The Story of Salvation; The Ark of The Covenant 


By Charles Johnston:

Up until this this point all the parts of this series (The Story of Salvation) have focused on people of the Old Testament, this one will be a bit different. In this installment, I will be focusing on a “what” instead of a “who”. 

This installment of the series will focus on the contents of the Ark, its importance to Judaism, and by extension it’s importance to Christianity, and also on how the Ark of the Covenant was a prefigurement of something to come.

History of the Ark of the Covenant 

When Moses is on Mount Sinai, receiving the law from God, he is also instructed to build a container for the stone tablets that God will give to him. This container is the Ark of The Covenant, and it will become the physical throne of the invisible God. The lid of the Ark is called the Mercy Seat and this is where the presence of God will rest while in the tabernacle, and later in His temple in Jerusalem.

The Ark will go on traveling with the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert. It will cross the Jordan into the promised land. It will be carried in procession around the walls of Jericho. And it will be the center piece of the grand temple that will be built by King Solomon.

But as important as this container was, it was the contents of it that made it even more important. And it’s what these contents represented that makes it important even to this day.

What the Ark contained

The Old Testament only says that the stone tablets, containing the Ten Commandments, are inside the Ark. But the letter to the Hebrews, in the New Testament, tells us more about the contents;

Behind the second curtain stood a tentcalled the Holy of Holies, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant

Hebrews 9:3-4

These three items carry lots of significance, because in one way or another they all represent Christ.

  • 1. The Ten Commandments 

What the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews calls “tables of the covenant” are more commonly called the Ten Commandments. These tablets were written by God Himself, and given to Moses on Mt Sinai.

And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the covenant, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

Exodus 31:18

But the tablets in the Ark are actually the second set made by God, because the fist set was smashed by Moses when he seen the Israelites worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32).

 The LORD said to Moses, “Cut two tables of stone like the first; and I will write upon the tables the words that were on the first tables, which you broke.

Exodus 34:1

The Ten Commandments make their debut in the book of Exodus, but they will also be recounted in Deuteronomy as well. These Ten Commandments will become the foundation of what will come to be know as the Mosaic Law, and the basis for Judaism and Christianity.

What we now call “Judeo-Christian values” are rooted in the Ten Commandments, and western civilization itself is built upon them. To say they were an important document would be a massive understatement.

Whenever we hear “the Law” in the New Testament it is usually referring to the mosaic law, and that usually means the Ten Commandments. There were over 600 commandments (laws) in the Old Testament, because God was establishing a nation and they needed civil, judicial, and criminal law, just like today. But the Ten Commandments stand out because they are concerned with moral law, our relationship toward God, and our relationship toward our neighbor.

Because they contain a summation of the moral law, they are still in force today. Even though the early Church decided- at the Council of Jerusalem- to not make Gentile converts abide by the law of Moses, they (and us today) must still abide by the moral law; the Ten Commandments.

The Law and the New Covenant 

Jesus said He is the fulfillment of the law;

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

Matthew 5:17

The Ten Commandments were sometimes called the “tablets of the covenant” because they established the law that was the basis for the Old Covenant.

Just as the Law established the Old Covenant, He would establish the New Covenant. The ratification of the Old being made by the sprinkling of lambs blood on the people, Christ would shed His own blood to seal the New Covenant. If that sounds familiar it’s because that’s what Christ said at the last supper, and what the priest says at every mass.

First Moses establishing the Old Covenant:

 And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”  Exodus 24:8

And now Jesus establishing the New and eternal Covenant:

In the same way also the chalice, after supper, saying, “This chalice is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

1 Corinthians 11:25

Jesus is our new Ten Commandments, He is the embodiment and personification of the law. Just as He is the Word made flesh, He is also the Law made flesh.

Just like anything in the New Covenant that is foreshadowed in the Old, Jesus is greater than the law that proceeded Him. Christ also gave us a new and more perfect law; Love. It is the central theme in what He called the two greatest commandments, to love God and neighbor. Love is the key, but we must love as Jesus loved His disciples, and that is unconditionally and unto death. Impossible for us, but not by the grace of God.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:34-35

  • 2. The Manna

When the Israelites were traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land, God fed them in the desert with bread from heaven. They called this heavenly bread manna

Now the house of Israel called its name manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.

Exodus 16:31

To Catholics the symbolism here should be plainly obvious. Jesus is the bread that came down from heaven! He is the Living bread, and just as the Israelites ate the bread from heaven, and we can eat this living bread every time we go to mass. But unlike the Israelites who ate this bread in the desert and later died, those who eat the new manna will never die!

Although there is the obvious symbolism between manna and the Eucharist, and both come from heaven we must remember that manna was natural food that came from heaven, and the Eucharist is supernatural food from heaven. The Eucharist feeds our soul, manna fed thier bodies.

