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Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?

from the April 27, 2015 eNews issue

Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?

Last week, CNN, as part of a travel article, mentioned a tourist destination that many do not know of. It suggested going to Ethiopia if one wants to see some incredible religious sites.

The highlight of the trip would be to Axum to see what many claim to be the Ark of the Covenant.

The suggestion that Ethiopia is the home of the Ark is not something new. The history of the story goes back as far as when the Queen of Sheba met King Solomon, when it is said by some scholars that the Ark had been procured from Jerusalem and taken to Ethiopia.

What is the Ark of the Covenant?

The ark of the covenant was a wooden box, approximately 4 × 2½ × 2½ feet, covered inside and out with gold, capped with a golden mercy seat that was flanked by two golden cherubim. When God brought Israel up out of Egypt during the exodus, he gave Moses specific instructions on how to construct this ark (Exodus 25). Throughout the early history of Israel, the Ark of the Covenant played a critical role, for it represented the focal point of God’s Presence among Israel, combining his holiness and his power with his desire to dwell among his people and relate to them.

The ark was the most sacred aspect of the temple, for it was there that God could commune with His people, above the mercy seat which covered the ark, between the overshadowing cherubim. Within the ark were a pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod, and (most importantly) the two tables of God’s law:

Behind the second curtain was the part of the tent called the Most Holy Place, which had the gold altar for incense and the Ark of the Covenant completely covered with gold. In it was the gold jar holding the manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the Tablets of the Covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the place of atonement.

— Hebrews 9:3–5, ISV

Ark of the Covenant

In 3:16 Jeremiah makes a very radical prediction: in the future restoration the ark will be gone, and, more surprisingly, no one will even miss it. In accordance with Jeremiah’s prophecy, the Ark of the Covenant disappears from biblical history after the Babylonians capture and destroy Jerusalem in 587/586 BC.

“And in those days when you increase in numbers and multiply in the land,” declares the LORD, “people will no longer say, ‘The Ark of the Covenant of the LORD,’ and it won’t come to mind, and they won’t remember it or miss it, nor will it be made again.

— Jeremiah 3:16, ISV

What happened to the Ark?

Numerous legends and theories that attempt to answer this question continue to circulate. One theory states that Jeremiah himself hid the ark beneath the Temple Mount just before the Babylonians captured the city. Some speculate that it is still there. A few people claim to have seen it. Old Testament scholars find this legend highly unlikely, without any verifiable evidence to support it.

Another legend about the ark comes from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian national “folk legend” states that the queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian queen. After she visited King Solomon in Jerusalem, she returned to Ethiopia and gave birth to Solomon’s son, a boy named Menilek. Later, Menilek returned to Jerusalem to visit his father, but then stole the Ark of the Covenant, taking it with him back to Ethiopia, where it remains to this day. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to have the original Ark of the Covenant in a church in the ancient city of Axum.

There is, however a problem with this legend. Many scholars claim it doesn’t seem to line up with history. King Solomon predates the Axumite kingdom of Menilek by nearly one thousand years.

The Ark of the Covenant disappeared when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple and carried Judah captive into Babylon 600 years before Christ. At that time “all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord” were also taken to Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:18), as were the brass and other metals that adorned the temple (2 Kings 25:13–20).

No mention, however, was made of the ark, the most important and perhaps most costly (the ark was overlaid with pure gold, and the mercy seat and cherubim were of pure gold) item in the temple, as well as certainly the most significant item to the writers of the accounts in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Jeremiah (chapter 52, as well as the book of Lamentations). Neither was there any mention of the Ark when Cyrus commissioned the rebuilding of the temple and sent back all its vessels as well (Ezra 1:1–11).

Men through the centuries have been almost as intrigued with the search for the Ark of the Covenant as they have with the search for Noah’s ark. The Ark was not in the restoration temple, nor the temple of Herod, nor in the tribulation temple. Neither is there any mention of it even in the millennial temple described in Ezekiel 40–48. People have rumored it is preserved somewhere in a cave in Ethiopia, or in the Arabian Desert, or somewhere else.

This is one reason some scholars believe that the Ark is indeed in Axum.

The Ethiopians have something very old and significant in that church that has produced this ancient legend, along with several church rituals relating to the Ark. What do they actually have in that church?

One possibility relates to a Jewish colony that was built in ancient southern Egypt on the Isle of Elephantine on the Nile River. In the sixth century BC the Egyptians hired Jewish mercenaries to defend a fortress on this island. Archaeological excavations on this site indicate that these Jews apparently constructed a model of the temple in Jerusalem on their island, ostensibly to worship God. Did they also construct a model of the Ark of the Covenant to place in that temple? Perhaps. No one knows for certain what happened to these Jewish mercenaries who had settled in southern Egypt. Some suggest they migrated east into Ethiopia, taking their replica of the Ark with them. If this scenario is true, then the Ethiopians might have this Ark, a very old (and highly significant) replica of the Ark of the Covenant.

Some scholars maintain that the most likely fate of the Ark of the Covenant is that the Babylonian army melted it down and carried the gold back to Babylonia. In any case, Jeremiah was correct. The ark disappeared.

Many believe that the Ark will have a role in end time prophecy. One thing is sure, today, God’s people experience God’s Presence through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; thus they do not miss the Ark of the Covenant, nor should they.

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