Ark of the Covenant . . . Again

Review of Tudor Parfitt. The Lost Ark of
the Covenant: The Remarkable Quest for the Legendary Ark.
Harper Element, 2008 (American edition: The Lost Ark of the Covenant:
Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark
). xi +
388 pp. $25.95.

Ark of the Covenant . . . Again

Reviewed by John A. Tvedtnes

In an earlier review,[1] I surveyed
various claims that the ark of the covenant had been rediscovered in modern
times. There are obvious problems when different people in different
geographical locations, from Ireland to Jerusalem to Ethiopia, claim that they
have the ark. A new claim extends the discovery into southern Africa.

Tudor Parfitt of the University of London’s School of
Oriental and African Studies believes that the ark made its way to the region
of South Africa and Zimbabwe. He explains his theory in a new book, The Lost Ark
of the Covenant
, and its accompanying film documentary, Quest for
the Lost Ark
, which aired on the History Channel in March 2008.
Intrigued, but doubtful of the validity of such claims, I watched the
television program and took notes.

No Gold for the Ark

Parfitt rejects other
claims for the location of the ark, though he does not discuss the more recent
ones I mentioned in my previous review. Most importantly, he rejects the usual biblical
description of the ark as a box of acacia (shittim) wood covered with gold and
topped by cherubim with outstretched wings (Exodus 25:10–22;
37:1–9). He notes that the account in Deuteronomy 10:3 has Moses saying, “And
I made an ark of shittim wood,” with no mention of the gold overlay and
the cherubim. This suggested to Parfitt that the real ark was made of wood
alone and that the Exodus account embellished not only the story, but the
description of the ark as well.

Parfitt rejects the Exodus account because, while shittim wood is available
in the Sinai desert, gold is not. Where, then, did they get the gold? Parfitt
leaves the question unanswered, neglecting to address the account in Exodus
3:22, where Moses tells the Israelites, “But every woman shall borrow [Hebrew
“ask”][2] of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver,
and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon
your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians” (see also Exodus 11:2;
12:35–36). In the desert, Moses asked the Israelites to donate their
gold, silver, and brass jewelry for the adornment of the tabernacle (Exodus
25:3; 35:5, 22).

Had there been no gold
available to the Israelites for making the tabernacle, it follows that they
also could not have made any of the gold and gold-covered implements of the
tabernacle and high-priestly vestments described in the book of Exodus.[3] This would invalidate the entire account of the building of the tabernacle,
including the work of the metalsmith Bezaleel, who manufactured the ark and
other metallic implements for that structure.[4] Parfitt seems
not to have realized the effect of his thesis.

While Moses was atop the
mountain, being instructed of the Lord how to build the tabernacle and its
furniture, the people grew restless and demanded that Moses’s brother Aaron
make them a graven image to worship. The future high priest collected from them
gold earrings with which to make the golden calf.[5] Parfitt’s
view would, of necessity, negate this account as well, though he does not
address the issue.

To his credit, Parfitt
interviewed Shimon Gibson of the Albright Institute in Jerusalem, who expressed
the opinion that the Babylonians, who destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC, would have stripped the gold off
the ark and burned the wooden box with the rest of the wood found inside the
temple.[6] Gibson’s point is well taken, but it seems more likely to me that the gold of
the ark would have been taken by Shishak during his attack on Jerusalem and his
plunder of the temple treasury in the time of Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings
14:25–26). Edwin Brock, also interviewed on camera for Parfitt’s film,
noted that neither Shishak’s record nor the Bible mentions the ark of the covenant
being taken, suggesting that it remained in the temple after that time. Shishak’s
extant record, carved on a wall of the Egyptian temple at Karnak, while listing
Shishak’s Syro-Palestinian military expedition, does not expressly mention his
attack on Jerusalem and its temple, so one should not expect the record to
detail the plunder.

Other Theories

Parfitt deals with a few
of the more prominent theories regarding the location of the ark. An Ethiopian
text, the Kebra
, has the queen of Sheba bearing King Solomon a son named
Menelik, who as an adult returned to Jerusalem and made off with the ark of the
covenant and brought it to Ethiopia, where it is said to reside in the Church
of St. Mary of Zion in Axum. Parfitt dismisses this account on grounds that the
ark was known to have been in the temple some four centuries after the time of
Solomon. He seems to base this view on Jeremiah 3:16, where we read that “in
those days, saith the Lord, they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of
the Lord: neither shall it come to mind: neither shall they remember it;
neither shall they visit it; neither shall that be done any more.” The
passage, however, does not say that the ark was still in situ in Jeremiah’s day
when the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem.

