The blessed virgin and the ark

In a previous article, I covered the typology of Christ’s portrayal as the ‘new Moses’ leading a ‘new Exodus’ between the Old and New Testaments. Today, we’ll be analyzing Mary in a similar manner, demonstrating that the Ark of the Covenant is a prefigurement of the Blessed Virgin. For those unfamiliar with the Ark of the Covenant, it was the symbol of God’s real presence in the midst of His people following the Israelite Exodus out of Egypt. In chapter 40 of Exodus, instructions are given for the Ark, a wooden chest adorned in pure gold. Upon finishing its construction, the Israelites witness God’s presence visibly manifested through the Shekinah Glory (a visible manifestation of God, shekinah meaning “dwelling”):

"Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle."
 —Exodus 40:34-35

The phrases “that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8) and “there I will meet with you” (Ex. 25:22) further explain the purpose of the Ark. As Israel followed the Lord through the wilderness, the Ark of the Covenant marked their path as they set up makeshift tents for liturgical worship. Also, Joshua’s miracle of splitting the Jordan river using the Ark mirrors that of the Red Sea during the Exodus:

"Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan."
 —Joshua 3:17

From these verses, we can see that the Ark played a monumental role in Jewish history. Sadly, the Israelites grew rebellious against God and eventually lost the Ark in battle to the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:11), slowing their journey to the Promised Land. The Ark is only later recovered when Israel is led by a man after God’s own heart, King David. Pay close attention to these next couple verses about David discovering the Ark, as I will compare them with the Virgin Mary’s visit to Elizabeth:

"And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill." 
—2 Samuel 6:3

"In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth." 
—Luke 1:39

The house of Abinadab, (son of King Saul), was in Gibeah (a Hebrew word literally meaning “hill”), located in Judah (Joshua 15:57). Thus, both encounters with Elizabeth and David take place in the Judean hill country. Now this may seem like a minute detail, but it gets better with more typological verse pairings:

"As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart." 
—2 Samuel 6:16

"And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb." 
—Luke 1:41

Here, we see baby John the Baptist leap for joy in the womb in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary. David, likewise leaps and rejoices when he retrieves the Ark of the Old Covenant.

"And it was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” "
—2 Samuel 6:12

"She exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! ""
—Luke 1:42

Elizabeth pronounces a blessing because of the Blessed Virgin being in her company. Similarly, David pronounces a blessing as a result of the newly recovered Ark of the Covenant being in the midst of his people.

"And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?”" 
—2 Samuel 6:9

"And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" 
—Luke 1:43

Elizabeth considers herself unworthy that the mother of her Lord should be with her. Likewise, David counts himself unworthy to be in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant.

"And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”" 
—Luke 1:46

"“And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.”" 
—2 Samuel 6:5

Both Mary and David break out in song of praise. David does so with his lyre and other respective instruments, and Mary with her famous canticle, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

"And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household." 
—2 Samuel 6:11

"And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home." 
—Luke 1:56

Mary stays with Elizabeth in the Judean hill country for 3 months just as the Ark of the Covenant stays in the house of Obed-edom (located also in the Judean hill country) for three months.

"And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord [in the temple]." 
—Luke 2:22

"So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing." 
—2 Samuel 6:12

After Elizabeth and David’s celebrations, Mary and the Ark of the Old Covenant return back to their proper dwelling place, Jerusalem. Christ, who is God in human flesh, is presented by Mary for Mosaic rites in the temple, and God is presented in the Old Testament when the Ark is instituted in the temple: “The glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:11). 

Looking at these seven examples, I think it’s fair to say the detailed similarities between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant are no mere coincidence. Luke perhaps wanted those scrupulous of Scripture to pick up on this, and the Church Fathers most definitely did. Before I share some insightful quotes from the patristic era, let’s further uncover what connects Mary to Christ as the Ark of the Covenant. This can be realized by examining the contents of the Ark:

"The ark of the covenant [was] covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant." 
—Hebrews 9:4

The tablets of the covenant refer to the ten commandments (Deuteronomy 10:4), and the manna was the miraculous bread which came down from heaven to sustain the wandering Israelites in the wilderness. Aaron’s staff is a symbol of authority, a tool used by a shepherd to correct and guide his flock. These three items are of great importance when we realize how they serve as a type of the One who was to come. By viewing Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant, it makes sense that she contained within her Jesus the eternal Logos—the Word made flesh. The tablets of the covenant are the written Word of God and so point to Christ as the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17). Christ also refers to Himself as the manna which came down from heaven (John 6:51). Lastly, Christ declares that He is the Good Shepherd (John 10:14), donning Aaron’s staff metaphorically. 

After our textual analysis, it is no surprise that in the Apocalypse of St. John (or the book of Revelation), he talks of the Ark of the Covenant being revealed in the heavenly Jerusalem with a woman described in the proceeding verse, possessing a crown with twelve stars—which signify the twelve tribes of Israel—and giving birth to the Messiah (Revelation 12:5). Surely it is Mary:

"Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." 
—Revelation 11:19, 12:1

Overall, I think there is ample evidence to conclude that ancient Marian typology is rich and full of meaningful truths. Just as the glory of God overshadowed the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34), so God the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary:

"And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." 
—Luke 1:35

Check out these patristic quotes!

St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170- 236 AD):

At that time, the Savior coming from the Virgin, the Ark, brought forth His own Body into the world from that Ark, which was gilded with pure gold within by the Word, and without by the Holy Ghost; so that the truth was shown forth, and the Ark was manifested…And the Savior came into the world bearing the incorruptible Ark, that is to say His own body. —Blessed Virgin, p. 77

St. Jerome (c. 345-420 AD):

Behold one in truth, the handmaid of the Lord. Holy she is, in whom is no guile, all simplicity…The spouse of Christ is the ark of the covenant, within and without overlaid with gold, a keeper of the law of the Lord. As in the ark there was nothing but the tables of the Testament, so too in thee no one from outside should be thought of. Over this propitiatory, as though upon the Cherubim, the Lord is pleased to sit…The Apostle thus defines a virgin, that she should be holy in body and in spirit… —Blessed Virgin, p. 216

St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397 AD):

The prophet David danced before the Ark. Now what else should we say the Ark was but holy Mary? The Ark bore within it the tables of the Testament, but Mary bore the Heir of the same Testament itself. The former contained in it the Law, the latter the Gospel. The one had the voice of God, the other His Word. The Ark, indeed, was radiant within and without with the glitter of gold, but holy Mary shone within and without with the splendor of virginity. The one was adorned with earthly gold, the other with heavenly. —Blessed Virgin, p. 77

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