Contents of the Ark of the Covenant
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Following Israel’s exodus from Egypt, God instructed them to make a small wooden ark (box) overlaid with gold. The ark was 2.5 cubits long, 1.5 cubits wide, and 1.5 cubits high (or about 3.75 x 2.25 x 2.25 feet) and was called the “Ark of the Testimony” or the “Ark of the Covenant” because it contained the tablets of stone whereon the Ten Commandments were written (Exodus 25:16). According to 1 Kings 8:9, “Nothing was in the ark except the two tablets of stone” (emp. added; cf. 2 Chronicles 5:10). The writer of Hebrews, however, indicated that the ark contained “the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant” (9:4). How can both of these passages be correct?
First, it may be that the Hebrews writer was indicating that the pot of manna, Aaron’s rod, and the tablets were in close proximity to the ark, but not necessarily that all three were “in” the ark. Although most English translations refer to what was “in” (NKJV; Greek en) the ark or what the ark “contained” (NIV, RSV), the uses of the Greek preposition en “are so many and various, and oft. so easily confused, that a strictly systematic treatment is impossible” (Danker, 2000, p. 326). Greek lexicographers give numerous definitions for this word, including: among, within the range of, near, before, in the presence of, etc. (Danker, pp. 326-330). Perhaps the writer of Hebrews only intended to communicate that Aaron’s rod, the container of manna, and the tablets of stone were all in close proximity to the ark in the Most Holy Place (the tablets being in the ark, while the manna and rod were “before” the ark; cf. Exodus 16:33-34; Numbers 17:10).
Second, it is also very possible that all three items were literally inside of the ark at one time, but not all of the time. Whenever comparing two or more Bible passages that might initially appear contradictory, one must be sure that the same time frame is under discussion. Such is not the case with Hebrews 9:4 and 1 Kings 8:9. In Hebrews 9, the inspired writer refers to the time of Moses, when “a tabernacle was prepared” (vs. 2; cf. Exodus 25-40). The statement in 1 Kings 8:9 (as well as 2 Chronicles 5:10) is from the time of Solomon, when he built the Temple, approximately 500 years after the tabernacle was constructed. Is it possible that the Ark of the Covenant once contained the tablets of stone, the pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod, while at another time (i.e., five centuries later) the ark contained only the tablets of stone? Most certainly (cf. 1 Samuel 4-5).
What about the allegation that “Aaron’s staff could hardly have fit anyway, since the ark was a box only 2.5 x 1.5 x 1.5 cubits” (Wells, 2009)? The fact is, no one knows the length of Aaron’s rod. Rods served many purposes (e.g., for support, for administering punishment, as a symbol of authority, etc.; see Allen, 1996, p. 1022) and came in various sizes. In Aaron’s case, it appears that his rod was more of a symbol of his God-given authority than just a mere walking stick. What’s more, even if Aaron had used his rod for support, he may have only been five feet tall and needed a walking stick that was just 3½ feet long. Considering that an average walking cane today is only about three feet long, it should not be surprising that Aaron’s rod could have fit into a box that was nearly four feet long.
Indeed, the wording of 1 Kings 8:9 and Hebrews 9:4 are different. But reasonable explanations exist for the variation. There is no doubt that two different time periods are under discussion. Furthermore, as with many Hebrew and Greek words, it may be that the Greek en (in Hebrews 9:4) should be understood in a broader sense. Whatever the precise contents of the Ark of the Covenant at any given time in history, rest assured, 1 Kings 8:9 and Hebrews 9:4 are not contradictory.
Allen, L.C. (1996), “Rod,” New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), third edition.
Danker, Fredrick William (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago), third edition.
Wells, Steve (2009), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, [On-line], URL: http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/.