"Ark of Testimony," "Ark of Covenant" or "Ark of God"?

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon
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"Ark of the Testimony," "Ark of the Covenant" or "Ark of God"?


By Rabbanit Sharon Rimon



The Torah refers to the holy Ark by various different names.  What are these different names? When is each of them used? Is there a distinct significance attached to each name, or do they all express the same idea in different language?


Let us start our discussion at the first place where the Ark appears – in Parashat Teruma, Shemot 25:10-22.


In Parashat Teruma, God commands Moshe for the first time to build the Mishkan and all of its vessels.


What preceded this command to build the Mishkan?


In Parashat Yitro we read about the revelation at Sinai, and thereafter, in Parashat Mishpatim, we find a detailed list of many additional laws, mostly belonging to the sphere of damages.  Then Moshe ascends Mount Sinai and remains there for forty days and forty nights.


The experience at Sinai was a one-time, enormously powerful revelation of God's glory to all of Israel.  Could it be possible, after such an experience, for everything to go back to being the same as it was previously?


Certainly not.  At Sinai, Bnei Yisrael experienced a revelation of the Divine Presence; at the same time they received the Ten Commandments, and then all the other commandments of the Torah.  The point of this awesome experience – as set forth in 19:5-6, was:


"Now, if you will listen well to Me and keep My covenant then you will be chosen for Me from all the nations… and you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."


The Sinaitic experience obligates Israel to continue to uphold and observe the covenant with God.


This being the case, Sinai brought about a fundamental change, in the form of the nation's obligation to keep God's covenant: to observe the commandments.


What about the revelation of the Divine Presence? Was the revelation a one-time event, or would the Divine Presence now continue to rest amongst Israel?


Immediately following the description of Moshe's ascent to Mount Sinai (at the end of Parashat Mishpatim), we read of the command to build the Mishkan (Parashat Teruma).  It would therefore seem that Moshe received this instruction at Mount Sinai, during the forty days that he spent atop the mountain, immediately after the great revelation to the nation [1].


At the beginning of Parashat Teruma we are told, "Let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst."  The Mishkan/Temple facilitates a permanent dwelling of the Divine Presence amongst Israel.  Accordingly, it would seem that the Mishkan serves the aim of the continued presence of God amongst the nation after the revelation at Sinai - not just a one-time event at a particular point in time with the entire nation sanctifying itself for three days prior to it, but a permanent presence of the Divine within Am Yisrael [2].


In his introduction to Parashat Teruma, the Ramban writes:


"When God spoke to Israel face to face at the Ten Commandments, instructing them – through Moshe – in some of the commandments, that are as principal commandments of the Torah… and Israel accepted upon themselves to do all that they had been commanded… He forged a covenant with them concerning all of this: from now on they were to be His nation, and He would be their God… AND NOW THEY WERE HOLY, WORTHY OF HAVING A SANCTUARY IN THEIR MIDST, THAT GOD'S GLORY MIGHT REST AMONGST THEM.  And therefore God first commanded concerning the Mishkan, so that He would have a House in their midst, sanctified for His Name, and there He would speak with Moshe and command Bnei Yisrael…."


The Ramban emphasizes an important point. The continued presence of God amongst Israel is admittedly a result of the revelation at Sinai, but not of the revelation alone: it is also the result of the acceptance of the commandments that took place on that occasion.  The Divine Presence rests amongst Bnei Israel by virtue of their sanctity, by virtue of their having accepted upon themselves the covenant of the commandments.


The command concerning the creation of the Mishkan opens with an instruction to collect donations; immediately thereafter the Torah starts describing the fashioning of the vessels, the first of which to be listed is the Ark.  Why does the Torah begin specifically with the Ark? When we look at Parashat Vayakhel, in the description of the building of the Mishkan, we find that the Ark is not the first thing that is made: first the Mishkan itself is built.  Why, then, is the Ark mentioned first in Parashat Teruma?


Commenting on verse 10, Rashbam explains:


"… Although, in Betzalel's work, we find that first he made the Mishkan and thereafter the vessels – the Ark, the Menora, the Table (for where could he put the Ark and the Table until the Mishkan was ready?), in the [Divine] command it was necessary to explain first the fashioning of the Ark and the Table, SINCE IT WAS BECAUSE OF THE ARK – WHICH IS THE ESSENCE OF 'THEY SHALL MAKE ME A SANCTUARY' – THAT IT WAS NECESSARY TO BUILD A MISHKAN."


According to the Rashbam, the essence of the Mikdash is the Ark; it is for the sake of the Ark that the entire Mishkan is built.  Therefore the instructions concerning the building of the Mishkan start with a command to build the crux of the Mishkan – the Ark.


            Why is the Ark the heart and essence of the Mishkan?


Let us read further from the Ramban's introduction to Parashat Teruma:


"The ESSENCE OF THE OBJECTIVE in the Mishkan is A RESTING PLACE FOR THE DIVINE PRESENCE, WHICH IS THE ARK, as it is written: 'I shall meet with you there and I shall speak with you from above the kaporet.'  Therefore the Ark and its covering are mentioned first here, for it [the Ark] is of primary importance…."




Let us examine the textual unit dealing with the Ark (verses 10-22):


The construction of the Ark is divided into two parts [3]:


Verses 10-16 describe the building of the Ark itself, while verses 17-21 describe the building of the kaporet (covering).  Verse 22 serves as a summary of the unit.


For each of the vessels of the Mishkan we find a command concerning its creation, and then a brief description of what the vessel is used for:


Verses 23-20: "You shall make a Table… and you shall place the showbread upon the Table before Me at all times."


Verses 31-40: "You shall make a Menora of pure gold… and you shall kindle its lights and it shall illuminate over against it."


Chapter 30:1-10: "You shall make an altar for offering incense… and Aharon shall offer fragrant incense upon it."


            What are we told concerning the Ark?


Verses 10-16: "They shall make an Ark… and you shall place the Testimony in the Ark."


Thus far the description fits the model: following the description of the fashioning of the Ark, we are told what to do with it – the Testimony is to be placed inside.  But then, following verse 16 – which would appear to summarize the matter of the Ark – we read:


(17) "And you shall make a kaporet…."


Since the Torah has already summed up the point of the Ark in verse 16, it appears that verse 17 introduces a new subject, a separate vessel [4]. 


But this seems impossible to accept. Firstly, it is clear that THE KAPORET IS PART OF THE ARK.  In verse 21 we are told, "You shall place the kaporet upon the Ark, over it."  The kaporet is there to cover the Ark; hence, it is part of the Ark.


Further proof that they represent a single vessel emerges further on in the parasha, where we see that the description of each vessel is separated by a space in the text (either an "open parasha" or a "closed parasha").  Thus, there is a clear indication of where the discussion of one vessel ends and the next begins.  But between the unit discussing the Ark and the unit discussing the kaporet there is no such separation; they are written as a single unit.


Moreover, following the instructions as to the kaporet, the Torah returns to the matter of the Ark:


Verses 21-22: "You shall place the covering UPON THE ARK, over it, AND IN THE ARK you shall place the Testimony which I give you.  And I shall meet with you there and I shall speak with you from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim which are UPON THE ARK OF THE COVENANT…."






Verse 16 (summarizing the discussion of the Ark) tells us, "You shall place the Testimony in the Ark…."  The purpose of the Ark is to house and protect the Testimony.




Verse 22: "I shall meet with you there and I shall speak with you from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim."  The purpose of the covering is the encounter with God: God speaking with Moshe; in other words – revelation of the Divine Presence. 


The keruvim that sit atop the kaporet are worthy of a  discussion in their own right; but we shall suffice here with a brief reference to the commentators, who explain that they were like the keruvim seen by Yishayahu and Yechezkel in their visions of the Divine Chariot.


The Chizkuni, commenting on verse 18, writes:


"Even though [God] commanded, 'You shall not make for yourself any carved idol or any image,' here He permits the form of the keruvim, for they are not made for worshipping but rather for His seat – like the keruvim of the Throne of Glory."


The keruvim are some sort of representation of the keruvim that bear the glory of God, and their presence in the Mishkan represents, as it were, a throne for God – a place for His Glory.


