• Rav Yitzchak Levy

            In this shiur, we will continue our examination of the history of the ark of God in the book of Shmuel. Following the great slaughter in Beit-Shemesh, we read:


And the men of Beit-Shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the holy Lord God? And to whom shall He go up from us?” And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiryat-Ye'arim, saying, “The Pelishtim have brought back the ark of the Lord; come down and fetch it up to you.” And the men of Kiryat-Ye'arim came and fetched up the ark of the Lord, and brought it into the house of Avinadav on the hill, and sanctified Elazar his son to keep the ark of the Lord. And it came to pass, while the ark remained in Kiryat-Ye'arim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years. And all the house of the Israel sighed after the Lord. (I Shmuel 6:20-7:2)


            As we have seen, the purpose of bringing the ark to Kiryat-Ye'arim was to remove it from Beit-Shemesh, where there had been a great slaughter after people had looked into the ark of God. An attempt was made to relate to the ark with the appropriate sanctity and proper respect. We shall try here to analyze the various reasons that the ark was left in Kiryat-Ye'arim, rather than being returned to the great bama in Nov and Giv'on.


WHy was the ark left in Kiryat-Ye'arim and not returned to the Mishkan?


1. Fear of the ark


The first and most persuasive possibility is that the people did not relate very much to the ark in Kiryat-Ye'arim because they were afraid of it. Both in the battle at Even-ha-Ezer and while with the Pelishtim, and especially in Beit-Shemesh, the ark had caused great damage, killing tens of thousands of people.


It should be noted that the prophet Shmuel does not involve himself at all in the matter of the ark.[1] When the ark is taken out to battle, the suggestion comes from the elders of Israel, and the people execute their plan. Afterwards as well, it is the people of Beit-Shemesh who send messengers to the inhabitants of Kiryat-Ye'arim asking that they take the ark to them. The people of Kiryat-Ye'arim bring the ark to the house of Avinadav on the Giv'a and they appoint Elazar to guard the ark of God.


Scripture presents the matter of the ark as a direct consequence of the spiritual leadership of Eli and his sons, which Shmuel is supposed to change. Shmuel does not involve himself with the ark, neither with an attempt to create a new connection to the ark in Kiryat-Ye'arim, nor with an attempt to return the ark to the Mishkan (in Nov or in Giv'on). Afterwards, in chapter 7, Scripture describes Shmuel's actions at length, his call for repentance, and his great reforms, but no mention is made there of the ark.


2. The time had not yet come to build the Temple


            A second possibility is that moving the ark means building the Temple. The feeling was that the people of Israel were not yet ready as an organic unit to build the Temple.


            The ark was intentionally left in Kiryat-Ye'arim in a state of waiting until it was possible to reunite the ark with the great bama and build a sanctuary for God. Indeed, when David takes an interest in the ark, he does not take it to the bama in Giv'on, but rather to the city of David, with the intention of later joining it to the great bama that would be transferred from Giv'on to Jerusalem in anticipation of the building of the Temple.


            The period during which the ark is in Kiryat-Ye'arim is the period during which Shmuel and Shaul lead Israel, and another seven years during which David rules as king in Hebron. During this period, the people of Israel, on a spiritual level, are engaged in establishing an earthly kingdom (the kingdom of Shaul, Shaul's persecution of David). On a military level, they are contending with enemies on the outside (Amon), and especially with enemies within their borders (Pelishtim and Amalekim).


            It is in this context that the gemara (Sanhedrin 20b) establishes that the three commandments given to Israel when they entered the land - to appoint a king, to cut off the seed of Amalek, and to build the Temple – had to be fulfilled in that order. During this period, the kingdom is being founded and Israel is occupied with cutting off the seed of Amalek; therefore, preparations are being made in anticipation of the next stage of building the Temple. In this context, the location of the ark (not only its physical place in Kiryat-Ye'arim, but also the place that it holds in the minds of all of Israel) is not in the center of the public action of the people of Israel. It is possible that for this reason it was decided to leave the ark in Kiryat-Ye'arim until David came and transferred it to the city of David.


            R. Sandorfi[2] suggests additional answers to our question. They can be seen in his article and we will relate to some of them.


