The following article appears in the According to Mackey Column of the April 2022 Oklahoma York Rite Education E-Newsletter, https://okyorkrite.com/
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The following entry appears on pp. 76-78 of the 1912 edition of “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” by Albert G. Mackey.
In the ritual of the American Royal Arch Degree three arks are referred to: 1. The Ark of Safety, or of Noah; 2. The Ark of the Covenant, or of Moses; 3. The Substitute Ark, or the Ark of Zerubbabel. In what is technically called “the passing of the veils,” each of these arks has its commemorative illustration, and in the order in which they have been named. The first was constructed by Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah; the second by Moses, Aholiab, and Bezaleel; and the third was discovered by Joshua, Haggai, and Zerubbabel.
Noah’s Ark, or the Ark of Safety, constructed by Shem, Ham, and Japheth, under the superintendence of Noah, and in it, as a chosen tabernacle of refuge, the patriarch’s family took refuge. It has been called by many commentators a tabernacle of Jehovah; and Doctor Jarvis, speaking of the Hebrew word זהר, ZoHaR, which has been translated window, says that, in all other passages of Scripture where this word occurs, it signifies the meridian light, the brightest effulgence of day, and therefore it could not have been an aperture, but a source of light itself. He supposes it therefore to have been the Divine Shekinah, or Glory of Jehovah which afterward dwelt between the cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle and the Temple (Church of the Redeemed, i., 20).
Ark of the Covenant
The Ark of the Covenant or of the Testimony was a chest, originally constructed by Moses at God’s command (Exodus xxv. 10), in which were kept the two tables of stone, on which were engraved the Ten Commandments. It contained, likewise, a golden pot filled with manna, Aaron’s rod, and the tables of the covenant. It was at first deposited in the most sacred place of the tabernacle and afterward placed by Solomon in the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Temple, and was lost upon the destruction of that building by the Chaldeans. The later history of this ark is buried in obscurity. It is supposed that, upon the destruction of the first Temple by the Chaldeans, it was carried to Babylon among the other sacred utensils which became the spoil of the conquerors. But of its subsequent fate all traces have been lost.
It is, however, certain that it was not brought back to Jerusalem by Zerubbabel. The Talmudists say that there were five things which were the glory of the first Temple that were wanting in the second; namely, the Ark of the Covenant, the Shekinah or Divine Presence, the Urim and Thummim, the holy fire upon the altar, and the spirit of prophecy. The Rev. Salem Towne, it is true, has endeavored to prove, by a very ingenious argument, that the original Ark of the Covenant was concealed by Josiah, or by others, at some time previous to the destruction of Jerusalem, and that it was afterward, at the building of the second Temple, discovered and brought to light.
But such a theory is entirely at Variance with all the legends of the Degree of Select Master and of Royal Arch Freemasonry. To admit it would lead to endless confusion and contradictions in the traditions of the Order. It is, besides, in conflict with the opinions of the Rabbinical Writers and every Hebrew scholar. Josephus and the Rabbis allege that in the second Temple the Holy of Holies was empty, or contained only the Stone of Foundation which marked the place which the ark should have occupied.
The ark was made of shittim wood, which is a species of acacia, overlaid, within and without, with pure gold. It was about three feet nine inches long, two feet three inches wide, and of the same extent in depth. It had on the side two rings of gold, through which were placed staves of shittim wood, by which, when necessary, the ark was home by the Levites. Its covering was of pure gold, over which was placed two figures called cherubim, an order of exalted angelic beings, with expanded wings. The covering of the ark was called kaphiret, from kaphar, “to forgive sin,” and hence its English name of “mercy-seat,” as being the place where the intercession for sin was made.
