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The Ark of the Covenant is in the news again. This time it comes from a world-renowned, truly distinguished, widely published scholar who is speaking from his field of expertise. Tudor Parfitt is professor of Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London...

This article was first published in the March 2008 ABR Newsletter.

The Ark of the Covenant is in the news again. This time it comes from a world-renowned, truly distinguished, widely published scholar who is speaking from his field of expertise. Tudor Parfitt is professor of Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

While not Jewish himself, his research focuses on the history of the Jews in Africa and Asia, Judaizing movements and modern Hebrew language and literature. In his latest book, The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fables Biblical Ark (Harper Collins, 2008), Parfitt suggests he knows what happened to the lost Ark of the Covenant as an outgrowth of his life's work-tracking the lost tribes of Israel in Africa and Asia.

Tudor Parfitt is already recognized for his research among the African Lemba tribe whose oral tradition claimed that they were a lost tribe of Israel.

While such claims seemed pretty unlikely to Parfitt, evidence supporting the Lemba claim came from a truly unexpected source. A 1999 DNA study of the Lemba identified a specific genetic marker that is common among Jewish men of families named Cohen. Cohen (or Cohane) comes from the Biblical Hebrew word for 'priest,' and men in this Jewish family are understood to be descendents of the Israelite priesthood. The same frequency in which this precise genetic marker (dubbed the Cohen Modal Haplotype) appeared among Cohens was also found among the Lemba's Buba clan, their premier family descended from their great ancestral leader. The study indicated that, genetically speaking, this Lemba leadership clan was directly related to the Cohens (priestly family) of Israel. Parfitt and the Lemba both became international news.

Then Parfitt began to consider another aspect of Lemba tradition, a drum-like object called the ngoma. According to the Lemba, the ngoma was sacred, used to store ritual objects, and carried by poles inserted into rings. They believed it was too holy to touch the ground or to be touched by non-priests. They also believed it emitted a 'Fire of God' that killed their enemies and, occasionally, Lemba. A Lemba elder told Parfitt that it 'came from the temple in Jerusalem. We carried it down here through Africa.'

Parfitt's research suggests that the Lemba once lived in Yemen, at a venerated city called Senna in Lemba tradition. Here, in an area where people genetically linked to the Lemba still live today, he found the ruins of an ancient city by that same name. So the theory, according to Parfitt, proposes that the Lemba migrated there from Jerusalem (as Lemba tradition
teaches) by a spice route-and from Senna, via a nearby seaport they sailed down the African coast (as Lemba tradition also teaches) to the Zimbabwe region.

Stories of Jews living in oases of the Arabian desert recorded in some 8th century Arabic texts suggested the Ark had been transported to that region.Could the area have become home for exiled Jews with a special 'mission?' Parfitt believes at some undefined point the Lemba became the caretakers of the Ark, probably in this area.

But, exactly how the Israelites' Ark of the Covenant related to the Lemba's ngoma is not clear. Parfitt has another theory. He proposed that the Ark was actually a prototype of the Lemba's ngoma, a combination reliquary, drum and primitive weapon fueled with a somewhat unpredictable proto-gunpowder.

The Bible is clear that the Ark of the Covenant was a repository of holy articles. Parfitt suggests its use as a drum may be related to the Israelites' use of trumpets in association with the Ark. He also references the Biblical story of King David dancing in its presence. Admittedly, Parfitt's multipurpose object is a bit far-fetched for both ancient cultures, but he believes it is an appropriate argument to make the connection between the two. The gunpowder fuel aspect would explain, he says, the unintentional conflagrations mentioned in the Bible in association with the Ark.

So, the apparent discovery and photographing of the Lemba's ngoma, some 60 years ago, by Swedish missionary Harold Von Sicard would be vital evidence for Parfitt's theory. Unfortunately, after Von Sicard's encounter with it in the Museum of Southern Rhodesia in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, it disappeared from sight around 1949. It became an imperative for Parfitt to see if it still existed. Traveling to Egypt, Ethiopia and even New Guinea, clues finally led him to a storeroom in the Victoria Museum of Human Science in Harare, Zimbabwe in the spring of 2007. Here, catalogued under the number 5218, he saw an old round wooden drum. He observed it had an uncharacteristic burnt-black bottom hole ('As if it had been used like a cannon,' Parfitt notes), the remains of carrying rings on its corners; and a raised relief of crossed reeds that Parfitt thought reflected an Old Testament detail. 'I felt a shiver go down my spine,' he writes.

A splinter, which Parfitt took from the ngoma when he saw it, was carbon-dated to AD 1350. But Parfitt is not deterred. He asserts that 'this is the Ark referred to in Lemba tradition.' It is the object that Von Sicard photographed and is the Lemba ngoma. Furthermore, he points out, Lemba legend teaches that the original ngoma destroyed itself some 400 years ago and had to be rebuilt from its own 'ruins.' Parfitt believes this 14th century ngoma was a reconstruction by the priests, replacing the original Ark of the Covenant. A small hole in the bottom of the ngoma suggests to Parfitt that it might have been constructed around a piece of the original Ark which has since rotted away. For Parfitt, 'there can be little doubt that what I found is the last thing on earth in direct descent from the Ark of Moses. For me it was the Ark, the son of the Ark or the essence of the Ark.. Anyway, the Ark.' To his thinking, it is the last thing on earth to have a direct connection with the Ark of the Covenant.

Professor Parfitt's research is thorough and insightful, offering us valuable historical and anthropological research. His book is a good read, but it is not really about the Ark of the Covenant of the Bible. For Parfitt, the Ark of the Covenant is an ancient artifact in the traditions of the very interesting Lemba tribe of Zimbabwe, Africa. While their tradition does suggest a connection to the Biblical Ark, he is able to offer no solid evidence for the transition and transference of the Ark to the ngoma beyond Lemba tradition and a series of interesting circumstances.

