The Ark and the Priests

In this final lesson the narrator will focus on the most important feature of the Tabernacle (the Ark of the Covenant) and describe the qualifications and service of the Tabernacle's worship leader, the High Priest.
4 of 4

After examining the Holy Place we are ready to enter the Holy of Holies. It was the inner room within the tabernacle. We, through scripture, are allowed inside a special and mysterious place where God Himself dwelt behind a curtain. A place where one man only, the High Priest of Israel, was allowed to enter one time each year on a special day, called Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement. It was as close to God as humanity was allowed to come and even then, only under God's instructions.

The Holy of Holies

The Holy of Holies was in the west end of the tabernacle and was the earthly shadow of the heavenly tabernacle. Being in the back of the building, shielded from the eyes of the common man, it was far from the sight of the Hebrews, and bred a holy fear and respect among the people.

The Holy of Holies was a perfect square. 15 feet by 15 feet by 15 feet. It was a shadow of heavenly things. Revelation 21:16 describes the New Jerusalem as a perfect square. There was a veil or curtain to separate it from the Holy Place. This sacred place would be where The Ark of the Covenant would be kept, and where God would meet with the High Priest on the day of Atonement.

The Curtain or Veil

The veil was a thick curtain, hung on four golden posts with gold rings. It was made of fine linen, as well as scarlet, blue and purple yarn. There were figures of cherubim embroidered into it. They represented the guardians the gate, a visible reminder of the Almighty's power and majesty.

The word "veil" in Hebrew means a screen, a divider or a separator that hides. It was purposely designed for shielding God's presence from man. The veil provoked a fearful respect as one looked forward to "going thru the veil." To see the face of God was to die.

The High Priest, making yearly atonement for the Hebrew children, used a smoky incense to fill the Holy of Holies to prevent an accidental sighting of the Almighty God. He also had to bring sacrificial blood, or he could not enter.

It is a fearful thing" to fall into the hands of a living God.
- Hebrews 10:31

If anyone entered the Holy of Holies at any other time, they would die (Leviticus 16:2).

The Ark of the Covenant

There was a single piece of furniture with two parts behind the veil; a box made of Acacia wood covered inside and out with gold. It was at different times called the:

  • Ark of God
  • Ark of God's Strength
  • Ark of the Covenant of the Lord
  • Ark of Testimony

The Ark of the Covenant was constructed like all the other furnishings of the tabernacle complex according to the design and instructions given on Mt. Sinai to Moses. It was 3 feet, 9 inches long, 2 feet 3 inches wide and tall, and used to store important and sacred wilderness items. It was the most important object in the Hebrew worship ritual. It represented the presence and power of God.

The Atonement Cover

The second part of the Ark was the "atonement cover" or the lid. Cherubim occupied each end of the lid, facing each other, another reminder of the Divine presence and power. The Cherubim and the lid and the crown to the Ark were beaten from one piece of solid gold.

Each Cherubim's head was bowed down toward the Ark. The wings of the Cherubim were outstretched and covered the atonement cover and the "mercy seat."

Mercy Seat

The "mercy seat" was where God sat while "tabernacling" (camping) with His people. This was where, during atonement, the blood was applied. The blood of a bull for the priests and his family and goat blood for the people.

Another "shadow" of the sacrifice of Jesus. Thanks to His sacrifice we are allowed into God's presence through prayer and stand before Him.
The word "seat" speaks of a resting place, and the Greek word for mercy seat is… the "hilasterion" which means propitiation or payment for appeasing God's anger for sins of men. Paul records in Romans 3:24-25, where Jesus is proclaimed the propitiation for sins – the true mercy seat.
Sometimes referred to the Ark of Testimony because God spoke from there.

21You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. 22There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.
- Exodus 25:21-22


The Ark was the connection between God and mankind. It was made sacred by the presence of God. That visible divine presence was referred to on the mercy seat, the pillar of fire, or the cloud above the tabernacle by the Hebrew word Shekinah.

The Ark was the central focus of the tabernacle and the Nation.
It would lead them in their worship; it would lead them in their wars; and it would lead them to their Promised Land. God directed every aspect concerning it: the personnel to attend it, its transportation, and its storage. It was perfect in all ways.

Inside the Ark of the Covenant

Looking inside the Ark is nothing like one finds in Hollywood movies. It was not discovered in 1936 and there were no ghosts or melting faces lurking inside. There are many unsubstantiated claims concerning "mystical power" possessed by the Ark. However, when it was stolen by the Philistines, it was God who caused the plagues, not the Ark. God's presence was there above the Ark and that was where the power resided, not in any form of magic. What was inside the Ark? Was it gold, silver, jewels, or treasures from Egypt

The inside of the Ark covered and protected the second copy of the tablets, the Ten Commandments (Moses broke the first). There was a container of "manna" which had fed the children of Israel while in the wilderness. Manna would rot or melt the next day, but the jar of manna in the Ark was preserved. The third object was Aaron's rod that miraculously budded and produced fruit certifying Aaron as God's first chosen High Priest.