3. A change in the attitude toward the ark


            Another explanation along the same lines as the previous explanation is offered by the Da'at Mikra commentary to Shmuel (Introduction, p. 107, note 29). According to this explanation, the prophet Shmuel deliberately leaves the ark in Kiryat-Ye'arim in order to change the people of Israel's attitude toward the ark. Shmuel wishes to teach the people that deliverance comes not from the ark of the covenant of God, but from He who rests His glory upon it. As we have seen, at the battle of Even-ha-Ezer, the people of Israel related to the ark as if its very presence among them served as an insurance policy, and it was necessary for them to change this attitude. By leaving the ark in Kiryat-Ye'arim and not returning it to the Mishkan, Shmuel thought that the people of Israel would cease putting their trust in the ark that was now located outside the Mishkan. They would thereby understand that their deliverance depends on their own actions and that it was incumbent upon them to repent.


4. The knowledge that the Temple was to be built in Jerusalem


            The Da'at Mikra offers another explanation basedon the explanation of the Radak (II Shmuel 6:5). The Radak asks why David did not bring the ark to Giv'on, where the Mishkan was located.He answers that David knew that the Mishkan would eventually move to Jerusalem, and he thought that this would occur during his lifetime and that he himself would build the Temple. The Radak adds that it was known by tradition that Jerusalem was the holy city and that the Mikdash would eventually be built there.


            According to this explanation, the reason that Shaul, Shmuel, and David did not return the ark to the Mishkan is that they knew by tradition that the future Temple would be in Jerusalem and they were not interested in some interim arrangement. In previous shiurim, we adopted a different approach, according to which no such tradition existed; David chose Jerusalem based on different spiritual considerations – out of desire to unite the tribes of Yehuda and Binyamin.


5. The ark in Kiryat-Ye'arim, in the tribal territory of Binyamin, is in the tribal territory of the Shekhina[3]


            R. Yoel Bin-Nun explains that the spiritual conclusion that is expressed in the actions of the Pelishtim is that there is significance to the place in which the ark is located – each territory and each nation has its own patron god. Since the Pelishtim understand the idea of the sanctity of place in a false and idolatrous manner, they take the blows with which they were smitten on account of the ark in such a hard manner. This is why they say the following:


“And see: if it goes up by the way of His border to Beit-Shemesh, then He has done us this great evil; but if not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that smote us; it was a chance that happened to us.” (I Shmuel 6:9)


In other words, the ark, representing God, reached the wrong territory, and it was therefore necessary to see to it that it return to its correct border and natural place.


            In this sense, the people of Israel adopt the territorial understanding of God from the Pelishtim. They bring the ark to Kiryat-Ye'arim, located on the border of the tribal territory of Binyamin, which is also the territory of the Shekhina, based on the belief that that is the place where the ark belongs and that there it will cause no more harm.


            The tribal territory of Binyamin is a sanctified territory, while Beit-Shemesh is located in the tribal territory of Yehuda, along the border with the Pelishtim. According to R. Bin Nun, the people of Beit-Shemesh sinned when they attempted to establish, even if only temporarily, a sanctuary for God along the border with the Pelishtim. This was an alien understanding of Divine worship that had been utterly rejected in Israel. This was sort of a border shrine, through which the Israelites accepted the Pelishti understanding, thereby committing the same sin as that of the sons of Eli. Those who took the ark out to battle at Even-ha-Ezer were responsible in the end for the destruction of Shilo and for the great slaughter.


            This explanation accounts for the transfer of the ark from Beit-Shemesh to Kiryat-Ye'arim, but it does not explain the fact that it was left there and not moved to the great bama in Giv'on which was also located in the tribal territory of Binyamin.


            It may be argued, based on the verses, that the transfer of the ark to Kiryat-Ye'arim was a matter decided upon by the people of Beit-Shemesh, whereas the transfer of the ark from Kiryat-Ye'arim to Nov or Giv'on would have been a matter that would have had to be decided upon by the prophet Shmuel or by all of Israel, but not by the people of Beit-Shemesh.


