BELLOQ: It's a transmitter, a radio for speaking to God.
— Raiders of the Lost Ark
Exodus chapter 25 tells how God commands Moses to build a special chest in which to contain the Tablets of the Law on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. Aaron's Rod and a sample of Manna were also kept in it. The box, or ark, was to be two cubits in length (about 1.1 m or 45 in.) and a cubit and a half in length and height (about 0.7 m or 27 in.) and covered with gold. It had rings on each corner through which long poles were inserted to carry it, and on it's lid were sculpted a pair of cherubim, also made of gold, with wings spread towards each other. God would speak to Moses from the space above the Ark between the two cherubim.
When the Israelites traveled during their wanderings in the wilderness, they were preceded by the Ark, carried by four priests. The priests, carrying the Ark also led them when they went to battle. When not traveling, the Ark rested in a special curtained-off section of the Tabernacle, the huge tent built as a mobile place of worship.
Even when properly handled, the Ark was dangerous to have around - unless it was being moved the High Priest was the only person authorised to enter its immediate presence, and only then once a year. According to legend, a rope would be tied to the high priest's ankle, so that he could be dragged out of the Ark's presence if it happened to kill him; but neither Scriptures nor the Talmud specifically mention this practice.
After the conquest of Canaan, the Tabernacle continued to be the Israelites' center of worship; but the Ark was seized by the Philistines in battle. (1 Samuel 4:1-11) They put it in the temple of Dagon, a Philistine god; a minor earth tremor shook the temple in the night, causing the statue of Dagon to fall over, making it appear to be worshiping the Ark. After that, they tried moving it around to other places, but wherever the Ark went, the Philistines suffered from plagues. (1 Samuel 5:1-12) Finally they just gave the sucker back.
When David became king of Israel, and took the city of Jerusalem as his capital, he planned to bring the Ark to the city. Contrary to the instructions in the Books of Moses, David had it transported on a cart. At one point in the trip, it looked like the Ark was going to topple off and one of the work crew put out his hand to steady it. He was instantly struck dead. (2 Samuel 6:1-7) Out of fear, David left the Ark then where it was for a while until he was certain God wasn't still cheesed off at him; and when he finally did bring the Ark into Jerusalem, he did it according to Mosaic tradition.
David intended to build a permanent home for the Ark, but it was ultimately his son Solomon who built the Temple, where the Ark remained until the conquest of Jerusalem by the Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. The Babylonians carried off the sacred treasures and implements of the Temple; including, perhaps the Ark.
But there has been much speculation about the true fate of the Lost Ark. The apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees refers to a document stating that the prophet Jeremiah smuggled the Ark out of Jerusalem before the city's fall and hid it in a cave on Mount Nebo, where it will remain hidden until the Lord's good time. Another theory claims that it was moved into the hidden catacombs deep beneath Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has long claimed that the Ark was brought to Ethiopia by King Menelik I, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It is kept at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in the city of Axum, and used occasionally in ritual processions. But there are many replicas of the Axum Ark in churches all over Ethiopia, and the version in Axum has never been authenticated.
In his speculative book Chariots of the Gods? writer Erich von Däniken suggests that the Ark was a communication device given to Moses by aliens, which also acted as a giant capacitor giving a deadly electric shock to anyone who mishandled it.
Game and Story Use
- Yeah, Lucas and Spielberg have done it already; but the Ark of the Covenant still makes a kick-ass McGuffin for your PCs to seek.
- Does the Ark have holy powers? Is it really an alien artifact? What really is its secret?
- Or, mention of the Ark could be used either as a throwaway reference (such as the cameos it makes in The Last Crusade and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) or as a red herring to misdirect the players.
- Note that despite its divine origin, the Ark is a dangerous, cantankerous piece of kit - let that give you any authority you may need to make your own artifacts similarly hard to hande.