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03.06.2019 10:42    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  bamidbar  

The Poles of the Ark

This week's reading describes the procedure for transporting the Tabernacle and its furnishings. The sons of Kehath were to carry the sacred furnishings, but Aaron and his sons were commanded to cover these furnishings before the sons of Kohath approached. The process for covering the Ark of the Pact is described thus:

At the breaking of camp, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the screening curtain and cover the Ark of the Pact with it. They shall lay a covering of dolphin skin over it and spread a cloth of pure blue on top; and they shall put its poles in place (Num. 4:5-6).

The poles of the ark were the rods by means of which the ark was carried.[1] The poles were slid into golden rings situated on the four sides of the ark, that is, its feet (Ex. 25:12-14; 37:3-5). The last words here, "they shall put its poles in place," seem to imply that usually, before preparing for transport, the poles of the ark were not connected to it. This appears to contradict another directive found in Exodus: "The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it" (Ex. 25:15).

The directive in Exodus is consonant with another tradition, according to which the poles of the ark remained on it even after it was placed in the House of the Lord in Jerusalem: "The poles projected so that the ends of the poles were visible in the sanctuary in front of the Shrine, but they could not be seen outside; and there they remain to this day" (I Kings 8:8, II Chron. 5:9). But if the poles of the ark were always on it, how could they have been "put in place," as directed in this week's reading?

This contradiction greatly troubled Medieval Jewish commentators, who proposed a wide variety of solutions.[2]

1. Rashi explained that the ark had two long poles, each of them slipped through two rings and protruding on both sides of the ark. Since "their ends were thick" the poles could not come out of the rings, but they could slide back and forth within the rings. The meaning of "putting the poles in place" was that they were situated so that the poles protruded the same amount at either end and then fixed in place in this position.[3] Similar explanations were put forth by R. Elyakim bar Meshulam[4] and Nahmanides,[5] however it is difficult to understand precisely what they had in mind.[6]

2.  Rabbi Abraham son of Maimonides suggested that when at rest, each of the poles of the ark was dislodged from one of the rings, but remained inserted through the other ring; when being transported, the poles were reinserted through both rings.[7]

3.  Hizkuni (Rabbi Hizkiah bar Manoah) suggested that the instruction to "put its poles in place" meant that the rings be inserted in slits in the poles so that the ark not slide along the poles when going up or down an incline.[8]

4. Rabbi Meyuhas ben Eliyahu suggested that the directive meant that the poles of the ark were to be laid bare, after having been covered as stipulated in Numbers 5:5-6, so that the ark bearers could grab hold of them.[9]

5.  According to another suggestion, attributed to Rabbi Jacob of Orleans, "putting in place" meant that the poles were to be placed on the shoulders of the bearers of the ark.[10]

6.  According to an anonymous explanation, mentioned by Ibn Ezra, the ark had two sets of four rings, eight rings in all; and the directive in Numbers meant that the poles were to be transferred from one set of rings to the other. Thus, aside from the moment of transferring, the poles would always be in the rings, in accordance with Exodus 25:15.[11]

7.  Rabbi Joseph Caro suggested that the poles were actually removed when the ark was at rest, and that the instruction that "they shall not be removed from it" meant the poles should be affixed so that they not accidentally slip out when the ark was being transported.[12]

8.  Rabbi Joseph Bechor-Shor explained that the poles of the ark were never removed from it, and the instruction that the poles be put in place applied only to that one time.[13]

9.  Ibn Ezra suggested that the poles of the ark generally were not removed from it, but that the moment of disassembling the Tabernacle was an exception.[14]

10.  Rabbi Yeshaya di Trani went so far as to suggest that the ark not only had two sets of rings, but also two pairs of poles. One pair was never removed from the ark, in fulfillment of Exodus 25:15, and the other was removed when the ark came to rest, in fulfillment of Numbers 4:6.[15]

Here I would like to suggest a new way of reconciling these verses, based on what we know of the ancient Near East. First, a more fundamental issue must be clarified: How many poles did the ark have? Nowhere does the Torah tell us, but it is clear that the Medieval commentators and most Torah scholars in our day are of the opinion that the ark had two long poles, each one protruding at both ends. However, from the Torah itself one gets the impression that the ark had four poles; for the golden altar, which had only two rings, had "poles" in the plural (Ex. 30:4-5, 37:27-28). In other words, each ring itself held one pole. If so, the ark, which had four rings, would have to have had four poles. This conclusion is supported by the only extant chest from the ancient Near East which is equipped with rings holding carrying poles. This is a chest of reddish colored wood from the tomb of Tutankhamun, king of Egypt in the 14th century B.C.E. The chest had four short poles, each protruding on one side, one pole per corner.[16]

Taking a close look at the semantics and grammar of the Hebrew instruction, ve-samu badav (= they shall put its poles in place), we see that in all other instances where the verb la-sim, "to put," appears without an indirect object, in the chapters dealing with the Tabernacle, it does not mean "to insert," but rather has the broader sense of putting in place. All these instances are to be found in Exodus, chapter 40. In verse 8, the verb refers to the courtyard of the Tabernacle, and the verb "va-yakem" ("set up") parallels it in verse 33. In verse 18 this verb pertains to the planks, and in verse 21 to the curtain for screening. It follows from this analysis that the meaning of "ve-samu badav," is not that the poles were inserted, but rather, that they were arranged, or put in place, as indeed Rashi and others interpreted.

But what exactly was the nature of this "putting in place"? Let us return to the chest from Tutankhamun's tomb. The rods for carrying this chest were connected to it in an interesting fashion: they could be extended or retracted. In other words, when the box was at rest the rods could be slid in towards the space between the underside of the box and the bottom of its feet, with the rods still being held by the rings, so that the rods would not be in the way of passersby. When preparing the box to be carried, the rods could be pulled outwards, still through the rings, so that the bearers could grab hold of them.

If that was the customary way of building chests of this sort, then there is no contradiction between Exodus 25:15 and Numbers 4:6. In accordance with the directive in the first verse, the poles of the ark indeed remained through the rings on the ark and were never removed. The instruction to "put its poles in place" in the second verse meant that the poles were to be extended, while still being held by the rings, so that it would be possible to carry the ark. This also explains why when it comes to the table and altars no similar requirement was made, stipulating that the poles remain in place as on the ark. Such an arrangement was feasible only with chests, because they were built in a manner that made it possible for the poles for carrying to be concealed and remain connected, since the feet formed a narrow, low space between the underside and the ground. Therefore, only in the case of the ark would such a requirement suit the general goal of an aesthetic Tabernacle, while the poles of the table and the altars, so it seems, had to be dismantled and stored elsewhere.

This brief investigation illustrates how familiarity with the material culture of the ancient Near East can help solve difficulties in interpretation of the Bible.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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