The Bible is a rather interesting book, and it contains a number of passages which may be difficult or obscure, especially for those of us with a 21st century Western perspective. They are often overlooked unless one adopts a systematic approach to reading and studying Scripture. Last week, I addressed one such passage in Exodus 4:24-26, where Moses nearly died at the hand of God for his failure to apply the covenant sign of circumcision to his two sons. This week, I was asked about the meaning and significance of a clause found in the divine instruction for building the ark of the testimony.
The poles shall be in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. -Exodus 25:15
Now the ark of the testimony (sometimes called “the ark of the covenant”) was a chest made out of acacia wood that was to be overlaid with pure gold, both within and without. It was to be without any sort of fine detail, except for the placement of two cherubim (likely a type of angelic creature) on top of the lid, called “a mercy seat.” These cherubim were to be designed with wings spreading to cover the mercy seat, and the Lord promised that he would speak to Moses from between the cherubim. On the four corners of the chest, they were to attach gold rings through which they were to place two poles of acacia wood covered with gold. The purpose for these poles is explained in v.14, “that the ark may be carried by them.” But why does God tell Moses that the poles were to be placed into the rings and not removed? This is a puzzling detail.
To answer this question, we must consider a couple of points. First of all, the meaning and significance of the ark of the testimony was wrapped up in its relationship to the divine presence of Yahweh with his people. As one writer put it, “The ark is a legitimate symbol of God’s presence among his people.”1 The ark wasn’t a magic talisman or a channel to the heavens, it was a tangible reminder of the covenant promise of the invisible God to be present in the midst of his people. Never before in the history of earth had God condescended in this way and established a singular locale in which he would make his presence known, and so the ark represented to Moses and the Israelites a tremendous privilege which they must treat with respect. The second point is this, that the poles were the prescribed method of transport for the ark, and there was no alternative given. In other words, God’s command on this score is absolutely clear and straightforward: the ark was to be carried by these poles and these poles alone. And here we see that Scripture gives us the best commentary on itself, because in 2 Samuel 6 we read a tragic story of irreverence and judgment that ought to have been prevented by simply obeying the word of God.
The ark of the covenant had been carried into battle by the Israelites, but in their corporate unbelief they suffered defeat at the hand of the Philistines and the ark was carried away into the house of a false god. After a series of plagues befell the pagans, they sent the ark back to Israel where it ended up in the house of Abinadab in the town of Kirjath Jearim, and there it remained for the rest of Samuel’s life and the entire 40-year reign of King Saul over Israel. When David had established himself as king over all 12 tribes of Israel, he determined to bring the ark down to the capitol city of Jerusalem, and in 2 Sam. 6:3 we read of how they began to transport the ark: “So they set the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drove the new cart.” What a fine mode of travel! The ark was riding along atop a brand new cart, being pulled by a team of oxen, but where were the poles with which the ark was to be carried? That, indeed, is the key question.
Reading the rest of the account, we discover that at the threshing floor of Nachon one of the oxen stumbled. Apparently, this caused the cart to become unstable and the ark was in danger of falling to the ground. In a moment, one of the young men driving the cart reached out his hand and touched the ark, presumably to keep it from falling, and this careless gesture cost him his life. Verse 7 says, “Then the anger of the LORD was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the ark of God.” Just like we saw in the account of Moses and Zipporah in Exodus 4, a single act of disobedience and disrespect for God carried with it the threat of death, only here the judgment was fully carried out and God’s hand was not stayed. It’s clear that David learned this valuable lesson, however, because in v.13 we read that the ark was being carried by men, presumably using the poles as God had instructed, when it finally made the journey into Jerusalem.
This account helps us to understand why God gave such a specific instruction to Moses in Exodus 25:15. The poles were to be placed into the rings on the corners of the ark and not removed, because it was only ever to be transported one way, on the shoulders of the Levites who were assigned the duty of carrying it (Deut. 10:8), but who were also warned never to touch the ark or any of the holy items from inside the Tabernacle under the penalty of death (Num. 4:15). The details contained within the instructions in Exodus were mercifully given so that God’s people would know without any doubt what he expected of them with respect to the ark and its transport. It was only their apparent disregard for God’s word, so many centuries later, which led to Uzzah’s unfortunate death. We are therefore called again to remember the vital importance of obeying God’s word, and to praise him for revealing himself to us with such detail and simplicity.
1Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 399.