Is the Ark of the Covenant a Type of Mary?
It is not uncommon today to find Roman Catholic authors and apologists speaking of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the ark of the new covenant. According to this view, the ark of the old covenant is a type of Mary, and Mary is the antitype. All of this is tied to Roman Catholic Mariology.
The Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of Mary begins with a true biblical assertion: Mary is the Mother of Jesus who is God-incarnate. In other words, they begin with the doctrine of the deity of Christ. From that point on, however, Rome proceeds to build faulty inference upon faulty inference regarding Mary until we reach a point where, without a shred of positive biblical evidence and contrary to a mountain of other biblical evidence, Mary is said to be free from original sin, free from personal sin, assisting in Christ’s work of redemption, assumed bodily into heaven to become the Queen of heaven, Mediatrix of all graces, our intercessor with her Son, and the recipient of prayer and hyperdulia (worship in all but name). The claim that the ark of the covenant is a type of Mary is an attempt to provide some semblance of biblical support to this doctrine.
What is Typology?
In order to evaluate the Roman Catholic claim concerning the ark as a type of Mary, we must first have some understanding of typology. That, in itself, is a complicated question. As G.K. Beale, notes, typology has been one of the most hotly debated issues in biblical studies in the last century (Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 13).
The early twentieth-century Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof provides a fairly standard explanation from his era. In his Principles of Biblical Interpretation, he quotes Milton Terry’s definition, explaining that typology is “the preordained representative relation which certain persons, events, and institutions of the Old Testament bear to corresponding persons, events, and institutions in the New” (p. 145). Berkhof goes on to explain that types generally have three characteristics:
“There must be some notable real point of resemblance between a type and its antitype.”
“The type must be designed by divine appointment to bear a likeness to the anti-type. Accidental similarity between an Old and New Testament person, or event does not constitute the one a type of the other.”
“A type always prefigures something future” (p. 145).
More recently, Beale has defined typology as “the study of analogical correspondences among revealed truths about persons, events, institutions, and other things within the historical framework of God’s special revelation, which, from a retrospective view, are of a prophetic nature and are escalated in their meaning” (Handbook, p. 14).
A book on the subject published in 2022 by James M. Hamilton, Jr. provides a definition very similar to that of Beale. Hamilton defines typology as follows: “Typology is a God-ordained, author-intended historical correspondence and escalation in significance between people, events, and institutions across the Bible’s redemptive-historical story (i.e., in covenantal context)” (Typology, p. 26).
The Bible uses terms such as “type” (Rom. 5:14), “shadow” (Col. 2:17), “copy” (Heb. 8:5), and “sign” (Matt. 12:39) to indicate the phenomenon of typology. One clear example of typology is the Old Testament sacrificial system involving the priesthood, the temple, and the sacrificial animals. All of it pointed to forward to Christ who is our High Priest, the Lamb of God, and the true Temple.
What is the Roman Catholic Case for the Ark as a Type of Mary?
The case for the Roman Catholic claim about the ark is built upon a handful of alleged points of similarity between Mary and the ark.
First, Roman Catholics will observe that the Shekinah glory cloud covered or overshadowed the ark upon its completion. The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People explains it as follows:
"The Virgin Mary is the living shrine of the Word of God, the Ark of the New and Eternal Covenant. In fact, Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation of the angel to Mary nicely incorporates the images of the tent of meeting with God in Sinai and of the Temple of Zion. Just as the cloud covered the people of God marching in the desert (cf. Nm 10:34; Dt 33:12; Ps 91:4) and just as the same cloud, as a sign of the divine mystery present in the midst of Israel, hovered over the Ark of the Covenant (cf. Ex 40:35), so now the shadow of the Most High envelops and penetrates the tabernacle of the new covenant that is the womb of Mary (cf. Lk 1:35)" (The Shrine, § 18).
A second alleged point of similarity is the fact that David leapt and danced for joy in the presence of the ark (2 Sam. 6:14) and John the Baptist leapt in the womb of Elizabeth when in the presence of Mary (Luke 1:39–45).
A third point of alleged similarity is connected to the items contained in the ark of the covenant.: the tablets on which the law (God’s word) was written, the manna, and Aaron’s rod. In Mary’s womb was Jesus who is the Word made flesh, the Bread of Life, and the true priest.
A fourth connection is made based on a particular interpretation of Revelation 12. At the end of Revelation 11, we read of the seventh trumpet. After the twenty-four elders worship God, we read: “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” (v. 19). Roman Catholic theologians argue that the next thing John sees is a vision of Mary. The vision is described in Revelation 12:
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. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (12:1–6).
Because John sees this vision immediately after talking about a vision of the ark of the covenant in heaven, Roman Catholics will identify the woman in the vision with the ark. And because they argue that the woman in the vision is Mary, Mary is the ark.
