How did the second temple work without the ark?


By BibleAsk Team

In the ancient Jewish tradition, the Ark of the Covenant held immense significance as it symbolized the presence of God among His people. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod, and a portion of manna, signifying God’s covenant with His people. The blood sprinkled on the Mercy Seat of the Ark during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, held profound ritual importance for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God.

However, following the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians, the Ark of the Covenant was absent, and its whereabouts remain a mystery to this day. When the Second Temple was constructed after the return of the exiled Jews to Jerusalem, the absence of the Ark posed a theological challenge regarding where the blood of atonement should be sprinkled during Yom Kippur rituals.

Yom Kippur and the Ritual of Atonement:

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, marked by fasting, prayer, and repentance. Central to the observance of Yom Kippur is the ritual performed by the High Priest in the Temple, wherein he enters the Holy of Holies and sprinkles blood on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant. This act symbolizes the atonement for the sins of the people and the restoration of their relationship with God.

The Absence of the Ark:

Upon learning of Queen Athaliah’s evil intentions to destroy the temple and cease its religious objects, the high priest with the other priests hid the Ark of the covenant to protect it. And in order to hide their deed, the priests continued their worship services as if nothing had happened. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies, and he was silent about the disappearance of the Ark and he sprinkled the blood of sacrifice before the Lord.

Thus, the sacrificial rituals continued as before, but without the presence of the Ark in Second Temple (Mishnh Yoma5:2). It is true that God’s presence dwelt between the two cherubims over the mercy seat (Exodus 25:17-22), where the blood was sprinkled by the High priest in the Holy of Holies (Exodus 25:17-22), but God’s presence was not only limited to the existence of the Ark in the temple. And when Jehoash captured the temple in 786 BC, he too acted wisely by not mentioning the Ark’s disappearance, to avoid religious consequences.

This secret continued until the time of Jeremiah who declared: “men shall no longer speak of the Ark of the Covenant, nor shall it come to mind. They shall not mention it, or miss it, or make another” (Jeremiah 3:16). Jeremiah predicted the coming of the time when God would set up His abode upon the earth. God’s real presence would make the symbol of His presence superseded. The prophet’s declaration that no Ark would be made in the future suggests that he knew of this secret and that the Ark was no longer in temple.

The Second Temple Period:

The temple in Jerusalem was captured first by the Babylonians (Nebuchadnezzar) in 597, 586 BC, and then later by the Romans in 70 AD.  Thus, the Ark was protected from destruction for it contained the only document on Earth that was ever written by the very finger of God (Exodus 31:18) – the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 10:4, 5).

During the Second Temple period, which lasted from approximately 516 BC to 70 C, the absence of the Ark presented a challenge to the continuation of Yom Kippur rituals. Without the Ark, there was no Mercy Seat upon which to sprinkle the blood of atonement as prescribed by the Mosaic Law.

Alternative Practices in the Second Temple:

In the absence of the Ark, Jewish tradition records various alternative practices that were instituted to address the absence of the Mercy Seat. While these practices may have differed among Jewish sects and communities, several possibilities have been suggested by scholars and rabbinic sources:

  1. Sprinkling Blood on the Floor: Some sources indicate that the High Priest may have sprinkled the blood of atonement directly onto the floor of the Holy of Holies in lieu of the Mercy Seat. This symbolic act would represent the desire for forgiveness and reconciliation with God in the absence of the Ark.
  2. Placement on a Rock: According to certain rabbinic traditions, a stone or rock may have been placed in the Holy of Holies to represent the absence of the Ark. The blood of atonement would then be sprinkled on this stone as a substitute for the Mercy Seat.
  3. Empty Space: Alternatively, some sources suggest that the High Priest may have entered the Holy of Holies and performed the rituals as prescribed, acknowledging the absence of the Ark and the Mercy Seat. This act would serve as a symbolic reminder of the longing for the restoration of the Ark and the renewal of God’s presence among His people.

Scriptural References:

While the Hebrew Bible provides detailed instructions for the construction and rituals of the Tabernacle, including the placement of the Ark and the sprinkling of blood on the Mercy Seat, it does not offer specific guidance for addressing the absence of the Ark during the Second Temple period.

However, the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament offers theological reflections on the significance of the Day of Atonement and the blood of Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. Hebrews 9:11-14 (NKJV) contrasts the earthly rituals of the High Priest with the heavenly reality fulfilled in Jesus Christ:

“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”


The absence of the Ark of the Covenant during the Second Temple period presented a theological challenge regarding the performance of Yom Kippur rituals and the sprinkling of blood for atonement. While specific details regarding alternative practices are not provided in the Hebrew Bible, various rabbinic traditions and scholarly interpretations suggest possible solutions, such as sprinkling blood on the floor or placing it on a symbolic rock.

Ultimately, the absence of the Ark during the Second Temple period underscores the transitional nature of Jewish religious practices and the longing for the restoration of God’s presence among His people. For Christians, the New Testament offers theological insights into the fulfillment of these rituals in the person of Jesus Christ, who is seen as the ultimate sacrifice for sin and the mediator in the heavenly temple of a new covenant between God and humanity.

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In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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