Book Review by Steve Solomon

The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant

by Graham Hancock

Simon & Shuster, 1992. 600 pages.

The Lost Ark

For someone who is interested in the Bible, religion, and ancient history, I was pretty poorly informed about that most mysterious and significant of Biblical relics, the Ark of the Covenant, until the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark   was released in 1981. When a friend first mentioned the film to me, I recall finding the title odd, and thinking that it must refer to Noah's Ark. Now I had read about the Ark of the Covenant before, but somehow it had failed to make much of an impression on me. It was not until a few years later, when I read the book Who Wrote the Bible?  by Richard Elliott Friedman, that I learned that the Ark of the Covenant really was lost, as the title of the movie says. The reason that this incredibly important fact had escaped my notice is that the Bible never mentions the Ark's disappearance; the Bible simply stops mentioning the Ark. A more attentive reader of the Old Testament would have noticed that the Ark is not mentioned in the account of the looting and destruction of Solomon's Temple by the Babylonians, nor does it figure in the story of the rebuilding of the Temple after the Persians release the Jews from their Exile in Babylon. The Ark seems simply to have vanished without a trace--and without any comment by the writers of the Old Testament--sometime between the completion of Solomon's Temple and its destruction. I recall being surprised to learn how large a kernel of truth was contained in the script of Raiders.

I largely forgot about the Ark again until earlier this year, when I was looking for something to read on the long plane flights my summer vacation would entail. I decided upon Graham Hancock's 1992 bestseller, The Sign and the Seal, a book I had noticed earlier but had put off buying. Having just finished E. P. Sanders's very satisfying volume The Historical Figure of Jesus, my interest in Biblical history was piqued. Now that I have read Hancock's work, I can finally say that I am well informed on the topic of the Ark of the Covenant, and that it is a fascinating topic indeed. I know of no other single source of information on the Ark that is as comprehensive as The Sign and the Seal.   Unfortunately, not all the information contained in Hancock's book can be taken at face value. The Sign and the Seal   mixes solid scholarship and good detective work with wild speculation and reckless logical leaps.

Mr. Hancock has written his book in a narrative style. It is not only the story of what he discovered and what he surmises about the Ark of the Covenant; it is also the story of how he conducted his investigation. Depending on your point of view, this discursive style can be a blessing or a curse: If you enjoy the detective story, or if you want to know exactly how Hancock came to his conclusions, you will appreciate his style. If you are eager to know what he found, you will probably grow impatient as you wade through hundreds of pages of travelogues, research notes, political details about the civil war in Ethiopia, and introspections concerning the author's motives. My own reactions were mixed. Some parts of the detective story were very interesting, and I was glad to have insight into the author's research methods and reasoning, but I often wished he would hurry up and get around to answering the main questions: What happened to the Ark of the Covenant, and where is it now?

Although the Bible is silent concerning the fate of the Ark, there is no dearth of possible explanations. Movie buffs may remember the one that Raiders of the Lost Ark   put forth: In the year 926 BC, during the reign of Solomon's son Rehoboam, the Egyptians under Pharaoh Shishak attacked Jerusalem and carried off the Ark to the city of Tanis, whereupon said city was buried by a sandstorm lasting an entire year. There the Ark remained entombed until Indiana Jones succeeded in unraveling the clues to its location. This explanation is in fact an embellishment on a brief chapter in the Old Testament book of Second Chronicles, which states that Shishak "came up against Jerusalem; he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king's house: he took away everything. He also took away the shields of gold which Solomon had made; and King Rehoboam made in their stead shields of bronze" (2 Chron 12:9-10, RSV). This is a tantalizing reference, but the Ark is conspicuously absent from it. Of all the loot, only the golden shields are specifically mentioned; no reference is made to the Ark. Indeed, for various archeological and linguistic reasons, scholars now believe that the Ark was not among the treasures Shishak looted. Jewish lore provides at least three other explanations: the Ark was concealed in a chamber under the foundation stone of the Temple Mount; it was buried under a building on the Temple grounds; it was spirited away by the prophet Jeremiah with the help of an angel and hidden in a cave on Mount Nebo. Most historians and Biblical scholars discount these explanations as well. There is one other tradition, however, that merits a closer look. According to an ancient Ethiopian legend, the Ark of the Covenant was removed from the Temple in Jerusalem and brought to Axum, where it now resides in the sanctuary chapel of the church of Saint Mary of Zion.

