As the Israelites wander in the wilderness en route from Egypt to Canaan, the tabernacle serves as a portable “sanctuary”, the dwelling place of the divine presence (Exodus 25:8). God meticulously outlines the plans for its furnishings (Exodus 25:10-40). The inventory begins with its most famous piece, the ark of the covenant (or testimony) (Exodus 25:10-22).
“They shall construct an ark of acacia wood two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high. (Exodus 25:10 NASB)The ark of the covenant is a box containing the tablets or tables of the Law a.k.a. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:16). It is a holy treasure chest.
Waldemar Janzen (b. 1932) defines:
The word ark (’aron) is used once in the sense of coffin (of Joseph; Genesis 50:26) and a few times with the meaning money box (as in II Kings 12:10; II Chronicles 24:8). However, of its 193 occurrences in the Old Testament, 184 refer to the ark of the covenant, as in our present context. (Janzen, Exodus (Believers Church Bible Commentary), 338)Philip Graham Ryken (b. 1966) clarifies:
Sometimes the ark of the covenant is compared to Noah’s ark (Genesis 6:14), or even to the little ark or basket that saved baby Moses from drowning (Exodus 2:3). However, the Hebrew word used in these passages is not the one used here; there is no linguistic connection. (Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Preaching the Word), 815-16)The ark’s dimensions are defined precisely (Exodus 25:10-16). James K. Bruckner (b. 1957) describes:
The ark measured two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. A “cubit” (“forearm”) was the distance from the elbow to the end of the middle finger. The ancient world used various measures, but the generally accepted length of a cubit was between seventeen and a half and eighteen inches. The ark was approximately forty-five inches by twenty-seven inches by twenty seven inches. The ratio between its length and width is five to three—close to what...has recently been termed the “golden ratio.” (Bruckner, Exodus (New International Biblical Commentary), 239-40)Though its ultimate fate is unknown, the holy object plays a prominent role in Israel’s history. Godfrey Ashby (b. 1930) chronicles:
The ark (Hebrew ’ărôn)...was carried about apart from the tabernacle at times and even taken into battle as a sort of mascot or palladium (I Samuel 4:1-11). Eventually, it was placed in the Jerusalem Temple by Solomon (I Kings 8:1-9). After this, there is no record of what happened to it. (Ashby, Exodus: Go Out and Meet God (International Theological Commentary, 121)God even specifies the lumber with which the ark will be constructed: acacia wood. The Hebrew term for this structural timber is shittîym. Most translations render the building material as “acacia wood” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, MSG, NASB, NIV, NJKV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) though the King James Version opts for the transliterated “shittim wood” (KJV).
Loren D. Crow (b. 1963) delineates:
It is almost certain that the word shittim (KJV) refers to common acacia, an evergreen tree that attains twenty to thirty feet in height. Its branches are long and spindly, ending in yellow flowers. A member of the mimosa family, its wood is excellent for building (Exodus 26:15). (Watson E. Mills [b. 1939], “Plants of the Bible”, The Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 694)Hans Arne Jensen (b. 1936) bolsters:
Translation of the Hebrew word shittah as ‘acacia wood’ is supported by the fact that the Arabic plant name sunt, a linguistic equivalent of the Hebrew shittah, designates certain species of acacia in Egypt, Arabia and southern Israel (Michael Zohary [1898-1983] 1982). (Jensen, Plant World of the Bible)Acacia wood is a close-grained hardwood that is darker and harder than oak. With the exception of the variety native to Australia the acacia features thorns. Egyptian mythology associated the acacia with the characteristics of the tree of life, as seen in the Myth of Osiris and Isis.