6. The absence of the tablets from the ark


            An additional explanation is proposed by the Keli Yakar, who explains David's sin of transporting the ark by way of a wagon and not on the shoulders in the following manner:


When the ark was captured, it containing the [whole] tablets and the broken tablets, a Binyaminite man, namely Shaul, ran out from the battle line, and heard that the tablets had been captured, and seized them from the hand of Golyat (based on Midrash Shmuel 11, Yalkut Shimoni 102, and Rashi and Radak [I Shmuel 4:12]), in such a way that all that was left there were the broken tablets. And when they returned it and it was deposited in Beit-Shemesh, they did not bring the [whole] tablets there to put them inside [the ark], but rather it was left as it was with only the broken tablets inside. (II Shmuel 6:3)


            According to this explanation, they did not bring the ark to the Mishkan because it did not contain the tablets, and the ark that must be in the Mishkan must contain the tablets. R. Sandorfi joins to this explanation the words of the Meshekh Chokhma in Shemot:


"And into the ark you shall put the Testimony that I shall give you." All the vessels were made for the Second Temple, except for the ark, because the tablets were stored away and the tablets are indispensible for the ark. And in matters of consecration, wherever Scripture repeats something, it is to teach that it is indispensible (Menachot 19). Therefore, the verse repeated that it is not an ark unless the Testimony is deposited in it, and since in the Second Temple, there were no tablets, there was [also] no ark. (Shemot 25:21)


            Based on this principle, a similar argument can be made regarding Nov and Giv'on. The question remains as to why, according to this understanding, the tablets were not returned to the ark. It has been suggested that perhaps they feared the Pelishtim, but this answer is by no means simple and requires further study.


The meaning of a Mishkan without an Ark


            From the time that the Pelishtim captured the ark and until the ark was brought into the house of God in the time of Shlomo, there was a Mishkan without an ark. During this period, the great bama was located in Nov and afterwards in Giv'on. According to Seder Olam Rabba, we are dealing with 13 and 44 years respectively. The period during which the great bama was in Nov parallels the period of the leadership of Shmuel and Shaul. The period during which the great bama was in Giv'on parallels the period of David's reign (40 years) and the first four years of Shlomo's rule.


            As we have already noted, during the time that the ark was not in the Mishkan, private bamot were allowed, indicating the status of the Mishkan. Private sacrificial service was not performed in a public area, but rather each person could offer his free-will offerings in his own backyard. In practice, then, Israel's connection to the Mishkan when it lacked the ark was insignificant. It is not by chance that Scripture does not relate to the connection between the people of Israel and these places during this period.


            The gemara (Zevachim 117-118) records a disagreement regarding whether communal sacrifices that do not have a fixed time (e.g., a bull for an unwitting communal sin and the goats brought by the community for the inadvertent transgression of the prohibition against idol worship) could be offered in the Mishkan at Nov and Giv'on, or whether only sacrifices that have a fixed time, like the daily and additional offerings, were offered. Similarly, could individuals offer obligatory sacrifices that do not have a fixed time (e.g., sin- or guilt-offerings), or perhaps only free-will offerings and obligatory offerings that have a fixed time (such as the Paschal offering)?


            From the mishna (Zevachim 14:7 and Megilla 1:11), it seems that the community only offered sacrifices that have a fixed time and that individuals offered only free will offerings that have a fixed time.[4]


            This being the case, we can easily understand why Scripture does not describe the establishment of these Mishkans, nor is mention made of any assembly of the people of Israel at these Mishkans. The Radak (commentary to Shmuel I 11:14) relates to the fact that Shaul assembles the people at Gilgal "in honor of the ark and the Ohel Mo'ed" which had been located there when Israel first entered the land. They therefore show the place respect even though the Mishkan is now found elsewhere, in Nov.


            R. Eitan Sandorfi emphasizes that in reference to Nov and Giv'on, the books of the Prophets do not use the term Mishkan or Ohel Mo'ed, but rather “great bama.”Since the ark constitutes the essence of the Mishkan, when the ark is not found in the Mishnan, the Mishkan is not referred to by that term in the books of the Prophets.


            When God responds to David's request of Natan the prophet to build a house for God, God says to Natan: "For I have not dwelt in any house since that time that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt, even to this day, but I have walked in a tent (ohel) and in a tabernacle (Mishkan)" (Shmuel II 7:6). The reference here is not only to Shilo, but apparently to Nov and Giv'on as well. However, this is a general statement, and nowhere in the Prophets is the sanctuary in Nov or Giv'on called Mishkan.