The Ark, then, is composed of two parts: the Ark itself – for keeping and protecting the Testimony, and the kaporet – for revelation of the Divine Presence.  We may summarize the presentation of this unit as follows:


The Ark:


Description of its construction: (10-15) "They shall make an Ark… and you shall make poles of shittim wood…


Purpose: (16) "You shall place in the Ark the Testimony which I shall give you…."


The Kaporet:


Description of its construction: (17-20) "You shall make a covering… and you shall make two golden keruvim…"

Purpose: (22) "I shall meet with you there and I shall speak with you from above the kaporet, from between the two kereuvim."


Which is the primary aspect of the Ark – the Testimony or the revelation?


Verse 16, summarizing the subject of the Ark, tells us: "You shall place in the Ark the Testimony which I shall give you." 


What are we told in the summary of the subject of the covering? This discussion concludes in verse 20, and in verse 21 we read: "In the Ark you shall place the Testimony which I shall give to you."  This is most surprising. First of all, it is a repetition of verse 16.  Secondly, it pays no attention to the purpose of the keruvim, which was summarized in verse 22 – "I shall meet with you there and I shall speak with you there from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim."  We would have expected to find verse 22 appearing after the discussion of the keruvim, rather than verse 21.  What is verse 21 doing here?


Verse 21 is an exact repetition of verse 16, with one tiny change. In verse 16 we are told, "You shall place in the Ark…," while verse 21 reads, "In the Ark you shall place…."  This change in the order of the verse – the postponement of the verb and precedence of the Ark – is meant to give emphasis to the Ark. 


Verse 21, summarizing the discussion of the kaporet, DOES NOT FOCUS ON THE PURPOSE OF THE COVERING ITSELF, BUT RATHER GOES BACK TO THE ARK.  It emphasizes that the kaporet is placed upon the Ark as a covering for it, and emphasizes the purpose of the Ark: the Ark is a vessel for the Testimony.  Specifically following the details of the keruvim, the text goes back to the Ark, emphasizing it, telling us that THE PLACEMENT OF THE TESTIMONY IN THE ARK IS OF FOREMOST IMPORTANCE in the whole creation of the Ark.


Again, in verse 22 – which describes the purpose of the keruvim as the place of God's revelation – we find repeated emphasis of the fact that the keruvim are placed upon the Ark: "I shall meet with you there and I shall speak with you from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim WHICH ARE UPON THE ARK OF THE TESTIMONY."


There are two emphases here: a. the keruvim do not stand independently; they are upon the ARK; and b. the Ark is referred to as the ARK OF THE TESTIMONY.  The name of the vessel indicates the essence of its significance.  It is the Ark that houses the Testimony.  GOD'S PRESENCE RESTS UPON THE ARK OF TESTIMONY.  There is no distance between the Testimony and the Divine Presence upon the keruvim.  Moreover, the Testimony is primary; above it the Divine Presence rests.  Thus, verse 22 summarizes not only the details of the kaporet, as we may have assumed, but in fact represents the summary of the entire unit: the revelation of the Divine Presence is upon the kaporet, from between the keruvim, atop the Ark of Testimony.


We may now summarize as follows [5]:


The Ark:


Description of its construction: (10-15) "They shall make an Ark… and you shall make poles of shittim wood…"


Placing of the Testimony: (16) "You shall place in the Ark THE TESTIMONY which I shall give you…"


Purpose of the vessel as a whole: (22) "I shall meet with you there and I shall speak with you from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim which are UPON THE ARK OF TESTIMONY."


The Kaporet:


Description of its construction: (17-20) "You shall make a kaporet… And you shall make two golden keruvim…"


Placing of the Testimony: (16) "IN THE ARK YOU SHALL PLACE THE TESTIMONY which I shall give you…"


Purpose of the vessel as a whole: (22) "I shall meet with you there and I shall speak with you from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim which are UPON THE ARK OF TESTIMONY."