Parfitt likewise
dismisses (rightly, in my opinion) ideas that the ark was taken into Egypt and
hidden at the bottom of a lake, in the Great Pyramid, or under the sphinx at
Giza (both structures predate the exodus by many centuries).[7] He attributes such speculations to the popularity of the 1981 Indiana Jones
motion picture Raiders of the Lost Ark but also brings up what he
calls a “rumor” of the smuggling of the ark to a Jewish temple on the
island of Elephantine in the middle of the Nile River. He rightly points out
that the temple is too late in time but seems unaware of another Jewish temple
at the Egyptian site of Leontopolis. His main reason for not wanting to place
the ark at Elephantine is that false gods were also worshipped at the site and
that Israelite priests would not have placed the ark in proximity to pagan
idols. He seems to forget (or not to know) that pagan worship was occasionally
carried on in the Jerusalem temple.[8] The modern mind may find such goings-on unlikely, but in the Bible we are
dealing with ancient peoples with a different mind-set.

Parfitt also rejects the
view, unsupported by any written evidence, that the Knights Templar found the
ark beneath the temple mount in Jerusalem and brought it back in secret to
Europe.[9] Still, he took time to accompany Gibson into Zedekiah’s Cave (also called
Solomon’s Quarry) beneath the Old City of Jerusalem to get a feel for the view
that the ark was hidden beneath the temple—a view he rejected. I was also
surprised that he even discussed the Copper Scroll, found in Qumran Cave 3,
which lists temple treasures hidden away prior to the Roman destruction of the
Second Temple in AD 70. The text engraved on the scroll does not name the ark,
and it is far too late in time to even be considered in a search for the sacred

The Lemba Theory

Ultimately, Parfitt concludes that the ark of the covenant was taken to
South Africa via Yemen and resided with the Lemba tribe. He had first encountered
the Lemba during a visit to the region to lecture on the Falasha or “Black
Jews” of Ethiopia following the publication of his book on the Falasha
emigration to Israel. Some of the Lemba told him that they, too, were descended
from ancient Israelites who came to Africa. Even though many of them were
Christians, they retained Jewish practices (including circumcision) and worked
in metal and pottery.

Following the discovery
that a large percentage of Jewish men claiming descent from Aaron, Israel’s
first high priest, shared a common genetic marker on the Y-chromosome, Parfitt
suggested testing of the Lemba. The results demonstrated that the Lemba did,
indeed, have Israelite ancestry, and that the Cohen Modal Haplotype was more
pronounced among the Buba clan, descendants of the priests who are said to have
led the people from Jerusalem.[11]

According to their
tradition, the Lemba people immigrated from Jerusalem at the time of the
Babylonian conquest and came via Yemen, in the southwestern Arabian peninsula.[12] Parfitt hyperbolically claims that this origin has been “proven.”[13] Yemenite Jews say that they were led there by the prophet Jeremiah (a priest,
according to Jeremiah 1:1), who in some ancient texts is credited with hiding
the ark on Mount Nebo in a cave near where Moses was thought to be buried.[14]

The Lemba tradition
holds that they traveled from oasis to oasis (including Petra) through ancient
Arabia. Parfitt refers to “countless Arab legends” that claim that
the ark traveled through that region and notes that some Arab historians say it
was discovered on Mount Meba by the Jurum tribe, who brought it to Mecca, and
that it was later transferred south to Yemen. Dhu Nuwas, one of the kings of
Yemen, is said to have actually converted to Judaism, but was overthrown by
Christian rivals, after which Islam arose in the region. Parfitt speculates
that the pre-Islamic prophet Hud, whose grave is still shown in the eastern
Hadramaut and who is mentioned in the Qur’an, may reflect the name Yahud,

The Lemba “Ark”

The Lemba claim that
they left Yemen for Africa, taking the ark of the covenant with them. Called
the mgoma
, “drum that thunders,” it was carried on poles by
priests and was said to be the voice of God, which paralyzed one’s enemies.
Parfitt managed to track down the drum itself. It had been photographed and
published in 1952 in a book written by Harold von Sicard, who gave the drum to
the Bulawayo Museum in Zimbabwe. Political problems prevented Parfitt from
going to film the drum itself, though he had previously examined it. Parfitt
arranged for a Zimbabwean crew to film the device as it was removed from
storage and send the film to South Africa.

The drum appears very
old and damaged but bears evidence that it was once carried about by poles.
Radiocarbon dating performed some time earlier disclosed that it was some six
hundred years old. The Lemba claimed that it had replaced an earlier drum.
Parfitt speculates that the ark of the covenant may have originally been a
drum, a weapon of war also carried in processions. Shimon Gibson disagrees with
the speculation that the Israelites’ ark was used as a drum, noting that the
Lemba “ark” had always been a drum.

