Does Hebrews 9:4 contradict 1 Kings 8:9? What, exactly, was in the Ark of the Covenant?


We know that the Bible does not contradict itself, as God’s Word cannot be broken (John 10:35). When we come across a seeming contradiction, it is only because of a misunderstanding of certain passages, or because of an inaccurate or misleading translation.

In Hebrews 9:4 we read regarding the ark of the covenant or Testimony, that “in [it] were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant…”

However, in 1 Kings 8:9, we read: “There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone which Moses put there at Horeb…”

Several explanations are possible which would shed light on these passages, without attempting to create a contradiction.

Some refer to Exodus 16:32-34, saying that a pot with an omer of manna was laid up before the Testimony or the ark of the covenant, and they also refer to Numbers 17:10, stating that Aaron’s rod was placed before the Testimony. In addition, they point at Deuteronomy 31:26, which says that the Book of the Law was to be put “beside” the ark of the covenant (the Authorized Version says, “in the side of”).  The explanation goes on to say that the Book of the Law, as well as the manna and Aaron’s rod, were not “in” the ark of the covenant, but “before” or “beside” it.

In that context, Hebrews 9:4 is understood as not stating that the manna and Aaron’s rod were “in” the ark of the covenant or Testimony. It is pointed out that the Greek word for “in” in Hebrews 9:4 literally means, “at which place,” describing the “same location.” The conclusion is that the manna and Aaron’s rod, as well as the Book of the Law of Moses, were kept before or by the side of the ark of the covenant; they were in the same location or the same place as the ark, but they were not in it.

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible states the following:

“… how this pot [with manna], as well as Aaron’s rod, can be said to be in the ark, when it is asserted, at the bringing of the ark into the temple, at the dedication of it by Solomon, that there was nothing in it but two tables of stone, 1 Kings 8:9, and both the pot of ‘manna’, and Aaron’s rod, are said to be before the testimony, Exodus 16:34 and not in it, is a difficulty. Some… have taken notice, that the preposition [“in”] sometimes signifies ‘at’, or ‘with’, as in Colossians 3:1 and so the sense is, that these were near unto it in the most holy place, and might be in the sides of it, though not within it; for there were places in the sides of the ark to put things into, Deuteronomy 31:26. And certain it is from the above account from Scripture, that they were near it; and so, by the Jewish writers, they are always mentioned along with it: when that was carried away, and hid, they were hid with it…”

This has also been the explanation of the Personal Correspondence Department of the Worldwide Church of God, which wrote in a letter:

“The original Greek word translated ‘wherein’ in Hebrew 9:4 is hou. From Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible and other sources, we find that hou means ‘at which place.’ Hou is a general word which does not necessarily mean ‘wherein,’ ‘within,’ or ‘in.’ It simply means ‘in the same location as’… The book of the law, along with the pot of manna… and Aaron’s rod, was kept by the side of the ark, not in it. All of these items could properly be described as being hou–in the same place as—the ark.”

This is most certainly a valid and convincing explanation. But there is also another way of understanding the passages in question.

While concluding that the manna and Aaron’s rod were not in the ark, the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary discusses the following two possibilities:

“In 1Ki 8:9; 2Ch 5:10, it is said there was nothing in the ark of Solomon’s temple save the two stone tables of the law put in by Moses. But the expression that there was nothing THEN therein save the two tables, leaves the inference to be drawn that formerly there were the other things mentioned by the Rabbis and by Paul here, the pot of manna (the memorial of God’s providential care of Israel) and the rod of Aaron, the memorial of the lawful priesthood (Nu 17:3, 5, 7, 10). The expressions ‘before the Lord’ (Ex 16:32), and ‘before the testimony’ (Nu 17:10) thus mean, ‘IN the ark.’ ‘In,’ however, may be used here (as the corresponding Hebrew word) as to things attached to the ark as appendages, as the book of the law was put ‘in the side of the ark,’ and so the golden jewels offered by the Philistines (1Sa 6:8).”

Others follow the rabbinical tradition that the pot of manna and the rod were inside the ark.

The commentary of Barnes’ Notes on the Bible writes regarding Hebrews 9:4:

“In 1 Kings 8:9, it is said that there was nothing in the ark, ‘save the two tables of stone which Moses put there at Horeb,’ and it has been supposed by some that the pot of manna and the rod of Aaron were not in the ark, but that they were in capsules, or ledges made on its sides for their safe keeping, and that this should be rendered ‘by the ark.’ But the apostle uses the same language respecting the pot of manna and the rod of Aaron which he does about the two tables of stone, and as they were certainly in the ark, the fair construction here is that the pot of manna and the rod of Aaron were in it also.

“The account in Exodus 16:32-34; Numbers 17:10, is, that they were laid up in the most holy place, ‘before the testimony,’ and there is no improbability whatever in the supposition that they were in the ark. Indeed, that would be the most safe place to keep them, as the tabernacle was often taken down and removed from place to place. It is clear from the passage in 1 Kings 8:9, that they were not in the ark in the temple, but there is no improbability in the supposition that before the temple was built they might have been removed from the ark and lost. When the ark was carried from place to place, or during its captivity by the Philistines, it is probable that they were lost, as we never hear of them afterward.”

J.H. Blunt, The Annotated Bible, agrees, offering these additional thoughts:

“It is expressly mentioned, in the account of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, that at that time ‘there was nothing in the ark save the two tablets of stone, which Moses put there at Horeb, when the Lord made a covenant with the children of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt [1 Kings viii. 9]. But this does not prove that the memorial pot of manna [Exod. xvi. 33,34] and the memorial rod [Numb. xvii. 10,11] were not in the ark at the time of which the apostle is writing, and Jewish commentators make the same statement as St. Paul respecting them. It rather expresses surprise that nothing was found there but the two tables, and that the priests had expected to find the manna and the rod of Aaron inside the ark.

“Probably both were taken out of it by ‘the men of Beth-shemesh’ when they ‘looked into the ark of the Lord’ while it was in captivity among the Philistines [1 Sam. vi. 19]. They were not of so sacred a character as the tables of the Law, and it may have been after their removal, and when the two tables were about to be removed also, that the men of Beth-shemesh were smitten.”

So, it is entirely possible that the pot with manna and Aaron’s rod were “near” or “beside” the ark of the covenant, but not in it, while it is also conceivable that they were in the ark at one time, but that they were subsequently removed, so that only the tables of stone were in the ark at the time when Solomon’s Temple was dedicated. In neither case would there be a contradiction between Hebrews 9:4 and 1 Kings 8:9.

Whatever the correct explanation, it is true that even in technical details, the Bible does not contradict itself, but we are called upon to search the Scriptures (Acts 17:11; Isaiah 34:16; Luke 24:27; and John 5:39 in the Authorized Version), “precept upon precept… Line upon line… Here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10), in order to grow in the understanding of the entire Word of God (2 Timothy 2:7; Matthew 4:4; 5:18). We are to study and get to know the Scriptures (compare Matthew 22:29), “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, Authorized Version).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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