The stone tablets were placed in the ark of the testimony, a box of acacia wood covered with pure gold, which had a lid called the mercy seat. Two golden cherubim were placed over the ark.
The stone tablets were carried by the Israelites during their 40-year wilderness trek, and when they encamped, the ark was placed in a separate section in the Tabernacle. King David later instructed his son Solomon to build the temple, where the ark would be housed in the Most Holy Place. Hezekiah is the last biblical figure to see the ark.
After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple, there is no biblical record of what happened to the ark or the tablets of stone. Some say they were taken to Babylon. Neither the temple built by Zerubbabel, which was built after the children of Israel returned from captivity in Babylon, nor the temple of Herod housed any ark of the covenant or any stone tablets.
In Jeremiah 3:16, the prophet foretold of a future when the ark would not be central to the people of Israel: “It shall not come to mind nor shall they remember it nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made anymore” NIV.
The Second book of Maccabees, which does not belong to the biblical canon, describes how the prophet Jeremiah handed over the law to those who were to be taken to Babylon and exhorted them to always keep the law in their hearts. He then went “to the mountain that Moses went up to see God’s own land” and carried the tent, the ark and the altar of incense into a cave and blocked the entrance. The place would be unknown “until God gathers the people again and allows mercy to come”.
Trophies in Rome
The Menorah, the seven-branched candlestick, was removed from the Second Temple after the destruction of Jerusalem in year 70. The historian Josephus describes how it was taken to Rome and carried in the triumphal procession of Vespasian and Titus. The Arch of Titus in Rome today shows a scene of Roman soldiers carrying away booty from the Second temple, including the Menorah.
The seven-branched candlestick and other temple treasures were displayed as war trophies for centuries.
Many archaeologists, explorers and researchers have tried to find the Ark of the Covenant and the stone tablets. The most notable of these theories are that the ark is to be found in Ethiopia, or under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in Rome or in Jordan.