This tradition, recorded in an Ethiopian book of legends entitled the Kebra Nagast   ("The Book of the Glory of Kings"), states that the Queen of Sheba was in fact an Ethiopian monarch. During her visit to Jerusalem, she was converted to Judaism and became Solomon's lover. She bore him a son named David II or Menelik (meaning "son of the wise man"). When Menelik had attained adulthood, he visited his father in Jerusalem. With the help of a small band of followers, he succeeded in carrying off the Ark and bringing it back to Axum, his mother's capital. She abdicated in favor of Menelik, who became the first king of Ethiopia and established a monarchy modelled on that of Solomon. The Ethiopians were converted to Judaism, and much later, to Christianity, and remain in possession of the Ark to this day. It is the examination of the possible veracity of this legend that occupies most of The Sign and the Seal.

Solid Research

In researching the Menelik legend, Hancock ranges all over the map, both literally (traveling from Europe to the Middle East to Africa) and figuratively (covering the topics of history, ethnology, archeology, legend, religion, theology, and metaphysics). Part I, "Legend," tells of the author's initial interest in and subsequent dismissal of the Ethiopian claim. In Part II, Holy Ark and Holy Grail,   one of the most fascinating sections of the book, Hancock relates how a visit to the cathedral in Chartres rekindled his interest and started him down a path of inquiry that eventually led to some startling conclusions: (a) the Knights Templar were founded, not to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land, but to search for the Ark of the Covenant; (b) the Templars were exterminated at the instigation of the king of Ethiopia, who suspected their true motives; (c) the medieval legends of the Holy Grail were in fact coded references to the Ark for Templars to follow; (d) the Templars secretly survived in the guise of the Freemasons; (e) as late as the 19th century, Masons were still following the clues hidden in the Grail legends to search for the Ark. I must confess that reading this section of the book provoked a certain amount of professional jealousy in me. My major, both in college and in graduate school, was German, and one of my main areas of interest was the literature of the Middle Ages. The Middle High German courtly epic Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach was a particular favorite of mine. Hancock's identification of the Grail with the Ark clears up a truly puzzling question about Parzival:   namely, why the Grail in Wolfram's story is not a cup but a stone. If Hancock is correct, Wolfram's stone is a coded reference to the contents of the Ark, the stone tablets of the Law. Hancock's theory also provides plausible etymologies for some of the names Wolfram invented for the people and places in his story, names so odd that they have puzzled scholars for generations. As I read Hancock's theory, I found myself thinking, "Hancock doesn't even read Middle High German! Why couldn't I--or at least somebody in my field--have figured this out?" In fact, only one scholar, the medievalist Helen Adolf, seems to have linked Wolfram's Grail-stone to the tabot,  the slab of wood or stone kept in the Holy of Holies of every Ethiopian church and venerated as a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (or of its contents, the tablets of the Law of Moses). It was Hancock, who is an investigative reporter rather than a literary scholar, who put the whole picture together and equated the Grail with the Ark. Despite my jealousy and my regret to see the Grail legend (which I enjoyed as a tale in its own right) revealed as a coded reference to the Ark, I have to give Hancock considerable credit for his research in this section.

