This understanding accords with what is written in the book of Melakhim:

 

There was nothing in the ark save the two tablets of stone, which Moshe put there at Chorev, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel, even when they came out of the land of Egypt. (I Melakhim 8:9)

 

WHY WAS THE ARK CALLED THE ARK OF THE COVENANT?

 

            It would seem that the simple answer to this question is that "the ark of the covenant" housed the tablets of the covenant. Just as we explained in the previous shiur that "the ark of the Testimony" was called by that name because of "the tablets of the Testimony," it may be suggested that "the ark of the covenant" was called by that name because of "the tablets of the covenant" that were contained therein.

 

            It should be noted that an interesting fact emerges that parallels what we said earlier regarding the relationship between "the ark of the Testimony" and "the ark of the covenant." The term, "tablets of the Testimony," appears only in the book of Shemot, when the Torah describes the giving of the tablets to Moshe:

 

And He gave to Moshe, when He had made an end of speaking to him upon Mount Sinai, two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God. (Shemot 31:18)

 

And Moshe turned, and went down from the mountain, and the two tablets of the Testimony were in his hand – tablets written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. (Shemot 32:15)

 

And it came to pass, when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of Testimony in Moshe's hand, when he came down from the mountain, that Moshe knew not that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him. (Shemot 34:29)

 

            This verse, which relates to the second set of tablets, refers to these tablets as "the tablets of the Testimony." From here we see that the tablets remained the tablets of the Testimony even after the sin of the Golden Calf.

 

            In contrast, the term, "tablets of the covenant," does not appear at all in the book of Shemot. This term appears in the Torah only in the book of Devarim. When Moshe describes his first ascent to Mount Sinai, the Torah writes:

 

When I was gone up into the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I abode in the mountain forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water… And it came to pass at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant… So I turned and came down from the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire: and the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. (Devarim 9-15)

 

            It is interesting that as opposed to "tablets of the Testimony," two instances of which relate to the first set of tablets before the sin of the Golden Calf and the third instance to the second set of tablets after the sin, here all three instances of the term "tablets of the covenant" refer to the first set of tablets, before the sin.

 

            In addition, it turns out that the two terms, "ark of the covenant" and "tablets of the covenant," do not appear in the book of Shemot, but only in the books of Bamidbar and Devarim. The verses in Devarim describe the same event - what happened when Moshe came down from the mountain with the tablets - but the book of Shemot speaks of the ark of the Testimony and the tablets of the Testimony, whereas the book of Devarim speaks of the ark of the covenant and the tablets of the covenant.

 

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TESTIMONY AND COVENANT, WITH RESPECT TO BOTH THE TABLETS AND THE ARK?

 

            It may be suggested that "testimony" refers to what happened in the past, the revelation at Sinai, whereas "covenant" refers to the meaning of that revelation with respect to the future.

 

            Beyond this, however, these are clearly two different concepts here. Testimony confirms that which already took place, whereas covenant relates to the very connection between God and Israel. Let us examine these two points, both with respect to the tablets and with respect to the Torah.

 

            As for covenant, it is clear that the tablets and the Torah constitute the mutual and two-way connection between God and the people of Israel, and therefore it is a covenant that imposes mutual obligations.

 

            It may be suggested[5] that in this context, testimony describes a clearer state of the revelation of the Shekhina, which certainly left its mark on that generation in a most significant manner. Covenant is also a clear expression of the connection between God and Israel, but it relates more to the legal, real, and practical aspects of the connection, including the mutual obligations of God and Israel for future generations.

 

According to this understanding, we can understand the additional mention of the ark of the Testimony in the book of Yehoshua: “Command the priests that bear the ark of the Testimony, that they come up out of the Jordan” (Yehoshua 4:16). The background of this story is the miraculous crossing of the Jordan, during which time the people of Israel felt God's presence is a most revealed manner, and therefore the expression, "ark of the Testimony," is used.

 

            On the other hand, it may be argued differently that the covenant relates to the very connection between God and the people of Israel, whereas the testimony testifies to that covenant. This is similar to a woman's ketuba – the obligations recorded in the document constitutes the covenant, while the witnesses confirm the existence of the covenant.

 

            This approach is less persuasive, because, as noted above, in the book of Shemot, the primary emphasis is upon the Testimony, whereas the covenant appears only in the books of Bamidbar and Devarim.

