The Ark of the Covenant: Symbol of Triumph

Death is undoubtedly the most sobering element of life. Everyone at some time will have that shattering experience of learning that another life, pulsing like his own only hours before, has suddenly gone out.

And always it is unbelievable. How could life, the vitality of a human being—thought, communication, warmth, feeling, love, laughter—vanish so quickly and completely?

Yet death is real and must be accepted.

For Latter-day Saints, who know of God, heaven, and resurrection, death may have shock and sorrow, but not hopelessness. It is a temporary, not an eternal, loss. Yet, for many people, death carries no hope of salvation.

Years ago, I experienced vicariously the tragedy of feeling that death is the end. My absorption in daily routine was interrupted one day by the jolting news that a friend’s young son had been struck by an automobile and had suffered fatal brain damage. The child, the keenly intelligent, graceful child, would never again know consciousness.

I had experienced the death of persons close to me before, and I felt I was acquainted with all its hurts. But this experience opened to me new empathies to death’s toll, for the family was not Latter-day Saint, and the mother had ceased to believe in God.

We did all we could, with others, to comfort the family. But I was disturbed that the funeral service ended with a prayer devoid of hope—it was almost a rebuke to God.

After the burial, I passed by the car which bore the mother, and I will never forget her face nor the deep anguish which literally shook her body. My heart could not help but be drawn to her in greatest empathy. How could I help her understand that there was a God—a God who deeply cared and had prepared a way for life to come again where death now stood?

With fasting and prayer I prepared for my opportunity. And when it came I poured out to her my desire to help her know that she could again be united with her son. But although she was touched somewhat by the intensity of my plea, she told me in no uncertain language that to speak of the subject again would endanger our friendship. She had only one comforter—her music. As far as she was concerned, her son’s burial was the end of him. There was no more.

Because I had truly come to love this family, I was greatly distressed. But strangely, my sorrow for her became a blessing to me. For though she closed her eyes, mine were enlightened. Through my desire to help her know there was a resurrection, I became more sensitive to the multitudes of witnesses God had prepared to teach of it.

Perhaps the greatest irony in this experience with my friend was that she had given biblical names to her two sons. Though she considered Bible events only “stories,” she told me that she appreciated their beauty. I am always saddened when I reflect upon her comments about the Bible, for in those beautiful stories which she had learned from youth and later rejected lie some of the most powerful evidences of the resurrection she could have ever found.

Through reading the Book of Mormon, I have become aware of some of the deeper meanings of those biblical stories. And it is fitting that I should get them from that source, for the Book of Mormon, preserved for “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God” (title page), stands as a testimony of and a witness to the Bible (see Morm. 7:8–9).

The Book of Mormon has made me aware that besides being historically valid, many elements in the Bible have additional significance in that they are also foreshadowings or “types” of Christ. Nephi’s brother Jacob taught that “all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him [Jesus Christ]” (2 Ne. 11:4). And King Benjamin taught that the Lord showed “many signs, and wonders, and types, and shadows unto [his people] concerning his coming” (Mosiah 3:15).

While searching the Bible for the types and shadows spoken of by these and other Book of Mormon prophets, I found additional proofs of the validity of this kind of witness. The Lord says through Hosea of his methods for teaching truths, “I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets” (Hosea 12:10; italics added). In Hebrews, particularly chapters 7–10, Paul refers to “similitudes,” “shadows,” “patterns,” and to earthly things being figures or examples of spiritual and heavenly things. [Heb. 7–10]

Paul testified to the Corinthians that the Old Testament was deliberately written with a veil over it, or a cloud over one’s understanding, but that the “vail is done away in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:14). That is, the key to a true understanding of many things in the Old Testament lies in their veiled witnesses of Jesus Christ.

And so I searched the scriptures for the types and similitudes spoken of by these prophets. And as I found some of them, my testimony of the promise of resurrection from the dead was strengthened again and again—for these similitudes, I believe, witness of Christ’s victory over death and of his mission as Savior of mankind.

As I found many of these types and similitudes, I also discovered that many of the experiences of Old Testament and Book of Mormon peoples are very similar. And I saw a relationship between these experiences and the types, shadows, and similitudes used to convey them. I came to the conclusion that the Lord gave similar experiences to both branches of his peoples (although separated by time and geography) in order to teach them similar things about the mission of Jesus Christ. And I came to believe that the similarities in these experiences are so striking because of the Lord’s consistent use of types, shadows, and similitudes. He taught both branches of his people through the same methods.

Now for the specifics: One dominant similitude is the basis for many of the similarities found among scriptural events. Here is the basic pattern—a series of events in similitude of the resurrection:

(1) Culturally select groups of people (several in the Old Testament and two in the Book of Mormon) are called by God out of bondage or wickedness. (2) They are led through a wilderness where thirst and hunger are miraculously filled and guidance is miraculously given. (3) Each group is ultimately led to a “promised land.” (4) Before reaching that land, however, each must pass over a barrier of deep water in which lies the danger of death. (5) That barrier is overcome and the promised land reached through very special, significant preparations given by the hand of God.

