The Lost Ark of the Covenant and Hidden Treasure

by Leolaia 13 Replies latest watchtower bible

  • Leolaia

    In 2 Maccabees 2, there is an interesting story about how the prophet Jeremiah hid the ark of the covenant and the tent of meeting prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC:

    "We find in the archives that the prophet Jeremiah, when he had given the deportees the order to take the fire, warned the deportees never to forget the Lord's precepts....The document also described how the prophet, warned by an oracle, gave orders for the tabernacle and the ark to go with him when he set out for the mountain which Moses had climbed to survey God's heritage. On his arrival Jeremiah found a cave-dwelling, into which he brought the tabernacle, the ark and the altar of incense, afterwards blocking up the entrance. Some of his companions came up to mark out the way, but were unable to find it. When Jeremiah learned of this, he reproached them: 'The place is to remain unknown' he said, 'until God gathers his people together again and shows them his mercy. Then the Lord will bring these things once more to light, and the glory of the Lord will be seen, and so will the cloud, as it was revealed in the time of Moses" (2 Maccabees 2:1-8).

    This is a story obviously designed to answer the nagging question: "What ever happened to the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle?" Their collective fate is not mentioned in the OT, and more to the point, the list of treasures plundered from the Temple in 2 Kings 24-25 do not list these most sacred items. The hidden ark legend in 2 Maccabees is probably inspired by the text in Jeremiah 3:16 which reads: "In those days, Yahweh says, they will no longer say '[Where is] the ark of the covenant?' It shall not come to mind, nor be remembered, nor be sought for, nor shall another one be made". The suggestion that "another one" will not be made implies that the original ark had been destroyed. But the author of 2 Maccabees has apparently interpreted the Hebrew here as: "In those days they will no longer say, 'The ark of the covenant does not come to mind, nor is it remembered, nor is it sought for' ". That is to say, the author has construed the text as saying that in the future restoration of Israel, people who had previously not sought for the ark or remembered it will now remember it and seek for it to be restored. Another will not be made because the original has been recovered. Thus Jeremiah 3:16 is likely the "oracle" mentioned in 2 Maccabees that Jeremiah had received on the ark's fate, and the story could be viewed as a midrashic explanation of this prophecy. To ensure its preservation, Jeremiah is thus presented as hiding the ark so that it will not come to mind or be sought for in the immediate future, and so that it will be restored in the Temple in the more distant future.

    The same motif of hiding and restoration of something associated with the Temple appears in 2 Maccabees 1. In connection with the rededication of the Temple in 164 BC and the Hannukah lights (the story about the lights likely derives from the story under discussion), the author tells a story dramatizing the continuity between the First Temple and Second Temple cults. While the exiles were being deported to the East, the devout priests in Jerusalem "took some of the fire from the altar and hid it secretly in the hollow of a dry well, where they concealed it in such a way that the place was unknown to anyone. When some years had elapsed, in God's good time, Nehemiah, commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendents of the priests who had hidden the fire to recover it; but they notified us that they found not fire but a thick liquid" (1:18-20). This liquid was petroleum (naphtha), and was used to reinstitute sacrifice on the new altar.

    There is another story in 2 Baruch (early second century AD) which mentions the Temple treasures more broadly and describes their burial into the earth by angels:

    "Now it happened on the following day that, behold, an army of the Chaldeans surrounded the city .... And I saw, and behold, there were standing four angels at the four corners of the city ... and another angel came down from heaven and ... I saw that he descended in the Holy of Holies and that he took from there the veil, the holy ephod, the mercy seat, the two tables, the holy raiment of the priests, the altar of incense, the forty-eight precious stones with which the priests were clothed, and all the holy vessels of the tabernacle. And he said to the earth with a loud voice: 'Earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the mighty God, and receive the things which I commit to you and guard them until the last times, so that you may restore them when you are ordered, so that strangers may not get possession of them' .... And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up" (2 Baruch 6:1, 4-5, 7-9; compare 80:1-2).

    While the story in 2 Maccabees antedates the Roman destruction of Jerusalem by at least a century and a half, the narrative in 2 Baruch was written sometime after AD 70 and scholars generally believe it alludes to this event in a veiled way. In this light, the stated reason for hiding the treasures ("so that strangers may not get possession of them") is especially poignant in light of what in fact happened when General Titus despoiled the Temple in AD 70. Josephus (Jewish War, 7.5) mentions the victorious procession in Rome of the spoils of war, including "the golden table weighing many talents, the candlestick made of gold ... and the last of all the spoils, was carried the Law of the Jews". The Arch of Titus in the Forum similarly displays soldiers carrying the table of show-bread, two trumpets, a cup, and a menorah from the Temple. The angelic burial of First Temple treasures in the ground alleviates some of the horror at this event: the Second Temple treasures may be lost, but the treasures from the First Temple will be restored when Israel itself is restored.

    The hidden ark myth of 2 Maccabees and the hidden treasure myth of 2 Baruch have two other well-known parallels in the Second Temple period. Josephus (Antiquities 18.4) mentions that during the rule of Pontius Pilate, a man excited the Samaritan community by his claims that he would dig up and reveal to them certain vessels hidden by Moses on Mount Gerizim. There is a possibly related tradition in Pseudo-Philo 25:10 which mentions that the tribe of Asher buried on Mount Gerizim certain "golden idols" and "precious stones". The man's claims were a sensation and he went to Mount Gerizim (their sacred mountain) with a multitude to make this discovery. However, when Pilate learned of this, he sent a force to Tirathaba near Gerizim and prevented the Samaritans from having access to Mount Gerizim by road. Then he attacked the mob, killing some, putting others to flight, and executing the man who caused the sensation. Josephus does not really explain why Pilate's response was so severe and why the Samaritans were so whipped up into fervor over the claims, but some scholars believe that the "hidden vessels" story here also involved a messianic-like promise of restoration of the Samaritan kingdom of Israel, involving a leader whose revelation of the vessels would coincide with the eschaton. In particular, the Samaritan woman in John 4 states that "I know that Messiah -- that is, Christ -- is coming and when he comes he will recount to us all things" (4:25), and she mentions Mount Gerizim ("this mountain where our fathers worshipped") as where "one ought to worship" (v. 20-21). Pilate's brutal response toward the Samaritan archaelogical expedition to Mount Gerizim is quite intelligible if the latter was part of a messianic-like movement and Pilate reacted to it in a similar way to how he is said to have reacted to Jesus.

    The second parallel is that of the infamous Copper Scroll. This unusual text, discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, is a treasure map-like listing of hidden vessels and treasures scattered throughout the territory (dating to the late first century AD). The following is an excerpt:

    "In the ruin that is in the Valley of Achor, under the steps, with the entrance at the east a distance of forty cubits: a strongbox of silver and its vessels, seventeen talents by weight. KEN. In the sepulchur, in the third course of stones: one hundred ingots of gold...In the mound of Hohlit, votive vessels -- all of them flasks -- and high priest garmenture....In the cistern opposite the eastern gate, at a distance of nineteen cubits: in it are vessels.... At the tank of Zered Gorge, at the western burial chamber, the one with a black stone for an opening, dig down two cubits: Three hundred talents of silver coins, gold coins, and twenty vessels containing Temple penalty fees" (3Q15 1:1-9, 2:7, 10:8-9).

    Scholars remain divided as to whether this tantalizing text describes a real treasure or invents a fictional one. The original publisher of this text, J. T. Milik, believed that the treasure was fictional and should be viewed in light of the tradition of the buried Temple treasures in 2 Maccabees or 2 Baruch. Fictional does not necessarily mean deceptive. The author of the text could have received a vision of where angels buried the treasure (as it was in 2 Baruch) and honestly believed that these were the places where the hidden treasures would be retrieved when the Temple is restored. There is an interesting account in Tacitus (Annals 16.1-3) about a Carthaginian named Bassus who had a hallucination concerning where the enormous treasure of Dido was buried on his estate and to his great folly, the cash-strapped Emperor Nero spent time and money digging up the estate -- finding nothing. Such visions thus were often taken seriously, as the situation involving the Samaritans and the man claiming to know what is buried on Mount Gerizim also attests. Milik also noted a strikingly similar text, the Massekhet Kelim, known in a medieval version and a much older version discovered in Beirut written on tablets. This text gives a long list of vessels and treasures from the First Temple hidden in various places by a Levite priest named Shimmur and others before Nebuchadnezzer's destruction of Jerusalem. Strikingly, the vessels were said to remain hidden until the Messiah arrives to restore the nation of Israel. This mishnaic text offers an intriguing link between the Second Temple treasure list in the Copper Scroll and the First Temple "hidden ark/treasure" traditions in 2 Maccabees and 2 Baruch.