How Does the Bible Speak of the Ark of the Covenant?
Before evaluating the four alleged points of similarity, it will be useful to take a look at the biblical testimony concerning the ark of the covenant. This is an important first step because as Berkhof noted, “Accidental similarity between an Old and New Testament person, or event does not constitute the one a type of the other.” After an examination of the biblical doctrine concerning the ark, it will be evident that the Roman Catholic case rests entirely on “accidental similarities.”
The ark of the covenant must be understood in connection with the Old Testament tabernacle. The tabernacle was the place where God dwelt in the midst of His people Israel. It is referred to as “the tent of the Lord” (Exod. 25:9). It is God’s dwelling place.
The instructions God gave to Moses for the construction of the tabernacle are found in Exodus 25–31. In other words, they were given while the people were still at Mt. Sinai. Significantly, language used to describe God’s presence at Sinai is also used to describe God’s presence in the tabernacle.
In Exodus 19:3, for example, we read: “while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel.” In Leviticus 1:1–2, we read: “The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them . . .”
In Exodus 24:15–16, we read: “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days . . .” Compare this to Exodus 40:34: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”
The point, as we will see, is that whereas Sinai was the place where Moses and the people met with God for a temporary period, the tabernacle will now take over that function as Israel proceeds toward the promised land.
It is important to observe that after some introductory instructions about the collection to be taken from the people (Exod. 25:1–9), the very first item mentioned in the instructions for the tabernacle is the ark of the covenant (25:10–22). The ark is the focal point within the tabernacle. It is central to the primary nature and purposes of the tabernacle. But what are those purposes of the tabernacle:
First, as we have already seen, the tabernacle is the place where God dwells with His people. In Exodus 25:8, God says, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” It is God’s “house” (Psalm 84:1–4). But it is important to note that within the tabernacle, God’s presence is even more specifically connected to the ark of the covenant (Exod. 25:22; 30:6; Lev. 16:2; Num. 7:89)
Second, the ark within the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle is the place where Moses meets with God and receives divine revelation. In Exodus 25:22, God tells Moses, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.”
Third, the tabernacle is the place where the priests offer sacrifices and where atonement is made for the people of God (Exod. 29:38–43; 30:7–10; Lev. 1–7, 16). This is specifically tied to the ark of the covenant in the laws concerning the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:11–17).
The ark of the covenant is located in the innermost part of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies. The instructions for the tabernacle indicate that it is to be a tent divided into two parts and surrounded by a larger uncovered courtyard. In the courtyard there is a bronze altar and a bronze basin. The outer chamber of the tabernacle proper is the Holy Place. It contains the altar of incense, the golden lampstand, and the table for the bread of the presence. The innermost chamber, the Holiest Place contains only the ark of the covenant.
The ark itself is a box made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. It was a little over three and a half feet long and a little over two feet wide and two feet high. The lid of the box, also called the Mercy Seat, was also overlaid with gold and in addition had two cherubim, one on each end facing each other. Rings were placed at each corner of the ark in order that it could be carried with poles as the people moved toward the Promised Land.
If we peruse those biblical passages which speak of the ark, its nature becomes abundantly evident:
Exodus 25:22 --- There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.
God tells Moses that He will meet with him and speak with him from a very specific location – above the mercy seat between the two cherubim that are on the ark.
Exodus 30:6 --- And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony, where I will meet with you.
The Mercy Seat is again identified as the place of God’s special presence where He will meet with Moses.
Leviticus 16:2 --- and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.
Again, the Mercy Seat is identified as the place where God is present. Added here is the idea that God will appear in a cloud over the Mercy Seat.
Leviticus 16:11–17 --- “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel.
As part of the sacrificial requirements on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest is to sprinkle blood on the Mercy Seat and before the Mercy Seat. Why there? Because that is where God is present. Sacrifices are offered to God at the place where He dwells in His glory.
Numbers 7:89 --- And when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the LORD, he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and it spoke to him.
The space between the two cherubim on the Mercy Seat is the location where Moses hears the voice of God. It is the place of God’s presence and no one else's
Numbers 10:33–36 --- So they set out from the mount of the LORD three days’ journey. And the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting place for them. And the cloud of the LORD was over them by day, whenever they set out from the camp. And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Arise, O LORD, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.” And when it rested, he said, “Return, O LORD, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.”
Here the movement of the ark is directly associated with God going before His people as the Divine Warrior.
Joshua 6:4 --- Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets.
The story of the ark being carried around Jericho again points to the connection between the ark and God as the Divine Warrior.
1 Samuel 4:4 --- So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
God’s presence above the Mercy Seat between the two cherubim is here spoken of in terms of God’s throne. This language will become more common as we proceed through Scripture.
