ARK JUNIOR? Professor has new take on Israelite treasure

Brushing back a thick layer of dust, Tudor Parfitt revealed a distinctive interwoven pattern carved around the outside of the “terribly, terribly damaged” wooden artifact tucked away on the bottom shelf of a Zimbabwe warehouse.

“The moment I saw it, I felt there was something weird about it,” said Parfitt, a professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies. “I wasn’t simply in the presence of a neutral object.”

Parfitt believes he has found the Ark of the Covenant, the legendary vessel that once housed the Ten Commandments. Or at least something like it.

In his new book, The Lost Ark of the Covenant: Solving the 2,500 Year Old Mystery of the Fabled Biblical Ark, Parfitt describes how he found the artifact in a global trek that would have made Indiana Jones proud. He was shot at in Ethiopia, escaped capture by Islamist outlaws in Yemen and enlisted the help of a cannibalistic tribe in Papua New Guinea.

His 20-year hunt ended last year in Zimbabwe, at the Harare Museum of Human Science, where he found his treasure in a dusty storeroom.

According to the Book of Exodus, the Ark of the Covenant — a gold-covered container carried on poles, topped with two golden cherubim facing each other — was crafted on orders from God given to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Parfitt, however, thinks it is unlikely a group of ex-slaves wandering in the desert had the means to create an object so elaborate. That’s why the piece he found, a carved wooden drum, seems more likely, he said.

Parfitt began to suspect that the Ark of the Covenant was a drum in the late 1980s while studying an African tribe called the Lemba. Using genetic testing, he was able to verify a piece of their oral tradition, that they descended from Israelites.

Another idea central to the Lemba’s oral tradition was their sacred “ngoma lungundu,” a wooden drum that the tribe’s Israelite priests brought with them from Jerusalem.

“At that time, I thought to connect (it) too close to the Ark of Covenant was too off-the-wall,” Parfitt said. “There wasn’t the remotest amount of evidence.” However, after studying the similarities, Parfitt concluded that the ngoma and the Ark of the Covenant were one and the same: Both were the dwelling place of God, carried on poles, forbidden to touch the ground and connected with death, fire, smoke and noise.

Lemba tribal lore says the ngoma exploded and destroyed itself, an idea Parfitt used to explain why his relic was radiocarbon dated to A.D. 1350. Parfitt believes that the remains of the original Ark of the Covenant spawned the ngoma, an ark-junior, so to speak.

Some scholars are skeptical; Parfitt isn’t the first person to lay claim to the treasure. “It may be that this tribe developed their own Ark of the Covenant, but it doesn’t quite line up with the Tabernacle,” said Roy Bender, who gives tours of a model of the Tabernacle at the Mennonite Information Center in Lancaster, Pa.

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