Ark of the Covenant

From Fortean Times

In a secular age such as ours, it’s not unlikely that more people will be familiar with the story of the Ark of the Covenant from Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster (and first Indiana Jones film) Raiders of the Lost Ark than from its pivotal appearance in the Old Testament, a book held as the actual word of God by two major religions.

In the movie, of course, Hitler’s Nazis seek the ancient artefact in order to harness its mysterious power as a devastating weapon against their enemies (and end up getting fried by it in the process).

Surprisingly, though, Hollywood got it more or less right: the Ark indeed held the lethal and devastating power of God, which was to be used as a weapon by those who possessed it.

But beyond the Bible itself there are no clues, maps or traces to follow, no ancient remains or fragments to find: the Ark’s very existence is dependant purely upon one of the most influential – and yet most heavily edited and historically dubious – books ever written. All we have are the biblical descriptions, and the Ark remains no more tangible than many other biblical stories. It has until now been a matter of pure belief, not fact.

But if we were to take the information provided in the Bible, could we use it to decode what the Ark actually was? Could one be built, even on a small scale, using substances and technologies available during the Biblical period?

The Ark of the Covenant was a machine designed, created and used for a specific purpose, and the technology involved is easily understood by anyone who has ever received a shock from a supermarket trolley or had the misfortune to wear nylon. Today, the concepts behind the Ark are readily understood, but at the time of its creation it must have been beyond the comprehension of most people, an awe-inspiring artefact. As Arthur C Clark famously wrote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. To those who saw the Ark, it really must have seemed as if the power of God had been stolen from the sacred mountaintop and now resided within the golden Temple, held captive to the will of men. Which is, in effect, precisely what happened, but not quite as we have been led to believe.


Over 250 years ago, a Dutch scientist called Pieter Van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) sent a report to the Paris Academy of Sciences outlining his experiments with electricity, and created a sensation. The year was 1747.

His invention, destined to be immortalised as the Leyden Jar, named after Van Musschenbroek’s home town and university, was a very simple device that accumulated and stored a large amount of electricity which, when discharged, could deliver a very powerful punch. As the inventor himself wrote: “My whole body was shaken as though by a thunderbolt”.

In terms of 18th-century science Van Musschenbroek’s seemingly miraculous invention soon excited the curiosity of his fellow scientists. Benjamin Franklin called it “Musschenbroek’s wonderful bottle”, and went on to carry out a series of often painful tests to determine exactly how one could produce such a powerful “electrical commotion” from little more than a glass bottle filled with water.

Franklin thought the Leyden Jar would be a good way to kill turkeys, and carried out trials. Using one jar the size of a pint glass, he knocked himself unconscious for several hours. His most famous experiment used a kite to capture lightning in a Leyden Jar with a silk thread and key. Some recent scholars doubt that Franklin actually performed this test – the next two people who attempted it were killed in the effort.

Prior to the discovery of the properties of the Leyden Jar, the only means of producing electricity had been by friction machines – glass globes rotated against leather or silk pads, which generated small static charges. The Leyden Jar, although dependant upon friction machines for charging, represented a major advance in the understanding and development of electricity that would not be superseded until Allasandro Volta created the Voltaic pile (which produced an electrochemical reaction) in 1800.

A description taken from a book published in 1899 describes the Leyden Jar thus:

It consists of a glass jar, coated outside and inside with tinfoil to within 2 or 3 cm of the top. It may therefore be regarded as a condenser (capacitor) consisting of two parallel plates (positive and negative) separated by a glass dielectric (insulator). The jar is provided with a wooden lid, through the centre of which passes a brass rod, terminating in a brass knob; a short length of metal chain is attached to the lower end, and of sufficient length to touch the tinfoil lining. The tinfoil serves as the insulated conductor, which may be conveniently charged through the knob; the jar is either placed on a table or held in the hand, so that the outer coating is consequently earth-connected.

From these descriptions it is certainly possible, even with only a rudimentary knowledge of electricity, to understand the basic principles involved and to construct a working version. What the description doesn’t tell us, though, is how large the volume of the jar is in relation to the charge. To give an example, a 500–1,000gm (1.1–2.2lb) jar, such as an average coffee or storage jar, would be capable of producing a charge in excess of the 220-volt domestic supply.

