Memories of the Ark: Texts, Objects, and the Construction of the Biblical Past
This dissertation constructs a cultural biography of the Ark of the Covenant, exploring through it the close, but often complicated, relationships that have existed between objects and collective memory in Biblical and ancient Jewish societies. The project considers the different ways in which Biblical writers and interpreters have remembered the Ark as a “real thing,” forming it, mobilizing it, and making meaning with it—largely in its absence after its likely loss in the 6th century BCE. From Exodus to Chronicles and in works of biblical interpretation through the Mishnah, this project explores how these writers reimagine the Ark to craft visions for their people’s future through their people’s past.
The project is structured around five interrelated case studies from the Ark’s mnemohistory, considering different dimensions of cultural memory’s entanglement in material culture. Each case study draws upon and enriches text-, source-, and redaction-critical approaches, investigating the growth and reshaping of biblical writings as creative memory work. Chapter 1 discusses the dynamics of texts, cultural memory and material culture in biblical literature with particular focus on Jer 3, where a textual expansion to an early prophetic oracle calls on Israel to forget the Ark. Chapters 2 and 3 consider the contrasting narratives of the Ark’s construction in Deuteronomy (10:1–5, 8–9; 31:25–27) and Priestly writings (Exod 16:34–36; 25; 37; Lev 16; Num 7:89; 17:21–28). The two different contexts that these documents provide for the Ark empower it as a real thing to metonymically represent two different versions of the past, enabling its use as a symbol by Priestly writings and Deuteronomy in the realization of their contrasting visions of Israel’s present and future. Chapter 4 focuses on the literary growth and revision of biblical writings as memory work, analyzing three editions of the Ark’s installation in the Temple: 1 Kgs 8, 3 Kgdms 8, and 2 Chr 5. Chapters 5 and 6 explore considerations of the Ark’s loss in the Ark Narrative (AN; 1 Sam 4:1b–7:1) and ancient Jewish and Rabbinic writings. Chapter 5 focuses on AN, which tells the story of the Ark’s (temporary) loss in battle to the Philistines. While the Ark’s triumphant return to Israel in AN implies that the Ark was not truly lost, the text makes the Ark’s loss thinkable. Chapter 6 explores reactions to the Ark’s loss in ancient Jewish and early Rabbinic writings. The Hebrew Bible is curiously silent on the Ark’s fate. Midrashic ancient Jewish and Rabbinic interpretation fill this lacuna by positing the Ark’s survival and imminent return in the End Times. This apocalyptic deferral of the Temple’s ultimate restoration capitalizes upon the Ark’s presumed reality and absence. As memories of the Ark shift towards the apocalyptic future, “old things” like the Ark continue to occupy central roles in the self-fashioning of biblical societies. This dissertation explores the ways and forms that the lost Ark lives on in biblical societies: its lives, its afterlives, and the broad relationships between cultural memories and material culture that underlie all aspects of religious life.