The Ark of the Covenant is a portable wooden box that was used for religious purposes by the ancient Israelites and is mentioned in many places throughout the Hebrew Bible. In the book Exodus, the Israelite god Yahweh commands Moses to have the Israelites build this box, or ark, and cover it with gold:
“Yahweh said to Moses… ‘They (i.e., the children of Israel) shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it.'”(Exodus 25:1, 10-11)
Many Bible readers have never heard of any other object like this, and therefore assume that the Ark of the Covenant is sui generis—the only one of its kind. However, it turns out that there is an intriguing parallel to the Ark of the Covenant in ancient Egypt, an item known as the sacred bark. In a 2015 article, Scott B. Noegel argues that the Egyptian sacred bark was the inspiration for the Israelite Ark of the Covenant sometime in the Late Bronze Age when the Egyptian presence in Canaan was increasing.
A sacred bark was a ritual object that resembles a boat but was rarely (if ever) actually put into water. The bark was used to transport gods (represented by a statue of the god) or mummies, and was carried on poles by priests. This is similar to the Ark of the Covenant, which was likewise moved with carrying poles:
“You shall cast four rings of gold for it (i.e., the Ark) and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. And you shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. And the poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.”(Exodus 25:12-15)
Some sacred barks were decorated with kerubim—divine guardian creatures from which the Bible gets the idea of cherubim (Noegel, 230 [fig. 17.6]). This likewise parallels the design of the Ark of the Covenant, where two cherubim are affixed to the mercy seat atop the Ark:
“You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces to one another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you.”(Exodus 25:17-21)
As a transporter of gods, the Egyptian sacred bark was understood to represent a locus whereat gods would dwell and could be accessed by humans via written or spoken oracles. The Israelite Ark was similarly seen as a place where their god, Yahweh, would dwell and communicate with his people:
“There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.”(Exodus 25:22)
One might reasonably object that, while there are several similarities between the Ark of the Covenant and the Egyptian sacred barks, there is a glaring difference: the Ark of the Covenant is a box, not a boat like the sacred barks. There are a couple of responses to this. First of all, Noegel is not arguing that the Ark of the Covenant is itself a sacred bark, but only that it was inspired by this similar piece of Egyptian ritual furniture. Secondly, the description of the Ark as a box is potentially compatible with boat imagery in ancient Israel (for example, the dimensions given for the ark of Noah suggest a box shape), and so it is conceivable that the Israelite Ark retained some hints of nautical imagery (Noegel, 230). Finally, there were also boxes and chests in ancient Egypt that did not resemble boats, and which likely helped inspire the specific design of the Ark of the Covenant.
Raanan Eichler has done some intriguing research that suggests that many architectural features of the Ark of the Covenant come from Egyptian boxes. For example, in Exodus 25:11 (quoted above) Yahweh commands the Israelites to put a “molding of gold” around the top of the Ark. The Hebrew term for this “molding” is zēr (זר), which Eichler argues refers to an Egyptian architectural feature known as a cavetto cornice, “a concave molding with a quarter-circle profile that surrounds the top of an object or structure” (Eichler, 2014: 203). The cavetto cornice frequently topped portable wooden boxes in ancient Egypt since the 5th Dynasty and is believed to imitate the way reed stems in archaic structures were deformed by pressure from the roof (Leick, 55). Furthermore, in Exodus 25:12 (also quoted above) we read that the poles for the Ark were put at the Ark’s “four feet” (Hebrew: ארבע פעמתיו), presumably referring to four legs in each corner that sustain the Ark above the ground. While the preceding text of Exodus 25 never specified that the Ark was to have legs, the command to put the holes for the poles at the “four feet” suggests that the Israelite audience might have expected a portable wooden box to have legs. And as it turns out, this expectation is in line with the Egyptian boxes examined by Eichler, which have legs allowing the poles to be retracted beneath the box (Eichler, 2015: 9-18).
It is not surprising that scholars are beginning to recognize that ancient Israel’s Ark of the Covenant has an Egyptian provenance. Some biblical patriarchs, such as Jacob and Joseph, were embalmed according to the customs of the Egyptians (Genesis 50:1-4, 26). Archaeologists have discovered the royal seal of the Israelite king Hezekiah, which is decorated with a winged sun-disk and an ankh, both of which are Egyptian religious symbols. It should therefore come as no surprise that features of the Israelite temple system, such as the design and function of the Ark of the Covenant, might have adopted elements from religious practices from ancient Egypt.
[All Bible verses are taken from the ESV, but with ‘the LORD’ substituted for the divine name ‘Yahweh’ to better reflect the original Hebrew]
Eichler, Raanan. “The Meaning of zēr.” Vetus Testamentum 64 (2014): 196-210.
Eichler, Raanan. “The Meaning of pa’am in the Context of Furniture.” Journal of Semitic Studies LX/1, Spring (2015): 1-18.
Leick, Gwendolyn. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Architecture (Routledge, 1988).
Noegel, Scott B. “The Egyptian Origin of the Ark of the Covenant,” in Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective edited by Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider, and William H.C. Propp (Springer, 2015): 223-242.