Made of acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold, the ark of the covenant contained the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Built so that it could be carried with poles inserted into rings on the ark, the Israelites carried the ark of the covenant during their forty years of wandering in the desert. During military engagements, the ark served as a standard and was crucial to the protection and military success of their army: Joshua had the ark lead the way across the Jordan river when the Israelites first crossed into the Promised Land and the ark was part of the procession around the walls of Jericho before they fell. Important as a battle standard, more crucially, by containing the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, it contained the law that was the covenant of God and His chosen people, Israel. The ark literally held the law and symbolically held the social bonds of Israel. Israel as a collective people was held together horizontally—that is, there were bonds between individuals, families, and clans—but ultimately, they were held together through their shared vertical bond with God. Through the law, the people of Israel were united together with God. Hence, the ark of the covenant was the law itself, the social bond of the people of Israel, Israel’s connection to God, the promise and covenant of God, and the presence of God on earth.
This Saturday, the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates a rather unusual feast: the “Remembrance of the Old Ark of the Covenant and the Feast of the Holy Church, the New Ark.” As we have noted before, Saturday is normally one of the days of the week given over to the commemoration of saints, usually “high-profile” saints. In the past weeks, for instance, Saturday commemorations have included one dedicated to St. Gregory, one to King Drtad and Queen Ashkhen, and one dedicated to the Twelve Apostles and St. Paul, the “Thirteenth Apostle.” Illustrious company indeed! While the Armenian Church tends to place feasts on Sundays, the dominical day, the Day of the Lord, feasts do sometimes fall on other days. Yet this Saturday’s commemoration and feast defies easy categorization. Despite its unusual character, the “Remembrance of the Old Ark of the Covenant and the Feast of the Holy Church, the New Ark,” cleaves directly to an important idea, one whose source can be found in the New Testament. As St. Paul says in his epistle to the Hebrews, after describing how the ark of the covenant was kept behind a set of curtains in a tent called the Holy of Holies, it was Christ as high priest who “entered once and for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” He continues that this makes Christ “the mediator of a new covenant.” In other words, if the ark of the covenant was the actual and symbolic presence of the law and the covenant that bound Israel together and to God, Christ has inaugurated a new covenant that, through Him, binds both Jew and Gentile together as a new people, the Holy Church. Symbolically, then, the Church becomes the new ark of the new covenant. The Church, in Greek ecclesia (from which we get the Armenian եկեղեցի/yegeghetsi), is the gathering together of the people of Christ, bound together through Him as a new covenant.
Fundamentally, this is a typological idea: the ark of the covenant is a type of the Church, whose meaning is only truly understood in the fulfillment of the new covenant. As we have discussed before with reference to Jonah as a type of Christ, Armenian Christians through the centuries have made use of typological thinking in order to interpret Scripture, liturgy, and history. Armenian Christian thinkers have made robust use of the typological method, even playing with the assumptions about time that characterizes much typological thinking. Fulfillment of meaning suggests a one-directional movement of time: the ark of the covenant prefigures, comes before, and finds its full meaning as a type in the emergence of the new covenant and the new ark, the Church. Armenians have often complicated ideas about time and history in the way they deploy typology as a method of hermeneutics, of interpretation. The Church is certainly the new ark of the new covenant. Yet, Armenian writers have also recognized the ways that such an idea of fulfillment also illuminates the “earlier” part of the type. They have also found resonances across multiple times and types. We will explore further some of this thinking, specifically as it relates to historical writing.