Wilma James (1905-1996) depicts:
The acacia tree reaches a height of 20 to 25 feet even in waste places, but is frequently shrubby in appearance. It has soft, feathery foliage and in early spring is covered with sprays of fragrant yellow blossoms which produce fruit capsules resembling a pea pod. The rough orange-brown bark encases a hard fine-grained, and insect-resistant wood. Along with these qualities and its presence on the desert, the acacia was ideal for a building material. (James, Gardening with Biblical Plants: Handbook for the Home Gardener, 6)Acacia wood is featured prominently in the construction of the tabernacle, also supplying its structure and furnishings (Exodus 25:10, 13, 23, 29, 26:15, 26, 32, 37, 27:1, 6, 30:1, 5, 35:7, 24, 36:20, 31, 36; 37:1, 4, 10, 15, 25, 28, 38:1, 6).
Nahum M. Sarna (1923-2005) analyzes:
Other than in Isaiah 41:19, Hebrew shittim always refers to the timbers used in the construction of the Tabernacle and the appurtenances. A few biblical place-names testify to the presence of acacia groves in the region of the Land of Israel. There are about eight hundred different species of acacias, but only a few have an upright trunk suitable for cutting timbers for construction. These yield very hard, durable, but lightweight planks. The Hebrew shittah may well be an Egyptian loan word. (Sarna, Exodus (The JPS Torah Commentary), 158)Victor P. Hamilton (b. 1941) annotates:
The Septuagint translates “acacia wood” (‘āsê šittim) as “decay-resistant wood” (xula asēpta). Perhaps acacia wood is the equivalent of California redwood. In ancient Egypt it was considered a holy tree. A number of sites in the Bible have this tree as part of their name: Shittim (Numbers 25:1; Joshua 2:1, 3:1); Abel Shittim (Numbers 33:49); Beth Shittah (Judges 7:22); Nahal Hashshittim (NIV, “the valley of acacias”) in Joel 3:18. (Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary, 455)Allan A. Swenson (b. 1933) locates:
Acacia trees are common in some areas of the Sinai, especially Acacia seyal. This species and another, A. tortilis, are, botanists agree, the acacia trees that are most likely meant in these many passages in the Bible. From the Dead Sea area southward, acacias can be found in abundance. They favor ravines and wadis, with good reason. Although they can tolerate conditions few other trees can stand, acacias must have water at some time of the year. They obtain it from the rains that rush in brief, sporadic floods through these ravines before the water is swallowed by the desert sands. (Swenson, Plants of the Bible: And How to Grow Them, 157)Alan Ray Buescher (b. 1955) adds:
Most grow in the Judean desert, the Negeb, and Sinai, while one type (Acacia raddiana) is found in the central and northern parts of Israel. The acacia (Hebrew šhittîm) is a hardy tree, able to withstand the extreme climactic conditions of the desert. Acacia is used for fuel, construction, and shade. The trunk, branches, and leaves also provide food for a variety of animals. Although some types of acacia are shrublike, 4-5 meters (13-16 feet) in height, others have central trunks and can reach heights of 12-15 meters (40-50 feet). (David Noel Freedman [1922-2008], Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 12)Jewish Midrash asserts that the choice of acacia is predetermined. Rashi (1040-1105) cites that one of the first things the patriarch Jacob did upon entering Egypt was to plant the Shittim trees that would be used in the tabernacle hundreds of years later.
Attempts have been made to attach symbolic meaning to the acacia. Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) summarily rejects:
The continuing attempt to find a symbolic meaning in the choice of wood, e.g. it was a cedar like the trees of Paradise (Benno Jacob [1862-1945]), has no basis in the text. (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Old Testament Library), 523)While symbolic meaning has been largely dismissed, there are practical reasons for the lumber’s selection. The acacia carries the advantages of availability, workability and durability as the wood is abundant in the Sinai, is easily worked and is an enduring wood.
Charlie March (b. 1956) surmises:
As a woodworker I find it interesting that God prefers acacia wood for its sturdy and lightweight nature. Most likely it was also locally available. (March, A Carpenter’s View of the Bible, 91)
The acacia was plentiful in the region making it easily accessible. As some species maintain a shrublike appearance, many have speculated that the burning bush was an acacia (Exodus 3:2). Given its preponderance, the Israelites might have selected the timber without provocation.