The physical characteristics of the ngoma and the Ark are not similar. As part of his case, Parfitt actually dismisses the very specific Biblical descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant. The Bible describes it as a wooden box, just over 4 feet long, 2.5 feet wide and 2.5 feet high, constructed of Achaia (shittim) wood and covered inside and out with gold. The ngoma is a round wooden drum about 2.5 feet high and in circumference. They are so different that they just cannot be confused, and in fact, Parfitt does not confuse them, but tries very hard to connect them. He can conjecture all he wants that a piece of the original Ark once was at the center of the ngoma, but it will only be his best guess.

The uses of the ngoma were not the same as the Ark, and Parfitt's explanations are interesting, but a real stretch. The Ark was a sacred repository for the two tablets of stone (the Ten Commandments: Ex 25:16, 21; Dt 10:5), Aaron's rod that budded (Nu 17:10) and a golden pot of manna (Ex 16:33). The Ark also supported the solid gold 'mercy seat' (and cherubim) which served as its top (Ex 25:17-21). Above the mercy seat, between the cherubim, was where God said He would meet with and commune with Moses (Ex 25:22). The musical connection (Jo 6:4; 2 Sa 6:5) and David's dance (2 Sa 7:12-17) are a good try, but very unconvincing. As to the ancient gunpowder and conflagrations around the Ark (see Ex 40:43-45 [cloud of glory]; Lv 10:1-2 [fire from the LORD]; 1 Sa 6:10 [death]; 2 Sa 6:7 [death]; 1 Kgs 8:6-11 [cloud of glory]), it takes more imagination than I can muster to buy that scenario.

A good detective, archaeologist and researcher must have a fertile imagination and be willing to think outside the box. Professor Tudor Parfitt is an accomplished scholar who has used his extensive research and a good bit of outside-the-box thinking to propose what happened to the Ark of the Covenant. Yet, for all his research into ancient oral traditions, ancient written texts, genetic testing and carbon dating, the line of historical connection between the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem and the ngoma of Zimbabwe is speculative at best. If he had just written about the Lembas and their ngoma, his book would have been important research and a great read.

But that title and subject would not have made for much publicity. I don't blame him, it was a good PR coup and got him the public notice that the title should have garnered. But once people actually considered what he offered, the story quietly disappeared. The only ancient mystery Parfitt has solved in his The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fables Biblical Ark is the mystery of the Lemba's ngoma, what it was and what happened to it.

So, what about the Lost Ark of the Covenant? Where is it today? Over the years I have collected an interesting list of theories. Here they are in a basically chronological order.

What Happened to the Ark of the Covenant?

  1. Taken to Ethiopia (Axum) by Menelik, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (see 1 Kings 10; 2 Chronicles 9; the Ethiopian royal chronicles (Kebra Nagast - The Glory of Kings)
  2. Taken to Tanis, Egypt by Pharaoh Shishak (Sheshonk-1 Kings 14)
  3. Taken in battle by King Jehoash of Israel (2 Kings 14)
  4. Given by King Hezekiah as tribute payment to Assyrian King Sennacherib (2 Kings 18)
  5. Destroyed by King Manasseh when he desecrated the Temple (2 Kings 2;, 2 Chronicles 33)
  6. During days of Manasseh, taken by Israelite priests to Elephantine Island on the Nile and eventually reached Axum, Ethiopia (see 2 Kings 21; 2 Chronicles 33)
  7. Hidden by Jeremiah on 'the mountain which Moses ascended to see the heritage promised by God.' (Mt. Nebo, Mt. Sinai or Mt. Olives - 2 Maccabees 2)
  8. Taken by Jeremiah to Ireland
  9. Hidden by Israelite priests beneath the Temple Mount before Babylonian captivity (Mishnah Shekalim 6:1-2; Babylonian Talmud Sotah 9a; Yoma 52a-54a; Tosefta Sotah 13:1)
  10. Hidden by Israelite priests beneath Golgotha before the Babylonian captivity (Gordon's Calvary - Hebrews 9)
  11. Returned to Kiriath Jearim from Jerusalem by Israelite priests before the Babylonian captivity
  12. Taken by God to the Heavenly Temple, probably before the Babylonian captivity (see Revelation11:19; Hebrews 9; also Exodus 15; 1 Chronicles 28)
  13. Destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon when he plundered and destroyed the Temple (2 Kings 24-25; 2 Chronicles 36; Lamentations 1)
  14. Taken to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25; 2 Chronicles 36; Isaiah 39; Jeremiah 52; Lamentations 1; 2 Esdras 10; Babylonian Talmud Yoma 53b; Tosefta Sotah 13:1)
  15. Hidden by priests in a cave near the Dead Sea before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (the Copper Scroll).
  16. Taken to Rome and ultimately hidden in the Vatican (Josephus, Wars 7:148-149)
  17. Taken to Rome by Titus, taken from Rome to Carthage by the Vandals, taken to Constantinople (Byzantium) by Beligarius, returned to Jerusalem by Justinian and hidden beneath the New ('New') Church in Jerusalem (6th century AD Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea)
  18. Hidden at an undetermined time in a fully reconstructed Temple buried in the Hinnom Valley (the Ezekiel Tablets)
  19. Swallowed by the earth (2 Baruch 6)
  20. Transported to Yemen and incorporated into the Lemba tribe's sacred ngoma
  21. Stored away in a US government warehouse somewhere in Washington DC (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Where is the Ark of the Covenant today? If someone knows, they have not been forthcoming. Not only do we not know where it is, we do not even know that it still exists. Wherever it has been for the last few millennia, the Lost Ark has still not been found.

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