 

ANOTHER MEANING OF COVENANT

 

            The Netziv writes as follows in his commentary Ha-Amek Davar on Devarim:

 

"The Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant" (Devarim 9:11) – When the giving was completed at the end of the forty days, then they were called "the tablets of the covenant." There is a redundancy here: "And the Lord delivered to me…" and "And it came to pass at the end… and the Lord gave me." Rather, at the beginning of the forty-day period, before the giving was complete, they were only called the tablets of the covenant. As they said that the tablets embraced the entire Written Law and the laws of the Oral law. As long as the study with Moshe had not yet been completed, and the allusions in them had not yet been fully explained to Moshe, the covenant was not finished. For [every] single item is indispensible, as is stated in Bekhorot: A non-Jew who comes to accept the words of the Torah except for one thing is not accepted. And here too, as long as all the laws had not yet been received, the covenant was not complete. (Devarim 9:9)

 

            The Netziv points out the redundancy of the verses:

 

And the Lord delivered to me two tablets of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words which the Lord spoke with you in the mountain, out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And it came to pass at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant. (Devarim 9:10-11)

 

            The Netziv explains the difference between the two names of the tablets before and after the forty days during which Moshe was at the top of the mountain. At the beginning of that forty-day period, the tablets are called tablets of stone, whereas at the end of the giving of the Torah, at the end of the forty days, they are called tablets of the covenant. The Netziv explains that since the tablets include all of the Written Law and all of the laws of the Oral Law, the covenant was not yet complete as long as all of the laws had not been received, and therefore the tablets are called Tablets of the covenant only at the end of the entire process.

 

            What the Netziv says here is a continuation of what he says in his commentary "Harkhev Davar" to Bamidbar (10:33), where he relates to a disagreement between the Tanna'im, and in their wake between the Rishonim, regarding whether there were two arks or only one. The Tannaitic dispute is brought in the Yerushalmi:

 

It was taught: R. Yehuda ben Lakish said: Two arks travelled with Israel in the wilderness, one in which the Torah was placed and a second in which the broken tablets were placed. That in which the Torah was placed rested in the Ohel Mo'ed… That in which the broken tablets were placed went in and out with them… And the Sages said: There was [only] one ark, and once it went out in the days of Eli and was taken captive. (Yerushalmi Shekalim 6:1)

 

            The Netziv raises an objection against the viewpoint of the Sages:

 

There would seem to be a difficulty according to the Sages. Why did they explain that "the ark of the covenant of the Lord" contained the broken tablets, and not that it contained the second set of tablets? But when you examine [the position of] R. Yehuda ben Lakish who said: The one that was with them in the camp contained the book of the Torah, as it is stated: "The ark of the covenant of the Lord [and Moshe] departed not [out of the camp]" – from where does he know that it contained the book of the Torah? Perhaps it contained only the second tablets. Rather, it was clear to Chazal that it was not called the ark of the covenant of the Lord for the second tablets, for no new covenant was made with them [the second tablets]. And "covenant of the Lord" can only apply either to the first tablets, with respect to which a covenant had been made at the beginning, or the Torah, with respect to which a covenant had been made with Moshe after the Golden Calf, as it is written: "Write you these words: for after the tenor of these words, I have made a covenant with you and with Israel" (Shemot 34:27). See also what I wrote about this in the book of Devarim in Parashat Vayelekh (31:26).

 

            The Netziv raises a question according to the Sages: How do they know that the ark contained the book of the Torah? Perhaps it housed only the second set of tablets? He answers that it was clear to Chazal that the ark would not have been called "the ark of the covenant of the Lord" if it contained only the second set of tablets, because a new covenant was not made with second tablets. Therefore, the concept of "the covenant of the Lord" must relate either to the first set of tablets, with which the first covenant was made, or to the Torah, with respect to which a covenant had been made with Moshe following the sin of the Golden Calf.

 

            Another possibility is that the covenant was renewed in the wake of the pardon that was granted for the sin of the Golden Calf.

 

            It is interesting that in the chapters that describe the revelation at Sinai, we read:

 

Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples. (Shemot 19:5)

 

And it says in the continuation:

 

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people: and they said, “All that the lord has said will we do and obey.” And Moshe took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you concerning all these words.” (Shemot 24:7-8)

 

And in the wake of the pardon for the sin, the Torah says:

 

And He said, “Behold I make a covenant: before all you people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation, and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord that I will do with you, that it is tremendous…” And the Lord said to Moshe, “Write you these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words. And it came to pass, when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of Testimony in Moshe's hand, when he came down from the mountain, that Moshe knew not that the skin of his face shone while He talked with him. (Shemot 34:10-29)

 

            And as stated above, in the book of Devarim (9:9), the tablets of stone are called the tablets of the covenant.

 

            We wish to suggest that it is possible that in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf, the tablets and the ark are respectively called the tablets of the covenant and the ark of the covenant, in order to emphasize the fact that the sin had been pardoned, and that the original covenant is still in full force.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] As stated above, the sole exception is Yehoshua 4:15, in the command to come up from the Jordan, and the matter requires further examination.

[2] We will not deal here with the distinction between the Levites, who are in charge of bearing the ark (nesi'at ha-aron), and the priests, who are in charge of nesi'at kappayim. See Rashi and other Rishonim.

[3] We will not relate here to the question of whether the bearers of the ark were priests of the tribe of Levi or the tribe of Levi. See Ramban, ad loc.

[4] We will not discuss the Tannaitic dispute in Bava Batra 14b, regarding whether the book of the Torah was in the ark itself or on a shelf that jutted out from the ark.

[5] This was suggested by R. Yoel Bin Nun in an oral conversation.