In Stage 1 of our project, we investigate the Ark’s physical properties. This is more challenging than one might first suspect. If it were a simple structure with no special powers associated with its use, than an equally basic explanation might suffice. However, according to both biblical text and legend, we know that not to be the case.
While we include from a scientific standpoint the topic of the Ark’s apparent ability to defy gravity, it is imperative not to lose sight of its biblical role. Accordingly, it was with great appreciation that Rabbi Yitzhak Levy kindly agreed to share his excellent lessons on the subject. The following content discusses the subject of the Ark being carried by the Children of Israel. It is pertinent to point out that the discovery and repossession of this cherished artifact has to include its eventual physical transportation at some point, to a fore-planned destination. Thereby, having a deeper understanding of the religious background in this regard, is an essential part of its eventual recovery process. Additionally, the same information provides a useful counterweight to the scientific theories concerning its properties in regard to its mobility.
We present the first part of this lengthy and detailed article.
Bearing of the Ark by Priests and Levites
By Rabbi Yitzhak Levy
I wish to deal with questions relating to the bearing of the ark. Who carried the ark and what was the significance of this? In the Torah, let us first examine the Biblical sources dealing with this issue:
But you shall appoint the Levites over the Mishkan of testimony and over all its vessels, and over all things that belong to it. They shall bear the Mishkan, and all its vessels, and they shall minister to it, and shall encamp round about the Mishkan. And when the Mishkan sets forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the Mishkan is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the stranger that comes near shall be put to death. Bamidbar 1:50-51)
The background of this command is clear. The beginning of the book of Bamidbar describes how the people of Israel camped around the Mishkan. In the book of Vayikra, the Torah expands upon the central role played by the priests in the service of the Mishkan, when the Mishkan was located at the foot of Mount Sinai and the people of Israel camped around it. It was the job of the Levites to take the Mishkan down, to transport it from place to place, and to safeguard it from outside.
It follows from the aforementioned command that it was the Levites who bore the Mishkan and serviced it while it was in transit and when it reached the camp. They set the Mishkan up, and took it down; they disassembled it and later rebuilt it; and among their duties, as stated, they bore the Mishkan while it was in transit. In a later chapter, the Torah describes in detail how the Mishkan was to be carried by the various Levite families:
And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the Ohel Mo’ed shall be the Mishkan, and the tent, its covering, and the screen for the door of the Ohel Mo’ed, and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the door of the court, which is by the Mishkan, and the altar round about, and the cords of it for all its service…
The families of the sons of Kehat shall pitch on the side of the Mishkan southward. And the chief of the house of the father of the families of the Kehati shall be Elitzafan, the son of Uziel. And their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all its service…
And under the custody and charge of the sons of Merari shall be the boards of the Mishkan, and its bars, and its pillars, and its sockets, and all its vessels, and all that belongs to it. And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pegs, and their cords. (Bamidbar 3:25-37)
When the Torah later describes the covering of the vessels of the Mishkan in anticipation of its being taken apart and carried away, it says:
This shall be the service of the sons of Kehat in the Ohel Mo’ed, namely, the most holy things; and when the camp sets forward, Aharon shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and cover the ark of testimony… And when Aharon and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary and all the vessels of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kehat shall come to bear it, but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kehat, in the Ohel Mo’ed. (Bamidbar 4:4-15)
Thus, it is the priests who cover the vessels kept in the inner chambers, whereas the Levites bear the vessels and the structure of the entire Mishkan. In the continuation, the Torah says:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, Take it of them, that they may be to do the service of the Ohel Mo’ed; and you shall give them to the Levites, to every man according to his service. And Moshe took the wagons and the oxen, and gave them to the Levites. Two wagons and four oxen he gave to the son of Gershon, according to their service, and four wagons and eight oxen he gave to the sons of Merari according to their service, under the hand of Itamar the son of Aharon the priest. But to the sons of Kehat he gave none, because the service of the sanctuary belonged to them; they bore it on their shoulders. (Bamidbar 7:4-9)
It seems clear from these verses at the beginning of the book of Bamidbar that it was the Levites who bore the vessels of the Mishkan, first and foremost among them being the ark. This also follows from what is stated in the book of Devarim:
At that time the Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him, and to bless in His name, to this day. (Devarim 10-8)
Interestingly, Rashi (ad loc.) comments as follows:
“To bear the ark” – the Levites. “To stand before the Lord to minister to him, and to bless in His name” – the priests, this being the raising of the hands [for the priestly blessing].
According to Rashi, the tribe of Levi was set apart for two purposes that were carried out by different groups of people: the Levites bore the ark, whereas the priests stood before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in His name.
This is where we end the first part of this discourse. Biblical proof has been adequately furnished concerning the role of the tribe of Levites as carriers of the Ark of the Covenant. But the last part of this article raises the possibility that those known as priests might have some specific role to play in the same task of carrying the Ark. We will find out more in the next segment.