|The Genius of Israel: A Reading of Hebrew Scriptures Prior to the Exile||Offering a reading of the first portions of the Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament), this book by Carleton Noyes helps to explain the role of the ark of the covenant in the history of the people of Israel.|
|The Old Testament in the Light of the Ancient East||By Alfred Jeremias, this book is an interpretation of the Old Testament by comparison with other literary and archaeological evidence about the people and cultures of the time and place of the patriarchs and Kingdom of Israel.|
|Treasures from the Ark: 1700 Years of Christian Art||As type, symbol, and interpretative device, the ark has been widely appealed to by Armenians. Here, Vrej Nersessian uses the ark as a metaphor for the land of Noah and for a collection of the Christian art of Armenia.|
Outside of direct scriptural interpretation, the most famous use of typological thinking in the Armenian tradition is perhaps Eghishe’s appeal to the Book of Maccabees to understand the well-known story of St. Vartan and his companions. As translator and commentator Robert Thomson notes, while Eghishe is “indebted[ed] to the books of the Maccabees throughout his History, [he] only once refers to them by name.” In a time and style of writing when citation is not common, however, this is very striking. Eghishe notes that the Armenians under St. Vartan are like the Maccabees who “fought for their God-given religion.” As Thomson paraphrases, “they fought against the Seleucid king in defense of their religion’ even though they died in battle, their fame survived both on earth and in heaven.” While other Armenian authors quote specific episodes from the Book of Maccabees, for Eghishe, Thomson notes, the pattern of his whole interpretation of the Armenian revolt is based on the Maccabees. In other words, the Maccabees are a historical precedent and type of the Armenian heroes of Vartanantz.
Here, we have a clear example of typology with a chronological order, where the first and earlier event and group (the Maccabees) is used to interpret, organize, and understand the second and later (St. Vartan and his companions). However, there is not really the same sense of “fulfillment” that accompanies Jonah as the type of Christ. The Maccabees are a type in that they help us understand the events of Vartanants, but the meaning of the Maccabean defense is not fulfilled by St. Vartan and his companions. Just as likely, for an Armenian familiar with the story of St. Vartan, but who perhaps has never read the Book of Maccabees or the Jewish writer Josephus’ further comments on the events, St. Vartan and his companions actually helps illuminate the story of the Maccabees. In this use of typology for historical understanding, the unidirectional “fulfillment” of a type is less important than the heuristic or explanatory value of the resonances between two historical events. Through the similarities of events, people, and occurrences in history, we can have a better understanding of both.
Another aspect of Armenian uses of typology is the willingness to apply a type over multiple examples. For instance, while Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days is clearly a type of Jesus Christ’s three days buried before His Resurrection, it could also be a type for other three-day events. Armenian exegetes (interpreters) were often willing to follow multiple associations and illuminate the similarities and connections between all of them. For historical uses of typology, this means that our understanding of history and historical events can weave across time and be shot through with prophecy and fulfillment, past and present. Our example of St. Vartan makes this clear. Visual depictions of Vartanants and the Battle of Sardarabad between Armenian and Turkish forces in 1918 will both emphasize the presence of clergy, such that St. Ghevond becomes a type of Catholicos Karekin Hovsepian. We can say, then, that the Maccabees, St. Vartan and his companions, and the Armenians at Sardarabad are all related somehow, and that our understanding of one event influences, shapes, and expands our understanding of the others. In Mark Twain’s adage, history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but “it often rhymes.”
Using typological thinking for historical understanding goes against schools of historical writing that have held sway for centuries. Recent historical writing is again more willing to make comparisons across time and space, but for a long time, the linear progression of time and the uniqueness of historical events were historical dogma. Typological thinking, then, helps us to understand history differently. Similarly, typological thinking as practiced by Armenian exegetes over the centuries offers us a broad, expansive, generative way of doing theology where the more important criterion is its usefulness. The Armenian exegete asks, “Is this lesson or this connection edifying in some way?” With an expansive typological view, we might add to the two arks of Saturday’s feast, the ark of the covenant and the Church as the new ark, a third: Noah’s ark. Like the ark of the covenant, Noah’s ark has long been taken as a type of the Church: the container of God’s people, His promise of salvation, the rainbow as a new covenant. Applying typological thinking across multiple events provides a magnificent source of edification, a way to improve our understanding of both history and theology.
|History of Vardan and the Armenian War||Eghishe’s classic account of St. Vartan, his companions, and war against the Persians, translated with commentary by Robert W. Thomson. Eghishe uses typological thinking to structure his account of the Armenians on the story of the Maccabees.|
|The Works of Josephus, Complete and Unabridged||Including the famous (and controversial) Jewish historian Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, where he relates the story of the Maccabees. The Maccabees were used as an interpretative type for St. Vartan and his companions by Egishe. At St. Nersess.|
|The Battle of Sardarabad||By Jacques Kayaloff, a book about the historical and highly consequential battle of Sardarabad between Armenian and Turkish forces in 1918. The imagery of the battle has often invoked the Battle of Avarayr|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter for other ark-related images. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook!