There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets that Moses put there at Horeb, where the LORD made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of Egypt. (2 Chron 5:10)
[T]he ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. (Hebrews 9:4)
This has got to be one of the many contradictions in the Bible we hear about, right? Not really. It is a contradiction only if you read the Bible flatly. By ‘flatly’ I mean if you read it as if it were one book written at one time by one author. That is, if you expect it to be written the way humans tend to write. The reason this is not a contradiction is because there are two different authors writing at two different times, in two different languages, relating actual history from two different time periods. That describes writing that is much less flat, much more nuanced, don’t you think?
The chronicler, writing in Hebrew probably around 400BC, is telling about when Solomon built the first temple and brought the ark into it. The author of Hebrews, writing in Greek probably around 60AD, is talking about the tabernacle just after it was completed. The time difference between these two events is about 500 years and an awful lot happened in those 400 and something years. To understand the inventory problem with the ark, we need to look at its history with an emphasis on what went inside it.
It all starts in Exodus 25 where God tells Moses how to build the ark. In verse 16, God says, “And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.” The “testimony” here is the Ten Commandments that God wrote on tables of stone. They were placed inside the ark once it was constructed.
The first thing listed in Hebrews is the urn of manna. In Exodus 16 God gave Israel manna six days a week. It was a miraculous food that formed on the ground overnight. Any manna that was kept overnight spoiled except on Friday since Saturday is the Sabbath and none was given. In verse 33 Aaron is told, “Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the LORD to be kept throughout your generations.” Now, at this point, the ark hasn’t been constructed yet; as a matter of fact, God hadn’t even told Moses that an ark is to be constructed. Exodus 16 is about six weeks before Mount Sinai where God verbally gives Israel the Ten Commandments and another month of so after that till he gives the instructions for the ark. At this point, the jar was kept but not in the ark.
The next thing in the list from Hebrews is the rod of Aaron that budded. In Numbers 16, the sons of Korah challenged Moses’ and Aaron’s authority. God’s response was to send a fire to consume the rebels who stood before him and to open the earth under their tents. It wasn’t Moses and Aaron they were ultimately challenging, it was God and the rebellion didn’t stop once Korah’s children were gone. The next day the people complained along the same lines, “You have killed the people of the LORD.” (Num 16:41) In order to authenticate who God had chosen to lead Israel, Moses took a staff from the leader of every tribe and he put them in the tabernacle. The next morning they found that Aaron’s staff had budded and sprouted almonds. In Numbers 17:10 God directed Moses that to put “the staff of Aaron before the testimony”.
So each item that Hebrews mentioned was associated with the “testimony” in some way. Does that mean it was inside the ark? Clearly the tablets of the Ten Commandments were in there, they were called “the testimony” to begin with. Aaron’s rod was to be “before the testimony” which could mean that it sat in front of the ark but that seems a bit odd. There wasn’t a table in there to set the rod on and “the testimony” (i.e. the tablets) were inside the ark. If the rod was before the testimony it could have easily been inside the ark. Why not?
Likewise, the jar of manna was to be “before the LORD“. God’s presence was between the cherubim on top of the ark so the best place for the jar would be there. Again, there was no table to keep this stuff on so placing it inside the ark makes sense. Also, consider that they had to pack all this stuff up and move it around quite a bit before they came to the Promised Land. It would just make sense to put it in the ark.
But that leaves us with an inventory problem when we get to Second Chronicles since “there was nothing in the ark except the two tablets that Moses put there.” We don’t know for sure what happened to the other things since the Bible doesn’t say anything about them but there are hints. If we track the history of the ark in the Bible we see some opportunities for things to get lost.
Surprisingly, there is no mention of the ark being lost in Judges. The people were so superstitious at that time that you’d figure they’d would have drug it out all the time. Nope, they were able to hold off losing it till 1 Samuel 4. When the Philistines came out against them, they pulled out the ark like it was an idol or something. The Philistines captured it in battle. However, things didn’t go so well for the Philistines. They put the ark in the temple of their god Dagon who kept falling over in front of it. Then the people broke out in boils so they decided it would be best to return the ark to Israel. When they did, some Israelites decided to take look inside (1 Sam 6:19 NIV, KJV, ASV). If Israel decided to take a peek, I’ll bet the Philistines did too. After all, for the Philistines it was the spoils of war. When the Philistines consulted their priests and diviners to try to figure out what to do with the ark, their wisemen told them, “do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering” (1 Sam 6:3). That could mean “empty” as in “without a guilt offering” or it could mean “we took stuff out and it has become obvious that we’re guilty and need to make an offering.” A golden urn? There’s some cash value. A stick that budded (assuming it was still spouting)? Sounds like magic! Keep that! Big old stone tablets with Hebrew writing on them? Yeah, leave that.
“Could someone set up Dagon the all powerful again?”
Years later David would split up the articles of the tabernacle. The tent was at a high place in Gibeon with the bronze alter but David moved the ark to Jerusalem (2 Chr 1:4-5) and he put it in a tent he’d had built for it (1 Chr 15:1). When the contents are mentioned in 2 Chronicles 5, we’re down to just the tablets. And it is interesting that the author would mention specifically that there was nothing else in there but the tablets. He might do that in order to confirm, yes, there was nothing else in there, just as it was supposed to be. On the other hand, he could also be commenting that the other stuff had gone missing and all that was left was the tablets.
Do you see how bumpy and nubbley a reading of the Bible has to be? Nothing flat about it! The Bible spans a great deal of time and so you can’t read it like a column in a magazine where all the pertinent history is gathered together for you. You have to take a lot more into consideration. God is bigger than a magazine editor and his story spans generations. Expect his writing, both in history and in the Bible to be huge.