The same concept arises from the Ramban's commentary on verse 21:


"Because God would [later] command that the keruvim should have wings spread upward, but without saying why they should be made at all and what their purpose is in the Mishkan, therefore [God] says here, 'You shall place the kaporet' – with its keruvim, which altogether form a single entity – 'upon the Ark, above it,' for IN TH ARK YOU SHALL PLACE THE TESTIMONY WHICH I SHALL GIVE YOU, in order that I may have a Throne of Glory, for I shall meet with you there and I shall cause My Presence to rest upon you, and I shall speak with you from above the kaporet, from between the two keruvim, SINCE IT IS UPON THE ARK OF TESTIMONY.  And behold – this [keruv] is [the same creature] that Yechezkel saw, as it is written: 'It was the same creature that I saw beneath the God of Israel at the River Kevar, and I knew that they were keruvim' (Yechezkel 10:20).  Therefore [God] is referred to as 'the One Who is seated upon the keruvim' (I Shemuel 4:4), for they [the keruvim] had their wings spread, to show that they were the Chariot bearing the Divine glory…."


Not only is the Testimony of prime importance, but by virtue of the Testimony the Divine Presence rests between the keruvim.


The Ark, as the essence or heart of the Mishkan, expresses the continuation of the Sinaitic experience both in the sense that it protects the Testimony and in the sense that it is the place of revelation of the Divine Presence.


The Ark, which thus far has been referred to only as "the Ark," now receives its title, the "ARK OF THE TESTIMONY."  This is its original name, as designated by God.  In the description of the construction of the Mishkan it is referred to often as the "Ark of the Testimony" [7].


            Further on there are other names for the Ark.


The title "ARK OF THE COVENANT," or "Ark of God's covenant," appears several times, starting in Sefer Bamidbar and Sefer Devarim [7], and continuing through the Books of the Prophets.  This name is very similar to the name, "Ark of Testimony."  The meaning conveyed by both is that the Ark contains the TESTIMONY TO THE COVENANT BETWEEN GOD AND ISRAEL.


WHAT IS THE TESTIMONY that is inside the Ark?


Rashi, commenting on verse 16, explains: "The testimony – THE TORAH, which is as a testimony between Me and you, in that I commanded you with the commandments that are written in it."  In other words, a complete Book of the Torah rested in the Ark.


The Rashbam understands the situation differently: "The testimony – THE TABLETS, which are a testimony and a covenant between the Holy One and Israel; for this reason they are referred to as the Tablets of the Covenant." Ibn Ezra concurs with this opinion.


If the Ark contained the Tablets, which Tablets were these? Were they the second Tablets, or the fragments of the first Tablets? Or perhaps both?


We shall not attempt here to resolve this debate [8].  Either way, THE "TESTIMONY" IS TESTIMONY OF THE COVENANT BETWEEN GOD AND ISRAEL, OBLIGATING THE LATTER TO OBSERVE THE COMMANDMENTS.  The Ark is called the Ark of the Testimony or the Ark of the Covenant after the Tablets or the Torah that is inside, and by these names it is made clear that this is the principal essence of the Ark.


At the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua, in chapters 3-4, where Bnei Yisrael cross over the Jordan River and enter the land, the Ark travels before them.  There, the Ark is referred to by several names.  On one occasion – 4:17 – it is called the "Ark of the Testimony"; on TEN other occasions it is called the "ARK OF THE COVENANT" or the "ARK OF GOD'S COVENANT."  But aside from these titles, these chapters also introduce a new name which we have not encountered thus far in the Torah.  In Yehoshua 3:13, we encounter "THE ARK OF GOD, LORD OF ALL THE WORLD" – a new name of surprising power.  Further on in the story, an abbreviated version - the "Ark of God" - appears twice.


What is the meaning of this new name?


Thus far the emphasis has been on the "Ark of the Testimony" or the "Ark of the Covenant."  Now the emphasis is on something altogether different: The Ark, as it were, CARRIES WITHIN IT GOD HIMSELF!


It is not difficult to understand where this idea originates; after all, the Ark is not only there to hold the Testimony; it is also the place of the keruvim, the place of the revelation of the Divine Presence. 


Why does this title appear here for the first time?


When Bnei Yisrael enter the land, they feel that God goes with them, that He will fight for them.  Nevertheless, the "Ark of the Covenant" is still the dominant name.  It appears several more time; this is the essence of the Ark, and that must not be forgotten.