The researches of archeologists in the last few years have thrown much light on the Egyptian mysteries. Among the ceremonies of that ancient people was one called the Procession of Shrines, which is mentioned in the Rosetta stone, and depicted on the Temple walls. One of these shrines was an ark, which was carried in procession by the priests, who supported it on their shoulders by staves passing through metal rings. It was thus brought into the Temple and deposited on a stand or altar, that the ceremonies prescribed in the ritual might be performed before it. The contents of these arks were various, but always of a mystical character. Sometimes the ark would contain symbols of Life and Stability; sometimes the sacred beetle, the symbol of the Sun; and there was always a representation of two figures of the goddess Theme or Truth and Justice, which overshadowed the ark with their wings. These coincidences of the Egyptian and Hebrew arks must have been more than accidental.
The chest or coffer which constitutes a part of the furniture, and is used in the ceremonies of a Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, and in a Council of Select Masters according to the American system, is called by Masons the Substitute Ark, to distinguish it from the other ark, that which was constructed in the wilderness under the direction of Moses, and which is known as the ark of the Covenant. This the Substitute Ark was made to represent under circumstances that are recorded in the Masonic traditions, and especially in those of the Select Degree.
The ark used in Royal Arch and Cryptic Freemasonry in the United States is generally of this form:
Prideaux, on the authority of Lightfoot, contends that, as an ark was indispensable to the Israelitish worship, there was in the second Temple an ark which had been expressly made for the purpose of supplying the place of the first or original ark, and which, without possessing any of its prerogatives or honors, was of precisely the same shape and dimensions, and was deposited in the same place. The Masonic legend, whether authentic or not, is simple and connected. It teaches that there was an ark in the second Temple, but that it was neither the Ark of the Covenant, which had been in the Holy of Holies of the first Temple, nor one that had been constructed as a substitute for it after the building of the second Temple. It was that ark which was presented to us in the Select Master’s Degree, and which being an exact copy of the Mosaical ark, and intended to replace it in case of its loss, which is best known to Freemasons as the Substitute Ark.
Lightfoot gives these Talmudic legends, in his Prospect of the Temple, in the following language: “It is fancied by the Jews, that Solomon, when he built the Temple, foreseeing that the Temple should be destroyed, caused very obscure and intricate vaults under ground to be made, wherein to hide the ark when any such danger came; that howsoever it went with the Temple, yet the ark, which was the very life of the Temple, might be saved. And they understand that passage in the II Chronicles xxxv. 3), ‘Josiah said unto the Levites, Put the holy ark into the house which Solomon, the son of David, did build,’ etc., as if Josiah, having heard by the reading of Moses’ manuscript, and Huldah’s prophecy of the danger that hung over Jerusalem, commanded to convey the ark into this vault, that it might be secured; and with it, say they, they laid up Aaron’s rod, the pot of manna, and the anointing oil. For while the ark stood in its place upon the stone mentioned―they hold that Aaron’s rod and the pot of manna stood before it; but, now, were all conveyed into obscurity―and the stone upon which the ark stood lay over the mouth of the vault. But Rabbi Solomon, which useth not, ordinarily, to forsake such traditions, hath given a more serious gloss upon the place; namely, that whereas Manasseh and Amon had removed the ark out of its habitation, and set up images and abominations there of their own―Joshua speaketh to the priests to restore it to its please again. What became of the ark, at the burning of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar, we read not; it is most likely it went to the fire also. However it sped, it was not in the second Temple; and is one of the five choice things that the Jews reckon wanting there. Yet they had an ark there also of their own making, as they had a breastplate of judgment; which, though they both wanted the glory of the former, which was giving of oracles, yet did they stand current as to the other matters of their worship, as the former breastplate and ark had done.”
The idea of the concealment of an ark and its accompanying treasures always prevailed in the Jewish church. The account given by the Talmudists is undoubtedly mythical; but there must, as certainly, have been some foundation for the myth, for every myth has a substratum of truth. The Masonic tradition differs from the Rabbinical, but is in every way more reconcilable with truth, or at least with probability. The ark constructed by Moses, Aholiab, and Bezaleel was burned at the destruction of the first Temple; but there was an exact representation of it in the second.
The full text of the 1912 edition of Mackey’s “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” may be found at:
Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume I