Discovering the Egyptian Context for the Ark of the Covenant: A Q&A with Author David A. Falk

Written by Amy Paulsen-Reed, Acquisition Editor, Key Accounts Sales Representative and Manager at Hendrickson Publishers.

The Ark of the Covenant in its Egyptian Covenant: An Illustrated Journey

Hendrickson Publishers is proud to present a piece of groundbreaking and accessible scholarship on a topic that is of interest to so many: the ark of the covenant. The Ark of the Covenant in Its Egyptian Context: An Illustrated Journey is the first book to guide readers through its Egyptian background to the design and function of the biblical ark of the covenant. The Ark of the Covenant in Its Egyptian Context is filled with eye-opening insights and dozens of beautiful photographs that help this key biblical topic come alive.

The Ark of the Covenant in Its Egyptian Context describes the history of Egyptian sacred ritual furniture in a way that is straightforward and accessible. It is the history of Egyptian sacred design over time that allows us to see where the biblical ark of the covenant fits chronologically. This opens doors to a better understanding of when a historical Exodus would have happened and how the ark would have functioned within ancient Israelite religion.

Hendrickson acquisitions editor Amy Paulsen-Reed sat down with David Falk to talk more about this exciting new book:

Question 1: How long have you been studying Egyptian ritual furniture and when did you know you wanted to write this book?

This is the book I first conceived when I began my PhD in 2012.  Up to that point, I had been studying various aspects of how Egyptian culture overlapped with the early Israelite experience.  At the beginning of my research, I noticed a vague similarity between some Egyptian ritual furniture and the ark of the covenant similar to what Fulcran Vigouroux noticed in 1926.  From that observation, I asked the questions of how the ark fits into the larger narrative of Egyptian furniture and what this tells us about the ark’s function and message. 

Question 2: Who is the intended audience for this book?

Anyone who is interested in the ark and wants something better than what is available today.  Unfortunately, few good resources exist regarding the ark.  Although a lot has been written about the ark, most books either add little to what is already in the Bible or present lurid tales of treasure hunting.  Even many commentaries offer little extra than a skeptical approach.  None of this is particularly helpful for the curious. 

As such, I wanted a book that could appeal to people on many levels.  I wanted the general principles of the book easily relatable; and in those sections, I use storytelling, analogies, and as much humor as the Hendrickson editors would let me get away with.  But if you want to dig deeper, the scholarly and archaeological information is there too.

This photograph was taken at West Thebes.  It is a photograph of a pair of saf tombs as seen from the Ramesseum.  saf tombs typically date from the 11th to early 12th dynasties.

Question 3: What is the biggest takeaway from this book, in your opinion?

The Late Bronze Age was culturally rich with deep-seated notions of divinity and a magic-based understanding of the world.  This is a perspective very different from our modern way of thinking.  The biggest takeaway from the book is that the ark emerged from context that was incredibly nuanced and complex.  

For example, one idea of divinity common during that time was localism; the idea that a god could only be in one place at a time.  Localism was so commonly accepted that other notions of divinity would have had problems being taken seriously.  It was just what people back then believed about the nature of godhood.  This book will show how the ark leveraged those Bronze Age notions and flipped them to introduce entirely new religious ideas.

Question 4: What in the book do you think will be the most surprising to people?

One of the things I found most surprising when I studied ritual furniture was its sheer quantity and diversity.  It was used in funerals, temples, and domestic life.  Every religious cult in Egypt used it.  And even though many people assume there isn’t much material available from the time of the Exodus, the opposite is actually true.  Hundreds of archaeological and iconographic examples of ritual furniture exist, ranging from plain boxes to ornate thrones decorated in gold, silver, and bronze foils and inlaid with precious gemstones. 

The quality of the photographs will also surprise people.  The book contains over a hundred exquisite photographs and illustrations.  I not only wanted to create a work of great scholarship, but I also wanted to produce a book of great beauty.  Before writing the book, I spent six months learning the fine points of travel photography, and then I journeyed from Abu Simbel, near the Egypt’s Sudanese border to Qantir/Piramesses, north of Cairo.  This is definitely a book you will want on your coffee table for your guests to ooh and aah over.

Question 5: Why do you say that is the ark of the covenant like an “extraterrestrial vehicle”?

Because it makes sacred space easier to understand.  I’m not at all suggesting that the ark is alien technology, but several varieties of ritual furniture, including the ark, behave similar to an extraterrestrial vehicle.  If you want to go to outer space, you could try to shoot yourself into orbit using a cannon.  But even if you survive the cannon blast and achieved orbit, you would quickly asphyxiate from lack of air, freeze from the lack of heat, and fry from the radiation.  In short, the environment of outer space is hostile to human life.  To travel into outer space, we need to bring our environment with us using a space suit or an extraterrestrial vehicle.

In a similar fashion, the gods of the ancient Near East lived inside temples surrounded by space that was sanctified and made holy.  If they left that holy space, then the gods risked defilement from space that was profane.  And a god who had come in contact with defilement could flee, remove their protection, and even become vengeful.  So furniture, like the ark, was in a sense a miniature temple (or an extraterrestrial vehicle) that held a pocket of holy space so a god could be transported through profane space without risk of defilement.

