The Ark of the Covenant was a gold-plated wooden box that God told Moses to make in the wilderness. Its lid was made of solid gold with two cherubim facing each other on top. Inside the box were two tables of stone with God’s law written on them. The ark was to represent the presence of God and be a place where God met with his people. Most of the time, it was to be kept in the innermost room of the tabernacle – the most holy of the articles of worship, and there were special rules about how it was to be treated. These included just how careful the people of Israel were to be when moving the Ark of the Covenant.
King David wanted the Ark of the Covenant of God near him, so he arranged for it to be brought into Jerusalem as part of a huge national celebration. The ark was being transported on a cart, but suddenly the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and the ark wobbled. Tragically, a man called Uzzah, who was driving the cart, put out his hand to steady it, and was struck dead by God. David had to cancel the celebration and the ark was moved into the nearby house of a man called Obed-edom. This event is the subject of a micro-tale found in Fiction Favours the Facts – Book 3.
Since I wrote that story, several people have asked me questions about this man, Obed-edom.
These questions have revolved around who Obed-edom was, his nationality and possible genealogy. The reasoning behind the questions seems to be that David would not be likely to put the Ark of the Covenant in the care of a man who was not even an Israelite. This question is discussed further in the post Obed-edom the Gittite, however, part of that investigation involved the issue of exactly who was permitted to carry the ark. So what are we told about it?
Let’s look at examples to see who actually carried the ark of the covenant before God.
When Israel crossed the Jordan into Canaan, it was the priests who carried the ark (Joshua 3:3, 8). When the people walked around Jericho so many times before the walls fell down, it was the priests who carried the ark (Joshua 6:6). When the people were gathered on Mt Ebal and Mt Gerizim, the priests carried the ark (Joshua 8:33).
Deuteronomy 31:9 also describes the priests as Levites who carried the ark (cf Deuteronomy 31:25, which only says “Levites” – but of course, all priests were Levites).
We can reasonably conclude that it was not just any Kohathites who were to carry the ark: it was to be carried by priests.
When David first arranged for the ark of the covenant to be taken into Jerusalem, it was carried on a cart. This was wrong – as David acknowledged when he tried again later. The second time, he said that none but the Levites were to carry the ark (1 Chronicles 15:2). Does that mean just any Levites? 1 Chronicles 15:11-12 tells us that David called Zadok and Abiathar the priests and other leaders of the Levites and told them to arrange for the carrying of the ark, noting that God had broken out against them and killed Uzzah because they had not done it correctly the first time (1 Chronicles 15:13). 1 Chronicles 15:14-15 tells us that the priests and Levites consecrated themselves and the Levites carried the ark of God with the poles as Moses had commanded.
Was it the priests or some other Levites?
From the commands in Numbers and Deuteronomy and the examples in Joshua, I would expect that the priests would have been required to carry the ark and that the Levites would have been praising God as they walked.
However, we also find one more hint and one more concrete example that, put together, tie up the loose ends and finally clinch the matter for me.
The hint is in 1 Kings 2:26. By that time, Solomon was king and Abiathar the priest was being dismissed from his position because he had supported Adonijah in trying take over the kingship. In this verse, Solomon mentions that Abiathar had carried the ark of God before David. His carrying of the ark could well have included the time when it was carried from Obed-edom’s house to the place David had prepared: at the very least, we know that he was involved in the planning.
The final example comes after the events with Obed-edom and shows that the lesson had been well and truly learned by David. Solomon built the temple for God on Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1) and had to move the ark of the covenant from the City of David into the temple. In 2 Chronicles 5:4 we are told that the Levites carried the ark, while 2 Chronicles 5:5 says it was the Levitical priests who brought it up. Once again, priests were Levites, so the first statement is not wrong, it is just that the second is more specific. Verse 2 Chronicles 5:7 repeats that it was the priests who carried the ark and placed it in the inner sanctuary of the temple.
Based on the evidence of God’s commands and the examples we have, I would conclude that the intention from start to end was for the priests to carry the Ark of the Covenant. Priests were Levites. They were also Kohathites, and Kohathites carried most of the holy items from the tabernacle.
The Ark of the Covenant was the most holy of all the holy items in the tabernacle. Other holy items could be carried by Kohathites who were not priests, but not the ark.
Only priests could carry the Ark of the Covenant.
This is one of a series of articles on King David published as back-up material for some Bible-based micro-tales – short stories contained in the series of books: Fiction Favours the Facts.
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