Part III, entitled "Labyrinth," is equally impressive. Here Hancock visits Ethiopia and investigates the possible origins of its religions and languages. The treatment of the Falashas, the black Jews of Ethiopia, and their neighbors, the pagan Qemant, is fascinating and well researched. Hancock does an excellent job of detailing the strong Jewish influence on Ethiopian Christianity, showing how its music, its festivals, the floorplans of its churches, and its unusual reverence for the Ark all hint at a strong connection to Judaism in a very ancient form. Hancock's skills as an interviewer and his ability to draw on the knowledge of experts in other fields stand him in good stead. This section of the book lends considerable credibility to the claim that the Ark is in Ethiopia.

A Monstrous Speculation

Unfortunately, not everything in The Sign and the Seal   is the product of careful scholarship. Immediately following the mostly excellent work in Parts I, II, and III is a section in which Hancock's search takes a nosedive into pseudoscience. Part IV, A Monstrous Instrument, consists largely of a series of wild, unfounded speculations about Moses and the source of the Ark's powers. Granted, a certain amount of speculation is permissable, perhaps even necessary, in a book on a topic like the Ark, but Hancock abandons all restraint in this section. According to the author, because the Pharaohs were priests as well as monarchs, Moses, who was raised in Pharaoh's household, was also educated as a priest and was privy to the secrets of Egyptian magic. This "magic" was real, but not supernatural; rather, it was technological in nature. The Egyptians had inherited this arcane technological know-how from survivors of Atlantis. Contrary to what the Old Testament teaches, God never commanded Moses to build the Ark, nor were the Ark's powers the result of God's presence. Rather, the Ark was a technological device, a weapon designed by Moses and used by him to give the Hebrews an advantage in combat and to keep them in line when they revolted against his authority. Moreover, the secret knowledge of Atlantis was not entirely lost in ancient times; a few individuals from the more recent past (such as the scientists Copernicus and Newton) were privy to it also and drew upon it for their greatest discoveries.

In fairness to Hancock, I should point out that he makes all of this speculation sound much more plausible than my brief summary does, and he supports it as best he can with references from a number of disciplines. Nonetheless, his arguments are frequently unconvincing. For example, he makes a great deal of the fact that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God. Why would such a simple transaction require so much time, Hancock wonders?

Would an omnipotent God have required forty days and forty nights to deliver two stone tablets to His prophet? Such a lengthy period seems hardly necessary. If, however, Moses had not   been receiving 'the tablets of the Testimony' at all, but instead had been manufacturing or refining some compact stone-like energy source to place inside the Ark, then he could well have needed that much time to finish the work. (p. 350)

Anyone even noddingly familiar with the Bible will know that the number forty occurs as a duration in two other key stories from the Old Testament: The rainstorm that causes the Flood lasts forty days and forty nights (Gen 7:4); the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years (Deut 2:7). It seems reasonable to me, therefore, to conclude that the number forty may be simply a traditional way of indicating that a significant amount of time has passed, rather than a literal count of the days or years involved. Hence, Moses might have been on Sinai for less than forty days and forty nights. Even if one insists on a literal interpretation, believers will be quick to point out that an omnipotent God need not behave as we mortals might expect: " 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord' " (Isa 55:8). God may also have a different timetable than ours: "[W]ith the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2Pet 3:8).

At this point, the reader may be wondering about the precise nature of the supposed Atlantean technology that Hancock claims powered the Ark. Conveniently, he never gives any details. The Atlantean culture is totally unknown to us; hence, "[i]t would be a mistake to assume that our own twentieth-century machinery and inventions are any guideline . . . its machines could reasonably be expected to have operated according to principles unknown to us" (p. 339). Thus unfettered by fact, Hancock is free to hint that the Ark's power source and/or emanations might have been nuclear, electrical, or chemical in nature.

