In pretty much all drawings of the Ark of the Covenant the poles are parallel-to-the-long-side of the box. But, could it be that the poles were actually parallel to the SHORT sides of the box? We know the box is a rectangle, with poles on opposite sides. The Bible does not say which sides the poles are on. It could be parallel to the long sides, or parallel to the short sides! There are two reasons why I think the poles may be along the short sides:
1. The box is basically a Chair for God-- a Mercy Seat where He meets with the Leader of the people. It doesn't matter whether this is literally or figuratively. It is safe to say that the front of the box is one of the LONG sides. Inside the Holy of Holies, the High Priest would be facing the Ark, and thus in front of the long side.
1a. So, imagine the Ark of the Covenant as a COUCH upon which God sits. When He is sitting there, and you are facing Him, you are facing one of the long sides of the couch, and you are not facing one of the ends of the couch.
1b. When we modern day folks carry a regular (rectangular) couch, we usually carry it SIDEWAYS, with a person at each END. This is especially important when carrying the awkward thing through doorways. However, I don't think GOD'S COUCH ever gets carried SIDEWAYS, whether He is on it or not. Imagine the carrying of God's Couch as a Holy Parade, along with the other items of the Tabernacle. In what direction would the couch be carried? Even though the Ark would be covered, I think it would be CARRIED FACE FORWARD, long side in front. Any poles would be at the ENDS, along the SHORT sides.
2. What does the Bible say about the poles? In both the Tabernacle (tent), and in the later Temple (stone building), the Ark was in the Holy of Holies, behind a curtain (veil). If the poles were along the long sides of the box, as most people imagine, then the poles (which were never supposed to be taken out of place), would fit easily behind the curtain. One pole would be parallel to the front of the box, and would only extend that side's width by a few inches. However, the Bible says that when the Ark is in place behind the curtain, the ends of the poles are sticking out, and can be seen on the other side of the curtain by someone standing in the regular Holy place!
So the Ark is on one side of the curtain, and someone on the OTHER side of the curtain can see the ends of the poles. Is this because the curtain is not wide enough and someone can see around the edges? I don't think so. If there was a gap at the edges, then the priest could walk up and see the entire Ark through the gap, and still be standing outside of the Holy of Holies. In Exodus 40:21, it says the curtain totally blocks the inner room from view. Yet, the Bible says that the ends of the poles are evident!
"The poles extended so that the ends of the poles could be seen from the holy place, in front of the inner sanctuary." 1 Kings 8:8 New King James. Also see 2 Chronicles 5:9.
I could be wrong about this, but it is an interesting case. Please tell me what you think!
Thanks for your interesting question. You have a sharp interpretive eye, and you make a good point - there is a problem in the way that most resources/scholars represent the ark and its orientation in the holy of holies. All of the scholarly representations of the orientation of the ark that I was able to find agree with what one also finds in the literature about these things, namely, that the ark was oriented north to south (just as you suggest), that is, its long side would have been parallel to the veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies (on this whole discussion I have profited from, though generally not agreed with, the remarks of Keil [see Keil and Deilitzsch, Commentary on the O.T. in loc], and Baehr [see Lange's Commentary in loc.]).
The traditional, rabbinical view, however, suggests the opposite interpretation, namely that ark formed a "T" with the veil. The "appearance" of the poles in the holy place is explained by the Rabbins as, essentially, "bumps" in the veil. That is to say, the poles were so long that they hit the veil and these indentations were visible without entering the inner sanctum. In spite of the scholarly consensus to the contrary (for most sources see the poles as being oriented north-south), I would say that without question the orientation of the poles is east-west as you suggest and as most readers would probably assume. Even by applying some enterprising linguistic gymnastics to the Hebrew of 1Ki.8:8, there is no making sense of the passage in any other way in my view. The reason, I believe, that the author makes such a point of the poles' visibility, is that this is a new thing. The main difference in Solomon's temple in regard to the holy of holies is the presence of two huge and ornate cherubs on the rear wall of the room. This would take up space that was not taken up before in the tabernacle. We are never told how long the poles are, but the point has been made that if they were indeed very near to the length of the holy of holies, that is, ten cubits long, that would not be an unreasonable length for such a heavy load (remembering that the stone tablets of the covenant were also placed therein). The reduction in space caused by the inclusion of the elaborate cherubs on the wall of Solomon's temple would account for poles' "bumping up into" the veil. This is also the best way of resolving the problem of the lead Hebrew verb form, yeariychu, which ought to mean something like "[the poles] were lengthened". Now if the poles themselves were not physically altered (and there is no indication that any changes were made other than this verb), then an alternate translation of "[the poles] were stretched out (i.e., in respect to new the space they now occupied by having the ark moved forward say a cubit)" makes perfectly good sense.