This basic pattern is found, with variations, over and over in the scriptures to indicate how the Savior’s mission affects all of us, collectively and individually.

Alma in the Book of Mormon gives us the key to unraveling this great similitude. Teaching his son Helaman of the significance the Liahona played in his people’s journey to the promised land, Alma says, “And now I say, is there not a type [similitude] in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.” (Alma 37:45; italics added.)

In this analogy, Alma is comparing the wilderness, through which the Liahona guided Lehi’s family, with mortality—“this vale of sorrow.” And he compares the promised land with eternal life—“a far better land of promise.” And although he does not specifically say so, the barrier of waters which lies between the two must be physical and spiritual death, for death is the barrier between mortal life and eternal life that man cannot conquer—unless the Lord provide the way.

In each of the scriptural stories which follows this pattern, the methods by which man conquers each body of water (death) are very similar. In each case, the instrument of salvation is an ark, or something that represents such, which is specifically made after a pattern established by God. And this seems to be a detail of great significance—in each case the barrier is crossed because the ark is lifted up.

Now let’s examine these elements as they exist within specific scriptural events.

First, there was Noah’s ark, which was, in effect, an ark of covenant. (Through the ark, God’s covenant was fulfilled.) Most of the elements of the similitude are here. Noah and his family are trapped in a world of wickedness over which hangs judgment and death. To Noah is given these promises: an escape from that judgment, preservation of life, and inheritance of a newly cleansed land (therefore, a covenanted or promised land). The ark which fulfills the covenant is made after God’s pattern (see Gen. 6:14–16). Salvation comes because the ark lifts those it bears above the waters and carries them to their new land.

This insight is not new; Bible students from many different backgrounds have seen the ark as a symbol as well as a physical reality. Andrew Jukes, a prominent biblical scholar, says, “If there is a type in the Bible, the ark is surely a type—of Christ without doubt—but of Christ viewed dispensationally. Christ is the Ark, taking the chosen family from the world of judgment to the new heavens and the new earth.”

Here, then, we see a literal enactment of a great symbolic truth that affects all of us: just as God provided a means (the ark) for Noah’s family to escape the waters (death), and reach a glorious promised land, he has also provided a way for us to escape spiritual and physical death and attain a land of promise.

This same truth is again taught symbolically through another experience found in the Bible—the story of Joshua and the crossing of the Jordan River. Notice again the elements of the similitude: The Israelites have been freed from the bondage of wickedness and have been led through a wilderness where life is sustained again and again by miraculous means. Each miraculous deliverance (manna from heaven and water from a rock) foreshadows Christ’s role of deliverer unto his people. The Israelites have come at last to the brink of inheriting their covenanted land. But one barrier remains—the waters of the Jordan River.

Joshua is chosen and ordained to provide the way by which the people may cross. (It is interesting that the name Joshua is the Hebrew name for Jesus.)

The way over the waters is again accomplished by means of an ark—the sacred ark of the covenant, the ark which historically became the means of deliverance for the Israelite people. Like Noah’s ark, the ark of the covenant had been specifically made after God’s pattern (see Ex. 25:10–16).

The instant the feet of the priests carrying the ark enter the river, the waters part, dry land appears, and the children of Israel cross over to inherit their promised land (see Josh. 3:15–17).

There are other evidences of the spiritual significance of this event. Among other things, preserved within the ark of covenant was manna. Christ himself testified that manna was a witness of him (see John 6:31–33). The ark also bore the rod of Aaron, the same rod which, though cut off from a living tree, nevertheless in death budded, blossomed, and brought forth fruit (see Num. 17). It is this same rod which Moses used to help deliver his people from Egypt with great and powerful miracles. In fact, it was when this rod was lifted up over the Red Sea (see Ex. 14:16) that its waters parted, dry land appeared, and the Israelites crossed over—while the pursuing Egyptians found death in those same waters.

Now, this lifting up of the ark and the rod is significant. Helaman gave testimony that the “lifting up” of the brazen serpent on a rod by the children of Israel was a witness that Christ would be lifted up (see Hel. 8:14). Surely such parallels all exist for a reason.

Latter-day Saints, who are “buried” in waters of baptism, then “lifted up” (signifying resurrection or rebirth), should easily recognize such symbolism. The fact that Christ chose for his baptism (his symbolic death and resurrection) the waters of the Jordan River adds additional impact to the Israelites’ earlier experience there.

Let’s move to another cultural history—one found in the Book of Mormon—and see how the Lord applied major elements of the similitude in the story of another people.

Lehi and his people were also called out of a land steeped in the bondage of wickedness, over whom also hung prophecies of judgment and impending death. They, too, were led through a wilderness where they experienced hunger and thirst. For them, the Lord did not send manna, but the Liahona, a marvelous instrument of guidance which led the people to find nourishment for their hunger (see 1 Ne. 16:16–32).