Why save these items?

They were a reminder of their sins and their negative responses to God's providence. The Ten Commandments or "right living" violated over and over. The children of Israel's covenant agreement was a conditional arrangement, live right or suffer the consequences.

The manna – the bread/food provided from heaven, because the Israelites had complained to the point that they actually thought they were better off in Egypt. They rejected the food provisions God afforded them in a barren land.

Aaron's rod represented the "mutiny" of the Israelites. They tried to reject God's hand-picked leaders and God made Aaron's rod bloom miraculously to confirm that he was His chosen leader and High Priest (Numbers 16-17).

God viewed the atonement cover (lid of the Ark), or the mercy seat as a figurative covering for the sins of Israel.

Redemption was represented in the blood sprinkled by the High Priest on the mercy seat. It was only good for one year. Jesus is now the mercy seat where God meets man. His blood was poured out, not sprinkled to cover all sins for all time.

Transportation of the Ark

When the Ark was transported it was carried on the shoulders of the priests, specifically by the Sons of Kohath (grandfather of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, Moses' sister). The poles to support the Ark were permanently attached to the Ark and were covered in gold. It was never to be moved with a cart or an animal. God's presence was to be honored and that meant it was to be carried by men, who are superior to animals that have no choice.

The tribe of Levi was responsible for the entire tabernacle, its set-up, its movement, and the breaking of camp. As for the Ark, the priests were to take down the veil and drape it over the Ark so as not to violate the Holy of Holies, (Numbers 4:5-6). It was protected from those unauthorized to see it. To shield it further, a badger skin, then a blue cloth was placed on top of the veil. This protected it from the outside elements.

No one was above the Law. God expected, rather demanded, obedience from His people, especially His priests. If a priest was not fulfilling his task or fell short in keeping himself holy as God required, it would cause the Israelites' sins not to be postponed until the next Day of Atonement. Sins remained unforgiven for a year. Uzzah, in Samuel 6, touched the Ark during transport to keep it from falling and God struck him dead on the spot. God was never to be taken for granted or treated irreverently.

The Ark was never intended to be worshipped. God was to be worshipped. Unlike Israel's neighbors who bowed down to idols, the Hebrew God dwelt with His people, not a statue, but a living God providing for the Israelites.

What Happened to the Ark of the Covenant?

People still question what happened to the Ark. Today, theories place the Ark at Saint Zion Church in Axum, Ethiopia, although no one has ever seen it except the guardian monk. Because of the lack of accessibility and questions about the account, Ethiopians and foreign scholars express doubt about the validity of this claim. Some scholars think the "Copper Scroll," part of the Dead Sea scrolls, might contain coded clues to a map identifying the hiding place of the Ark. None of the theories as to what happened to the Ark have proven true. However, the first part of Revelation 11:19 states that in John's vision the tabernacle was "seen in His temple" in Heaven.

Service Department - Aaronic priestly system

The Holy of Holies, the Holy Place, the outer court, and the tabernacle in general had to have servants. These were the priests – the elected of God. We don't have enough time to cover every aspect of the Hebrew priesthood since it was a complicated institution. To study the tabernacle without at least highlighting the major aspects of the Aaronic priestly system given by God would, however, make our review incomplete.

The Hebrew term for priest "Cohen" denotes it root meaning – "one who stands up for another and mediates his cause". The word appears 741 times in the original Hebrew manuscripts. A third of those references are in the Pentateuch with 185 in "the manual of priests" or the book of Leviticus.

Every priest was a Levite, but not every Levite was a priest. A Levite was a direct descendant of Levi, the son of Jacob. Priests were specially qualified Levites chosen for service to the tabernacle and were direct descendants of the family of Aaron. Only Aaron, however, and his oldest direct descendants could hold the office of the High Priest.

Qualifications of Priests

Priests had to obtain the priesthood through heredity, (but by the time of Jesus and the Roman control of Judea, the High Priest office was at times purchased). Priests had to retire after 25 years or at 50 years of age the exception was a High Priest whose appointment was for a lifetime. They had to perform morning and evening sacrifices for the nation of Israel as well as sacrificial offerings for various individuals each day.

Duties of the Priests

Priests had to remain ceremonially clean by washings and following the instructions contained in the Law. They had to minister and see to the needs of the tabernacle; they transferred "fire and coals from the altar of sacrifice to the altar of incense and removed the ashes. They also attended to the Table of the Showbread.

