The Ark Continent (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Yet another hopeful searcher locates the famous Biblical cultic object in Africa Joshua conquers the Promised Land with its help. David consecrates Jerusalem by its presence. Solomon builds a temple for it. Then after the Babylonians sack Jerusalem in 587 BCE, "the Ark of [the Lord's] strength" (Psalm 132) vanishes. The Bible says not a word about its fate. Rabbis, scholars and laymen have been wondering ever since. Maimonides believed the Ark had been hidden in a secret subterranean chamber on the Temple Mount. The apocryphal Second Book of Maccabees reported that it was placed by the prophet Jeremiah in Moses' burial cave at Mount Nebo (in today's Jordan). Muslim tradition had it that the Ark was laid beneath the Kaaba in Mecca. Yet others "located" the lost relic in the Judean hills, underneath the Sphinx or underwater in Lake Kinneret. In other words, no one had a clue. Tudor Parfitt thinks he finally does. Two decades ago he set out to track down the elusive relic, or what's left of it. "The revelation of what he found will rewrite history," promises the blurb for Parfitt's account of his discovery, "The Lost Ark of the Covenant." There's nary a peddler of New Age "archaeology" worth his salt who doesn't advance the same modest claim. But Parfitt is no "wisdom of Atlantis" kook. He's professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the University of London, a fellow at Harvard's Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and author of several well-received books on subjects ranging from Lost Tribe myths to Jewish-Muslim relations. No armchair boffin, Parfitt, dubbed "a British Indiana Jones" by The Wall Street Journal, has made a career out of visiting self-proclaimed Lost Tribes the world over, most recently in Papua, New Guinea. Where better to find the long-lost Ark than in the possession of a Lost Tribe? In Parfitt's view, the "Lost Tribe" is the Lemba of southern Africa and the Ark is their ngoma lungundu - a wooden drum used for storing sacred artifacts. Carried aloft on two poles, the Lemba's ancestors bore it as a palladium into battle where the relic blasted enemies with a mysterious "fire of God." Only members of the priestly Buba clan could handle it, Parfitt says, and, again like the Ark, it was never allowed to touch the ground. Local tradition claims the ngoma came from Solomon's Temple. Last year, Parfitt says, he discovered the object, missing for a half century, gathering dust in a storage room of a museum in Zimbabwe. In common with many Biblical tales, the story of the Ark is a composite of disparate accounts. According to Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant was crafted by the artisan Bezalel, working from a divine blueprint. His masterpiece was overlaid with gold inside and out and capped with the "mercy seat," a golden lid decorated with two guardian cherubim mounted on top to serve as God's earthly throne. The Ark was carried on poles inserted into four gold rings at its corners. Deuteronomy, meanwhile, describes the Ark (aron habrit in Hebrew; literally the "covenant chest") as a plain shittim (acacia-wood) coffer fashioned by Moses at Mount Sinai to contain the Tablets of the Law. The Ark of Exodus is dangerous magic. It allows Moses to commune with God and strikes dead any injudicious Israelite who nears or touches it. (Pondering this curious feature, Swiss Ufologist Erich von Daniken proposed that the Ark was an electrically charged transmitter used by godlike space aliens to beam messages down to Moses. Why the bossy extraterrestrials didn't use walkie-talkies, von Daniken didn't say.) During the conquest of the Promised Land, the Ark parts the River Jordan and brings down the walls of Jericho. When invading Philistines capture it in battle, they're struck by hemorrhaging boils (1 Samuel). Even Israelite priests can approach it only in the protective cloud of incense. Yet it also gives life, bringing forth foliage and fruit in Solomon's Temple. Were there two Arks then? Or even more? Biblical narratives (in Kings and Chronicles) hint that several versions of the Ark may have been kept at various locations before the cult of Yahweh was centralized in Jerusalem. That begs other questions: Did the Ark of the Covenant exist in the first place? And if so, what sort of Ark was it? The Platonic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria saw the Ark's dimensions - 2.5 cubits long, 1.5 cubits wide and high (3 by 2 by 2 feet) - as encoding the archetypal ideals of Creation in numerical descriptions of divine harmony, decodable with Pythagorean precision. Similar speculations would fire medieval mystics, kabbalists and Freemasons. A rival rabbinic tradition suggested that the Ark of the Covenant had become the heart of every Jew who loves God and abides by His law. A Christian belief in turn co-opted the sacred relic into the cult of the Virgin Mary, announcing Jesus' mother to be the new Ark of the Covenant, as the flesh-and-blood bearer of the Word of God. Ask skeptics, though, and the Ark of the Covenant no more plausibly existed than did Noah's Ark. An urban legend of antiquity, it was not an object but an idea. The mythical Ark served as a potent symbol for the ineffable nature of the shekhina (the feminine representation of God). In its specific details, the Ark was likely modeled after such prototypes as Egyptian funerary chests (such as the one found in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamen) or Assyrian coffers. Myriad ancient cultures also depicted their gods flanked by winged mythic creatures, just as the God of Israel was believed to reside on the Ark's "mercy seat," except He was invisible. Extract from an article in Issue 4, June 10, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.