What was inside the Ark of the Covenant?

The Ark of the Covenant was a box of acacia wood overlaid with gold both inside and out. It had a golden cover called the mercy seat with golden angel statues spreading their wings above. It was the place God chose to meet with His people (Exodus 25:22). The Ark of the Covenant was first built for the tabernacle, or tent of meeting, while the Israelites traveled in the wilderness. It was then to be placed in the temple once they had settled in the Promised Land.

When God was instructing Moses about the Ark of the Covenant from Mount Sinai, He said, "You shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you" (Exodus 25:16). First Kings 8:9 and 2 Chronicles 5:10 both record that during the dedication of Solomon's Temple, "There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses put there at Horeb, where the LORD made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt" (1 Kings 8:9).

However, two other items seem to have made their way inside the Ark of the Covenant at some point as well: a jar of manna and Aaron's staff. When the Israelites wandered through the desert after escaping Egypt, the Lord provided bread-like wafers, called manna, for them every morning. He commanded them, "Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, so that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 16:32). Later, after Aaron and his descendants were called to be high priests, other Israelites rebelled, doubting that Aaron and the Levites were truly appointed by God. In order to confirm their calling, God asked Moses to collect the staff of each tribe's leader and place it in the tent of meeting overnight. "On the next day Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds" (Numbers 17:8). "And the LORD said to Moses, 'Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels'" (Numbers 17:10).

Hebrews 9:3–4, in describing the tabernacle, records, "Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant." It seems that at some point in time, all three items were inside the Ark of the Covenant.

There are a few possibilities for how 1 Kings 8:9 saying that only the tablets were inside the Ark of the Covenant and Hebrews 9:4 saying that the tablets, manna, and staff were inside the ark can both be true. Firstly, perhaps during Moses's time, all three items were kept inside the Ark of the Covenant, but when the ark was captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:11), the Philistines may have removed the manna and the staff. Secondly, perhaps Solomon removed those two items and set them beside or before the Ark of the Covenant when he dedicated the temple and its contents to the Lord (1 Kings 8:4–11). Or, thirdly, perhaps the manna and staff were normally kept before or beside the ark, but were placed inside the Ark of the Covenant whenever the tent of meeting was moved from place to place. It could also be that when Hebrews 9:4 lists all these things as being inside, it is referring back to the Most Holy Place.

We do know that according to Hebrews 9:4, all three items—the tablets, manna, and staff—were inside the Ark of the Covenant at some point. And, according to 1 Kings 8:9, by Solomon's time when dedicating the temple, only the tablets were inside the ark. The important thing to note is how God asked His people to keep specific mementos reminding them of His work in their lives. These things were to be a sign for generations to come of what God had communicated and what He had done.

Related Truth:

What is significant about the Ark of the Covenant? What is it?

What was the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant?

Where is the Ark of the Covenant? What happened to it?

What was the temple veil? What is the meaning of the temple veil being torn in two when Jesus died?

How can I trust the faithfulness of God?

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