Drum or Box?

However, that the
original ark of the covenant was carried into battle is beyond question (1
Samuel 4:3–8). Early in its history, when the ark was taken up and
carried before the people, “Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine
enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee”
(Numbers 10:35). On one occasion, when the Israelites went against their
enemies without the ark, they were defeated (Numbers 14:44–45).[16]

When the priests bearing
the ark came to the Jordan River and stepped into it, the waters of the river
were stopped upstream so the people could cross over into the land of Canaan
(Joshua 3–4). The purpose of this miracle[17] seems to
have been to frighten the people of the land: “And Joshua said, Hereby ye
shall know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail
drive out from before you the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Hivites,
and the Perizzites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Jebusites”
(Joshua 3:10). Soon afterward, the ark was carried with the people as they circumambulated
the city of Jericho for a week, resulting in the collapse of its walls (Joshua
6:6–8). Does this mean that the ark was a drum that produced sufficient
vibration to cause the walls of Jericho to fall or to frighten Israel’s

The Hebrew word aron,
rendered “ark,” means “box,”[18] and the aron was, indeed, like the ancient Egyptian box-shrines, replete with the two “staves”
placed through rings to enable priests to carry it on their shoulders.[19] The Bible informs us that various things were placed inside the ark, such as
the “the two tables of stone” received by Moses atop the mountain[20] and a “book of the law.”[21] The biblical description is clearly that of a box, not a drum.

But the ark was far more than a mere box; it was also the Lord’s throne.
The lid of the box, the kapporet (misrendered “mercy seat” in KJV) was
made of gold and topped by two cherubim, one on each end.[22] “And
the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat
with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy
seat shall the faces of the cherubims be” (Exodus 25:20; see vv.
17–20). The Lord promised Moses, “And there I will meet with thee,
and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two
cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will
give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel” (Exodus 25:22).
Indeed, we read that the Lord sat (yashab, rendered “dwelleth” in KJV) between
these cherubim.[23] “And when Moses was gone into the tabernacle of the congregation to speak
with him, then he heard the voice of one speaking unto him from off the mercy
seat that was upon the ark of testimony, from between the two cherubims: and he
spake unto him” (Numbers 7:89).

The description of
winged cherubim atop a seat is very much like thrones known from parts of the
ancient Near East. Egyptian kings sometimes sat on a throne that had wings that
formed armrests on either side, and a carved piece of ivory found at the site
of Megiddo and dating to ca. 1200 BC depicts
a Canaanite king seated on a winged throne. Accepting Parfitt’s theory means
one must reject entirely the biblical description of the ark, which fits well
in its ancient Near Eastern milieu. It is therefore ironic that the starting
point for Parfitt’s search for the “lost ark” is the Bible, on whose
accounts of the ark he casts so much doubt.


[1] John A.
Tvedtnes, “Finders of the Lost Ark,” FARMS Review of Books 13/2 (2001): 283–94.

[2] This is the
same verb rendered “lent” in the King James rendition of Exodus

[3] Exodus 25–28,
30–31, 36–37, 39–40.

[4] Exodus
31:2–4; 35:30–32; 36:1–2; 37:1; 38:22; 2 Chronicles 1:5.
Exodus 38:24 gives the precise weight of the gold that was used in the
construction of the tabernacle and its furniture.

[5] Exodus
32:2–4, 23–24; see also verse 31.

[6] I was a bit
dismayed that Parfitt’s film illustrated the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem
with a panel from Nineveh (now in the British Museum) depicting the capture of
the Judean city of Lachish by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BC, more than a century earlier.

[7] My personal
favorite on the Ark-in-Egypt “Do Not Read” list is Graham Hancock’s The Sign and
the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant
(New York:
Touchstone, 1992), which is undoubtedly fascinating to the layman but clearly
full of errors to anyone acquainted with ancient history. For example, Hancock,
supposedly having exhausted all other possible identifications of the slain
Master Mason Hiram Abiff, is led to believe that he should be identified with
the Egyptian king Seqenenre Tao II, whose mummy, lying in the Cairo Museum
(where I saw it in 1978), shows a large wound to the skull that must have been
the cause of his death. In Masonic tradition, Hiram Abiff was the builder of
Solomon’s temple. Indeed, the Bible names one Hiram as the chief architect of
that structure and describes him as an Israelite, not an Egyptian pharaoh (1
Kings 7:13–40). One need not look beyond the Bible for the origin of the
Masonic hero.