Tudor Parfitt (b. 1944) notes:
In many arid zones in Africa, the acacia is the archetypical tree. In the Sinai desert—the land bridge between Africa and Asia—the acacia species rules supreme. It would have been just about the only building material available in the wilderness...The wood of the acacia is exceptionally hard, very heavy, very dense, and will last for a long time. In desert conditions, it would not perish. In Egypt there are acacia panels that have survived for well over 3,000 years. (Parfitt, The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500-Year-Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark, 63)The Israelites likely had experience working with the wood. Gayle A. McCoy (1917-2013) speculates:
The acacia wood from which the ark was constructed grows in both the Sinai and Egypt. It was used extensively in Egypt, so the Hebrew craftsmen knew how to work with it. A species of this acacia tree grows in Arizona and Mexico. The Hebrew workmen had made mummy cases of acacia wood which were expertly carved. Mummy cases found in recent years are still in as good a condition as when built about four thousand years ago. Acacia wood is very durable. Prior to the time of building the ark, while in Egypt, the Hebrew wood craftsmen, made beds, stools, throne chairs and arks or as we would call them, boxes or chests. Solid wood furniture was the only form of furniture in ancient Egypt. The ark and the furniture of the tabernacle was the height of their artistic achievement and would remain so for centuries. (McCoy, God’s Golden Box: The Ark of the Covenant, 79)Acacia wood is known for its durability. Randall Price (b. 1951) observes:
Acacia trees are native to the Sinai Desert, and the wood was considered so durable that the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) translated the Hebrew for “acacia wood” as “incorruptible wood.” (Price, Searching for the Ark of the Covenant: Latest Discoveries and Research, 15)Acacia wood is not prone to scraping. It can be cleaned using water as its density prevents liquid from permeating it and causing damage. It can also go untreated and unprotected. It is resistant to fungus; in fact, acacia extract is used to improve the durability and fungal resistance of cheaper types of wood. The acacia also possesses natural barriers to predators as its thorns contain poison which deters insects and the sap excreted by its thorns attracts ants which discourage competing plants. The use of acacia wood insures that the ark is built to last.
As acacia trees generally grow in desert regions, the wood is perfectly suited for a wilderness sanctuary. The ark’s tumultuous history would justify this need for durability.
Stuart Munro-Hay (1947-2004) tracks:
The Ark of the Covenant...led a vigorous active life. Created in the desert from acacia wood...it travelled [sic] extensively in makeshift wagons, suffering the extremes of hot and cold. It swelled and shrank. It went on campaign, resting in tents. Its journeys were not smooth, and it was at times badly shaken in transit (killing those who tried to lend a hand to support it [II Samuel 6:2-11, I Chronicles 16:5-13].) It was conveyed on ox-carts or on the shoulders of priests. It was captured by the Philistines [I Samuel 4:11, 5:1-2]...It saved itself, to Dagon’s detriment, and was sent away in a cart [I Samuel 6:1-12]. It was enshrined at Shiloh and finally in Jerusalem [II Samuel 6:12-17]. (Munro-Hay, The Quest for the Ark of the Covenant: The True History of the Tablets of Moses, 207)Through all of its journeys, there is no record of damage to the ark.
In addition to its practicality, acacia wood is attractive and as such is still prized in making furniture. It can be polished and produces a unique color do in large part to its grain. The wood can actually change its color when viewed in different lighting. This chatoyancy is not common in wood.