In the war against Yericho (Yehoshua 6), in which the Ark of God goes before Bnei Yisrael into battle – a battle which is entirely miraculous – the Ark is referred to six times as the "Ark of God," while "the Ark of the Covenant" appears only twice.  When Bnei Yisrael take the Ark with them into battle, they feel that God is coming along with them and that He will save them.



In I Shemuel 4, there is another description of a war in which the Ark plays a central role:


(2) "The Philistines arrayed themselves against Israel, and when they joined battle, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, and they slew – of the army in the field – about four thousand men.


(3) Then the people came to the camp and the elders of Israel said: Why has God smitten us this day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the Ark of God's Covenant from Shilo, that it may come in our midst, and save us from the hand of our enemies.


(4) So the people sent to Shilo and brought from there the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Hosts Who is seated upon the keruvim (and the two sons of Eli were there with the Ark of the Covenant of God – Chofni and Pinchas)."


The first part of the story describes Israel's defeat in battle against the Phelistines.  The Israelites ask themselves, "Why has God defeated us this day?" This question would seem to be an opening for soul-searching.  We would now expect the people to acknowledge their sins, perhaps call a communal fast day, lament, pray to God.  But to our surprise they skip all of this, and instead of addressing the difficult question – why they were defeated in battle – they move right on to finding a way to overcome their defeat, by using a 'recipe' that seemingly always works: "Let us fetch the Ark of God's Covenant from Shilo, that it may come in our midst, and save us from the hand of our enemies."  Taking the Ark is perceived as bringing God Himself to battle.  And if God comes along to wage war, He will certainly defeat the Philistines.


This perception is undoubtedly based on the story of the war against Yericho, where the Ark of God indeed accompanied the camp to Israel to war, and won – in a most miraculous manner.


As we know, the war in I Shemuel chapter 4 ends in crushing and painful defeat, with the Ark itself taken into captivity.  No greater disgrace could be imagined.  The news of the capture of the Ark of God is a terrible blow: Eli falls and dies at the news; the pregnant wife of Pinchas goes into labor, gives birth and calls her son "Ikavod," expressing the disgrace of the Ark being taken into captivity.


Why did this happen?


This story, occupying chapters 4-6 [9], concerns the attitude towards the Ark.  The Ark is the hero of the story, appearing no less than 37 TIMES.  How is the Ark referred to in the story?


At first it is referred to by the Israelites FOUR TIMES as the "ARK OF GOD'S COVENANT," but further on in the story it appears 31 (!) TIMES as the "ARK OF GOD."  The extensive use of this name testifies to the fundamental attitude towards the Ark in those times.  It is interesting to note that the first time in the story that the name "Ark of God" appears, it is referred to thus by the Philistines.  Further on, both the Israelites and the Philistines call it the "Ark of the Lord" (aron ha-elokim) or the "Ark of God" (Aron Hashem).  This phenomenon tells us that Bnei Yisrael regarded the Ark in the same way that the Philistines regarded it: as the Ark of God as A SACRED ARTIFACT THAT CONTAINED GOD, AS IT WERE, AND AS SUCH – POSSESSING INDEPENDENT, MAGICAL POWER.  When it is brought into battle, it is as though God Himself is being brought into battle.  And when the Philistines are victorious and take the Ark into captivity, it is as though they have taken God Himself captive.


But this attitude towards the Ark is incorrect according to the Torah.  While the Ark is the place of God's revelation, it certainly possesses no independent power; even God's Presence does not necessarily rest above it – this is DEPENDENT UPON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ISRAEL AND GOD.


Bnei Yisrael, at this point, had forgotten that God is revealed upon the Ark of TESTIMONY, that the Ark of Testimony is the basis for the keruvim.  OBSERVING AND MAINTAINING THE TESTIMONY – THE COVENANT – IS THE CONDITION, THE BASIS, FOR THE REVELATION OF THE DIVINE PRESENCE.


If there is no Testimony in the Ark, it has no significance.  If Bnei Yisrael do not observe and keep the Covenant, if they do not fulfill God's commandments, then there is no revelation of the Divine Presence.