In addition to these duties, the priests had to trim and fill the golden lamp; they had to slaughter and offer up animals of sacrifice on the brazen altar; they were also responsible for 3 major feasts each year (Passover, Yom Kippur, and the Feast of the Tabernacles described in Leviticus 23. Later, the Feast of Lights or Hanukkah, was added.

Priests were to read and teach the Law; pray for guidance and intercession for Israel. They were to "blow the trumpets" to call the people to assembly or sound an alarm. They were to judge the Law and determine that which was "unclean". This included the lepers and those with various bodily conditions.

Consecration of the Priests

The Consecration of Aaronic priests is covered in detail in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). Because the formality took seven days to complete, lack of time prevents us from going into that detailed description, but the information is found in Exodus 29, Exodus 30:22-33, and Leviticus 8. Leviticus 2 deals specifically with the instructions and chapter 8 explains the carrying out of those instructions

All candidates had to be totally washed and appropriately clothed for their position, however, only the High Priest was anointed. Moses anointed the first High Priest, Aaron. Later, this was performed by whoever was serving as the High Priest.

Priestly Attire

All priests were similarly attired for the work of sacrificing. White "boxers", white linen robe, white linen sash or belt, and a white linen turban. The High Priest wore the same outfit while sacrificing, such as on the day of Atonement.

Things changed for the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. During this once-a-year ritual, the High Priest had extra tabernacle duties to perform, in addition to his sacrificial tasks. The most visually obvious was the changing of his apparel.

After the Atonement sacrifices, the High Priest put on glorious garments to appear before the people and most importantly, before God. It began with the bare feet of the High Priest, after all the blood from the sacrifices had been washed off. This was required because he would be walking on Holy Ground (remember Moses at the burning bush was told to remove his sandals). A fresh pair of white linen "britches", an inner white robe of fine linen, these were worn under a "blue robe" with bells and pomegranates sewn on the hem of the robe. Then came the ephod and girdle held on by two straps over his shoulders.

The ephod was embroidered with blue, purple, and scarlet thread, with gold threads mixed in. The ephod had, set in gold, two onyx stones containing the names of the tribes, (six on each side). This represented the weight of the twelve tribes on the shoulders of the High Priest. In addition to these was the vest or the "breastplate of judgment". It contained 12 stones engraved with the name of one of the tribes on each individual stone.

Also, folded into a pouch of the ephod were the Urim, and the Thummim. These were stones used by the High Priest to settle serious disputes or petitions to God for guidance (for example, whether or not to go to war).

Finally, the last piece of clothing was the crown, the MITRE (pronounce "my-tree"). Affixed to the turban on the High Priest was a gold plate with the engraved words, "Holiness or Holy unto the Lord.

Apply the Blood

In addition to wearing the special clothing, the High Priest had to "apply the blood" of the animals sacrificed. The blood of the bull and ram was poured out at the base of the altar of sacrifice thereby making it holy.

The blood from the ram was applied to the right earlobe of the priest symbolizing hearing of faith and listening to the Word of God. It was also applied to the right thumb reminding him to do all in the name of the Lord (I Corinthians 10:31) and lastly, to the right big toe. This application symbolized walking in the Spirit, by faith not by sight.

Duties Inside the Holy of Holies

The High Priest used a censor filled with incense and heated with fire from the sacrificial altar to fill the Holy of Holies with a sweet aroma. No one wanted to accidentally see God's face; therefore, the smoke was a cautionary procedure. The priest would then sprinkle blood between the cherubim and onto the mercy seat and leave as quickly as possible out of both fear and respect for the Almighty.

The tabernacle duties were the first and only priority of the High Priest and those priests that assisted him. They were not even allowed to mourn the death of a loved one by dressing in sack cloth and ashes or shaving their heads. They could not attend a parent's funeral, much less touch a corpse. Nothing was allowed to prevent them from performing their tabernacle assignments.

The priesthood was of definite importance and a definite portrayal of Jesus Christ. The fact was that God intended to establish a "nation of priests" in the future (Exodus 19:6; Revelation 1:6 and Revelation 20:6). The book of Hebrews, in particular chapters 9 and 10 explain that Christ was not just our High Priest (Hebrews 3:1), but that He was better in every way – the perfect High Priest without the human limitations.

Reflection of Jesus

Jesus became all the things symbolized in the tabernacle and in the priesthood as well as the fulfillment of the Law. We, as Christians, the Church, replace the tabernacle as God sends His Spirit to dwell within us.

And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.'
- Revelation 21:3
Seeing we have such a great High Priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, a High Priest who can sympathize with us (being tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin), let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
- Hebrews 4:14-16

If you have not already done so, view the series entitled: "Exodus for Beginners: God Creates a Nation." We end this series offering you God's richest blessings and a prayer from Revelation 1:5-6:

To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
4 of 4