The idea that the ark of the covenant survived Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judah is based on the absence of any explicit reference to the ark being among the vessels of gold carried to Babylon (2 Chr 36:5–8). Likewise, the list of items brought back to Judah after the end of the exile makes no mention of the ark (Ezra 1:5–11). The simplest explanation is that the ark was among the “vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord” that Nebuchadnezzar cut to pieces (2 Kgs 24:13). No one would pay to see that movie.
From ancient times until the present day, people have resisted the idea that God would allow Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Israel’s holiest object. Testifying to the power of this resistance, there are nearly a dozen theories as to how the ark survived. This legendary artifact is the ornate, gilded case built some 3,000 years ago by the Israelites to house the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. Biblical accounts describe the Ark as large, about the size of a 19th-century seaman’s chest, made of gold-plated wood, and topped with two large, golden angels. It was carried using poles inserted through rings on its sides.
Some of these theories are drawn from biblical events. Perhaps Hezekiah gave the ark to Sennacherib as part of his tribute payment (2 Kgs 18). Might it have been removed by faithful priests when Manasseh put an idol in the temple (2 Kgs 21:1–9)? Indiana Jones told millions that Pharaoh Shishak took the ark to the city of Tanis in Egypt when he invaded Jerusalem (1 Kgs 14:25–28). Perhaps the most intricate theory involves Menelik I, the alleged son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, taking the ark to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian royal chronicle, the Kebra Nagast, presents this idea so seriously that rulers of Ethiopia well into the 20th century had to prove their descent from Menelik I.
Other theories grew out of specific passages in ancient texts. Second Maccabees 2:5 records Jeremiah hiding the ark in a cave before Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion. Second Baruch 6:1–9 describes the ark being supernaturally swallowed up by the earth before the invasion, tucked away until the time of Israel’s restoration.
Jeremiah 3:16–17 makes all these hypotheses difficult to believe:
And when you have multiplied and been fruitful in the land, in those days, declares the Lord, they shall no more say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again. At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem . . .
The passage plainly shows that the ark would be absent because of the exile. Jeremiah 3:16 also insists that “it shall not be made again”—wording that strongly suggests the ark would be destroyed in the impending disaster; if the ark weren’t destined for destruction, talk of rebuilding it would make no sense at all. Jeremiah 3:17 reinforces this point—the ark was God’s throne. He sat “between the cherubim” of the lid known as the “mercy seat” (Exod 25:18–22; Num 7:89). But the passage speaks of a day when Jerusalem itself will be called God’s throne. We read about this in Revelation 21:2–3: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’ ”
But in 597 and 586 B.C., the Babylonian Empire conquered the Israelites, and the Ark, at the time supposedly stored in the Temple in Jerusalem, vanished from history. Whether it was destroyed, captured, or hidden–nobody knows.
One of the strongest claims about the Ark’s whereabouts is that before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, it had found its way to Ethiopia, where it still resides in the town of Aksum, in the St. Mary of Zion cathedral. Church authorities, however, say only one man, the guardian of the Ark, is allowed to see it, and they have never permitted it to be studied for authenticity.
Another claim is that the Ark was hidden in a warren of passages beneath the First Temple in Jerusalem before the Babylonians destroyed it in 586 B.C. But that theory can’t be tested either, because the site is home to the Dome of the Rock shrine, sacred in Islam. Digging beneath it simply isn’t an option.
A third claim came from the late Ron Wyatt, an amateur archaeologist who said that in 1982 he found the Ark beneath the hill on which Christ was rumored to have been crucified. Blood from the crucifixion, he claimed, had dripped from the cross through a fissure in the rock and onto the Ark. But nobody has ever seen it again, and Wyatt also claimed a number of other archaeological finds that most scholars find dubious.