On the parade analogy, you certainly have a point here in regard to pagan Greek processions and Roman triumphs (not to mention "saint's day parades" in our own time). There is also an interesting representation of an Egyptian "ark" being carried in Davis' Dictionary of the Bible (sub voc. "Ark") that comports well with your suggestion. But while it is true that many of the features of the representations in the law possess similarities to various pagan cults on the one hand, on the other hand there are always ways in which the Mosaic temple rite is significantly different, and that is most understandable when one considers that these are legitimate representations of the true heavenly realities (cf. Heb.8:5; 9:23 etc.).
Consider the cherubim on the mercy seat. They overshadowed the seat with their wings opened up and out and they were on the "ends" of the mercy seat (Ex.25:20). For them to accomplish this they would almost have to be on the long sides of the ark (for if they were on the short sides they would not really give the impression of overshadowing or "covering"). And if they were on the long sides, the forward cherub would block the view of the throne, both from the perspective of the seat, and also from the perspective of the priest entering into the holy of holies - were that long side parallel to the veil. This was the place where the Lord told Moses that He would meet with him (cf. Ex.30:6). Neither this "meeting" nor the pouring out of the blood on the Day of Atonement on the mercy seat could be direct if the cherub blocked the view (i.e., Moses and the high priest would have to go around the side). Since all of the underlying symbolism ultimately represents Christ's appearance before the Father in resurrection, victorious after the cross, the direct approach to this symbolic throne would seem to be the right interpretation.
Then there is also the chariot analogy, for rather than a couch, the ark is really a symbolic "battle chariot". Here is what I written about that in Coming Tribulation part 2B: the Heavenly Prelude to the Tribulation:
The earthly "mercy-seat" of gold, covering the ark of the covenant (of which the golden cherubs form a part), is described in 1st Chronicles 28:18 as a "chariot", and this is consistent with descriptions of the heavenly throne throughout scripture. For example, in Daniel 7:9, the fiery throne has "wheels", and the descriptions of the throne in the book of Ezekiel can be interpreted in no other way (see especially Ezek.1:4-28; 10:9-22; cf. Ps.132:7), for as described by Ezekiel this throne is clearly a mobile instrument of battle wherewith God makes visitation of the earth, especially for the purpose of rendering divine judgment (cf. Hab.3:3-15).
It is true that ancient chariots were generally constructed a bit more rectangularly than square and with the long edge leading. But this was because they were also generally two-wheeled affairs. The Lord's chariot has four wheels, just as the ark has four rings (and at least four Levites to carry it). That construction changes both the mechanics and the dimensions, so that an automobile or a wagon is perhaps a better parallel when it comes to the proper orientation for forward movement. So in terms of the ark itself, one has to do more with this battle-chariot idea than that of a throne, for it is more of an active symbol than a passive one. This symbolism is important, for while the devil may currently be "enthroned" here as temporary ruler of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ is returning soon in battle array to divest Satan of his control of the earth.
Therefore I believe that you are correct about the orientation of the poles being east-west (in opposition to what most scholars say about this), but I would stick with the way the diagrams posted at Ichthys portray the orientation of the ark/chariot (namely, long sides parallel to the poles with all three lines oriented east to west, like a chariot facing outward towards those entering inward).
Thank you again for your intriguing question. This has helped me a great deal in deepening my own thinking on the matter. You have indeed found out a difficulty that I have never seen directly discussed in this way in the literature of these things. I commend your attention to detail and your obvious interest in the Word of God.
You might want to have a look at the following links which covers the symbolism of all the furniture of the tabernacle and its relation to the heavenly temple:
The Jewish Tabernacle
The Holy of Holies
Keep on fighting the good fight of faith.
In our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Bob - Thank you so much for your quick and thoughtful reply. There is one significance I don't think I mentioned about the poles on the Ark being east-west and visibly bumping into the veil-- The poles themselves would not be seen, but only the evidence of the poles as they pushed the veil out in those two places. This becomes very practical to the ministering priests in the Holy Place outside the curtain. As they minister each day, they can see the protruding curtain points and be reassured of the presence of the Ark, without being allowed to look at it. Isn't this how God is most of the time for us today? We cannot see Him directly, but we have definite daily evidence of His presence!
What a great application of the Word of God! Thanks again for your interest and your love of the truth.
In our Lord Jesus,