Hence, THEY MAY TAKE THE "THRONE OF GLORY" OUT TO BATTLE, BUT GOD MAY GET UP FROM THE THRONE AND LEAVE IT EMPTY OF CONTENT.  Then it is nothing more than a physical vessel, with no special meaning, with no ability to save, and it may even be taken into captivity.


The opening chapters of Sefer Shemuel describe a situation of severance between the "Ark of the Covenant" and the "Ark of God."  There can be no such severance.  Right from the start, in the original command concerning the Ark in Parashat Teruma, the connection between the two parts of the Ark is emphasized. The Ark, in which the Testimony is to be placed, is the basis; it is of primary importance.  Upon it the kaporet is placed, with the keruvim – representing the Throne of Glory, as it were, facilitating the revelation of the Divine Presence – but only on condition that the Testimony exists below, inside the Ark, and that Bnei Yisrael recognize it and preserve it.


The revelation of the Divine Presence is upon the Ark as a whole, including both parts: the kaporet with the keruvim, and the Ark with the Testimony inside.




The "ARK OF THE TESTIMONY (Aron Ha-edut)," the original name of the Ark, emphasizes principally the aspect of maintaining the covenant of the commandments – the TESTIMONY (edut), but it hints also to the second purpose – "I SHALL MEET (no'adti) with you there."  Hence it is a name that includes both purposes of the Ark, combining them while emphasizing that the "edut" – the Testimony – is the more important.





[1] This follows the view of the Ramban, who maintains that the command concerning the Mishkan was a continuation of the revelation at Sinai (see the Ramban's introduction to Parashat Teruma, which we quote further on).  Rashi, however, insists that the principle according to which "there is no chronological order in the Torah" must be applied here; to his view, the entire matter of the Mishkan was commanded only after the Sin of the Golden Calf (see Rashi on Shemot 31:18).

[2] The permanent presence of God amongst the camp of Israel is not a simple matter.  It requires special preparation of the camp, special behavior on the part of the nation, and a constant influence of the Mishkan and its kohanim over the people.  All of this is discussed further on in the Torah, especially in Sefer Bamidbar.

[3] In this respect the Ark is different from the other vessels.

[4] Indeed, some of the commentators treat the covering as an independent vessel in its own right.

[5] A similar schematic presentation, with elaboration, may be found in the article "The Ark and its Poles, and the Kaporet of the Keruvim," in Studies in Parashat Shavu'a by Rav Elchanan Samet, pp. 231-233.

[6] Shemot 26:33; Shemot 30;6; Shemot 30:26; Shemot 39:35; Shemot 40:4; Bamidbar 7:89, etc.

[7] Bamidbar 10;33; Bamidbar 14:44; Devarim 31; Devarim 10:8.

[8] This debate is connected to another one: was there only one Ark – the Ark fashioned by Betzalel, which stood in the Holy of Holies? Was this the same Ark that would go out with Israel on their journeys and to war?

i. Rashi posits that there was another Ark – the Ark of wood made by Moshe (as described in Devarim 10), which contained the fragments of the first Tablets, and this would be taken with the soldiers going out to war.  ii. The Abravanel maintains that there was one Ark in which all of the Tablets were kept, but the Ark that went out with them to war was another one; this was the Ark containing the Urim ve-Tumim, which would be consulted during war.  iii. The Ramban insists that there was only one Ark, the Ark made by Betzalel, in which both the first and the second Tablets were placed, and this Ark would go out with Bnei Yisrael to war and on their journeys.

This controversy is a complicated one, and there are proofs in support of each opinion.  We shall not involve ourselves in it at present, since in both of the wars that we shall mention here – the entry into the land and the war against Yericho, and the war against the Philistines in I Shemuel 4 – it is clear to all that the Ark that is described is the same one that was built by Betzalel - the Ark that stood in the Holy of Holies.  (For elaboration on this subject the reader is referred to an article entitled, "Did the Ark of the Covenant Go Out to the Battles of Israel?" by Rav Eitan Shandorfi, Merchavim VI).

[9] To be more precise, the story concludes in 7:1.


Translated by Kaeren Fish