Saturday, May 28, 2011

Drawing the Ark of the Covenant.

From the beginnings of early Christian iconography artists have strived to depict the Ark of the Covenant. Countless attempts have been made to capture its likeness but can we really know what the Ark of the Covenant looked like?

Design of the Ark
One idea that's been expressed by at least two artists that I came across, 1.2. is that both the design of, and embellishments on, the ark would have been egyptian in style. The reason given for this is that as all the craftsmen had lived (and been trained) in Egypt prior to the Exodus, their only influences up to that point were all from Egyptian culture. Others point to ancient Egyptian artifacts that were similar in design to the ark such as Tutankhamun's Anubis Chest to strengthen their case. I would agree that this reasoning could be applied to the design of the golden calf - but not to the Ark of the Covenant. My reason is that in Exodus 25:40 God commanded Moses "See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain". Not only did God design the ark but Exodus 31:2-5 tells us that He equipped Bezalel, filling him with God's Spirit, wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft
in order to complete the job. I would suggest that Gods influence on design (as THE Great Designer of all) would take priority over Egypt's! Also, let's not forget that the Israelites were prohibited from being assimilated into the pagan nations around them - they were to be different in every way!
One other point on the embellishments - both Dr Leen Ritmeyer and Nahum HaLevi pointed out to me that "no decorations are mentioned" in scripture adorning the ark itself which is interesting as this would also be contrary to Egyptian art which almost always adorns every surface! Leen added "The Ark was not meant to be seen, so decorating it was not essential and with the cherubim it looked impressive enough." Having said that, it could also be argued that the pattern shown to Moses on the mount may have included some ornamentation the details of which were only revealed to Moses - we simply don't know! I did decide in the end to show some decoration, although not Egyptian. (See above picture).

Pole Position!
The positioning of the poles that were used to carry the ark is a hotly debated subject! Before I began the illustrations I fully intended having the poles running parallel to the long side of the ark as is more commonly seen. (see also Raiders of the Lost Ark) I became uncertain about this as I thought about the orientation of the ark within the Holy of Holies. Let's look at what the Bible says about this. We know from 1 Kings 8:8 that the ends of the poles could be seen from the Holy place protruding under the veil so from this we can conclude that the poles were running East to West. We also know from Lev 16:14 which way the high priest was facing as he officiated.
And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side,"
which means that the high priest must have been facing West. Incidentally, as the high priest faced west with his back to the veil, all he would see, including his peripheral vision, was gold!
This still doesn't give us any clues as to the orientation of the ark in relation to the poles. We need to go back now to the description of the ark given in Exodus 25:18-19. Here, Moses is told "make two cherubim of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat.19 And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof." It seems clear from this that the cherubim were to be positioned at each 'end' of the mercy seat. Now, unless the Hebrew word for 'end' refers to anything other than the short ends of an oblong, (which looking from above is the basic shape of the ark), it seems very likely that each cherub was positioned at the narrow ends of the ark. It sounds like I'm over stating the obvious here, but there are some scholars who believe that the cherubim were positioned in the centre of the mercy seat as opposed to at each end. The second point I want to make is that if the cherubs were at each end of the ark, it seems likely that the high priest would stand, (to sprinkle the blood in between the cherubim), at one of the long sides of the ark. If he stood at one of the narrow ends, he would be looking at the back of one of the cherubim. I concluded from this reasoning that as the poles in the holy of holies ran east to west, and as the high priest faced west, and as the high priest officiated at one of the longer sides of the ark, then the poles must run parallel to the narrow sides of the ark! I have been wrong in the past though so let me know your thoughts-!!

The Argument against
One of the objections to the view above, raised by those who believe that the poles ran parallel to the long sides of the ark, is presented by the question "If the poles run parallel with the narrow sides of the ark, how was it possible to get the Ark into the Holy of Holies? At it's widest point the ark would not fit in between the 5 pillars!" (I've raised this same point myself in the past). The answer that I was given to this question was " The Tabernacle was built around the ark - the ark was not carried into the Tabernacle". I haven't found a Bible verse that states otherwise and I've asked a number of experts/Rabbis too. If it could be shown from scripture that the ark was carried into the Tabernacle, then that would throw a fairly big spanner into the works! The picture (above left) shows the Tabernacle being constructed around the Ark. You can see the shadow of the first covering being drawn over the Holy of Holies. In actual fact the Ark would most likely have still been under cover at this point, protected from prying eyes!
One final point about the position of the poles - they were low down! Not as we see in the 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' film. Exodus 25:12 says "Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet," Also the poles had to be low to be seen under the veil. (1 Kings 8:8). I've pointed out in the past that as the Ark of the Covenant seems to be the only item of Tabernacle furniture that has the rings at ground level, it was the only item that demanded the Levites 'Bow down' to pick it up!
As the high priest officiated, he was bordered by the ark on the west, the two poles on either side of him running north to south, and the veil behind him on the East. After I had illustrated this set, I came across a picture painted by Temple Institute artist Zely Smekhov depicting this scene in the same way, except his poles are higher. (See right).

