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Does anyone know where the Ark of the Covenant is today? Was it taken by the Romans when the Temple was destroyed?
Thank you for raising the interesting topic. The Talmud (Yoma 52b, 53b-54a) explains that the Ark was actually removed from the Temple quite early, at the end of the First Temple era – and the Second Temple never had one.
According to one opinion it was taken to Babylonia at the time Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and exiled King Jeconiah and the upper classes. (He then placed Jeconiah’s uncle Zedekiah on the throne for another eleven years, until the final invasion and the Temple’s destruction.) This is implied by II Chronicles 36:10 which states that King Nebuchadnezzar exiled Jeconiah to Babylonia “with the precious utensils of House of God.” (See also Isaiah 39:6.)
According to a second opinion, the righteous King Josiah, knowing that the Temple would shortly be destroyed, had the Ark hidden away. (Some of the other special items which had been kept with the Ark were also hidden – such as the jar of Manna (Exodus 16:32-34), the anointing oil (Exodus 30:22-33), and Aaron’s staff which had blossomed (Numbers 17:25).)
Where was the Ark hidden? We have no tradition that it ended up in Ethiopia (as is claimed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church), and it certainly wasn’t placed in a warehouse in Washington D.C. Rather, the Talmud records the following incident:
A Priest was once in one of the side chambers of the Temple, designated for the storage of wood. He noticed a stone which had clearly been tampered with (and wasn’t aligned with the others). He suspected that the Ark had been hidden there. He ran over to tell his fellow but died suddenly before he could complete his account. (Thus, it became known roughly where the Ark was hidden but not precisely, and the people understood that its whereabouts was intended to remain secret.)
Another opinion in the Talmud states that the Ark was hidden in its place in the Holy of Holies, in the ground underneath it.
Some of the commentators state that King Solomon himself, knowing his Temple would ultimately be destroyed, designed a complex arrangement of tunnels beneath the Temple grounds in order to hide the Ark of the Covenant should the Temple be destroyed. It was there that Josiah later hid it. (See Radak to II Chronicles 35:3 and Maimonides Mishne Torah Beit HaBechira 4:1. See also Talmud Sotah 9a that the entire Tabernacle of Moses was likewise hidden in the tunnels beneath the Temple Mount.) There have been some efforts to excavate this area in modern times, but very few and with little success due to the politically contentious nature of the area.
A final opinion, cited in the Book of Maccabees II 2:4-10, is that the Prophet Jeremiah, knowing the Babylonians would soon invade, took the Ark and several other sacred items out of the Temple and hid them in a cave on Mount Nebo, in present-day Jordan. This is the mountain which Moses years earlier ascended to view the Holy Land just before he died.
As mentioned above, the Second Temple did not have the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, this was one of a number of items which the Talmud (Yoma 21b) states the Second Temple lacked. Others were the Divine Presence (Shechinah) and the Urim and Thummim – parchment containing God’s name which was placed inside the fold of the High Priest’s breastplate. It was still possible to do the Temple service without these, but the Temple did not have the same degree of sanctity. God willing, when the Third Temple is rebuilt, it will include the Ark and all the sacred items stolen or missing since antiquity.