Lehi’s people were also led to a promised land and also came to a great barrier of water. Their passage over those waters was also accomplished by an ark (ship) made after a specific pattern—“after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters” (1 Ne. 17:8; italics added).

The elements of this crossing are equally intriguing. Because of the iniquity of some of those on board, death in the waters became seemingly inevitable. But seeing death so near at hand, the guilty ones humbled themselves and released Nephi, whom they had bound. He in turn pled unto his Father in Heaven for salvation, and his prayers were granted: the compass (Liahona) began to work again, the storm died down, and they resumed their course to the promised land (see 1 Ne. 18:20–22).

When Alma sought to teach Helaman of the spiritual significance of these events, he referred to the Liahona but not to the ship. Yet, it seems to me that it was the Liahona and the ark together which accomplished the attainment of the promised land. The Liahona guided them and the ark carried them. In doing so, both represent Christ, just as several elements (the ark, Joshua, manna, the rod) typified Christ in the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan.

We find this great similitude in the history of still another culture—and it again serves as a reminder that Jesus Christ is the Savior of nations and individuals from death.

The Jaredites were also chosen, called out, from a people doomed to experience God’s wrath. They, too, were promised a choice land, were led through a wilderness, and were brought to a “great deep.” They, too, found that only through help from their God could they cross such a body of great waters. Note the central role of Christ as the one to do the saving:

“And behold, I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come” (Ether 2:25).

And so the Lord gave the brother of Jared specific instructions concerning the construction of their barges (see Ether 2:16), which the record compares to Noah’s ark (see Ether 6:7).

But like others also chosen and led, the Jaredites needed special instruments of guidance in addition to the barges. The brother of Jared therefore offered an earnest prayer: “Touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness … that we may have light while we shall cross the sea” (Ether 3:4).

In answer to that prayer, lighted stones were granted by the power of God. Remembering the previous parallels of biblical peoples and Nephi’s people, note how the Lord established the similitude for the Jaredites: “I am Jesus Christ, … In me shall all mankind have light, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name.” (Ether 3:14; italics added.)

In each of these instances, the scriptures emphasize that Noah’s ark, the ark of the covenant, Nephi’s ship, and Jared’s barges were made according to a pattern or instructions given by the Lord. Paul taught the Hebrews that the Israelite high priests and their instruments and methods of ministry served as “example[s] and shadow[s] of heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5)—that the Lord commanded Moses to make the tabernacle and the items of worship within it after a specific pattern so that they would witness of Jesus Christ, the true High Priest, and of his true sacrifice.

Similarly, the arks, also made after God’s pattern, working in unison with other instruments that typified Christ, foreshadowed Christ’s great mission. Through the process of “lifting up,” they bore the chosen, the believing, out of and over waters signifying death, to a land covenanted to the faithful by God, a land symbolizing eternal life.

In doing so, the arks fulfilled God’s covenant. They were the instruments of the “pass over.” In every case, their true pattern, “the pattern shewed to thee in the mount” (Heb. 8:5), was Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, the true ark of the covenant.

As I come to understand more and more the similitudes, types, and shadows given in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon, I am impressed with the unity of those testimonies and how they shed light upon each other. The more we understand that unity, the more we will comprehend how these books of scripture really are “one stick” in the hand of the Lord, united in powerful, similar witness of Jesus Christ and of his mission, written to help unbelievers believe, and believers to more fully appreciate.

Death is undoubtedly the most sobering element of life. Yet, for those who will prayerfully search, the Lord has provided many witnesses that he has made a covenant with mankind and fulfilled it—a covenant that out of unfathomable love and Sacrifice there will be an ark, waiting at that barrier of death, which will gently bear us over cold and empty darkness and bring us to inheritance of new life.

Illustrated by Michael Clane Graves

Scriptural events give us a pattern for an individual’s journey toward exaltation. The Lord begins by calling a special group out of bondage. He leads them through a wilderness, taking them over deep waters. The dangers of the journey are overcome with special help from the Lord, as represented by the Liahona typified above.

After passing over dangerous waters in a vessel ultimately provided by God, the people are brought to a promised land. In its eternal sense, the promised land is the celestial world the righteous will inherit.

Preserved in the ark of the covenant was the rod of Aaron. Though it had been cut off from its life-source, the rod nevertheless budded, blossomed, and brought forth fruit—just as we may after the death of our bodies.

In response to the prayer offered by the brother of Jared, the Lord stretched forth his finger, touching the stones and causing them to shine. That gesture taught the Jaredites the profound truth that the Lord would teach us all: “I am Jesus Christ. … In me shall all mankind have light.” [Ether 3:14]

Lenet Hadley Read, mother of five, is president of the Tulsa Oklahoma East Stake Relief Society.