Despite its aesthetic advantages, the acacia would not be visible in the ark of the covenant as the chest was overlaid with gold. Randall Price (b. 1951) inspects:
Magnifying this imperishable quality was the pure gold that overlaid the wood (Exodus 25:11). It may have been applied as gilding (like gold leaf); an idea perhaps denoted by the language of Hebrews 9:4 “covered on all sides with gold.” This was the method used on wooden furniture of the period as evidenced in finds from Egyptian tombs. Thin leaves of gold were glued to a fine layer of plaster spread over the wood or applied as hammered sheets to the wood with small nails. However, the rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew term for “overlay” here is more substantial. According to the Talmud, this indicates thin boxes of gold placed on both the inside and outside of the acacia wood, making it a three-layered box. (Price, Searching for the Ark of the Covenant: Latest Discoveries and Research, 15)Thomas B. Dozeman (b. 1952) asserts:
The ark of the testimony is anything but a simple wooden box, devoid of iconography. The structure of the ark remains acacia wood, with the dimensions 2½ cubits long × 1½ cubits wide × 1½ cubits high (about 3¾ feet long × 2¼ feet wide × 2¼ feet high). But it is lavished in pure gold both inside and outside of the box with an additional molding of gold. The outside includes gold rings, two on each side, and wooden poles, also covered in gold, which are used to carry the ark. (Dozeman, Exodus (Eerdmans Critical Commentary), 614)The ark is built with quality materials. Given its concealment, the acacia wood is selected for its function, not form. Its history demonstrates that acacia wood was the right timber for the job.
Why did God regulate such a seemingly insignificant detail as the wood used in constructing the tabernacle? Do you think that there was a primary reason acacia wood was used or was it a combination of its benefits? Is there symbolic significance connected to this particular lumber? Why is the ark not fashioned in solid gold like its lampstand (Exodus 25:31)? Is God as intimately involved in all aspects of life as during the construction of the tabernacle or is this an anomaly? Do the reasons for selecting humans for given tasks follow the same rationale as the choice of wood in building the tabernacle? What are the closest modern equivalents of the tabernacle and ark of the covenant? How important are building materials to a structure’s success? In what container do you keep your most cherished possessions?
Being gold plated as opposed to solid gold reduces the ark’s weight and allows for smoother transportation. The acacia serves as a solid foundation on which to lay the gold. In doing so, its own beauty is concealed. Like many who work behind the scenes and beneath the surface, acacia wood does not always receive the credit it deserves.
Rabbis Michael Katz (b. 1952) and Gershon Schwartz (1952-2004) advise:
How ironic that the Talmud records this anonymous axiom—“The only benefit from the acacia is when it is cut down”—without acknowledging that the acacia actually has an important and sacred use in traditional Jewish life before it is cut down. Two of the primary ingredients in the ink for Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot come from the acacia tree. One is...gumi, “gum acacia,” also known as gum arabic, a thickening agent made from the dry sap of this tree. The other is...afatzim, “nutgalls” or “gallnuts,” made from a growth on the acacia...Why, then, did Rabbis claim that “The only benefit from the acacia is when it is cut down” when it did have clear uses even before it was cut down? Perhaps this is a case of Rabbinic exaggeration: The acacia does not produce an edible fruit. Or this may be a case where many people were not aware of the usefulness provided by the sap and gall of the acacia...Thus, it is not really true that “The only benefit from the acacia is when it is cut down.” For Jews, there is nothing more sacred than a Torah scroll, and the Torah scroll requires an acacia before it is cut down. We should not judge a tree merely by its fruit. We also need to look at its inner essence, where we discover that there is great worth and benefit. So, too, we have to look inside people and discover that their real worth is often not what appears on the surface. (Katz and Schwartz, Searching for Meaning in Midrash: Lessons for Everyday Living, 94)God’s selection of acacia wood serves as a reminder that the foundation, commonly concealed, is as critical as the more apparent surface.
When have you completed a thankless task? Who do you know who does not receive due credit? Who can you commend whose work often goes unnoticed or unappreciated?
“Underneath my outside face
There’s a face that none can see.
A little less smiley,
A little less sure,
But a whole lot more like me.”
- Shel Silverstein (1930-1999), ”Underface”, Every Thing on It, p. 132