#226. The Ark of Yahweh: an empty throne seat which served a martial function OR the holy of holies which served a ritual function? (Num 10:33-36, 14:44-45; 1 Sam 4:1-7 vs Ex 25:22, 37:1-9; Lev 16:11-17; Num 4:5-15)

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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.

8 thoughts on “#226. The Ark of Yahweh: an empty throne seat which served a martial function OR the holy of holies which served a ritual function? (Num 10:33-36, 14:44-45; 1 Sam 4:1-7 vs Ex 25:22, 37:1-9; Lev 16:11-17; Num 4:5-15)

  1. Thank you very much for this site! I think its one of the best and most informative web pages about the topics of the historicity of the Bible and the documentary analysis!

    I’m fascinated by the primordial history, if you will, of Yahweh.
    How he came to be, from where, what was his role, etc.
    There are several hypothesis – from a canaanite deity, within El’s pantheon, to a separate southern-desert God. We will probably never know his entire history but it is certain that his origins are closely tied to war itself.
    It is heavily suggested that he was a divine warrior, very jealous and demanding.
    Clearly we can tell the differences between El and Yahweh almost through the whole Bible.
    El is wise, precise and acts through messengers, dreams or other objects, giving guidelines to prophets and patriarchs. He is presented as an omnipotent, unseen power.
    Yahweh, on the other hand, has antromorphic features, walks, talks and acts as a judge for his people.
    He gives commands and demands a lot more from the Hebrews, has low tolerance towards mistakes and blasphemy, and he DOES enjoy to show his powers, when needed. His will is law.

    Anyways… it would be so interesting, for me, if we could pin-point the person who created the proto-Yahweh, and the person who brought him into the hebrew religion (and influenced christianity and islam too).

    I guess no other word, person or deity had such a great impact (for better or worse) on the World.

  2. “I appreciate the fact that you’ve supplied us with the number of occurrences of Sabaoth in the Hebrew canon. I had not realized there were that many!”
    Yep, as you may know, this is considered to be the most common “extended name” for YHWH. The next-most-common phrase is apparently YHWH-Raah, which occurs something like five times (source: http://www.blueletterbible.org/study/misc/name_god.cfm).

    “I’m sure there has to be an academic work on this somewhere. […] Of course, it could just be an appeal to some sort of archaism.”
    When I researched this, I saw that one scholar who wrote a lot on this subject was Tryggve Mettinger, most recently in “In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names”. I read excerpts from it that I frankly had a hard time understanding, but I think he suggested that the association of YHWH Sabaoth with the phrase “who sits astride the cherubs” was the key to understanding its usage in later times. I could be wrong, but he seemed to be saying that an archaic phrase “YHWH of Armies” was re-purposed in the era of the temple as “YHWH of Armies Who Sits Astride the Cherubs” to describe his invisible presence sitting on the Ark as if it was a throne (you actually addressed this kind of imagery in #159).

    I have his book on my wishlist but haven’t had the time to buy it and give it a proper reading yet. I’m not sure that he addresses the possibility of YHWH Sabaoth being a sentence-name, “He Who Creates the [Heavenly] Armies”, because interpreting the name as a statement, if this was ever done, would presumably predate the period he discusses and relate back to when YHWH was a tribal warrior god. So it’s kind of a different subject altogether. I just wanted to toss this general idea in your direction to see if it sounded reasonable.

  3. “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…”
    Thus, this was an older archaic understanding of the Ark. It is this image that furthermore fueled portraits of Yahweh as a mighty warrior.

    This was a subject of great interest for me recently, when I learned about how often the phrase “Yahweh Sabaoth” (or “Tzevaot”, if one prefers), translated here as “Yahweh of Hosts”, is used in sections of the OT. I’d like to ask you about this, at the risk of going off-topic.