The Cherubim
Once again I've avoided drawing the cherubim in detail. It's still not clear to me how they should look. We know that the wings overshadowed the mercy seat and that the wing tips touched. I've used this to obscure the view of the cherubim. The much larger cherubim in Solomon's Temple will not be as easy to obscure! One artists interpretation of the cherubim in Solomon's Temple can be seen below. I've noticed that when artists are guided by archaeologists, the cherubim usually resemble Lamassu which were Canaanite protective deities. They had the body of a bull or lion, the wings of an eagle and a human head. Although I've seen cherubim depicted this way in pictures of Solomon's Temple, for some reason they are not usually depicted this way on the Ark of the Covenant. Some archaeologists like Israel Finkelstein have suggested that "as the Israelites arose as a subculture in Canaanite society, it was only natural for the Israelites to continue using (and adopt the) Canaanite protective deities". This argument is not unlike the one above which favoured Egyptian influences over God's - except here it's Canaanite influences. (This argument sounds like its coming from a biblical minimalists perspective!) I would argue that the design of the cherubim, like the rest of the ark, was most definitely of God. Anyway, as I understand it, God's inspiration for the cherubs design was given while the Israelites were still in the Sinai Peninsula even before they entered Canaan?
We have looked in the past at the possibility that a visual description of the cherubim could have been passed down through oral tradition maybe from as far back as the Garden of Eden! In this case it's possible that the Lamassu depicted in ancient Assyrian and Mesopotamian Art might actually resemble cherubim! This wouldn't then be a case of the various cultures influencing Israelite artisans - it would be God's design influencing the artists of all other cultures!
The main problem that I see with the 'Lamassu theory' is that the description given in the Bible doesn't really resemble lamassu. For example the body of a cherub is like unto a man, not a lion. (Ezekiel 4:4-14). The cherubim also have hands, four wings and four faces. It's obvious that the Old Testament artisans clearly knew what cherubim looked like as they had both embroidered and carved their likenesses in both the Tabernacle and Solomon's Temple respectively.
I wonder if the descriptions of cherubim given in scripture are meant to be strange and illusive to discourage us from depicting them! Maybe if we were able to carve or paint an accurate image of a cherub it would itself become an object of worship.

Two final points regarding the Ark: Artists interpretations vary when it comes to deciding how many Levites carried the ark. Pictures show groups of four, eight and even twelve Levites carrying the ark. Dr Elihu A. Schatz has done some research on this subject. He estimated that the ark was approximately 183 pounds (83 kilograms) in weight and concluded that "Each of the four men carrying the Ark would bear a weight of about 21 kilograms (46 pounds), which can easily be tolerated on the shoulders for extensive periods of time. If necessary, the carriers could use shoulder padding to ease the pressure of the poles on the shoulders." One final point - the main container part of the ark was constructed of wood overlaid with gold unlike the lid, (the mercy seat), which was solid gold. I only mention this as some artists have given this container a mirror finish which gilded wood doesn't have. There are some excellent photos on the net of ancient Egyptian artifacts that give us a very good idea of how gilded wood should look.
In closing, If any of you artists prefer to draw from life - for $3,350.00 you can order your own full size replica Ark of the Covenant here!

As always I look forward to your comments!
Pictures © 2011, © Zely Smekhov/Temple institute 2011.

Related posts:
Covering the Ark
Contents of the Ark
Drawing Cherubs!


Patrick said...

Wow! It was worth the wait; it was really a good post!

On Ezekiel's cherubim:

I believe I mentioned this earlier, but I think that the fact that Ezekiel goes into so much detail in describing the "living creatures" he saw (he only calls them "cherubim" later on in the book) suggests - at least to me - that what he saw were not 'conventional' cherubim and that his description should perhaps, like a good part of his book, be taken symbolically. In the earlier books of the Bible (including Exodus), cherubim are referred to without further detail. This could suggest - especially in a high-context culture such as the Israelites - that everyone pretty much knew (or thought they knew) what a cherub looked like.

Ezekiel was himself a priest or a son of one, and so would have at least been familiar with the figures portrayed in Solomon's Temple, since it was still in living memory when he wrote (his visions begin, if we believe the book here, around 592 BC, at least five years before the Babylonians actually destroy Jerusalem). He could have just said "I saw cherubim" from the first.