Question 6: When comparing the ark to Egyptian ritual furniture, what obvious differences do you see between the Israelite God and the Egyptian gods?

Even though the ark and Egyptian ritual furniture used a common visual language, each culture used that language to express different concepts of the divine.  The Egyptian gods (in general) were part of a pantheon of many gods, and each god had a physical presence expressed with an idol.  The god’s idol had to be clothed and fed, and it had to be placed on its throne by human hands during the day and put to sleep at night.  On the other hand, the Israelite God had no idol.  And in using the language of Bronze Age religious conventions in a profoundly new and original way, the ark showed that the Israelite God was not cared for by human hands, was always on his throne, and never sleeps.

Question 7: How does the Egyptian context shed light on the Israelite concept of holiness?

While my book does touch on this subject, this is actually a huge topic that an entire book could be written about.  The Egyptian notion of holiness is similar to that used by Israel.  The Egyptians and the Israelites shared a strong distinction between what was sacred and profane.  And this notion bleeds into related concepts of purity and ritual.  In both cultures, priests underwent purification rituals that had to be observed prior to entering sacred space.  And both cultures used the iconography of lesser spiritual beings to mark off space deemed holy.

God used Egyptian notions because the Israelites already had knowledge of those concepts and could transform these ideas into their own religious expressions.  Leviticus 18:3 says “You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you.  You shall not walk in their statutes.”  So, the Israelites underwent a process of de-Egyptianizing, but we can still see echoes where Egyptian ideas influenced the Israelites. 

This is a photo of Deir el-Bahari against the cliffs.  This was the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut of Dynasty 18.  The temple is located in West Thebes next door to the Middle Kingdom temple of Montuhotep.  When one visits Deir el-Bahari, one immediately notices the cliffs looming overhead.  I wanted to capture the magnitude of the cliffs compared to the temple.

Question 8: Do you have a favorite piece of Egyptian ritual furniture? If so, why?

Many people like coffins, but I find the sacred barques (religious shrines shaped like boats) to be most fascinating.  No two barques are exactly alike.  Even though no extant examples have survived from the archaeological record, they were frequently portrayed on temple walls and tombs.  And many barque figureheads are held in a wide number of museums across the world.  Barques were religiously important items that sometimes show up in unexpected places, like on votive stelae, necklace weights, and jewelry.  The Egyptians put a lot of artistic effort into barques and it shows—they are gorgeous.

Here is a photo of the statue of Keret at the National Geographic Museum.  Keret was overseer of the royal herem.  He lived during the 18th Dynasty and the statue dates to Amenhotep II or Thutmosis IV.

Question 9: How much of the relevant context for the ark of the covenant is Egyptian, in your opinion? Are there Canaanite, Babylonian, Assyrian, or Hittite elements as well, or would you describe the ark as mainly springing from the context of Egyptian ritual furniture?

We don’t see widespread use of ritual furniture in other ancient Near Eastern contexts in the same way we find it in Egypt.  In the broader Mesopotamian context, we see some statues of gods and kings being carried upon chairs or thrones.  But in the Akkadian texts, we find that chests are normally only mentioned in a secular context.  We find some interesting iconography from the Megiddo ivories, but these show a strong Egyptian influence.

I cannot say there aren’t other influences and am open to the possibility that this might be a preservation issue in the archaeological record.  However, the contextual material we have from Egypt (iconography, complete furniture, and inscriptions) far surpasses by many times what is found in all other contexts combined. 

Question 10: What would you say to a young student of biblical studies considering Egyptology? Make your pitch!

Other than Israel itself, the Bible mentions Egypt more than any other nation in the ancient Near East, over twice as often as its next most influential neighbor Babylon.  The Israelites interacted with Egypt from the time of Abraham through to the lifetime of Jesus Christ. 

The field of biblical studies has sadly neglected Egyptology as an area of cognate study.  Most biblical scholars have had difficulty adding Egyptology to their repertoire because of the sheer volume of material involved.  This is also the reason why one is generally not considered to be an Egyptologist until one has completed a PhD in an Egyptology program.  It is difficult to become competent in the field. 

Nevertheless, the field also has some unique advantages.  Egyptian source material is plentiful, and much of it has not been properly analyzed from a biblical studies perspective.  There is always something new and interesting to learn, and the potential for making discoveries is almost unlimited. 


About the Author

Dr. David A. Falk is a research associate at the Vancouver School of Theology. He holds a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Liverpool and three master’s degrees with concentrations in the Bible and the Ancient Near East from the University of Toronto and Trinity International University. He has published articles on archaeometallurgy, iconography, lexicography, Egyptian ritual, and biblical interpretation. He worked for over twenty years as a computer systems engineer for Disney, GE, Abbott Laboratories, Oracle, and IBM.

One thought on “Discovering the Egyptian Context for the Ark of the Covenant: A Q&A with Author David A. Falk

  1. Pingback: Discovering the Egyptian Context for the Ark of the Covenant: A Q&A with Author David A. Falk | Talmidimblogging

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