    I had heard it suggested that this was actually the full name of the Hebrew God, which was shortened later to just Yahweh. One linguistic reason I found this convincing is that “Yahweh” is often translated as “He Causes” or “He Causes to Become”, which sounds like a profound statement about a creator god — but if Yahweh was originally part of a pantheon, then why would he have such an all-encompassing name? Whereas “Yahweh Sabaoth” can be translated as “He Causes the (Heavenly) Armies”, which sounds like the name of a warrior god. And it’s actually a complete statement, unlike “He Causes”. Supposedly many of the Semitic gods had “sentence names” like this.

    Do you have any thoughts on this, Dr. DiMattei? I know you don’t claim to know Hebrew, but I’m interested in how your stance on the order of the JEPD sources plays into this. After doing some research on where the Sabaoth phrase occurs, I felt that it took away credence from this “full name” theory, because it seemed that the phrase occurred mostly in later Biblical writings — so how could it be the original ancient name? Could it be a later expansion of Yahweh, and if so, why?

    I used http://biblehub.com/hebrew/tzevaot_6635.htm as my source for occurrences of the phrase. I found that, out of the 283 occurrences of “sabaoth” listed there, 282 were part of Yahweh Sabaoth (everything but that one occurrence in Deuteronomy). This is more or less the same count as others have given in the past for occurrences of the phrase.

    In case anyone’s interested, here’s the locations by Bible book: 1/2 Samuel (11), 1/2 Kings (5), 1 Chron. (3), Psalms (16), Isaiah (62), Jeremiah (82), Amos (6), Micah (1), Nahum (2), Habakkuk (1), Zephaniah (2), Haggai (14), Zechariah (53), Malachi (24). I realize that this is of limited value because some Bible books are a collection of writings from different eras. For instance, the Psalms verses could be from any number of centuries. Interestingly, the occurrences in Isaiah are mostly in the “first section”, Proto-Isaiah, and the occurrences in Zechariah run across all three sections.

    I believe all these works are post-exilic, are they not? If so, then why would it only occur then, if as you say, the older conception of Yahweh is as a warrior god, with his Ark being marched around battlefields? Could this have represented a revival of an older form of worship, at least among a certain sect?

    1. KW,

      I apologize for the late response. You have some very interesting questions here and your knowledge of the subject already exceeds that of mine. So I’m afraid that I am unequipped to provide you with a knowledgeable response. I can however share with you what little I’ve read and understood on this most fascinating topic. The etymological understanding of Yahweh Sabaoth as “he who causes (to create) the heavenly armies” was, if I recall correctly, put forward most convincingly in Frank Cross’s Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 1973. He also proposes that the Canaanite yahwé as “he who creates” or “he who causes (to create)” might have originally been an epithet of El! So El yahwé would be El in his role as creator god. I sort of drew this into my discussion of Gen 14’s mention of El (and) Yahweh in contradiction #3.

      Concerning the epithet Sabaoth, my reasoning for identifying this as an earlier or archaic epithet was influenced by what I’ve read about its use in 1-2 Samuel, and the fact that this ark with which it is associated in Samuel also seems to be an early construct, or indeed artifice, that disappears in later texts. Additionally, many of the texts of Samuel have been dated to the monarchic period, even to as earlier as the 9th c. BCE (Halpern’s David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, and King (2001) is an excellent assessment and reading of Samuel!). So it has been argued that these might actually be the earliest references to Yahweh Sabaoth, and not surprisingly they come in martial contexts.

