Hebrews is a self described “word of exhortation” to early Christians (Hebrews 13:22). In its ninth chapter, the imperfect earthly sanctuary is contrasted with its perfect heavenly counterpart to display the obvious superiority of the latter (Hebrews 9:1-12).
In making this argument, Hebrews depicts the earthly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:1-5). Thomas G. Long (b. 1946) describes:
In this very inventive passage, the Preacher takes the congregation on a guided tour of the old desert tabernacle, the first sanctuary of Israel under the old covenant (the Preacher’s narration is not absolutely precise, but it roughly follows the description of the design and furnishings of the tabernacle woven through Exodus 25-40). The Preacher even takes the congregation where they would not have been allowed to go: into the very inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. (Long, Hebrews (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 93)While recounting the furnishings of the holy of holies, Hebrews mentions three items enclosed in the ark of the covenant: a jar of manna, Aaron’s rod and the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed (Hebrews 9:4).
Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant; (Hebrews 9:3-4 NASB)Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) teaches:
The “ark of the covenant”...is a box or chest (kibōton) that is also called by the Septuagint the kibōtos martyriou (“ark of the testimony”) (Exodus 25:10). Exodus 25:16 says simply that Moses is to put into the ark “testimonies” (ta martyria) that I will give you.” The term means “evidences,” and the author elaborates three such concrete pieces of evidence for God’s presence among the people—only one of which Exodus itself specifies, namely “the tables of the covenant” (see Deuteronomy 10:1-5; I Kings 8:9; II Chronicles 5:10) given to Moses from the hand of God (Deuteronomy 9:9-10). The other two items were also signs of God’s presence and protection. The miraculous manna (Exodus 16:31) fed the people in the wilderness, and some of it was preserved in a jar (Exodus 16:32-34) that the Septuagint characterizes as “golden” (Exodus 16:33; see also Philo [20 BCE-50 CE], Preliminary Studies 100). Moses was told to place the jar “before God,” but not specifically in the ark. The flowering rod of Aaron was equally a sign of “evidence” of God’s protection, through the selection of Aaron as the one whom God wanted to approach the tent of testimony, and put an end to the murmuring of the people (Numbers 17:16-26). Once more, Moses is instructed to place the rod before the testimony “as a sign for the sons of rebellion” (Numbers 17:25), though not in the ark, as Hebrews has it. (Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 220)David L. Allen (b. 1957) adds:
The “ark of the covenant” is described in the Greek text with a perfect tense participle “covered around,” an adverb meaning “on (from) all sides” and the dative “with gold.” William L. Lane (1931-1999) and the NIV both translate this Greek phrase as “gold-covered,” a descriptive phrase that gets at the meaning, but as J. Harold Greenlee [b. 1918] noted, such an attributive rendering violates Greek grammar. (Allen, Hebrews (New American Commentary), 461)This passage marks the last of three references to Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, in Hebrews (Hebrews 5:4, 7:11, 9:4). It also represents the only reference to Aaron’s “rod” (ASV, KJV, MSG, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) or “staff” (ESV, HCSB, NIV, NLT) in the New Testament (Hebrews 9:4).
Aaron’s rod was a sacred object which originally symbolized his tribe’s selection as the nation’s priests (Numbers 17:1-11). Alan C. Mitchell (b. 1948) recounts:
The budding rod of Aaron, according to Numbers 17:1-9, was placed by Moses in the Holy of Holies. Twelve staffs with the names of the heads of the tribes were to be placed in the sanctuary, before the Lord. Aaron’s name was to be inscribed on the staff of Levi. When Moses returned the next day he saw that Aaron’s rod had sprouted a flower. This indicated that he was chosen by God for the priesthood, which was supposed to be a warning to rebels and to put an end to complaints. God instructed Moses to place his rod in the sanctuary before the covenant, but not in the ark itself. (Mitchell, Hebrews (Sacra Pagina), 175)The inclusion of Aaron’s rod in the ark of the covenant is not referenced in the Old Testament. While the Ten Commandments are said to be placed in the ark (Exodus 25:16; Deuteronomy 10:2), the jar of manna and Aaron’s rod’s are not. At the dedication of the temple it is definitively stated that the tablets are the only items situated inside the ark (I Kings 8:9; II Chronicles 5:10).