1 Samuel 4:21–22 --- And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
The association between the ark and God is here clearly illustrated in the name Eli’s daughter-in-law gives her son after the ark is captured. Ther ark has departed, thus the glory has departed.
2 Samuel 6:2 --- And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim.
Again, we see the ark associated with the throne of God.
2 Kings 19:15 --- And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD and said: “O LORD, the God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.
1 Chronicles 13:6 --- And David and all Israel went up to Baalah, that is, to Kiriath-jearim that belongs to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD who sits enthroned above the cherubim.
Psalm 80:1 --- Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth.
Psalm 99:1 --- The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
Isaiah 37:16 --- “O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.
All of these passages connect the Mercy Seat on the ark with the place where God is enthroned.
Hebrews 9:1–5 --- Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant 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. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
Hebrews 9 is enormously important for our understanding of the ark and the tabernacle/temple. Hebrews indicates that the earthly tabernacle and all within it (including the ark) is an earthly copy of the heavenly tabernacle. This is spelled out more clearly later in this chapter.
Hebrews 9:23–24 --- Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
The earthly tabernacle is a copy of heavenly things.
Hebrews 8:5 --- They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”
That was always their purpose.
Revelation 11:19 --- 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.
In Revelation 11, John sees a vision of the heavenly temple and ark.
What, then, are the major things we discover when we look at what the Bible says about the ark of the covenant? First, the ark was the place of God’s presence in the tabernacle and Temple, the place where God would meet Moses, the place from which God spoke, the location of the glory cloud of God. Second, the ark was the throne or the footstool of the throne of God. God sits enthroned upon the cherubim. Third, the ark was a key element in the Day of Atonement – the heart of Israel’s entire life. Finally, all of the Old Testament revelation about the ark and the tabernacle pointed to the heavenly reality and the work of Jesus.
In short, in every instance, the ark and the Mercy Seat are exclusively associated with God and His presence. It is His throne, His place of meeting, His place of speaking, His place of atonement.
Is the Roman Catholic Argument Plausible?
It should be evident already that the alleged points of similarity between the ark of the covenant and Mary are nothing more than accidental similarities and that the Roman Catholic argument ignores an abundance of clear testimony about what the ark is and what it represents. With all of this in mind, let us examine the arguments for the Roman Catholic case.
The first alleged point of similarity is the glory cloud “overshadowing” the ark and the Spirit overshadowing Mary in connection with the miraculous conception of Jesus. The word translated “will overshadow” in Luke 1:35 is certainly used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in connection with the Shekinah cloud resting on the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34–35; Num. 9:18), but that is not the only thing overshadowed by God in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 4:5, the glory covers Mount Zion. In Numbers 10:34, the glory cloud covers the people of Israel. In Deuteronomy 33:12, it is said of Benjamin. The language is also used to describe God’s protective presence (Psalm 91:4). Later in Luke, the glory cloud of God overshadows the disciples at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:34). There is too much diversity in usage to point to a definitive connection between the ark and Mary.
The second alleged point of alleged similarity is the fact that David jumped and danced for joy in the presence of the ark (2 Sam. 6:14) and John the Baptist jumped in the womb of Elizabeth when in the presence of Mary (Luke 1:39–45). This is probably the most obvious stretch of the imagination among the four alleged points of similarity because of the way it chooses one minor event in the history of the ark while neglecting a host of others. In its history the ark was involved in a lot of events. It was carried before the people by the priests toward the promised land. It was held in the middle of the Jordan River while the people crossed on dry ground. It was carried around Jericho seven times. It was captured by the Philistines and placed in the temple of Dagon. It was brought back to Israel. Uzzah died when he touched it. And so on. One event out of hundreds is the very definition of an accidental similarity. It’s superficial. David was leaping and dancing before the Lord, but Miriam danced after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20). After David killed Goliath, the women danced (1 Sam. 18:6). The people of God are called to praise the Lord with dancing in Psalm 149:3. Dancing in the Old Testament is a form of joyous celebration. Furthermore, John the Baptist leaped in the womb. He isn’t said to have been dancing in the womb. And the leaping was due to the fact that he was in the presence of His Lord. This is a superficial similarity, if that much.
The third point of alleged similarity is connected to the items contained in the ark of the covenant: the tablets on which the law (God’s word) was written, the manna, and Aaron’s rod. In Mary’s womb was Jesus who is the Word made flesh, the Bread of Life, and the true priest. This is all rather beside the point, however, given that everything in the tabernacle and temple, including the building itself, the furnishings, the priests, and the sacrifices all point to Christ. We cannot limit the similarities merely to the items contained in the ark. And if everything connected with the tabernacle is a type of Christ, then why not say the high priest’s clothing is a type of Mary since that clothing contained the high priest and Mary “contained” the true High Priest? We could do the same with everything associated with the tabernacle. We could also raise all kinds of pointless questions if we pursued this method of hermeneutics consistently. If the ark is Mary because the ark "contains" the Word, the Bread, and Aaron’s rod and Mary “contains” Jesus, then what do we do with the fact that Jesus is the true temple and the temple contains the ark? Obviously, Jesus isn’t the mother of Mary, but that’s the kind of nonsense this type of hermeneutical pareidolia leads to.