    In a recent article, Steven Weitzman (JSJ, Supp. 83) has added another fascinating piece of evidence that grounds these Jewish stories of hidden treasures in the broader Hellenistic context. The Greek historian Pausanias (second century AD) describes what Weitzman calls the "Messenian Mysteries". As Weitzman explains: "The Messenians were a Greek people defeated by the Spartans and sent into exile where they languished until the fourth century B.C.E., when they were able to resettle their homeland. During the war, the Messenian leader Aristomenes learned from a prophecy that his people were destined to be defeated and that the survival of their culture depended upon the safeguarding of their mysteries, a 'secret thing' that Pausanias never describes clearly but which seems to have consisted of rules for religious practice" (p. 245), rules analoguous to the Ten Commandments in the Jewish cult. The legend described here is reminiscent of the outlines of the Jewish stories in 2 Maccabees and 2 Baruch: The Jews fought a war against the Babylonians, and were sent into exile for a time -- during which the Temple treasures were hidden. Then, when the entire kingdom is restored in the eschaton, these hidden things would be revealed. When we examine the text of Pausanias, we find the resemblance is even closer:

    "For the Messenians possessed a secret thing. If it were destroyed, Messene would be overwhelmed and lost forever, but if it were kept, the oracles of Lycus the son of Pandion said that after lapse of time the Messenians would recover their country. Aristomenes, knowing the oracles, took it towards nightfall, and coming to the most deserted part of Ithome, buried it on the mountain, called on Zeus who keeps Ithome and the gods who hitherto protected the Messenians to remain guardians of the pledge, and not put their only hope of return into the power of the Lacedaemonians" (Pausanias, Descr. 4.20.4).

    Like the story of Jeremiah in 2 Maccabees, Aristomenes responds to an oracle relating to the restoration of a sacred object and buries it away on a mountain where it could not be found until the appointed time. What is more, the mysteries -- when they are found upon the restoration of the city-state of Messene -- are kept in a wooden chest in a nearby town (Pausanias, Descr. 4.33.5), a situation reminiscent to the Ten Commandments in the ark of the covenant. Weitzman explains that most scholars believe that the story of the "age of Aristomenes" is fictional, a political attempt by the city of Messene to create for itself a heroic "mythic past". The contemporary importance of the mysteries lies in their link to this past and guaranteeing the transmission of tradition from the past. The story of how the mysteries were discovered also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Copper Scroll and the other stories. Pausanias explained that after the Messenians were restored to their homeland in 369 BC, "the Messenian leader Epiteles had a vision revealing where the lost mysteries were hidden" (p. 246). He dug and found in a cave the mysteries written "on some tin foil, very thin, rolled up like a scroll" (Descr. 4.26.8). Like the Copper Scroll, this is a metallic scroll bearing a link to the mythic past, hidden in a cave.

    Weitzman is agnostic as to whether the treasures on the Copper Scroll are real. He points out that in a real-life situation of siege as there was in AD 66-70, there would have been a desire to protect sacred and valuable objects and in the danger of Jerusalem's impending attack priests could have been induced to enact the "hidden ark" and "hidden mysteries" myths, and hide real treasures in hopes of a real future restoration. But either way, there seems indeed to have been a broader Hellenistic-era mythic tradition of national restoration based on "hidden treasure" motifs, as attested in Josephus, 2 Maccabees, 2 Baruch, the Copper Scroll, and the Massekhet Kelim.

  • peacefulpete

    My wife always felt Harrison Ford fell from heaven!

  • Justin

    The lost ark is found at Revelation 11:19 at the sounding of the seventh trumpet: "And there was opened the temple of God that is in heaven; and there was seen in his temple the ark of his covenant; and there followed lightnings, and voices, and thunders, and an earthquake, and great hail." (ASV) Does this mean the original ark was transported to heaven; or does it mean that, according to the law of correspondencies, there must be a heavenly ark in the heavenly temple; or is the ark seen here an antitype of the original ark?

  • Leolaia

    Justin....You've raised some interesting questions. Both possibilities seem plausible. The idea that the tabernacle on earth had a heavenly prototype is a commonplace in Jewish exegesis and has some parallels with Hebrews, so it would make sense to ask if the ark on earth was believed to have a heavenly ideal. On the other hand, the idea of preservation in heaven is also attested with respect to the Paradise of Eden itself, which was believed not to have perished in the Flood but to have been preserved in heaven so that it would be restored in the end times. This concept does share some commonalities with the eschatological concept of the return of the ark and the Temple treasures. But I think the former is still more likely, as the Temple itself in heaven is not the earthly Temple preserved but God's very abode in the heavens. Like the "throne" and other features of the heavenly Temple, the mention of the ark in Revelation may well be to a putative heavenly archetype of the earthly ark.

    PP....What do you think of the discussion as a whole? I think the discussion on the creation of a mythic past and parallels between Jewish and Greek mythic narratives is right up your alley.