Graham Hancock is not the first author to have seen something technological in the Ark. In 1968, Swiss UFO enthusiast Erich von Däniken published a book entitled Erinnerungen an die Zukunft   (German: "Memories of the Future"), known to the English-speaking world by the title Chariots of the Gods?  Here, in Michael Heron's 1969 translation, are some of von Däniken's sage musings on the relic:

In Exodus 15:10, Moses relates the exact instructions which "God" gave for building the Ark of the Covenant. The directions are given to the very inch, how and where staves and rings are to be fitted, and from what alloy the metals are to be made. The instructions were meant to ensure that everything was carried out exactly as "God" wanted it. He warned Moses several times not to make any mistakes. . . . Undoubtedly the Ark was electrically charged! If we reconstruct it today according to the instructions handed down by Moses, an electric conductor of several hundred volts is produced. The border and golden crown would have served to charge the condenser which was formed by the gold plates and a positive and negative conductor. If, in addition, one of the two cherubim on the mercy seat acted as a magnet, the loudspeaker--perhaps even a kind of set for communication between Moses and the spaceship--was perfect. The details of the construction of the Ark of the Covenant can be read in the Bible in their entirety. Without actually consulting Exodus, I seem to remember that the Ark was often surrounded by flashing sparks and that Moses made use of this "transmitter" whenever he needed help and advice. (Chariots of the Gods?   pp. 57-58)

Anyone who, unlike von Däniken, actually bothers to check the Biblical references will note that descriptions of anything resembling wires, electromagnets, transistors, or other modern radio components are completely lacking. The exacting details of the Biblical instructions, of which von Däniken makes so much, describe a wooden chest covered with gold, outfitted with rings to receive carrying poles and a lid ornamented with two cherubs. If the instructions really describe a two-way radio rather than a religious relic, why must von Däniken himself suggest all the technological details? I have no doubt that any number of ancient relics can be transformed into technological devices if we moderns helpfully suggest appropriate materials and provide all the needed components. (Indeed, in von Däniken's recent TV special, "Chariots of the Gods? The Mysteries Continue," he uses these same methods to turn an Egyptian carving of what looks like a flower into a working electric bulb.) To be fair, Hancock did much more thorough research than von Däniken, but with the mode of argumentation he adopts in this section, he runs the risk of sharing von Däniken's reputation as a crackpot. (When the similarity between Hancock's speculations and von Däniken's first occurred to me, I assumed that Hancock probably would not want his name associated with that of the Swiss author, and put that assumption in writing in the first draft of this review. Ironically, less than a week later, who to my wondering eyes did appear but Graham Hancock himself, as a "talking head" on von Däniken's TV special. I stand corrected. It seems our Mr. Hancock is positively eager to be associated with von Däniken, and is unconcerned about the effect that association will have on his credibility.) Part IV is a regrettable section that is likely to offend believing Jews and Christians and threatens to obscure the merits of the other sections.

A Return to Sanity

Hancock redeems his tarnished reputation somewhat toward the end of the book, once again displaying his talents for research and deduction. In Part V (entitled Where is the Glory?  ), perhaps the most satisfying section part of the entire book, he lays out his conclusions about when and how the Ark was taken from Jerusalem and where it ended up. I am only an amateur Biblical scholar myself, but as far as I can tell, in this section, Hancock's research is sound, his logic unassailable, and his conclusions brilliant. I was especially impressed with his reasoning in narrowing down the probable time frame for the departure of the Ark from Solomon's temple.

Part VI, "The Waste Land," details the author's final attempts to see, or at least get as close as possible to, the presumed Ark in Axum. After hundreds of pages of detective work, I found the conclusion mildly disappointing. I ascribe this disappointment more to what Hancock had to report than to any fault in his writing, however.

The Final Analysis

So is The Sign and the Seal   for you? It has much to recommend it: a wealth of information on the history of the Ark, on the religions and peoples of Ethiopia, and on medieval European thought; a mostly engaging detective story; some humorous references to Indiana Jones. Sadly, the book also has serious flaws: The author's detour into pseudoscientific speculation, his link with Erich von Däniken, and his New Age theology cast considerable doubt on his credibility and common sense. Consequently, I can give The Sign and the Seal only a qualified recommendation--be sure to set your thinking cap to "critical" before opening this book.

Edited September 19, 1996 / Updated March 31, 1997

Copyright ©1996 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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