Updated: May 1
There are many artist renditions of the Ark of the Covenant. The design of the cherubim and the position of the poles or acacia wood staves overlaid with gold are two of the prominent differences. In this lesson we will concentrate upon the proper position of the gold rings and the staves. To illustrate the design a number of pictures will be used to clarify the proper positioning of the Ark staves according to the Hebrew word tsela often translated as "side." This same word is used of Adam's rib found in Genesis 2:22. This will be discussed in detail at the end of the blog in the notes section.
"And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man." JPS 1917
"And the Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man." NASB
"And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man." KJV
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.
A strange Request
It may feel awkward, but I ask that you envision yourself as the High Priest. You are dressed in all white linen and you stand at the entrance of the Mishkan or Tabernacle. You will represent the Israelites. My usual study notes will be parked at the end of this lesson. Feel free to review the notes before or after you read the next section of this blog. May you vicariously experience the Shechinah as you enter the Holy of Holies.
Staves Guide Approach to Adonai
It is the morning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On the east end of the courtyard of the Mishkan, the moonlight is gently giving way to the sun rising above the horizon as its sun rays begin to illuminate the altar of burnt sacrifice. The coals are still glowing from the daily Tamid of the day that preceded.
As the High Priest you wait till the prescribed time and make your way to the copper laver for washing. Here you perform the ritual ceremony of washing. Once cleansed of any impurity of the outside world you are sanctified, set apart, for the sacred responsibilities of the most holy day of the year.
You are now prepared to approach the altar of sacrifice – the place of consecration, repentance, restoration, and thanksgiving. As you approach the north side of the altar the heat from the embers of yesterday’s offerings warms your cheeks and forehead. With gold shovel in hand, you remove a full measure of hot coals from the base of the altar of sacrifice. Your journey to the presence of Adonai is just beginning.
On this day you are reminded you are the advocate for the entire nation of people. Although hidden by the linen fence encompassing the courtyard, your mind’s eye sees and hears the multitudes outside the linen barrier where they stand intently as you approach a holy God on the most holy on this most sacred day of the year.
Traveling past the laver the morning sun glimmers upon the water where you received your cleansing. Ensuring no coals are dropped the priest navigates the first veil of the Mishkan. Entering the Holy Place, you instantly become aware the chamber walls are bathed in the radiance of gold.
To your left is the Menorah with wicks trimmed and fresh olive oil each of the seven branches illuminate your path. The Menorah is the only vessel producing light for your path, but you can easily see the table on your right, gilded in gold, with twelve loaves of bread proclaiming Israel’s trust in the promise of provision of Adonai to sustain the nation from Sabbath to Sabbath. The centerpiece of this chamber is the golden altar of incense. Replenished with fresh incense and glowing coals from the altar of sacrifice, the scent of sweet smelling incense that permeates the Holy Place.
You pause, eyes closed, you are keenly aware of the rhythm of your breathing and the beat of your heart. Memory recalls the promise of Adonai: “I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.” You bare the weight of the nation upon your shoulders. Are you prepared? Is there any unforgiveness in your heart?
Being the Day of Atonement, you no longer bear the golden garments of your office, As High Priest you are clad in white linen garments. You navigate the last veil as you enter the most sacred space on earth. You are beyond the veil.
Inches away, the sacred chest contains the covenant, the agreement, between God and man. Embers still glowing you move forward. Glancing to your left and to your right, as the gold-plated staves mark your path. Lifting your eyes, you now experience what no one else will experience - the golden cherubim positioned at each of the mercy seat. Like two guardians, with heads reverently bowed, fixated upon the place of blood atonement.
In this sacred moment, the golden shovel is transferred to the designated place before the ark. Captured by the weight of His glory you tip two handfuls of finely ground incense to the hot coals waiting below. No strange fire here, for these sacred embers were transported from the holy fires of the altar of sacrifice. Instantly a canopy of sweet aroma softens the extraordinary radiance of Shechinah, the presence of Adonai.
Engulfed in a cloud of smoke from the sweet incense the High Priest yearned to hear the voice of Adonai from between the two cherubim. Now the staves once used for transporting the sacred chest have been elevated for a higher purpose - providing sacred boundaries like a guardrails on the left and the right, ensuring a proper and direct approach to the throne of Adonai.
Resembling two outstretched arms of a compassionate and forgiving parent the gold covered poles direct your path as you experienced the Holy One of Israel on the most sacred day of the year, in the most sacred place!
Guided by the staves you boldly come before the throne of Adonai to carry out the annual ritual, of sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice, seven times on the mercy seat, for the atonement of sin. Still surrounded by a cloud of incense, still facing the Mercy Seat, you slowly back away from the ark. The same staves that marked your approach into the Ark now act as guides for your humble retreat from the presence of the Redeemer of Israel.
The traveling Mishkan eventually made its way out of the desert. Later it was transformed into the First Temple commonly referred to as Solomon’s Temple. Now the House of Prayer was located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was later replaced by the Second Temple, commonly referred to as Herod’s Temple. This was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans.
What is the significance of the poles for the modern reader? What relevance might there be for us today? Allow me to offer my own interpolation. In the world we live in today we are pulled in every direction. Social media, radio, print and television all vie for our time. We are becoming more and more disconnected from each other and we are losing all sense of community. I may be naïve, but I believe deep down inside we all are looking for wholeness, a connection to the divine and a purpose or mission in life.
For me, that mission and purpose is derived from the study of scripture. Somehow in a mystical way, when I study, pray, or worship within a community, I experience a refreshing or renewal of my spirit. I am recharged to go out and fulfill my purpose – to make my sphere of influence a little better than it was the day before. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I wonder if I made a difference. Welcome to that thing we call life!
