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The Sacred Chest

The sacred chest was the acacia wood box that accompanied the Hebrews on their wilderness wanderings in the time of Moses, and housed the two flat stones with the Ten Commandments written on them.

Biblical descriptions of ancient Israel's most important religious symbol vary. Exodus presents an elaborate picture of a chest forty-five inches long, twenty-seven inches wide, and twenty-seven inches high made of acacia wood and covered inside and out with gold, constructed by the skilled craftsman, Bezalel. A lid of pure gold with two winged creatures (cherubim), also of pure gold, covered the chest. It was carried about on gold poles which passed through gold rings attached to the sides (Exod 25:10-22; 31:2,7; 35:30-35; 37:1-9). A much simpler description is found in Deuteronomy 10:1-5. Here Moses is said to have constructed a plain wooden box of acacia wood to hold the new flat stones with the Ten Commandments written on them that replaced the ones he had broken when he saw the people worshiping a gold statue of a calf.

In addition to holding the Ten Commandments, the sacred chest symbolized the presence of the living God among his people (Num 10:33-36). Normally the sacred chest was kept in the most holy place of the sacred tent (Exod 26:34). But when it was used in processions the poles allowed the Levitical priests to carry the chest on their shoulders (Deut 10:8); anyone else who touched it would die (2 Sam 6:6,7). During the wilderness wanderings the sacred chest led the way (Num 10:33). It accompanied the Israelites as they crossed the Jordan River into the promised land (Josh 3:6-17), and played an important part in the conquest of Jericho (Josh 6). During the time of Samuel it was taken from the shrine at Shiloh by the Philistines (1 Sam 4). But after God afflicted the Philistines with seven months of illness, they returned it to Kiriath-Jearim, where it remained for twenty years (1 Sam 5:1-7:2). It was then brought to Jerusalem by David to symbolize his rule over the united tribes (2 Sam 6). Finally, Solomon placed it in the temple where it stood for God's throne (1 Kgs 8). The sacred chest was most likely lost during the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.