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The Ark of the Covenant

David Cowles

Feb 9, 2023

“You want me to believe that your God is invisible, that he lives in an empty box…and you want me to worship that box?”

The Ark of the Covenant, along with the Tabernacle that housed it, has an important role in the history, identity, and spirituality of the Jewish people. Its construction was mandated by God in the Torah and God was not stingy with his advice. In fact, he gave his artisans explicit instructions re its shape, size, contents, and adornment. Why so many details?

According to Torah scholar, Rashi (11th Century CE), the Tabernacle and the Ark were constructed in direct counterpoise to the infamous Golden Calf. The state of theology in the Middle East in the 2nd millennium BCE was deplorable. Almost without exception, conceptions of God were rooted in the material world: idols, nature nymphs, heavenly bodies with their myriad motions and constellations. The Golden Calf is emblematic of this theology.

In the Middle Ages, this theological method would have been called the via positiva: affirmative propositions about God: “God is…”

Ancient Middle Eastern theology was the handmaiden of the state. It was a self-conscious function of religion to support social hierarchies, reinforce cultural mores, and promote public order, aka the State. Pre-Mosaic theology was inherently reactionary; unlike Judeo-Christianity, it was indeed an ‘opiate of the people’. 

Marx was right; he just came along three millennia too late! Is there a reciprocal relationship between idolatry and tyranny? Watch this space for future updates.

Fortunately, Moses stepped up and filled in for the tardy Karl. In the Book of Exodus, Moshe and YHWH plot, organize, and carry out a political, cultural and theological revolution, the scope of which would have made Lenin and Mao drool. 

According to author Katia Bolotin, Moses succeeded in imbuing the people with a unity of purpose…without the social fiction of a State. “He transformed them into a united workforce of willing individuals. How was this achieved? By respecting and valuing each person’s contribution, Moses demonstrated that everyone mattered. He impressed upon the people the greatness of their collective mission...” In other words, who needs a Stinkin’ State when you’ve got Moses…and YHWH…and a fallen world to redeem.

In fact, it all started with a new conception of Divinity: “I am who am” (or “I will be what I will be”). God cannot be identified, compared, or even symbolized by anything material. The new religion was iconoclastic and therefore a true liberation theology. “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21: 25)

In addition to the via positiva (above), the Middle Ages recognized another theological method called the via negativa. Unlike its self-assured cousin, the via negativa consists of negative propositions about God. God is defined by what he is not. Like Michelangelo, the ‘negative’ theologian chisels away at an undifferentiated block of marble until a hidden image appears (‘a negative’). Neti, neti – God’s not this, God’s not that.

Today, it is generally accepted that we can only learn about God by analogy (Thomas Aquinas), by negation (Nicholas of Cusa), or perhaps by personal experience. 

In 1200 BCE, I rented an apartment in Bethlehem overlooking a schoolyard. Canaanite and Jewish children played side-by-side; it was wonderful. On the first day of the new school year, I happened to be sitting at an open window and I heard an interesting conversation between two 3rd graders:  

“My daddy can beat up your daddy.”

“Well, my God can smite your god.” 

“Ok, show me your God.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not? I can show you mine. He’s huge and scary and made of gold and covered with jewels. Why can’t you show me yours?”

“I just can’t, that’s all; but I can tell you stories about my God and the amazing things he did for our people long ago; or I can show you the Ark of the Covenant where God’s special presence lives.” 

“Now you’re talking! Let’s go see that. Then we’ll see your God.”

“Well, no, even if I could lift the lid, which I can’t, there’s really nothing to see inside. Just some souvenirs of the time my people spent in Egypt and Sinai: manna, a flowering staff, and some stone tablets we picked up in the desert.”

“So, where is your God? You said that his special presence was in the Ark. Why can’t I see him then? Is he wearing an invisibility cloak?”

“No, no one can see him because he’s nowhere…and everywhere…all at once; he’s here right here now as a matter of fact. We just can’t see him.”

“So, let me get this straight: you want me to believe that your God is invisible, that he lives in an empty box (kind of like Oscar); you want me to believe that your nowhere God can ‘smite’ my golden god; and you want me to worship that box?”

It was probably too much to hope that a third-grader would be able to explain that the Ark was a ‘sanctified space’ through which God’s presence was manifest to his people. We do not worship ‘the box’ per se; we worship its emptiness. Folks used to seeing their god as figure find it hard to see our God as ground. So, as you can probably guess, things did not go well from here. 

“What are you, a wise guy? I was hoping we could be friends, but now I see that I’ll just have to beat you up instead. Sorry.”

Of course, we no longer have the physical Ark. But Katia Bolotin (above) suggests we recreate the Ark in our own lives: Make every gathering a place (a space) where God’s presence can dwell. Build communities, not through constraint but through the discovery of common purpose.

Not bad advice coming from the second millennium…BCE!

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