So, while it would be easy enough for Blue Peter to instruct the nation’s children in how to build a Leyden Jar out of common household items, it wouldn’t be advisable, as they are potentially highly dangerous devices.

Today, the Leyden Jar may be regarded as a little piece of crude but important technical history, but it has been in constant use in the 250-odd years since its invention. It survives to this day in the more advanced form of the capacitor, which works upon exactly the same principles, although in a more highly refined manner. It remains one of the key components in countless modern electrical devices and systems and is produced in vast numbers – over 200 thousand million units per year.


Some time ago, we came across a description of a device that displayed all the known characteristics and functions of a standard Leyden Jar, although its technical sophistication and development was particularly notable. There were, though, a couple of problems with it: firstly, that it was approximately 3,500 years old. And, secondly, that it was the Ark of the Covenant.

That is to say, the Biblical Ark of Moses, the lost golden treasure that once stood in the Tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai – the same Ark that led Moses and his followers into the Promised Land and stood in the legendary Temple of Solomon. The symbol of God’s sacred covenant with his chosen people was, essentially, a Leyden Jar, a device capable of producing thousands of volts of static electricity!

But how could a device invented less than 300 years ago have been used in biblical times? Where could the knowledge to build and use such sophisticated technology have come from? And what evidence is there to support such a seemingly outlandish claim? After all, the idea is contrary not just to the ideas and expectations that have grown up around the Bible, but also to what we think we know about ancient history and science.

The questions posed by the Ark when viewed from the perspective are considerable and wide ranging, and with potentially enormous implications. But is the idea of the Ark being an electrical device really as radical as it initially appears?


The word electricity is derived from the Greek word for amber; the generation of a static charge by rubbing substances such as amber and wool was documented by Thales of Miletus in 600BC. Amber would be considered as the only substance that could produce static for the next 2,200 years.

In 1938, Dr Wilhelm König, a German archæologist appointed director of the National Museum of Iraq, found the controversial ‘Baghdad Batteries’ in the museum’s collection. These were small clay jars, each of which had an asphalt stopper, through which ran an iron rod surrounded by a copper cylinder. König had also come across copper vases that had once been plated with silver, and speculated that the ‘batteries’ had been used to accomplish this. Interestingly, the ‘batteries’ were dated to roughly 250BC but, rather surprisingly, the vases appeared to date from around 2,500BC and to come from Sumerian sites.

Although the dates differed, these discoveries suggested that the principles of electrochemical reaction were known and used in the process called electrolysis, or electroplating, at least 1,000 years before the Ark and 4,300 years before Volta. (In fact, the electroplating process was not used commercially until the middle of the 19th century.)

Clearly, the existence of these artefacts supports the idea of electricity being used in intelligent and highly developed ways long before we laid claim to its discovery. Perhaps the idea that the Ark of the Covenant was a device capable of storing electricity, to be used intelligently to achieve certain effects, is not quite as unlikely as it first appears.

Anyone who reads the biblical descriptions of the Ark’s behaviour would be struck by the details of the deaths of those foolhardy or unfortunate enough to have touched it. In Leviticus X:1–2, for instance, Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, approach the Ark in the Tabernacle: they “took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord”.

Later, in II Samuel VI:6–7, as David is bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, Uzzah “put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God”.

What kind of power could have caused this to happen? Why could some people handle the Ark and live, but not others? Could the power of God the Creator reside in a gold-covered chest, as tradition would have us believe? And, of course, it’s rather disconcerting that this divine power should be, on the one hand, so indiscriminate and uncontrollable, and on the other so easily confined.