      I appreciate the fact that you’ve supplied us with the number of occurrences of Sabaoth in the Hebrew canon. I had not realized there were that many! As to why there are many more concurrences in the post-exilic prophetic writings (maybe with pre-exilic oral origins) and proto-Isaiah I’d have to guess. Since the epithet was largely used in martial contexts, it could be inferred that invoking Yahweh as Sabaoth in these post-Assyrian/post-Babylonian conquest texts was invoking him in his martial role, to either punish Israel/Judah at the hands of Assyria or Babylonia or to punish Assyria/Babylon after the fact. I say this without looking at any of these passages, but an examination of the contexts within which this epithet is used would shed further light on this topic. I’m sure there has to be an academic work on this somewhere. So my hunch is that these are not only post-exilic texts, but texts that treat martial/political material. Of course, it could just be an appeal to some sort of archaism. What is clear, I think, is that its usage in these post-exilic texts has become divorced from references to the Ark. Lastly, even if these post-exilic uses reflect some sort of archaism or revival as you suggest, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there is a renewed interest in worshiping Yahweh as Sabaoth. In other words, these could just be literary creations and constructs. But again, I’m just conjecturing.

      I do have other readers here who are also more knowledgeable about this topic than myself. I’m thinking particularly of archaeopteryx, whose voice I haven’t heard from in a while. Maybe he might chime in.

  4. I must admit, I missed the Moses or Bezalel contradiction in my list of Deuteronomic contradictions. I’m adding it.

    Another interesting contradiction involves when the ark was made relative to Moses’ receiving the second set of ten commandments. Deuteronomy 10:1-3, quoted above, clearly states that Moses made the ark before he ascended the mountain with the new stone tablets in hand. However, Exodus 35:10-12 and 37:1-3 show that it wasn’t until after Moses got the second set of commandments (Exodus 34, non-P material) that the ark was made.

  5. I’ve always wondered how on earth Israel got away with taking the Ark of the Covenant out to war, when it had been so clearly set aside for a holy space, very inward and away from all possible contact with human beings, except the high priest. It always seemed to me that Israel was treating the Ark with great disrespect, hauling it out and about like that.
    This explanation makes a lot of sense.

  6. 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)!

    Do you perhaps mean Numbers 4:15?

    The Ark of Yahweh also functioned in the Priestly literature, and in Deuteronomy, to house the Tablets of stone which Yahweh gave to Moses…

    I think that a case can be made that for D, not only was this a function of the ark, it was the purpose of it. Deuteronomy 10 reads as follows:

    At that time Yahweh said to me, ‘Carve out two tablets of stone like the former ones, and come up to me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood. 2I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you smashed, and you shall put them in the ark.’3So I made an ark of acacia wood, cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and went up the mountain with the two tablets in my hand. 4Then he wrote on the tablets the same words as before, the ten commandments that Yahweh had spoken to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly; and Yahweh gave them to me. 5So I turned and came down from the mountain, and put the tablets in the ark that I had made; and there they are, as Yahweh commanded me.

    Aside from the discrepancy regarding who made the ark–Moses or Bezalel–it appears that for D, the ark’s purpose was utilitarian–as a receptacle (see also Deut. 31). It’s also interesting that Deuteronomy nowhere mentions Kohath or the Kohathites, but instead says that “the priests, the sons of Levi” (31:7) carry the ark, a point that I allude to in my comment on #220 in which I quote from Deuteronomy 10:8: “AT THAT TIME YAHWEH SET APART THE TRIBE OF LEVI TO CARRY THE ARK of the covenant of Yahweh, to stand before Yahweh to minister to him, and to bless in his name, to this day.”

    1. John, Thanks for double checking my verses. I must admit, I missed the Moses or Bezalel contradiction in my list of Deuteronomic contradictions. I’m adding it. Thanks. What I particularly like about this is that it seems to be more textual evidence that P postdates D—which is what I have been assuming all along. But there are several scholars out there, Milgrom for one, who are still trying to build a case for a pre-exilic, pre-Deuteronomic P date. The debate typically focuses on the relationship between theological and cultic ideas between D and P, whether P is a polemic against D or vice versa. I like this simple non-theological contradiction; it certainly goes a long way, I think, in displaying D’s lack of knowledge of P, its nonchalant manner of presenting the Ark against the backdrop of P’s formalized and ritualized presentation of the Ark as the holy object par excellence.

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