Patrick said...

That being said, a few things did strike me about the cherubs of Ezekiel:

It combines man, lion, eagle, and bull. While in Mediterranean, Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art, hybrid creatures such as man-eagle (winged humans), man-lion/man-lion-eagle (Sphinx, Lamassu), man-bull-eagle (Shedu), or lion-eagle (Griffin) and other animals are commonly found, Ezekiel's description is actually unique in that there is no corresponding example of it found in contemporary art. I mean, there are depictions of winged men with four wings, humans with animal feet, and multi-headed creatures, but NONE combines all these elements together (and none AFAIK conceal their bodies as Ezekiel's cherubim do!)

You've probably heard about the cherubim being composed of man (ruler over all creatures), lion (king of wild animals), the eagle (king of the air), and the bull (king of domestic beasts): in short, they are the best of the best, representing every division of creation.

Patrick said...

Sorry for posting thrice (ooh, a not-so-commonly used word nowadays! ;)) in a row, but about the Ark itself:

I've always wondered about the position of the poles. Those who favor the idea that the poles were on the longer side of the Ark cite the idea that contemporary chests/boxes/processional litters always have the poles on the longer sides: I've still to find one that has it on the shorter sides.

On the other hand, I did hear about sometimes used by those who think that it was on the shorter sides that the poles were placed: the Ark is meant to be, not just as a receptacle of the Law, but also as a visible throne-footstool of God's Shekinah (as suggested by the presence of the cherubim; by extension, the Holy of Holies is conceived of as the Divine throne-room). With this in mind, they propose that having the poles on the longer sides is odd, since that would mean that God's earthly footstool/throne would face sideways both in transit and in the Tabernacle!

Another is the direction of the cherubim. It is common to depict the cherubim as fully facing each other (as in the picture and also in Indiana Jones), though I do wonder: could it also be possible that the cherubim's bodies were positioned differently while still having their faces turned toward one another? Leaving aside what they really looked like, I imagine something like the cherubim's bodies facing out straight but with their heads turned sideways (like the figures in these examples):

This is just a pet idea of mine (and I'm willing to accept there are holes in it...) but I like to connect it with the idea of the Ark's being a throne-footstool: whereas in thrones at the time, the figures at the armrest face the same direction as the one seated on it, the cherubs of the Ark face towards the One who 'sits' on it!

I note with some interest that this is also what some later Jewish ideas seem to suggest: that the cherubs faced toward the east, toward the opening of the Holy of Holies, with their heads either inclined toward each other (Talmud, Bava Bathra 99a) or facing each other (Chokhmath HaMishkan; Maaseh Choshev 8:5).

But then again, while most people assume that "ends" mean the narrow ends of the Ark, I can't see why it couldn't be the long ends...

deboraw said...

Graham, enjoyed your post. And enjoyed Patrick's comments. I almost always glean so much from your site. Thank you much.

deboraw said...

Possibly the reason people think the poles went the other way is more for aerodynamics and ease of carrying the object. (I'm not sure 'ease' is the correct word, but it might be slightly awkward carrying the ark with the poles through the short ends. As for the cherubim, some of the unlearned thoughts that I have (as in I haven't studied it out) would be along the line that who is the cherubim 'bowing' to? It is somewhat of a nebulous idea that I'm not sure I can express. God didn't do things just on a whim, there is a purpose/reason for these things, whether we fully understand them or not. Although, we do need to be cautious in ascribing to things meanings, because in our limited knowledge we often get things confused and (gasp) wrong. Smile. Just my thoughts. Have a good day.

David Reimer said...

A scholarly work on the cherubim that came out in 2008 might be of interest: Alice Wood, Of Wings and Wheels: A Synthetic Study of the Biblical Cherubim (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008).

It started life as a PhD thesis at the University of Edinburgh. FWIW!

Nahum said...

Great blog, great drawing based on your usual meticulous research into biblical texts.
I agree that the cherubim were most likely not based on Egyptian or Caananite prototypical imagery.How they looked is not described in Exodus 25, wwheras ther is considerable detail with respect to other ttabernacle furniture. Appropriately Cherubim imagery harbor a sense of mystery. Ezekiel described cherubim in his vision just like he described a new Temple of his inner visionary mind. His own inner visions may not have necessarily directly correlated with preceeding historical reality, and may not necessarily be an accurate guide of how the cherubim appeared in the Tabernacle.
Excellent work as usual.

abey said...

