Could the author of Hebrews have been wrong when he said the ark of the covenant had in it, “the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant”?
This question easily pops up when you realize that 1 Kings 8:9, says “Nothing was in the ark except the two tablets of stone which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel”. It is also mentioned this way in 2 Chronicles 5:10.
But before we arrive at a conclusion, we need to consider certain things and ask a few questions.
Was There a Time When the Ark Contained All Three Items?
Well, the short answer is Yes.
But before we get to see how true this is, let’s get a quick break down of some fundamentals.
The word Testimony, as used in the Pentateuch basically connotes the covenant God had with His people. And so, certain structures and items allied to the covenant were associated with it by name. For instance, ark of (the) testimony, tables of (the) testimony, the tabernacle (tent) of testimony. However, alone, testimony was often used to refer to the ark or the tables of stone on which the Ten Commandments were written.
Usage of “the Testimony” to Imply the Ark
There’s just one way to discover when and where the Testimony was used to imply the Ark. And that is by making reference to the structure that was on top of the ark.
You shall put the mercy seat upon the ark of the Testimony in the Most Holy. (Exodus 26:34).
The ark of the Testimony and the mercy seat that is on it (Exodus 31:7),
Put the mercy seat on top of the ark (Exodus 40:20).
These three verses clearly show that the mercy seat, sat just on top of the ark.
But in Exodus 30:6, the bible says, “Put it before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the testimony. Leviticus 16:13 also reads, “The mercy seat that is upon the testimony.”
At first, these two verses, may seem to conflict with the three above. But once we recall that the mercy seat was to be upon the ark, we realize the testimony was used in these instances to directly refer to the ark.
In other words, the ark of testimony was also sometimes referred to plainly, as the testimony.
Usage of “the Testimony” to Imply the Tables of Stone
Take a look at these:
You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you (Exodus 25:21).
And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18)
He took the Testimony and put it into the ark, inserted the poles through the rings of the ark, and put the mercy seat on top of the ark. (Exodus 40:20)
Here, we see that the tables (or tablets) of testimony was also sometimes referred to as the testimony.
Now, if this is the case, how then are we to know when testimony refers to the ark or tablets of stone? The simple answer is context. And we will see more of that as we go on.
However, let’s get back to finding out if there was a time, the ark contained all three items.
Evidence That the Three Items Were Originally in the Ark
Now, here are the instances that confirm that the pot of manna, Aaron’s rod that budded and the tables of the covenant were at some time in the ark together. Keep in mind that both the ark and tables of stone are sometimes referred to directly as the testimony.
For the Pot of Manna, let’s look at this:
This is the thing which the Lord has commanded: ‘Fill an omer with it, to be kept for your generations, that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a pot and put an omer of manna in it, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generations.” As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept. (Exodus 16:32-34)
Did you notice that this pot of manna was to be preserved? Since it was to be kept for future generations, before the testimony couldn’t have meant that the pot of manna should be placed before the ark of testimony but before the tables of testimony which was inside the ark. The ark was always mobile, it will be incredulous to place something meant to be kept for future generations, outside it.
Now, on to the tables of covenant (testimony).
We read in Exodus 40:20, that “He (Moses) took the testimony and put it into the ark”. Remember, that he had been told the stones would be in the ark.
And you shall put into the ark the Testimony which I will give you (Exodus 25:16)
It is clear here that Moses did obey that instruction and the tablets of stone were kept in the ark.
The case is similar with the rod of Aaron.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Bring Aaron’s rod back before the Testimony, to be kept as a sign against the rebels, that you may put their complaints away from Me, lest they die.” Thus did Moses; just as the Lord had commanded him, so he did (Numbers 17:10-11).
Following an uproar in the camp, God asked each of the tribes of Israel to provide a rod and the one that budded, represented the tribe that God had chosen for leadership and priesthood duties. Aaron’s rod budded and it was asked to be kept. Just like the pot of manna, that the rod was to be kept as a sign, suggests it was put inside the ark and not outside it. In other words, it was before the tablets of testimony within the ark and not before (i.e. outside) the Ark of testimony
Putting it all together, at some point while Moses was alive, the three items were in the ark.
So, How Did 1 Kings 8:9 And 2 Chronicles 5:10 Come About?
Between Numbers 17 and 1 Kings 8, is a very long time characterized by a number of events. Within this period, the ark was abandoned and unused for several years. At some point, the Israelites had no king and everyone did as they pleased. The ark was also carted off into enemy territories for a while. When it was returned by the Philistines after seven tortuous months, the people of Beth-Shemesh who received it, opened it and probed (1 Samuel 6:18-19). Under these circumstances, it wouldn’t be farfetched, that the contents of the ark were tampered with.
The Bible Is Silent About What Really Transpired
But all these are speculations. No one really knows why the contents of the ark reduced from 3 to 1. That’s because, the bible is silent about it. And that’s no big deal. The bible need not give details about every little thing.
However, two things are clear.
First, the author of Hebrews certainly didn’t make up the description of what the ark contained. He was making reference to what was in the ark during Moses’ time. This is all the more clearer when we realize that Hebrews 9 where this reference is made, is a juxtaposition between the first covenant with the Israelites (during Moses’ time) and the new covenant in Christ.
Second, whoever wrote the account in 1 Kings and 1 Chronicles wasn’t trying to falsify records.
One couldn’t have read their reports without having a feeling that they were aware that, the ark contained more than just the tablets previously, and something had gone missing. Or why would they draw our attention to what was in the ark, when that should have been common knowledge at that time? The Israelites – or at least, the Levites, were not oblivious of the instructions about keeping the pot of manna, Aaron’s rod that budded and the tablets of testimony in the ark. Perhaps, the authors of First Kings and First Chronicles simply wanted us to know that what it now contained isn’t what we used to know.