The term ark in Scriptures has two main meanings: one is a large boat built by Noah, and the other is the ark of the covenant that was housed in the tabernacle and later in the temple. Both of these images encapsulate important spiritual truths related to salvation.
The ark (also translated “boat” or “ship”) in Genesis 6-8 was, quite literally, a huge undertaking. With no modern tools, Noah built a three-story boat that was 450 feet long and 75 feet wide. the gopher wood from which it was constructed was covered with waterproof pitch. The final touches included a roof, a window, and internal walls to make rooms. This floating home became a refuge that guaranteed the continuance of the human race and the animal kingdom. It separated the chosen survivors from those who perished in the flood.
The ark was a symbol of salvation and preservation. In contrast to those who suffered under God’s judgment and were destroyed in the flood, those in the ark were saved from death and punishment. God’s remembered” these chosen ones and showed them mercy (Gen 8:1; 1 Pet 1:3). The rebirth aspect of salvation is symbolized by the ark as well: after the flood, Noah and his sons rebirthed the human race as a sort of second Adam (Gen 9:2-3). God’s charge for them to be fruitful and multiply echoes the original creation mandate in Genesis 1. The Hebrew word translated as “ark” in the story of Noah is used in one other place in Scripture-the story of Moses being placed in a basket or “ark” on the Nile River when his life was in danger from Pharaoh’s death edict against Hebrew boys. Here also God’s chosen man was saved from a watery death and carried safely in the ark through his providential care. The scope of the story could mot be more different-a tiny basket for one baby versus a giant ark for an entire family and a pair of every animal on earth-but the symbol of salvation and preservation is the same.
The presence of an ark in both of these stories is no coincidence. Noah and Moses have many similarities in terms of their significance to Israel. Each man stood at a turning point in Israel’s history and saved the nation from annihilation. They both fulfilled the covenant promise that God would protect Israel. In both of their stories, the ark served as a physical instrument of preservation and a symbol of salvation-a guarantee of the continuance of the nation of Israel at a time when all hope seemed to be lost. But it was also a symbol of the possibility of salvation, God’s intent to save sinful humankind even as he executes judgment against civilizations that are opposed to him.
In the New Testament, Peter further emphasizes the ark as a symbol of salvation when he draws a parallel between the flood of Noah’s day and the waters of baptism: “They are like those who disobeyed long ago in the days of Noah when God waited patiently while Noah built the ship. In this ship a few people-eight in all-were saved by water. Baptism, which is like that water, now saves you” (1 Pet 3:20-21). Believes are saved from death and given new life just like Noah and his family, and later Moses, were saved from death and birthed a new era in Israel’s history. But they had to go through the water. The water that signified judgment in Noah’s day has been transformed through the work of Jesus into the waters of death, cleansing, and resurrection as believers are reconciled to God and declared righteous before him. In all these cases God in his mercy reaches down and rescues believers from death and they are reborn (John 3:5). The ark is a sign of the salvation from death and rebirth to new life that is the gospel.
The Ark of the Covenant
The ark of the covenant was the most sacred possession of the Israelites, built at the same time as the tabernacle. It was a box about 45 by 27 by 27 inches in size, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. On each corner was a gold ring, and through these rings poles were placed for carrying. Inside the ark of the covenant were the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments, a golden pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod. These were all reminders of God’s covenant with Israel and his faithfulness to them. The most important feature of the ark of the covenant was the mercy-seat, which was a piece of gold that sat on top of the ark, resting between two gold statues of cherubim that faced each other with outstretched wings. Each year on the Day of Atonement, the blood of a sacrificial animal was smeared on the “throne of mercy” as a sign of God’s mercy to forgive sin. This “throne of mercy” was the symbolic throne of God, indicating that he lived among his people (Lev 16:2; Num 7:89).
The sacred ark of the covenant was a symbol of God’s mercy-mercy to live among his people and mercy to forgive their sin. Each time they moved camp during the wilderness wanderings, God led them with the tangible symbol of the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant is a visible sign of the truth that God mercifully comes to his people, forgiving and guiding them in their daily life on earth, and leading them safely to the Promise Land.
(The A to Z guide to Bible Signs & Symbols: Pg 18, Ark)