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God spoke to his people through their culture. He used their language and their customs. He described himself as a shepherd, for example, an occupation they knew well. When God commanded the Hebrews to build the tabernacle and temple, the builders followed cultural patterns that had been known for centuries. Moreover, long before God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, ancient peoples used tablets as symbols and summaries of covenants.
The Ark of the Covenant, however, was unique in the history of the Near East.
The specific design for the ark is given in Ex. 25:10-22. Its role is so important to God that he describes its construction before any other sacred object, even before the tabernacle itself. It was made of acacia wood, an extremely hard wood common to the Sinai Peninsula. The ark was 3 feet 9 inches long, 2 feet 3 inches wide, and 2 feet 3 inches high. It was plated with gold and had a gold rim around the top. It stood on four legs, and on each side were two gold rings so poles could be inserted for the Levites (the priestly tribe) to carry it. The cover called the mercy seat or atonement seat, was pure gold. On the top of the lid were two cherubim?probably sphinxes with their wings stretched over the cover.
WHAT THE ARK MEANT TO GOD'S PEOPLE
The ark became the focus of God's presence among his people. God would regularly appear in a cloud of glory on the mercy seat of the ark (Ex. 25:22). On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the great holy day of the Bible, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies chamber in front of the ark, and God would appear in the cloud over the cover (Lev. 16:2). A person who came before the ark was entering into God's presence.
The imagery of the ark expressed the people's longing to feel safe in God's protecting arms: "... under his wings you will find refuge" (Ps. 91:4). The ark provided evidence that the holy God of Abraham was a protecting, forgiving presence in the lives of his people.
The ark also gave assurance that the Lord was sovereign over all things. The people saw the box as God's footstool (1 Chron. 28:2). "The LORD reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake" (Ps. 99:1). What was there to fear when God was on his throne attended by the cherubim?
The ark's central purpose was to hold the Ten Commandments (Ex. 25:16), the summary of God's covenant with his people. The covenant itself comprised the whole Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Following Middle Eastern custom, God instructed Moses to make two summary documents of the covenant as his guarantee that his word would never fail. Normally, each of the covenanting parties took a summary copy and placed it in their most sacred place to read regularly as a reminder of the covenant. Apparently, God made the two summary copies (each containing all ten commandments) and gave them both to Moses, ordering him to place them in the ark.
Imagine Moses's reaction when he learned that the most sacred place for God and for Israel was the same?the ark! As the ark was the presence of God to Israel, so Jesus became the presence of God during his ministry...but that's another story.