  • Leolaia

    Where has Narkissos been lately?

  • peacefulpete

    Yeah where is Narkissos?

    Well I liked the article Leolaia. The one line:

    "The author of the text could have received a vision of where angels buried the treasure (as it was in 2 Baruch) and honestly believed that these were the places where the hidden treasures would be retrieved when the Temple is restored. "

    left me scratching my head. But maybe you were being facetious and I'm just a little thick.

    As far as the whole Temple treasure bit, we have discused before the improbability of the Solomic temple descriptions and the suspect parallel with the Melqart temple Hiram built. However the ancient existance of an "ark" wouldn't surprise me at all. It's been long felt the design and purpose matches Egyptian solar barques and shrines (golden chest/solar boat within which sacred emblems and idols were carried in religious processions.) Or the maybe word translated "ark" here being "aron" ('Aaron' being a cue name of the mythic character having special associations with the 'aron' or ark) meaning chest or coffin has raises questions about the object's original chthonic symbolism and the cult. Personally I wonder if the ark if it existed was not destroyed by the earlyYahwist reformers themselves. It's simple disappearance without a trace and lack of contemporary explanation suggests to me that the priesthood was involved. Jeremiah may have been expressing distain for those who recalled the ark and desired it back not, as later interpreted, fortelling it's return. He certainly had a distain for the blood sacrifices of the early cult.

    What strikes me is the larger picture. The rather corporeal associations between treasures of gold and divine blessing. How many OT and NT verses describe wisdom, knowledge and blessing in finacial terms. 'Seek wisdom as for hid treasure' 'The Kingdom is like a hidden treasure' etc. That these traditions you posted for us yet associate the messiah and ostensibly spiritual blessings with the uncovering lost golden treasures as if the god needed or missed the gold leaf and gemstones. It's unseemly to my modern mind. I just can't imagine encouraging people to search for truth like searching for a million dollars and out of the other side of my mouth say that a million dollars is worthless and a temptation to greed. But then maybe I should just go to bed.

  • Leolaia
    The one line left me scratching my head. But maybe you were being facetious and I'm just a little thick.

    I'm not sure what was difficult about that sentence. This was a time when visions were taken seriously. Prophecy was still believed to be a valid Christian office, Paul boasted of his visionary visit to "third heaven", visionary sightings of the risen Jesus were taken as proofs of his resurrection, and so forth. I have already mentioned the example of the Carthaginian who had a vision of where buried treasure was located on his property. He certainly did not intend to defraud the Emperor and Nero took his claims seriously by investing much time and money to dig up the treasure. When it was found that there was no treasure, the man said to his dismay that "Of all the hallucinations I have received in my life, why did this one have to not be true?" There was also the example of the Samaritan who claimed to know where Moses had buried sacred vessels on Mount Gerizim. What was the source of his knowledge, if not through vision or divine revelation? Since 2 Baruch reports a tradition that angels buried the Temple treasures, one plausible scenario is that the author of the Copper Scroll -- at a time after the Temple's destruction in AD 70 -- had a vision that angels had safeguarded the preservation of certain votive objects, priestly garments, and money from the Temple treasury, and proceeded to record where the objects had been buried. Of course, that is not the only possibility -- the burial of an actual treasure is also possible, tho cast in the language and conception of these fictional/mythic "buried treasure" traditions.

    I like your connection to the Jesuine logia about the kingdom being likened to hidden treasure. Since Weitzman notes that the "hidden treasure/sacred object" tradition has a clear eschatological dimension (e.g. the Messenian Mysteries relating to the restoration of the city-state, 2 Maccabees 2 relating to the future gathering of Israel and the renewal of blessing, 2 Baruch 6 relating to the restoration of the Temple treasures in "the last times", the unnamed Samaritan who likely sought the Mount Gerizim treasures as part of a messianic movement quashed by Pontius Pilate), it is somewhat interesting that the kingdom itself is likened to "hidden treasure" in these kingdom similitudes, a kingdom which represents the breaking of the eschaton upon the present world.

    BTW, by sheer coincidence, it looks like Jim Davila in his PaleoJudaica blog has covered this same subject the day before my post (August 4). Take a look see:

  • peacefulpete

    I simply chafe at the word choice. Somone who is smoking mushrooms or having psychotic episodes doesn't 'receive visions', they have delusions and hallucinations. Likewise someone who fraudulently creates a story and claims to have had contact with gods/spirits to impress or persuade others likewise does not 'receive visions', he's a conman at best. I'm not finding fault, just have a problem with saying "received" (as if it was sent) "visions" (as it is loaded with religious meaning).