The book of Maccabees state that before the Babylonian invasion Prophet Jeremiah on instruction from GOD shifted the Arc of the Covenant to a cave sealing it saying ' No man shall enter in it till such time GOD gathers his people unto Himself & in His Mercy will reveal unto them The Covenant". This comes about individually & in the spirit, for GOD is spirit & worship of GOD is in Spirit & truth. The Gospels state 'Those IN Christ are the children of Abraham which is CHILDREN of FAITH. In other words the covenant with Abraham leading to the Arc of the covenant with Israel resulting in the Coming of CHRIST, the whole IS Spiritual, which is become the new Covenant, in Spiritual IsraEl. This is the Truth relating to the Covenant of GOD with man, through the Arc of the Covenant.

abey said...

Believe not when they say The arc is with the US Military, OR is with Israel government OR In Ethopia etc. For the Arc is come alive in Christ Jesus. Neither be deceived by the Free Mason version of THE arc of the covenant, made into all sorts of sexual interpretations, resulting in false books & movie potrayal of Jesus, like the DI Vinci code etc. The two Cherubs on the Arc of the Covenant represent the very origins of mankind.

deboraw said...

Graham, It's been awhile since this post--hope you have time to check this. I have a totally unrelated question that perhaps you or your readers might be able to help with. What does the term "tender-eyes" mean when applied to Leah in Genesis 29:17? The original language indicates "weak eyes", but is there any indication as to what that means? I have read several 'opinions' from: bad eye sight, to blue eyed, tender hearted, to all the way to 'beautiful eyes'. It seems to be a defect to me...any ideas?

Paul Green said...

Deboraw - According to my New American Bible translation it says "lovely eyes" and in the notes it states "the adjective modifying eyes is usually translated as "weak" but "lovely" is the more probable word."

Paul Green said...

However reading the full sentence in context "lovely" doesn't make sense Deboraw.
"Leah had lovely eyes, but Rachel was well formed and beautiful." Gen 29:17

The description of Rachel implies Leah wasn't well formed. Therefore "weak eyes" makes more sense. The New American Standard translation reads:
"And Leah's eyes were weak, But Rachel was beautiful of form and face."

Weak eyes would indicate Leah needed eye glasses by modern day standards.

deboraw said...

Thank you, Paul. That was kind of my problem. I read the text and the word it is translated from is the word 'weak', but some of the commentators said 'beautiful'. My understanding was that it was a 'defect', not the other way around. It was a source of confusion to me. Have a good day--

Jack said...

Your blog is great! I really love this kind of artwork, reminds me of this:
Drawings Paintings Prints
Love drawings!

Bruce said...

Several biblical scholars agree that the poles of the ark ran east to west. But it makes one wonder how the priest approached the ark, censer in one hand and bowl of blood in the other wearing a long robe; without the danger of tripping!

art supplies said...

I think I would have to agree with you on the design of the Ark in relation to the Egyptian craftsman.

Meg Hoover said...

Wow! Your work is Amazing! God has given you a wonderful talent! I am going to add your site to my blog list and suggest it to my friends. I just started a Daily Bible Verse blog myself and would love it if there was anyway that you could include it in your site, but if not thats ok too! :)

Anonymous said...

How accurate are these models?

Bible artist said...

Hi John
If you're referring to the life size replica I would only point out that the poles should be nearer to the floor, and for the reasons mentioned in the post above, I would place the poles along the short sides. It is a stunning model though!

Goodseed's model, though a lot smaller, is more accurate in my humble opinion.

Kevin said...

Christ tomb, Crucifixion site and the Ark of the Covenant found buried under a trash pile at the foot of Skull Mountain.

Anonymous said...

I often wondered how the two Kerubim with their faces toward each other and toward the propitiatory could spread out their wings and cover it, until I saw a nature documentary on Africa which showed a dark plumed, mid-sized bird that hunted fishes by standing in the water, bending forward, its head pointed down, with its wings spread out and around itself like a round umbrella, making a round shaded spot which attracted the fish. All that can be seen of it is the wings spread out around it with only a small part of the bird's back visible. These birds are all up and down the Nile, fishing with the white egrets. So I have easily been able to visualize the Kerubim kneeling on the propitiatory with their wings spread out and around themselves, tips touching, like two half-oval domes, their heads and faces also concealed in this way under the shadow of their wings, but enough vertical space between the outer crown-edge and the wings to allow the sprinkling of the blood onto the propitiatory. I hope this helps. By the way, I was delighted to see that you too noticed the poles were positioned "in the feet" of the ark! Mazel tov! Pax vobis! (I hope you noticed in "Raiders" that when Indy and Marcus were consulted by the government agents there were verbal clues that the events of the film were set in an 'alternate universe' not quite the same as ours)