Finally, what about the heavenly ark seen in Revelation 11 and the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12? The first and most important point is that regardless of how one interprets the woman in Revelation 12, that woman is not identified as the ark John sees in Revelation 11. The Roman Catholic authors I have read on this subject seem to assume that because John sees the ark in heaven and then sees the sign in heaven, the woman clothed with the sun, the two must therefore be the same. But that hardly makes any sense in terms of the way Revelation is written and in terms of the immediate context. Throughout Revelation, we repeatedly see the words “Then I saw . . .” John sees one vision after another numerous times. That doesn’t mean that all the visions signify the same thing as the immediately preceding vision. Furthermore, in the immediate context, John sees something between his vision of the heavenly ark and his vision of the woman. He sees and hears flashings of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. The very next thing he sees is a great sign in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun. Following the hermeneutical principles laid down by innumerable Roman Catholic apologists, it would appear that we should be saying that thunder, lightning, earthquakes, and hail are types of Mary.
Even worse, what does John see immediately after seeing the woman clothed with the sun? He sees a great red dragon. Does that mean the great red dragon is the woman clothed with the sun? If things John sees immediately after seeing something else are identical, then the answer would have to be yes.
Although a secondary point, it is also highly doubtful that the woman described in Revelation 12 is meant to be identified specifically with Mary. John is using a multitude of Old Testament images and associations to paint this apocalyptic picture. The language of the sun and the moon alludes back to Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37:9, which would associate the woman in some ways with Israel. The language in Revelation 12 about the woman’s travail in giving birth to a son echoes the language of Isaiah 66:7–9, which describes Zion’s travail in giving birth to a son. It is well known that the Old Testament often speaks of Israel as God’s bride (e.g. Jer. 31:32; Isa. 54:5; Hosea). In the New Testament, Paul says that Jerusalem above is our mother (Gal. 4:26). The maternal imagery connected to Israel, Zion, and Jerusalem is relevant to our understanding of Revelation 12.
Even more significantly, Revelation 12 also points all the way back to the promise made to Eve in Genesis 3:15. God promised that she would have a son who would crush the head of the serpent. Revelation 12 describes the birth of a son and then immediately brings in a vision of the great red dragon, a serpent figure. In fact, in Revelation 12:7–17, we read of the defeat of the great red dragon, and he is specifically called “that ancient serpent” (v. 9). Revelation 12 is primarily an apocalyptic description of the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15. The Son who defeats the serpent is Jesus, of course, but the imagery used to describe the woman who gives birth to this son, stretches all the way back to Eve and her seed.
In connection with the Roman Catholic interpretation of the ark as a type of Mary, it is important to understand what happens practically when Roman Catholics believe this. The photo below is a picture of something found in a Roman Catholic Church (I believe this one was taken in a church in Chicago).
If you don't know what this is, allow me to explain. It is what the Old Testament would refer to as an abomination. It is a replica of the ark of the covenant with a statue of Mary placed on the Mercy Seat between the cherubim. Let me repeat that. Mary is on the Mercy Seat between the cherubim. Mary is in the place that exclusively belongs to God.
If you prefer your idolatry on a smaller scale, you can always purchase it for your home.
Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the Bible and the passages we just explored will immediately recognize this for what it is. It is blasphemy. Roman Catholics and those impacted by Roman Catholic hermeneutics, on the other hand, will try to find ways to justify this abomination. Your reaction to these photos is actually a good litmus test. If you are in any way sympathetic to it to them, you need to immediately repent.
Over the centuries Roman Catholicism has effectively elevated Mary to the position of a goddess, thereby introducing a kind of polytheistic paganism and idolatry into the Church. The claim that the ark of the covenant is a type of Mary is one plank in that case because Roman Catholics know that the Bible associates the ark exclusively with God's presence. If it can be tied to Mary, then in their minds the elevation of Mary to a quasi-divine position can be justified. There are, however, insurmountable problems with the argument. It is based on a faulty understanding of typology that allows a handful of superficial similarities to suffice as proof. It ignores the exclusive nature and purpose of the ark of the covenant. It ignores what Hebrews 9 says about the true antitype of the earthly ark. And it leads in practice to the kinds of abominations and blasphemy seen in that replica of the ark found in a Roman Catholic church.