What Happened to the Ark and the Tabernacle?

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

In the hands of Hollywood, the Ark of the Covenant seems like the stuff of science fiction. Part of what makes it so intriguing is that this golden chest seems to have simply disappeared from history, and it's hard not to wonder what happened to it.

The ark was housed in the tabernacle, and their history begins together. (What Was the Tabernacle? Check out this post!) A time comes when they are split apart, and it seems they never come back together again.

What was the Ark?

Called the Ark of the Covenant, or the Ark of Testimony, it was basically a fancy box. You can read a great description of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25:10-22. It is made from Acadia wood, overlayed with gold inside and out, and given rings so that long poles can be used to carry it.

What was the point of the ark?

The ark contained the Testimony, which was given by God to Moses. - Exodus 40:20 (This was likely the ten commandments written on stone, though God gave Moses a fair few instructions beyond that!)

Kept before the Testimony there were:

Aaron's rod which budded with flowers (Numbers 17:10) and a jar of manna, the food God gave them from heaven. (Exodus 16:33-34)

Hebrews 9:3-5 speaks of Aaron's rod and the jar of manna being within the ark, but when the ark is moved by Solomon into the newly built temple, it seems only the testimony is in the ark. (1 Kings 8:9 ) Perhaps the other two were lost during the time the ark was captured, or perhaps they are not kept within the ark, but near it.

Though these relics are amazing, the ark was more than a place for storage.

Another amazing feature of the ark, is that on top there is a “mercy seat”. Exodus 25:21-22 says :

“You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give you. There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.”

Wow! Did you catch that? It's no wonder that the people revered the ark, for it was the place where God came to meet with His people. The ark was so special that it was kept within the holy of holies, a separated portion of the temple were only a select few ever walked, and even then it was with fear, trembling, prayers and incense.

When the ark moved from place to place, it was covered with three layers to be sure that no one else could lay eyes on it, and the people were supposed to keep back. If people mistreated the ark and did not revere it, they suffered and died. (1 Samuel 5:6, 9; 6:19; 2 Samuel 6:2-7)

So we have here two of the key items of the worship of the early Israelite, the tabernacle and the ark. (Not that these two were the most important. There was also the altar for sacrifices, the washbasin for purification, the tables for bread, the lamps and the incense burners, all of these were important for worship.)

So, what happened to the ark and the tabernacle?

While the ark is famous for being lost, I thought that the answer to what happened the tabernacle would be straight forward. Nope! It took some digging. The answers in scripture are elusive, and Bible scholars do not all agree. This seems strange to me considering the wealth of detail that we are given about its construction and assembly. I'll come back to this.

When the people moved into the promised land, the first place it is mentioned that they camp in Gilgal. (Joshua 4:19) It isn't explicitly said, but it is implied that the tabernacle was set up here. The ark is obviously nearby, as it is used in the conquering of Jericho.

Next, the tabernacle and ark go to Shiloh. (Joshua 18:1) They stay there for some time. The Bible doesn't give us a number, but according to Jewish tradition, the center of worship is in Shiloh for 369 years.