Israel: Archaeologists Hunting the Ark of the Covenant Believe Ancient Relic May Have Held Pagan Gods

A view shows the West Bank Jewish settlement of Shiloh February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

Archaeologists tracing the origins of the Ark of the Covenant, a lost biblical chest that is said to contain ancient relics, believe it may have also carried pagan idols thousands of years old.

The team from Tel Aviv University and College de France have been excavating the town of Kiriath Jearim where the Old Testament states the ark containing the Ten Commandments was kept for 20 years before it arrived in Jerusalem, Haaretz reported.

Read More: Ancient Egypt: Secret Room Discovered in Great Pyramid by Archaeologists Armed With Lasers

While the excavators do not expect to find the ark itself in the ancient town, their discoveries have cast new light on the religious practices of the Israelites before the arrival of monotheism in the holy land, supporting a number of theories about the ark suggested in the Bible.

The Old Testament states that the ark was recovered by the Israelites after it was lost in battle with the Philistines. Following divine intervention it was returned and kept at Kiriath Jearim before being moved to King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. It was then lost after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem.

The archaeologists have uncovered a huge retaining wall at Kiriath Jearim which, judging from the pottery shards that surround it, dates from the 8th or 7th century B.C. The terrace that would have sat above the wall, according to contemporary architectural styles, could have supported one of the most important cultic centers in Israel, with a temple that would have rivaled the Temple in Jerusalem.

"It is possible that the ark stayed much longer at Kiriath Jearim, and it was only Josiah who brought it to Jerusalem when he wanted to centralize all cultic and political activity there, and his scribes justified it by writing the story about David taking the ark," Professor Thomas Römer, an expert in Hebrew at the College de France explains.

It now seems possible that before its arrival in Jerusalem, the ark was associated with religious practices far removed from Judaism.

Early Israelites from the 8th and 7th century B.C. worshipped Canaanite gods like Baal and El. Baal, who was worshipped as a bull statue, lends his name to the alternative title for Kiriath Jearim: Kiriath Ball. Contemporary evidence from around the Middle East shows that polytheist nomads like the Israelites prior to monotheism were likely to carry their idols in boxes like the ark.

Israel Finkelstein from Tel Aviv University, who conducted digs in the 1980s at Shiloh, north of Jerusalem as well as the ongoing Kiriath Jearim excavations, has said he is less interested in the narrative of the ark than what the findings can reveal about life 2,600 years ago. "I want to know what's behind it, what it tells us about the history of Judah and Israel, of the cult of the God of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem," he said.