Jesus was challenged to match the miricle of providing manna just as Moses had, and he responds with the Bread of Life discourse (this is in John chapter 6 and is the basis for the Catholic doctrine of the real presence. For more see my post on the Eucharist Here), and just like Jesus is greater than the foreshadowing of Him that was the law of Moses, He is also greater than the foreshadowing of Him in the manna from heaven;

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:48-51

As we know, these statements cost Him many followers, but we should always remember the words of St. Peter if we are ever in doubt of any of the words of Christ or any church teaching. When Jesus asked the apostles if they’d also abandon Him, St. Peter spoke for them;

Jesus said to the Twelve, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”

John 6:67-68

  • Aaron’s Rod

Finally we come to Aaron’s rod, and it’s representation of priestly authority.

In ancient Israel your staff was a representation of your authority and your position. It was also a natural implement to help keep the sheep in the fold by guiding and corralling them in. This is the same reason that we see bishops today with a hooked staff (called a crosier) as a symbol of authority and pastoral care.

Korah’s rebellion 

Of the twelve tribes of Israel, God had selected the tribe of Levi to be the priests of the nation of Israel. These sons of Levi – known as Levites- were to be the caretakers of the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant, and later the temple in Jerusalem.

Moses and his brother Aaron were from the tribe of Levi, and all high priests were to be descendants of Aaron. This didn’t sit well with some in the Israelite camp, and a man called Korah started a rebellion;

Now Ko’rah the son of Iz’har, son of Ko’hath, son of Levi, and Da’than and Abi’ram the sons of Eli’ab, and On the son of Pe’leth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up before Moses, with a number of the sons of Israel, two hundred and fifty leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men; and they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?”

Numbers 16:1-3

Seems to me that Korah didn’t like the idea of an ordained priesthood, and you could probably consider him the very first of the anti-clerical heretics. His rebellion gained some traction but then the earth opened and swallowed him up;

And as he finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split asunder; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men that belonged to Ko’rah and all their goods.

Numbers 16:31-32

The budding of Aaron’s rod

So God tells Moses to set up this test, that will result in a miraculous proof of the Aaronic preisthood;

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the sons of Israel, and get from them rods, one for each fathers’ house, from all their leaders according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods. Write each man’s name upon his rod, and write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi. For there shall be one rod for the head of each fathers’ house. Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the covenant, where I meet with you. And the rod of the man whom I choose shall sprout; thus I will make to cease from me the murmurings of the sons of Israel, which they murmur against you.” Moses spoke to the sons of Israel; and all their leaders gave him rods, one for each leader, according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. And Moses deposited the rods before the LORD in the tent of the covenant. And the next day Moses went into the tent of the covenant; and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds, and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds. Then Moses brought out all the rods from before the LORD to all the sons of Israel; and they looked, and each man took his rod. And the LORD said to Moses, “Put back the rod of Aaron before the covenant, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their murmurings against me, lest they die.”

Numbers 17:1-10

This proved to the people that the Levites were set aside for God’s service, and that the descendants of Aaron were to be ordained as priests.

The Jesus connection

“But what does a flowering staff have to do with Jesus?” You may ask that question after reading the story of Aaron’s rod, but I only told that part to explain what it was, not why its significant.

The flowering staff represents Aaron’s authority as high priest, and the legitimacy of his descendants in that role.  Under the New Covenant, the one that Christ established on Holy Thursday, He has become our high priest.

And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son,today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest for ever,according to the order of Melchizedek.”

Hebrews 5:4-6

Jesus wasn’t from the line of Aaron, or even from the tribe of Levi, under the Old Covenant He would’ve been ineligible to be high priest. This is why He is a priest in the order of Machelzideck, because His authority as a priest doesn’t depend on His genealogy but on the fact that He is the Son of God;

For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek,who has become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life. This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant.

Hebrews 7:14-16,22

Just like the Ten Commandments foreshadowing the New covenant, and the manna forshadowning the Eucharist, the Aaronic priesthood foreshadowed the priesthood of Christ. And just like the other exemples of things foreshadowed in the Old Testament, the priesthood of Christ is far superior to the priests of the Old Testament.

All the sacrifices of the Old Testament just covered the sins of the people, but the sacrifice of Christ actually cleanses us of our sins, and justifies us before God.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.But when Christhad offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

Hebrews 10:11-14

(For more on the connection between Christ and Malchezidek see my post on Abraham and Malchezidek. Also read Hebrews (the whole book is great but chapters 4-10 focus on Christ’s high priesthood)

  • Final thoughts 

So as we can see the Ark and its contents are relevant to us Christians as a prefigurement of our Savior. Christ was prefigured in the law, the manna, and Aaron’s rod, but He is greater than all of them.

Even the Ark itself is a prefigurement of something in the Nee Covenant. It has been seen by many as a prefigurement of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is something I’d like to write about in a future article, because this one is closing in on 3000 words and I don’t want to write a book length article.

(For all posts in this series see this link The story of salvation )

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