David A. deSilva (b. 1967) notes:
The contents of the ark are not explicitly described in the Pentateuch save for the two tablets of stone containing the ten commandments (Deuteronomy 10:2; I Kings 8:9). The jar of manna (Exodus 16:32-34) and Aaron’s rod...(Numbers 17:10) were to be placed within the inner sanctum as a perpetual “testimony,” but the author of Hebrews actually has them stored within the ark (suggested perhaps by Exodus 18:21: “in the ark you shall put the testimony that I will give you.”). (deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “To the Hebrews”, 297-298)Not only does the Old Testament fail to mention that the manna and the rod are not fixed in the ark of the covenant but this detail is also absent from rabbinic literature. Paul Ellingworth (b. 1931) acknowledges:
Rabbinic tradition, which in other respects goes beyond scripture in describing the contents of the ark, is more faithful to the Exodus text than Hebrews at this point in locating the pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod, not in but beside the ark...These details appear to have no independent significance for the author; he does not, for example, relate the gift of manna to Israel’s status as a wandering people. (Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 428)In the Old Testament, the manna and Aaron’s rod were deemed sacred objects but were to be placed in front of the ark, not in it. It has been argued that Hebrews is indicating as such. David L. Allen (b. 1957) reveals:
The location of the jar of manna and the staff “in” the ark is problematic when compared to both the Hebrew and Septuagint texts of Exodus 16:33 and Numbers 17:10...In the Hebrew text, the same preposition lipnê, “in front of” or “before” is used to describe the location of the jar as before “the Lord” and the rod as in front of “the testimony.” The question is whether the jar of manna and Aaron’s rod were placed inside the ark or in front of the ark. The linguistic ambiguity of the preposition lipnê in the Old Testament texts above can be interpreted either way. (Allen, Hebrews (New American Commentary), 461-62)F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) rejects:
According to Exodus 16:33ff Moses commanded Aaron to put an omer of manna (about four pints, one-tenth of an ephah) in a jar, “and place it before Yahweh, to be kept throughout your generations”; and Aaron accordingly “placed it before the testimony, to be kept.” Similarly, when twelve rods or sceptres, one for each tribe of Israel, had been laid up “in the tent of meeting before the testimony,” Aaron’s rod, the rod of the tribe of Levi, was found the next day to have put forth buds, blossoms, and ripe almonds—a token that Aaron was the man whom God had chosen for the priesthood (Numbers 17:1-10). Moses was then directed to “put back the rod of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels” (Numbers 17:10). Does the phrase “before the testimony” imply that these objects were placed inside the ark, or simply that they were laid in front of it? Franz Delitzch [1813-1890] thinks that the former “is a natural conclusion” from the phrases “before Yahweh” and “before the testimony”; this is by no means clear, especially as regards the phrase “before Yahweh,” for this phrase is used of other installations in the tabernacle, which were certainly not inside the ark. On the other hand, it will not do to say that the antecedent of “wherein” is not “the ark” but “the tent called the holy of holies” (Hebrews 9:3); this puts an intolerable strain on the natural construction of the sentence by the distance which it places between the relative and its antecedent. It is not to be doubted that our author represents the jar of manna and the rod as having been inside the ark along with the tables of the law. (Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 203)William L. Lane (1931-1999) relays:
The statement that the ark contained, in addition to the stone tablets of the covenant, the golden jar of manna and Aaron’s rod that blossomed, it is not attested elsewhere...According to all of the texts and versions known of the Old Testament, only the tablets of the covenant were actually placed within the ark (Exodus 25:16, 21; Deuteronomy 10:1-2; cf. I Kings 8:9; II Chronicles 5:10). Johannes van der Ploeg [1909-2004] (Revue Biblique 54  219) suggested that the writer adopted a tradition according to which subsequently other objects were placed within the ark, a tradition presupposed in certain strands of rabbinic evidence (cf. Bava Batra 14a; Tosefta Yoma 3.7; ’Abot de Rabbi Nathan 41 [67a]). (Lane, Hebrews 9-13 (Word Biblical Commentary), 221)These additional items could have fit in the ark but would likely have filled it. Joseph Ponessa (b. 1948) and Laurie Watson Manhardt (b. 1950) measure:
Exodus gives the dimensions 3.5 x 1.5 x 1.5 cubits, or 45 x 27 x 27 inches, just large enough to hold “a golden urn holding manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant. (Ponessa and Manhardt, Moses and the Torah (Come and See Catholic Bible Study), 97)In surveying the Holy of Holies, Hebrews positions three sacred items into one sacred object. The ark of the covenant and the holy of holies where it is housed are truly sacred. Yet they pale in comparison to the future sanctuary (Hebrews 9:11-12).
Should the manna and the rod have been placed into the ark of the covenant? Who do you think did so and when? Is the ark magnified in any way by the inclusion of these items? Does placing the manna and the rod in the ark, where the items would be unseen, detract from their purpose to serve as a “testimony”? Is there anything you cherish that you conceal or hide? What objects are sacred to you? What do the ark’s contents mean individually and collectively?
The three items housed by the ark and the ark itself are tangible monuments of Israel’s connection to God. All of these objects come from the same period in Israel’s history, the formative period of the Exodus. Thomas D. Lea (b. 1938) assigns:
The ark contained three treasures. “The gold jar of manna” (Exodus 16:32-34) was a reminder of God’s faithful provision during the wilderness wanderings. Aaron’s staff that has budded (Numbers 17:1-11) reminded readers of God’s powerful warnings against complaint and faultfinding. The stone tablets of the covenant (Exodus 25:21-22) reminded them of God’s expectations, and pointed...to the ministry of Christ. (Lea, Hebrews & James (Holman New Testament Commentary), 167)Gareth Lee Cockerill (b. 1944) condenses:
If the Ten Commandments were the foundation of God’s covenant, manna was evidence of his provision, and the rod symbolized his choice of Aaron as priest. (Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 378)There may be a more significant reason for Hebrews’ allusion to Aaron’s rod. Donald A. Hagner (b. 1936) conjectures:
The reference to Aaron’s rod may be seen to have special importance, given the argument of chapter 7 [Hebrews 7:1-28]. The budding rod demonstrated the sole legitimacy of Aaron and the tribe of Levi in priestly service at the altar (cf. Numbers 18:7). But that uniqueness has now been displaced—indeed canceled—by the high priest of the order of Melchizedek. (Hagner, Hebrews (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), 132)In including the symbol of Aaron’s priesthood among the items that pales in comparison to Jesus’ priesthood (Hebrews 4:14-15, 5:6), Hebrews may be reiterating its point that Jesus is far superior to his predecessors. In comparison to Jesus, the old signs lose a little luster.
Do the ark of the covenant, the tablets containing the ten commandments, the jar of manna and Aaron’s rod still hold meaning? If so, what is it? What is the effect of Jesus on their significance? What are the tangible monuments to Jesus’ life? What serves as a “testimony” to your faith?
“If you’d rather live surrounded by pristine objects than by the traces of happy memories, stay focused on tangible things. Otherwise, stop fixating on stuff you can touch and start caring about stuff that touches you. - Martha Beck (b. 1962)