I enjoyed Graham Hancock’s “The Sign and the Seal”, but it has drawbacks. I’ll quickly discuss those then get to the meat.
It’s over five-hundred pages long, filled with repetition, speculation, and overly drawn-out narrative accounts. Also, the chronology of the book annoyed me. For instance, the reader has to wait four hundred pages before anything like a survey of contemporary theories about the location of the Lost Ark is discussed.
Additionally, the lack of respect for the Biblical narrative is a pesky theme, with Hancock spending (at least) two entire chapters arguing that Moses was a powerful occult magician who learned his craft from the Egyptians who gleaned their technology from some lost, super-advanced Atlantis. Is that really more feasible than a prima-facie reading of the text? Obviously if God is, as we Christians claim, then He is more than capable of doing all that is attributed to Him, even if Mr. Hancock doesn’t like the implications that raises about God’s character.
All these things aside, I was quickly swept up into the story. The 500 pages flew by.
What, exactly, happened to the Ark of the Covenant?
I realized it was missing today, and every kid who grew up in the 80’s and saw Indiana Jones, knows how exciting it would be to try and find it. But after the excitement of Hollywood dies away from youthful minds, few people care about this ancient relic.
But really, as a serious Christian, Hancock’s book caused me to take a step back and wonder. Why did the Ark suddenly disappear without explanation? Such a central and important artifact suddenly vanished from the Scriptural narrative, never to be mentioned again. Why?
We last hear about it during King Solomon’s reign, (though, as Hancock reveals later in his book, there might be clues in Scripture that hint at the Ark’s presence after Solomon). After this, in 926 BC, King Shishaq of Egypt invaded and sacked the temple, carrying away many valuable items. (See 1 Kings 11:40 and 14:25. Also 2 Chronicles 12). Some speculate that Shishaq carried off the ark during this time period. Hancock discounts this, however, as there are historical documents (hieroglyphs at Megiddo that document what was taken from Israel) that say nothing about the Ark. It’s presumed that the Israelites were able to keep it from the Egyptians.
The next sacking of the temple happened in 796 BC, when Israel had separated into two kingdoms. The North, lead by Jehoash was at war with the south, lead by Amaziah (see 2 Kings 13 and 14, and 2 Chronicles 25). Jehoash won, and sacked the temple, though again, there is no indication that he stole the Ark of the Covenant.
The next great invasion occurred with King Nebuchadnezzer in 598 BC. (2 Kings 24). And even though he’s recorded as having sacked the Holy of Holies, he’s only recorded as having taken the door sockets! If he took the doors off, then snatched the hinges, to be sure they were looking head-long into the inner chamber of the Holy of Holies, and had seen the gold-lined walls, the giant gold-plated cherubs, and even the Ark of the Covenant itself. Hancock concludes, then, that the Ark simply must not have been there or we would have heard about it being stolen.
It must have been taken and hidden before the Babylonian sacking of 598.
At this point, theories abound: the most popular is that the ark was hidden in the foundation of the temple itself, and resides, to this day, somewhere, buried beneath the Muslim “Dome of the Rock” in Israel. No one is allowed to investigate or dig there, of course, because it’s holy ground. Another theory, is that the Ark was moved to a nearby hillside, but after some shady investigations and seeming coverups by the Rothschild family, that avenue is summarily discounted by most.
But for further clarification: the last mention of the Ark is in 640 by King Josiah, in 2 Chroincles 35. Josiah is instituting reforms, and bringing the nation back to God. He says: “Put the Holy Ark in the house which Solomon …built!” Obviously, it had been removed. There is no indication, though, that it was ever put back in the temple.
So, there is a period of 315 years, from 955 BC (the time of Solomon and the last known location of the Ark) to 640 BC, when King Josiah institutes reforms in Israel and is looking to re-instate the Ark. Fifteen kings ruled in that time, so Hancock tries to narrow down when, during this period, the Ark may have slipped away.
From Solomon to Josiah (315 years), the Ark is not mentioned at all.