There have been attempts to offer some sort of alternative possibilities for the Ark’s mysterious powers. In 1968, Erich von Däniken, in his book Chariots of the Gods, interpreted the Ark as a capacitor capable of producing enough electrical energy to communicate via radio with the crew of a passing alien spaceship. There is, as others have argued, nothing to support the idea that a technology such as the Ark was so sophisticated that it could only have come from an advanced alien race (or, indeed, any other non-human being, such as a god); besides, the logic behind such a gift is the equivalent of giving a toaster to a monkey and expecting it to make breakfast. In any case, it’s high time we freed the concepts of both God and aliens from the limited roles in which they have been cast; we should allow them to remain as the great unknowns, safely beyondour reach, where they belong.


The story of the Ark effectively starts in Egypt, where the Hebrews lived and laboured as slaves under a cruel Pharaoh. Inspired by God and the leadership of Moses, they flee from Egypt – estimates range from a few thousand to a few million or so of them – into the wilderness. Here, they settle near Mt Sinai and come face to face with God…

The Ark makes its initial appearance in Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament, Chapter XXV. God speaks directly to Moses, ordering that an “offering” be built, to very precise and demanding specifications. This offering includes the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle (Temple) and all of the fixtures, fittings and furnishings. The wealth of detail is enormous and bewildering, everything from colours to dimensions is mapped out with a precision befitting an engineer.

In verses 10-21, the instructions for the Ark are given; it is a lidless rectangular box construction, made of Shittim wood, measuring two and a half cubits long by one and half cubits wide and high. It is covered in gold over the inner and outer surfaces, with a gold crown or border around the top. Four gold rings are then added to each corner, for the carrying poles. These are to be made of the same gold-covered wood, and it is specifically ordered that they should never be removed.

Next comes the ‘lid’, the mercy seat, which matches the dimensions of the box and is covered in gold. The cherubim are added to the mercy seat – one of these winged figures is placed at either end of the lid, facing inwards, with their four wings outstretched to form a canopy or arch over the Ark. And that is basically all there is to it: a very simple box construction, roughly the size of a coffee table, with an elaborately decorated lid.

From these basic details there is nothing to indicate anything particularly unusual about the Ark. It appears to be nothing more than a carrying chest for the sacred laws of God. The cherubim on the lid stand guard over the contents, as they once did at the gates of paradise. So how do we account for its power?

The Ark was made from a dense hard wood, generally assumed to be Acacia arabia. Its dimensions, based upon the Egyptian Royal cubit, also known as the cubit of Moses or “long cubit” – equivalent to 525mm or around 21 inches – are approximately 4ft 4in (1.3m) long, with a height and depth of 2ft 7in (76cm). The pure gold covering of the Ark would probably have consisted of thin plates or sheets of beaten gold, not gold leaf or solid cast gold as is often assumed, neither of which is practical or realistic.

The Mercy Seat or lid is of the same dimension as the box and made of the same wood and covered in gold sheets. On the top sit the two winged figures, the cherubim, at either end of the lid, their wings extended above them, inclining inwards. The cherubim figures are made of gold and of beaten work. This would suggest that the figures are solid castings with the wings made separately of finer worked gold sheets.

If we then make the comparison between these details of the Ark and a normal Leyden Jar, we get some interesting results. The gold coverings of the Ark form the positive (inside) and earth (outside) conductive layers (replacing the tin foil lining) and an insulator separates the two layers (in this case the wood replaces the glass). Wood is not generally used as an insulating material due to its capacity to absorb moisture – a Leyden Jar will not function under damp conditions. However, consideration must be given to the ideal dry desert conditions under which the Ark operated.

The construction details of the mercy seat differ from the modern Leyden Jar. Normally, the lid is not made conductive, in order to insulate the single charging rod inserted through it. The Ark has two figures on its conductive lid, creating a double configuration in which one cherubim would be connected to the earth layer, the other to the inner, positive one, isolated from the outer layer. In other words, the cherubim would act as the positive and negative terminals.

These basic comparisons show an almost identical construction for the Ark and Leyden jar, and it would be reasonable to assume that the same principles apply to both versions. Clearly, the Ark is the more complex design, displaying many features well in advance of its modern counterpart.


Using the example of the 500gm-coffee jar-sized Leyden Jar, and assuming that this could store a charge of approximately 200 volts, the Ark would have held the equivalent of 125 such jars, giving it a comparable, if not greater, potential voltage, as well as, more importantly, allowing for a much longer discharge time. Such a level of voltage goes a long way to explaining the reasons for the Arks more evolved design.