To accomplish I have a quiet place that has become my Holy of Holies. I cannot live there 24/7. However, when I close out the world around me and enter that holy space and time, I experience His presence. Yes, it is a mystical in nature. My psychologist friends might even call it “magical thinking.” But for me it is a place of peace and renewal.
I have studied the New Testament and the Older Testament. Since I lean toward stories (and picture Bibles LOL!) I am an Old Testament guy. This comes from the mentors I’ve studied under. These stories tell it the way it is. To keep me on track, I need a routine, a ritual, a guide, a path, an avenue, or a means of staying on track instead of becoming distracted by the negativity that surrounds us daily. Like the golden staves of the Ark of the Covenant, my path includes study of the Bible and worship.
When I am disappointed with people, Torah portions show me I am not alone.
When I am hurting, I find solace in the Psalms.
When I question what the right thing is to do is, I find wisdom in the Proverbs.
When I struggle with ethics, I reread the Proverbs and ponder the mitzvot found in Leviticus. When I feel I am failing as a husband, I venture into the Song of Solomon.
When I feel disconnected from the Lord, I return to the pattern of the Mishkan for scripture teaches me when the pattern is right the fire will fall!
These guide me in times of spiritual hunger and thirst. I yearn to understand the God who created me a His purpose for my life. The Tabernacle Man adventure has become a major part of my spiritual awakening. It has provided me with guideposts to experience a deeper connection to the divine. Many of you send me comments and ask me questions about the Bible. You have become part of my community and the reason I continue to allow myself to be vulnerable before you each time I produce a video or push publish for another blog. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. May I leave you with this blessing taken from the 2005 version of the Jewish Publication Society Bible. This beautiful blessing is found in Numbers 6:24-26.
The Priestly Blessing
The LORD bless thee, and keep thee;
The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;
The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
The Purpose of the Ark
The most prominent vessel in the Mishkan was the Ark of the Covenant. It was a wooden chest made from acacia wood and then overlaid with pure gold. It acted as a safety deposit box for sacred objects that would remind the Israelites of their covenant with Adonai, that was agreed upon at the foot of Mount Sinai.
The Ark had two acacia staves overlaid with gold, inserted into four solid gold rings which enabled the Levites to carry the sacred chest upon their shoulders. These staves always remained attached, therefore, the Levites never had to touch the Ark. When it came time to strike camp and move forward the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was draped over the Ark before transport (Numbers 4:5-6).
Contents of the Ark
Throughout this series we will explore the five contents of the Ark. We will learn that there is disagreement among the sages as to what was inside the Ark and at what time, if any, were each of these sacred objects placed inside or removed from the Ark (original broken tablets or replacement tablets Exodus 40:20; jar of manna and Aaron’s rod, Exodus 16:33, 34; Numbers 17:10; and a Torah scroll). As with any modern safety deposit box it is possible over time items may have been removed and later replaced to the Ark or placed inside the Holy of Holies near the Ark. Sometime after the Israelites left the desert, 1 Kings 8:9 points to the fact that the jar of manna and Aaron’s rod were no longer in the Ark. In addition, we will briefly illustrate that a vessel containing the anointing oil may have been placed within the Holy of Holies to one side of the Ark.
Proper Position of the Poles
Exodus 25:12 JPS 1917
"And thou shalt cast four rings of gold for it and put them in the four feet thereof; and two rings shall be on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it."
Exodus 25:13 JPS 1917
"And thou shalt make staves of acacia-wood and overlay them with gold."
The gold over lay was pure gold. The gold was beaten into thin strips that might have resembled our modern gold leafing sheets. This gold plating as it is often referred to is the same pure gold that was used to overlay the inside and outside of the Ark of the Covenant. Pure gold is too soft to bear weight. Therefore, the gold referred to for the “rings” that the staves were inserted into was made of regular gold. Regular gold is much stronger because it contains impurities making it stronger and less pliable.
Exodus 25:14 JPS 1917
"And thou shalt put the staves into the rings on the sides of the ark, wherewith to bear the ark."
As stated above, the staves or poles of the Ark often depicted incorrectly. At the time of the Mishkan, this incorrect positioning of the staves may have been influenced by Egyptian culture and the use of a palanquin or chair used for transporting the Pharaoh while in view of the public. Palanquins have been found buried in the tombs of the Pharaoh.
The Yarlung Kings of Tibetan culture were depicted as being carried with the king facing forward and the carrying poles on what is considered the sides of the chair rather than the servants being placed near the ends of the carrying poles.
Illustration adapted from the article written on 12.5.2019, The Yarlung Kings, by amdojigme at https://www.tibet-info.site/language/en/the-yarlung-kings/.
In the 1950s Hollywood continued the depiction of the staves being incorrectly displayed. Below is an example of the Ark of the Covenant from a famous biblical film. The picture below does not reveal the size of the Ark used as a prop in the movie. This movie prop may have been three times the size of the dimensions given in the book of Exodus.
Since the 1980s we have been heavily influenced by the depiction of the Ark of the Covenant from the movie, The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Below is the Tabernacle Man’s full-size replica of the Ark used in the movie. The staves as well as the size are not in alignment with the biblical description found in the Bible.
Photo Terry Harman 2005
Exodus 25:15 JPS 1917
"The staves shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it."
Symbolically, the Ark was always prepared to be transported at any time without notice. The staves remain permanently in place in case of an emergency from invaders the ark could be carried away easily.
If you would like the watch the entire video on the "5 contents of the Ark of the Covenant" here is a link to my video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2e7rRGlrv0