    As always I have learned and enjoyed.

  • Terry

    At this distant remove we cannot begin to comprehend the mindset or the ethos of the societies of old (B.C.E.) without admitting there is no modern counterpart.

    There was a time when there was no televsion, radio, newspaper, radio, Bic pens, stationery stores, supermarkets, satellites, automobiles, movies, or cellphones. No highways, no air travel and no way to convey a distant event in detail across miles and miles without deteriorating the report.

    There were times of illiteracy and memory was the repository of history, fable, myth and what served as science ALL AT THE SAME TIME!

    The ideas of the day and the sensibility of the average person were colored with hearsay and inflated with exaggerations as needed to make a point or refute one.

    When you told about an event it was pretty much impossible for anybody to prove you wrong unless they were an eyewitness who saw the event differently.

    There was no Internet fact-checking and no local libraries with Dewey Decimal systems, Library of Congress numbers or ISBN codes for cross-indexing.

    Everybody was in a every-man-for-himself mode all the time when it came to what was true and what wasn't. You pretty much shared the tribal view or you hit the highway. Innovation was not tolerated in agrarian society. Changing how things had been done could result in starvation and ruined crops. Innovators were anathema. The past was the clue to the present and the future.

    People wallowed in the concepts of precedent. The myths gave the formula for how things were to be viewed and how you could fit any event into a place in space and time for comprehension.

    To change people's minds or get them to go in another direction you had to steer wide and slow with lots of referencing of past events viewed in the context of today's necessity.

    The finding of the law at the time of the repopulation after Diaspora was a rigged event to be sure. The redactors responsible had to appeal to the past to make the present a base for the future.

    Without a past a people was nothing. The tales of Israel and their wanderings could only make sense in the LONG RUN if there were outside forces controlling them. Innovation was not tolerated because authority was everything. Authority helped you live your life by telling you what to do and what to avoid. The mistakes of a people could be corrected by an appeal to Authority.

    The great minds of the past often used surrogates in the representations of past Prophets, tribal leaders and the words of God. Everything that happened was for a "reason" and the job of the shaman, priest or king was to demonstrate that obedience was the key to survival.

    It has ever been thus.

    The Ark is rather like our Statue of Liberty here in America. I think the Terrorists would make the deepest impact in our public consciousness by destroying it rather than buildings.

    When the Philistines stole the Ark it was like taking the battery out of Israel's pacemaker!

    Imagine the reshuffling that took place in accounting for that!

    Someday the Watchtower society will give us a scriptural reason why they used the U.N. library and it will rival the legends of Israel and the ark, no doubt.

  • Leolaia

    I think there is a conflation here between the related but distinct issues of whether there is a non-subjective reality to visions and whether the experiencer of visions/hallucinations truly believes that said visions are real. True, some may invent stories of visions either as a literary device (as I believe may be the case with Revelation), or to fraudulently mislead others, but as I pointed out, others sincerely believed their visionary claims. I truly doubt Bassus intended to deceive the Emperor of Rome and incur his wrath by duping him; he honestly believed what he had hallucinated and likely looked forward to the reward he would receive when the treasure is recovered.

    BTW, there is a really fascinating parallel to all of this in Joseph Smith, which raises the question again of the intent of fraud. Like the Messenian Mysteries, the Book of Mormon was allegedly the record of a lost culture and religion, believed to have been written as a metallic book and buried into the earth, the recovery of which was construed as the restoration of this lost religion in the "latter days" (i.e. as realized in the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints"). And like the Temple treasures buried by angels in 2 Baruch, these golden plates were buried by an angel Moroni centuries ago and revealed by an angel in the modern era. The viewings of the plates by the witnesses were also of a demonstrably "visionary" nature (see Chapter 4 of American Apocrypha). For example, when Martin Harris was asked if he saw the plates "with your naked eyes", he admitted "No, I saw them with a spiritual eye" and "I saw them with the eye of faith". The article by Dan Vogel makes a good case that these witnesses truly believed they saw the plates (through a shared hallucination) and that Joseph Smith had prepped them for a few weeks beforehand (utilizing hypnotic techniques) with suggestions on what they would see. An interesting detail is that the first time Smith showed his plates it was the angel Moroni who had brought the plates for the witnesses to see; the experience was thus something of an angelophany without any physical plates actually present. The main question then is whether Smith himself was an intentional fraud. I personally believe so, but Robert Price (in Chapter 9 of American Apocrypha) makes a good case that the Book of Mormon is just as legitimate and "scriptural" as other pseudepigrapha in Jewish literature and in the Bible.

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