            The spiritual significance of the fact that Nov and Giv'on are not called Mishkan is that in a certain sense, owing to the absence of the ark, the place is not considered the Mishkan. In actual practice, this is the only place where the communal sacrificial service was conducted, but it suffered a serious deficiency.


            While it is true that they would kindle the lights, burn the incense, offer the daily offerings every morning and afternoon, and each Shabbat replace the showbread on the table, nevertheless, all this fixed and permanent service does not allow the place to be called a Mishkan. In its essence, the Mishkan is the place where God's Shekhina rests, and the ark is the vessel which more than any other vessel expresses the resting of the Shekhina.


            It is interesting to note that in Divrei Ha-yamim, as opposed to the books of Shmuel and Melakhim, the Mishkan in Nov is in fact referred to as a Mishkan. This is true in connection with the Levites who served before the “Mishkan Ohel Mo'ed” (the reference being to Giv'on), where Scripture identifies the great bama in Giv'on with the Mishkan (I Divrei Ha-yamim 6:17-33). The same is also true in the following contexts:


And Tzadok the priest, and his brethren the priests before the Mishkan of the Lord in the bama that was at Giv'on. (I Divrei Ha-yamim 16:39)


But the Mishkan of the Lord, which Moshe made in the wilderness, and the altar of the burnt-offering, were at that time in the bama at Giv'on. (I Divrei Ha-yamim 21:29)


So Shlomo, and all the congregation with him, went to the bama that was at Giv'on; for there was the Ohel Mo'ed of God, which Moshe the servant of the Lord had made in the wilderness.But the ark of God David had brought up from Kiryat-Ye'arim to the place which David had prepared for it: for he had pitched a tent for it in Jerusalem. Moreover, the bronze altar, that Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Chur, had made, he put before the Mishkan of the Lord, which was at the Ohel Mo'ed, and offered a thousand burnt-offerings upon it. (II Divrei Ha-yamim 1:3-6)


            Why is it that in the books of the Prophets, Nov and Giv'on are not called Mishkan, whereas in Divrei Ha-yamim they are? It is possible that in Divrei Ha-yamim, which was written by Ezra in the time of the return from the exile in Babylonia, they related to the existing Temple as a Mikdash in the full sense of the word, even though it was missing the ark. Therefore, the great bama in Giv'on was called a Mishkan because that term was used regardless of the presence of the ark in the Mishkan. In this sense, the word Mishkan is a general term for the entire structure, with all of its functions, and does not relate specifically to the ark.


            It is also possible to suggest that Divrei Ha-yamim wishes to present the Davidic monarchy at its best, and in this context, the Mishkan and the Mikdash play a central role (as opposed to the book of Shmuel). The Mishkan is therefore described by that name as an institution of great significance even though the ark was missing.


            It should be noted that in any event Scripture conceals the fact that the great bama stood in Nov and Giv'on. Following the destruction of Shilo, no account is given of the establishment of the great bama in Nov; we hear about it only incidentally to the story of David's flight from Shaul. Following the destruction of Nov by Shaul, there is no mention of the establishment of the great bama in Giv'on; we hear about it only when David assigns some of the priests and Levites to the great bama in Giv'on and some of them to the ark in the city of David.


The very fact that Scripture does not relate to the establishment of the great bama in its new locations indicates that the place did not enjoy great significance during that period. One of the factors that contributed to this was the fact that the ark was not found in the Holy of Holies during that period.


(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] In this framework, we will not address the question of the relationship between God's revelation to Shemuel (I Shemuel 4:1) and the battle at Even-ha-Ezer. The Radak (ad loc.) considers several possibilities.

[2] See his article, "Why Didn’t'the People of Israel Return the Ark of the Covenant to the Mishkan" [Hebrew], in Hadar Ha-Olam, p. 384ff.

[3] R. Yoel Bin-Nun, "Nachalat Binyamin Nachalat Shekhina," in Lifnei Efrayim u-Binyamin u-Menashe, p. 25ff.

[4] R. Sandorfi (see note 2) brings these sources and discusses them.