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“Beyond Indiana Jones: The Ark of the Covenant and Egyptian Ritual Processional Furniture” David Falk (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday David Falk came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about his research on Egyptian Ritual Processional Furniture. He comes at the subject from a bit of a different angle from the speakers we generally hear – his central question is what can this Egyptian furniture tell us about the Ark of the Covenant, and the context in which the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) was written.

He started by explaining what he wasn’t going to be talking about – when discussing the Ark of the Covenant there is often what he called “an unhelpful dichotomy”. At one extreme there are those theologians who regard the Ark of the Covenant as purely mythological or allegorical, and don’t consider the idea of it being a real object at all. At the other extreme position is the Indiana Jones type of “discussion” about the Ark of the Covenant – an assumption that it was indeed real, and is somewhere to be found in the world today. These treasure hunters are mostly concerned with discovering it. At the end of the talk someone asked Falk what he thought had happened to the Ark of the Covenant – he thinks most likely it was melted down for the gold by Nebuchadnezzar as this is something that the Babylonians tended to do, even to diplomatic gifts (to pay their army).

So Falk is interested in the middle position that’s often ignored – about what sort of real physical object the Ark was, and what it and its symbolism meant to the people of the time. From this question he gets to Egyptian Ritual Processional Furniture via the two main ideas about how and when the Pentateuch was originally written. One opinion is that it was composed in Babylon, during the Exile, and the descriptions of objects like the Ark of the Covenant are of things that were current then and back ported to the stories of time of the Exodus. The other opinion is that it was actually composed closer to the time of the Exodus and thus the objects described would be things that existed at this time. So Falk’s question is now whether the Ark as described is closer to Egyptian ritual objects during the New Kingdom, or to Babylonian ritual objects – i.e. which in which symbolic & iconographic context does it fit. I assume he has also looked at the Babylonian ritual objects to at least some degree, but as we are an Egyptology group it was the Egyptian ones he talked to us about.

First we need to know what Ritual Processional Furniture actually is. He had seven criteria for this, although I can’t remember precisely what all of those were. As well as defining what is meant by furniture, and by processional, he had other less obvious criteria. For instance if it is carried by poles these must be attached below the centre of gravity – which indicates that display is more important than stability for this object. These objects must also be containers – boxes, or barques (a sort of boat), or thrones/palanquins (if you think about it, this is a container for a person).

After this defining of terms Falk moved on to consider the iconography of the Ritual Processional Furniture – but before we can think about that, we need to think about the Egyptian ideas about sacred space. New Kingdom Egyptian temples are not like churches, which are places where the public comes to worship, instead they are places where a god (or gods) dwell and so they need to provide a sacred space suitable for the god that is insulated from the profane world. Anyone can come to the outside of the temple, and say prayers which will hopefully pass to the ears of the god inside. The first spaces inside the temple (the peristyle hall, the hypostyle hall) are places where the better sort of commoner can come into on festival days – the middle & upper middle class, retired priests and so on. This area represents a more purified form of the world around us, and so the decorations generally have a lot of nature motifs. After this there are doors called the Gates of Heaven, which divide the profane space from the sacred space beyond. At the very back of the temple is the apartments where the god (the statue of the god) dwells, and that can only be entered by the high priest who tends to the statue of the god – feeding it and dressing it and so on. But Falk said that this is not the most sacred part of the temple, instead that is between these apartments and the Gates of Heaven where the sacred barque resides. The barque sits on a plinth, within a room that is effectively a temple within the temple. It even has a roof of its own.

The barque is a piece of Ritual Processional Furniture, and Falk said to think of it like a space capsule. On festival days the god leaves the temple to process around the area, and this is an important demonstration of the continuing legitimacy of the Pharaoh’s rule. But the god cannot enter the profane world without being defiled in much the same way that people cannot go into space in their ordinary clothes otherwise they will die. And so the god must be carried within a portable sacred space – the barque. A barque is a boat, and the ones used for this purpose are models rather than full size. They are carried on poles and have a shrine (box) sitting in the boat in which the god sits. The iconography on the barque is important to both protect the god, and to make the space within the barque sacred. One of these functions is carried out by a frieze of uraeus snakes around the top of the shrine. These protect the contents of the shrine from evil. The inside of the shrine is sanctified by being enclosed within the wings of a vulture. Inside the shrine the statue of the god is placed between two kneeling winged goddesses – the space between their wings is yet more sacred and more insulated from the profane world. Falk then showed us a diagram that showed how the layout of the sacred barque recapitulates the layout of the temple – they are creating sacred space in the same way.

During Akhenaten’s reign the temples were closed, and the state religion changed from polytheistic worship of many gods to worship of the Aten alone. So there was no longer a need for the sacred barques to carry the images of the gods during festivals. However Akhenaten used similar iconography to reinforce his own status as the son of the Aten and the link between the people and the Aten. During festivals he was carried on a throne in procession, in the same way that the god statue would’ve been carried in the barque. He had uraeus snakes on his throne as a protective symbol, and behind him stood two winged goddesses surrounding him in a sacred space. This form of throne wasn’t seen before Akhenaten’s reign, but was used thereafter by the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom even once the old religion was restored.

Both of the above examples are of iconography and furniture being used to create a sacred space to insulate the divine from the profane. Ritual Processional Furniture could also be used to purify the profane in order to make it fit for a sacred purpose. One example of this is the boxes in which offerings were put when they were taken to the temple. The offerings of food etc would start out profane, but by being placed inside this sacred space and taken in procession to the temple they would become suitable to be given to the god. Another example Falk gave of this is Anubis shrines, he believes these were used to transport the canopic jars containing the organs of the deceased to the tomb at which point they were placed into the canopic chest. This purified them so that they were suitable for the afterlife – the coffin performed a similar sanctification function for the mummy.

To conclude the talk Falk returned to the question of the Ark of the Covenant. Does this fit with the sacred iconography and function of the Egyptian Ritual Processional Furniture? He went through the description(s) of it given in the Pentateuch, all of which sound similar to the characteristics of Egyptian Ritual Processional Furniture and not similar to the later Babylonian iconography & materials. Most interesting is the description of the Mercy Seat on the lid of the box – this is the most important and most sacred part of the Ark of the Covenant. It is an area on top of the lid, between the outstretched wings of two cherubim, into which the presence of the Lord descends to speak to Moses and to Aaron. As Falk points out, this is very similar to the iconography used in the Egyptian cases, in particular the thrones used by New Kingdom Pharaohs from Akhenaten onwards. So Falk’s conclusion is that the Ark of the Covenant was an object which came from an Egyptian context, rather than a Babylonian one. By this he doesn’t mean that Judaism is in any sense an Egyptian religion, instead that they used a symbolic language that they were already familiar with when creating a sacred space for their own God.

I found this a fascinating talk. I’ve learnt quite a lot before about the whats of these sorts of objects – the boxes the barques and so on – but I’m not sure I’d ever heard a discussion of the whys of them. Particularly new to me was the idea of purifying offerings by transporting them in a ritual fashion in a ritual box. It’s also interesting to hear about scholarly research into something like the Ark of the Covenant, that often seems to only show up in the Indiana Jones type story (whether intended as fiction or non-fiction).