At Numbers 10:33, attributed to J, we are abruptly introduced to a story about the Ark of the covenant of Yahweh, which is portrayed in a very unique role.
And it was, when the Ark traveled that Moses said “Arise Yahweh and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee from your presence.” (Num 10:35)
In this passage, as in others, the Ark of Yahweh is being presented in martial terms. It was not only carried in front of the Israelites but more so it was carried onto the battlefield and symbolized the deity’s presence in military skirmishes, which usually boded ill for the enemy. This is made more explicit in Numbers 14:44-45 (also of J) and particularly older traditions now preserved in 1 Samuel 4:2-7 for example:
The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about 4,000 of them on the battlefield. When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did Yahweh bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the Ark of Yahweh’s covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the Ark of the covenant of Yahweh of Hosts, who sits astride the cherubs. . . . When the Ark of Yahweh’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?” When they learned that the Ark of Yahweh had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. “A god has come into the camp.”
This image of the Ark as Yahweh’s enthronement seat and its battle function have parallels in other ancient Near Eastern societies, which also envisioned their deities enthroned upon seats that were also carried onto the battlefield and re-presented the deity’s presence (see also #159). Thus, this was an older archaic understanding of the Ark. It is this image that furthermore fueled portraits of Yahweh as a mighty warrior.
Yet this older role and function of the Ark as a martial emblem upon which the invisible deity sat, thus marking his presence on the battlefield, is largely negated by the later Aaronid priestly guild’s revamping of the Ark of Yahweh and its function. Indeed it could be argued that the Priestly writers sought to divorce the Ark of Yahweh as a cultic symbol from this earlier and more primitive conception.
Exodus 37:1-9 is a detailed description of the Ark’s construction—a P text (see also #159). We are told in this passage that poles were made for carrying the Ark, and later in Numbers 4:5-15 we are informed that no one except the Aaronid priests were to touch the Ark. When moving camp, the Aaronid priests would wrap the Ark with several coverings and then and only then could the Kohathite Levites carry it, and still only by use of its poles (see #220). But more importantly we are informed in Ex 37:6 of the Ark’s atonement dais “of pure gold, its length 2½ cubits and its width 1½ cubits.”
It is this atonement dais that actually transforms this archaic martial object into a cultic symbol whose only abode is the inner shrine, the holy of holies, of the Tabernacle. The object, as with all the sacred objects in the Tabernacle, was anointed and consecrated to Yahweh (Ex 40 & Lev 8). Other than its being covered and transported during encampments through the wilderness it remained in the Tabernacle and was deemed holy, sacred, and pure. It could not be brought out into common or profane space, for fear that anyone who came in contact with it, like any of Yahweh’s sacra, would die (e.g., Num 5:15)!
But more so, the atonement dais was not only the place from where Yahweh spoke (Ex 25:22), but also that place where Yahweh’s holiness atoned for sin, i.e., impurities. The rite of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 brings this out. The blood of the sin-offering is to be splattered on the atonement dais to effectuate the atonement of the people. The phrase “make atonement over the Holy” is a specific reference to the atonement dais on the Ark which was the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. In no imaginative conception would this be brought out into the common realm and paraded around on the battle field. The Priestly writers saw fit to revamp the Ark as Yahweh’s holy, indeed holy of holies, and placed it in the inner most shrine of the Tabernacle/Temple. Having this consecrated and sacred object paraded around in space that was not pure, holy, and clean would have been viewed as desacrating Yahweh’s holiness for this priestly guild (see also #151, #183, #217).
The Ark of Yahweh also functioned in the Priestly literature, and in Deuteronomy, to house the Tablets of stone which Yahweh gave to Moses (Ex 40:20-21), and which were for the Priestly tradition the instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle and all its sacra (see #156).
We might say in conclusion that the Priestly writers shared with its older sources in the idea that the Ark represented in some manner Yahweh’s presence. But where the Priestly writers vastly differed was identifying the space within which Yahweh’s presence is made manifest and to whom. For the Priestly guild that wrote the Priestly source, Yahweh’s presence could only be manifest from within the sacred, holy, space created by the Tent of Meeting structure, and secondly only to Aaronid priests themselves.