[8] Jewish king
Ahaz ordered the installation of a Syrian-style altar in the temple to be used
for divination, and he mutilated other temple implements constructed during the
time of Solomon (2 Kings 16:10–16). His son, Hezekiah, restored the
temple to its original condition (2 Chronicles 29) and also removed Moses’s
brazen serpent from the temple after people began worshipping it (2 Kings
18:4). A century later, idols had been erected in the temple and people began
worshipping both the sun and other false gods (see 2 Chronicles 36:14; Jeremiah
7:30; Ezekiel 8:5–18; 20:30–31, 39–40; 44:7).

[9] The Knights
Templar were a monastic order of knights originally founded to provide safe
passage to Christian holy sites for European pilgrims to the Holy Land. In
recent years, much conjecture has tied them to Freemasonry and various secrets
supposedly uncovered on the temple compound during their sojourn there. However
intriguing such accounts may be, they are mere speculation, with little or no
evidence to support them.

[10] I was
delighted, however, that Parfitt noted that the biblical description of the
ark, with the two staves to carry it, resembles the box-shrines used to carry statues
of the gods in ancient Egypt, as many earlier scholars have already noted.
This, however, was overshadowed by his later identification of the ark with a
drum, as described later in this review.

[11] The
haplotype is not restricted to Jewish priests (Cohanim), though they have it in
larger proportion than others. Non-priestly Jews also have the haplotype in
lesser proportion and non-Jews in even lesser proportion still. It is possible
that some priestly families lost their traditional origins and that some even
abandoned Judaism in the past. Among the Lemba, 53 percent of Buba men have the
haplotype, compared to 9 percent of the men of other clans. The Lemba DNA
studies were conducted in 1995 by Trevor Jenkins of the South African Institute
for Medical Research at the University of the Witwatersrand.

[12] Significantly,
Lehi and his family also left Jerusalem shortly before the Babylonian conquest
and evidence has demonstrated that they, too, traveled through the Arabian
peninsula to the ocean, where they built a ship and sailed to the New World.

[13] Some
geneticists have suggested that the Lemba picked up the “Cohen gene”
from Jewish Portuguese sailors (some of them perhaps secret Jews) who sailed
down the east coast of Africa, rather than from Jews living in Yemen. The time
depth (said to be three thousand years) can be accommodated by either view.

[14] 4 Baruch 3:7–19; 2 Maccabees 2:1–8; Chronicles of Jerahmeel 77:4–9; Lives of the Prophets 2:11–19.

[15] Though
Parfitt knew of Hud from the Qur’an, he seems not to have known that the story
of the breaking of the great dam in Yemen is also mentioned in that volume,
where it is said that it was God’s way of destroying and scattering sinners
shortly before the time of Muhammad (sixth century AD). Parfitt says that the last time he was in the region,
he “heard about” a dam in the Sana’a area and noted that if the dam
had broken, people living there would have had to leave.

[16] They were
also defeated when the ark accompanied them into battle against the
Philistines, who captured the ark but later returned it after it had caused
considerable damage in some of their temples (1 Samuel 4:10–11;

[17] While it is
true that the Jordan River has frequently stopped flowing due to the collapse
of its banks upriver at present-day Damiyah (the city of Adam in Joshua 3:16),
the timing of the event was clearly miraculous.

[18] This is the
word used to denote the “ark” of the covenant. The term rendered “ark”
in the Noah story is tebah, a borrowing from Egyptian that is cognate to
the term used by the Ethiopians (whose language, like Hebrew, is in the Semitic
family) to denote the ark they claim to have in their possession. I use the
word “claim” because only the priest in charge of the shrine at Axum
is allowed to see this ark; representations of it, usually in the form of flat
wooden boards, are carried in procession during religious festivals.

[19] Exodus
25:10–15; 1 Kings 8:7–8; 2 Chronicles 5:8–9.

[20] Exodus
25:16, 21; 34:1, 4; 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10.

[21] Deuteronomy
31:25–26. Hebrews 9:4 informs us that it contained “the golden
censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was
the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of
the covenant.” This late description may be inaccurate.

[22] The Hebrew
term was borrowed from Akkadian and denotes winged animals (often bulls) such
as one finds depicted in Assyrian and Babylonian reliefs, as also in Egyptian
art. These were the winged creatures described in the heavenly visions of
Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:5–11, 23–25; 3:13; 10:5–22; 11:22), Isaiah
(Isaiah 6:2), and the apostle John (Revelation 4:6–9; cf. D&C
77:2–4). Though the KJV often places the plural –s suffix, the –im of the Hebrew already denotes plurality.

[23] 1 Samuel
4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 13:6; Psalms 80:1; 99:1; Isaiah