The most obvious difference is the use of twin terminals on the Ark. There are no problems with this configuration, other than ensuring good connection and isolation of each terminal, but there are some very good reasons for it. Because of its size, and the relation of capacity to charge, it would not be possible to touch the Ark by hand or with any form of implement to discharge it. The Ark would have carried a charge of thousands of volts, and because the human body is a better conductor than air, it would have killed anyone who got too close to it. Sound familiar?

Of all the various differences, the construction of the lid, or mercy seat, is the most interesting feature. The lid is in effect the connection or switch that provides the completed circuit. Without the lid, the Ark is simply an inert, gold covered box. Unfortunately, the Bible fails to supply certain minor but crucial details. It doesn’t state how thick the wood used in the Ark’s construction was, if the mercy seat was covered with gold on both sides, or how far the gold lining inside the Ark extended.

In a normal Leyden Jar, the inner foil lining does not cover every surface. There is always a gap left to prevent the charge from ‘jumping’ or escaping and puncturing the glass. In terms of the Ark, these same rules would not be so critical; the wood insulation, assuming a thickness of 1–2 inches (2.5–5cm), would offer a greater resistance than glass, and the thicker gold better conductivity than tinfoil. These factors, combined with the greater voltage capacity, suggest that Ark was fully lined.

There is one last area of concern – the Ark’s inherent weak spot – the joint between the box and the lid. This is really only a question of design, and poses an interesting challenge as to the method of the joint’s construction, as well as factors such as insulation and how well the box and lid sit together. The diagram shown opposite gives a potential construction method that would ensure firm contacts of the earth and positive surfaces and, with the addition of a layer of wax or resin to seal the join, perfect insulation.

This explains the purpose of the mysterious crown around the rim of the box. It was not just a decorative feature, but a safety guard that ensured the vital earth connection to the lid and also ‘caught’ and earthed any leakage that might escape through the join.

Finally, the carrying poles were made from the same wood as the Ark, and covered in gold sheeting and attached to the Ark by solid gold rings secured to each bottom corner. These rings would have been securely attached to the Ark, through the outer earth layer, and secured to the insulating wood without touching the inner, positive layer. The Ark could then be safely transported, with those carrying it acting as the earth connection; this explains the specific instruction that these poles should never be removed.

The Ark is a clever, complex piece of design, displaying all the hallmarks of a sophisticated knowledge and mastery of the electrical principles involved. Without any doubt, the Ark of the Covenant was capable of producing some of the effects claimed for it in the Bible. It was large enough to carry a powerful and lethal charge many times over and remain active for a considerable period of time. Beyond that, it was limited and certainly could not have produced all the effects described in the biblical texts.


The Ark was not built to stand alone; it was a component, just as its modern equivalent is, in a much larger construction. It was built specifically to be housed within the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the temple that once stood at the foot of Mt Sinai and from which the glory of the Lord emanated.

“And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim, which are upon the ark of the testimony…” Exodus XXV:22.

God’s instructions continue with construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, in exacting detail. The Tabernacle, or Temple, is also referred to as a tent and often depicted along the lines of a European tent rather than the more appropriate Bedouin variety. These tend to be low square or rectangular constructions, with sloping awnings extending from the main body.

The Temple is in effect a roofless rectangular wooden box, open at the eastern end. The entire structure is then covered in linen, goat’s hair and leather curtains or covers to form an enclosed, tent-like structure. The inner space is divided into two areas, one for the Ark and the other for the ceremonial ministrations of the priests. It must have been a very imposing structure and, given its location, a virtual cathedral in the wilderness.

The Temple structure was made up of 48 upright planks of Shittim wood, 20 on each side and eight at the back. Using the Egyptian Royal Cubit, each plank measured 10 cubits long by one cubit and a half wide – roughly 17ft long by 2ft 7in wide (5.2m by 76cm). Therefore, the temple was approximately 52ft long by 21ft wide and 14ft high (15.8 by 6.4 by 4.3m), allowing for 3ft (91cm) underground for support.