A clue emerges from the prophet Isaiah. In 701 BC, the Assyrian King Sennacherib tries to capture Jerusalem. At the time, King Hezekiah follows Isaiah’s advice, and goes before the Lord to ask for help. See 2 Kings 19, and also Isaiah 37:
“Hezekiah went up unto the house of the Lord, and … prayed unto the Lord saying, Oh Lord of Hosts, God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the Earth.”
The Assyrians surrounded Israel, but after Hezekiah’s prayer, God sends out an angel and kills most of them in their sleep. The rest wake up the next morning and retreat. Hezekiah’s actions here, seem to indicate that the Ark was still in Jerusalem in 701 BC.
So now, we can narrow the focus down to the death of Hezekiah in 687, to Josiah’s reign in 640. That is a span of just 61 years and two suspicious kings, Manasseh (687-642) and Amon (642-640), and a quick read about the reign of Manasseh quickly solved the problem.
In 2 Kings 21, we see direct evidence that Manasseh hated God and returned Israel to a state of paganism. He directly emptied the Holy of Holies, persecuted the prophets, killed countless innocent and Godly people, and set up the pagan and blasphemous asherah pole where the Ark should have been.
This is where the tale gets unique.
Hancock’s thesis all along was that the Ark was taken to Ethiopia. The religious culture of Ethiopia centers around the Ark, even to this day. Additionally, Hancock spends a large amount of space, trying to prove that, inherent in “Holy Grail” literature and in the history of the Knights Templar, lies an enigmatic tie to the Ark of the Covenant and Ethiopia.
During the crusades, the Templars went to Jerusalem and set up shop on temple mount, presumably looking through the foundations for the lost Ark. They never found it, but during their stay in Jerusalem, they did meet the soon-to-be emperor of Ethiopia. Through this possible meeting, the templars would have learned of the Ethiopian Ark legends, and would have been motivated to go and find it.
There are various clues and evidences inherent in Ethiopian ancient architecture and legend, that suggest this did, in fact, happen, leading Hancock to speculate that perhaps the Ark really was in Ethiopia. About a hundred years later, the King of Ethiopia sent an envoy to France, and exactly one year later, the Knights Templar were rounded up, arrested, and executed. Hancock would have us believe that the emissaries of Ethiopia convinced the French King (and Pope) that the Templars were trying to steal the Ark in order to take over Europe, causing the notorious back-lash against the Templars.
Regardless of the truth of this story (though, it is very interesting and Hancock makes a convincing case), it doesn”t speak to the actual presence of the Ark in Ethiopia, so Hancock studies the Ethiopian jew population, and discovers a plausible historical link.
Here’s what supposedly happened:
During Manassah’s evil reign, faithful Levite priests spirited away the Ark to save it from destruction. They ran to the south and west with it, eventually settling on an island in the Nile, towards the south of Egypt, called Elephantine (near Aswan).
Hancock visited the archaeological dig taking place on that island, and discovered that the jewish community established there kept in frequent contact with Jerusalem and sometime in the 600s a temple was built on the island that mirrored Solomon’s.
This is a major archaeological find, actually. Given the nature of OT judaism, a temple of that sort was specifically built to house the Ark of the Covenant. Hancock counts this as strong evidence that the jews who fled from Menassah with the Ark, ended up in Egypt.
But the temple at Elephantine was destroyed by the Egyptians in 410, causing the jews to flee further to the South, following the Nile, and eventually, they ended up in Ethiopia, where, through a series of internal struggle, the Ark finally ended up where it is today, in a church in Axum, Ethiopia.
Thoughts and Conclusion
Hancock makes a compelling case, though he could have left his speculation about Atlantis and the origin of Moses’ occult-like power, in the new-age section of whatever bookstore he found it in.
There were many interesting parts of the book, however, including the ancient and medieval historical accounts of Ethiopia and Jerusalem. I also loved the speculation about Gothic architecture and esoteric messages hidden in Grail literature. I also loved the constant discussion of contemporary Ethiopian and North African politics.
Hancock’s story weaved all these things together in a very interesting narrative: history, adventure, politics, mystery, and hints of the super-natural, or at the very least, the extraordinary.
It makes me dream about adventures in foreign lands and doing something great to make a mark in the world.