Some people believe that the Ark of the Covenant (also referred to as the Ark of God), which God instructed Moses to build (see Exodus 25), had mystical powers, but is such a belief supported by accounts that are recorded in the Bible? To assess the merit of this belief, we will examine several of the primary scripture passages that people have cited to support their position. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise.]
I. Joshua 3:10-17:
Joshua said, “By this you shall know that the living God is among you, and that He will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Hivites and the Perizzites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Jebusites: Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is crossing over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore, take for yourselves twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one man from every tribe. And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, the waters that come down from upstream, and they shall stand as a heap.” So it was, when the people set out from their camp to cross over the Jordan, with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as those who bore the ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest), that the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away at Adam, the city that is beside Zaretan. So the water that went down into the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, failed, and were cut off; and the people crossed over opposite Jordan; and all Israel crossed over on dry ground, until all the people had crossed completely over the Jordan.
In the first sentence of this scripture passage, Joshua indicates that the miracle that was about to happen – notably the stopping of the flow of the water in the Jordan River – would be attributable to God; he did not attribute the miracle to the Ark. According to Matthew Henry’s Commentary with regard to this passage, the Ark was basically a visible sign of God’s presence. In other words, the Ark did not possess power of its own.
II. Joshua 6:1-5, 15-17a, 20:
Jericho was securely shut up because of the children of Israel; none went out, and none came in. And the Lord said to Joshua: “See! I have given Jericho into your hand, its king, and the mighty men of valor. You shall march around the city, all you men of war; you shall go all around the city once. This you shall do for six days. And seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. But the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. Then it shall come to pass, when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when you hear the sound of the trumpet, that all the people shall shout with a great shout; then the wall of the city will fall down flat. And the people shall go up every man straight before him.” . . . [I]t came to pass on the seventh day that they rose early, about the dawning of the day, and marched around the city seven times. . . . And the seventh time it was so, when the priests blew the trumpets, that Joshua said to the people: “Shout, for the Lord has given you the city! Now the city shall be doomed by the Lord to destruction, it and all who are in it.” . . . So the people shouted when the priests blew the trumpets. And it happened when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat. Then the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.
The second sentence in this passage of scripture indicates that the miraculous collapsing of the wall around Jericho, which facilitated the victory by the Israelites, was caused by the Lord (i.e., God), not by some kind of mystical power of the Ark.
III. 1 Samuel 4:5-10a:
[W]hen the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook. Now when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, “What does the sound of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” Then they understood that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp. So the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp!” And they said, “Woe to us! For such a thing has never happened before. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness. Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines, that you do not become servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men, and fight!” So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated. . . .
This scripture passage makes it clear that the Ark did not have mystical powers that assured the Israelites they would always be victorious in battle. Despite the fact that the Ark was in the camp of the Israelites, they were defeated by the Philistines. God Himself determines whether or not His people will be victorious in battle or otherwise.
IV. 1 Samuel 5:1-12:
[T]he Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the temple of Dagon [a god worshipped by the Philistines] and set it by Dagon. And when the people of Ashdod arose early in the morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and set it in its place again. And they arose early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. The head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only the torso of Dagon was left of it. Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who came into Dagon’s temple tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day. But the hand of the Lord was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and He ravaged them and struck them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. And when the men of Ashdod saw how it was, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for His hand is harsh toward us and Dagon our god. Therefore they sent and gathered to themselves all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” And they answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried away to Gath.” So they carried the ark of the God of Israel away. And so it was, after they had carried it away, that the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction; and He struck the men of the city, both small and great, and tumors broke out on them. Therefore they sent the ark of God to Ekron. So it was, as the ark of God came to Ekron, that the Ekronites cried out, saying, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people!” So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go back to its own place, so that it does not kill us and our people.” For there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there. And the men who did not die were stricken with the tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.
Although the first several verses of this passage of scripture do not indicate that God was responsible for what happened in the temple of Dagon soon after the Ark was brought into the temple, neither is there any indication that the Ark was responsible. Furthermore, the subsequent verses in this scripture passage make it clear that “the hand of the Lord,” not the Ark, was responsible for the inflictions on the Philistines in the towns to which they took the Ark.
V. 1 Samuel 6:13-15, 19:
[T]he people of Beth Shemesh [Israelites] were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it. Then the cart [that was carrying the ark] came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there; a large stone was there. So they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the chest that was with it, in which were . . . articles of gold, and put them on the large stone. Then the men of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices the same day to the Lord. . . . Then He [God] struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord . . . and the people lamented because the Lord had struck the people with a great slaughter.
This passage of scripture, like the previous scripture passages that we have considered, indicates that God, not the Ark, was responsible for what happened, which in this case was the killing of Israelites who had looked into the Ark with what a footnote in the NIV Bible calls “irreverent curiosity.” The footnote goes on to state, “Because God had so closely linked the manifestation of his own presence among his people with the ark, it was to be treated with great honor. . . .” In Numbers 4:20, God had cautioned that unauthorized Israelites were not to “look at the holy things, even for a moment, or they will die.” The “holy things” included the Ark.
VI. 2 Samuel 6:2-3a, 6-7:
David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, who name is called by the Name, the Lord of Hosts. . . . So they set the ark of God on a new cart. . . . And when they came to Nachon’s threshingfloor, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the ark of God. [Note: 1 Chronicles 13:5-10 provides a similar account.]
With regard to this scripture passage, Matthew Henry’s Commentary expresses the belief that Uzzah tried to save the Ark from falling, probably with the intention of preserving the reputation of the Ark and to prevent a bad omen. Henry goes on to explain that Uzzah was a Levite, but only priests were permitted to touch the Ark, and touching the Ark was expressly forbidden to the Levites under pain of death. Although it is difficult to understand why God would kill a person who apparently thought he was protecting the Ark from falling off the cart, this passage is very clear that God, not the Ark, was responsible for the death of Uzzah.
In light of the preceding considerations, there does not appear to be any credible biblical evidence to support the belief that the Ark of the Covenant possessed mystical powers. Instead, the Bible indicates that God Himself was responsible for the supernatural occurrences that involved the Ark.