What emerges from the clutter of the biblical description is a rather beautiful structure, entirely in keeping with the practical style of Bedouin peoples. The similarities end there, though, as the Temple is richly decorated in luxuriant colours, designs and massive amounts of gold covering the walls, not to mention the gold-covered furniture, fittings and utensils, the vast amounts of linen used in the coverings and fencing and all the goat hair, leather, wood, silver and brass.

The application of such rich and extravagant decorations is perhaps understandable, if a little contrary to the story of the Exodus; this was, after all, a temple, and everything must have been designed to create a powerful impression. The decoration and design of the Temple appear to have been created with an emphasis on maximising effects that only became apparent when viewed from the outside.

If the Ark was placed inside the Temple (in effect a large conductive box) and discharged, the result would be disappointing. There would be no spectacular effects, just the barely discernible glow of a few sparks and a loud crack. Why go to all this trouble to create the Temple if this was the end result? There must be some other, less obvious factor involved. The natural assumption to make is that the entire interior structure, and everything in it, would become live if the Ark put several thousand volts into the walls. But the Ark is the only crucial part of the Temple that is earthed, so it would operate normally if it were charged – any discharge would occur between the two cherubim, not the walls or pillars.

The answer to this problem is in the opposite principle – the Ark is not the source of the charge, the Temple is. The secret lies in the massive amount of static electricity generated through the linen, goat hair and leather coverings.


The generation of static electricity is totally dependant upon atmospheric conditions and friction. When the Temple was first built, the various layers of the covers would have been dragged across each other to build up the outer coverings. The goat’s hair, being the more abrasive, would have become positively charged with static, which would then have spread to every conductive surface. The walls, the furniture, the Ark – everything was charged with positive, static electricity. The initial charge of static would have been very weak, but it would have retained its potential. And under certain atmospheric conditions, the initial charge would be dramatically increased and maintained by static generated and stored in the covers.

Above: The Ark of the Covenant (Exodus XXV)

The charge would slowly build up over the interior surfaces and inside the Ark. When the charge in the Ark became strong enough to overcome the air resistance between the two cherubim, it would jump the gap between the wings and discharge. This would not have been a lightning-like spark, rather a glow or corona discharge caused by the pointed wing tips of the cherubim. The effect would be an intense burst of brilliant light of considerable duration and power, accompanied by noise and heat. The initial discharge from the Ark would be fed and maintained by the surrounding positive charge stored in the walls and covers. The corona would slowly diminish as the stored charge was exhausted and the cycle, depending on conditions, would begin again.

The key to its successful operation is air resistance. Due to the Ark’s size, and its being earthed, it acted as the catalyst or trigger. The secret is the air resistance inside the Ark and the gap between the wings of the cherubim, which could be set accordingly. It would take longer for the charge in the Ark to overcome the air resistance than it would for the charge to build up inside the Temple. By the time the Ark was ready to discharge, a massive charge would have built up inside the Temple.


The entire structure and purpose of the Temple was to create and harness massive charges of static electricity. Everything about it was designed to enhance and amplify this energy to maximum effect, for reasons that we are, perhaps, only too familiar with. Within this structure, the Ark played a crucial role as catalyst, but it was a single component of a larger system; outside of the Temple walls in which it was designed to function, the Ark was of limited use, except, perhaps as a symbol. It is somewhat ironic that so much attention has been focused upon the mystery of the Ark in recent years, when in fact the key to the greatest secret of the ancient world lies in the overlooked, in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.

Both the Ark and Temple are superbly designed pieces of organic technology that utilise the power of the natural elements, simply and efficiently, for a specific purpose. Everything about the construction and use of this technology is entirely in keeping with what we know and understand about the concepts and realities of the ancient world. There is nothing fantastic or alien about it – it is readily understandable in practical terms that most of us are familiar with.

The existence of such technology over 3,500 years ago, and the obviously intelligent way in which it was harnessed and used, might well indicate that the ancient world has not offered up all of its secrets.

“And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle”.

–– Exodus XL:35.