The Ark of the Covenant from an Engineering Perspective

The thesis of this paper is this: It might be entirely possible that the sequences described in the Torah pertaining the the fire that emerges from the Ark of the Covenant are explainable by the physics of high energy electrical fields, hence while awesome, are not a miracle in the sense of needing divine intervention to work.

The Torah portion Shemini (the eighth (day)) contains the tragic deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were burned to death after spontaneously deciding to bring incense pans with “strange fire”  into the part of the Traveling Tent called the Mishkan that held the Ark of the Covenant.

There are many interpretations of this confounding anecdote about the fiery death of these two young men. Was it a punishment on them, or a punishment on their father Aaron for the golden calf incident? Was it because they wore the wrong clothes or brought eish zara, a strange fire with them?

Being an electrical engineer I have a theory about this tragedy, that comes about from the very nature of the Ark of the Covenant itself. To see a source of this, we have to look back to the sections that describe how to construct the ark, and the vestments the high priest must wear when approaching it, written in 1933 by a Dean of Electrical Engineering.

According to an article that appeared in the March 5th, 1933 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, Frederick Rogers, the Dean of the Department of Engineering at the Lewis Institute of Technology, conducted a careful study of the construction of the Ark as described in the Bible, and concluded that its design matched a perfectly constructed simple electric condenser:

The scientific interest in the construction pointed out by Prof. Rogers was that the acacia wood box—about 40 inches long and slightly less than 30 inches in width and in depth—not only was lined with gold teal on the inside but overlaid with the same metal without.

This, according to Prof. Rogers, is the first step that any modern boy with a flare for electrical experimentation will take to create a Leyden jar, except that in the Leyden jar, a glass receptacle is coated on the inside and outside with tin foil instead of gold. Then, with the aid of a rod with a small knob at the top and a short chain at the bottom which is inserted through the cork so that the chain can make contact with the bottom of the jar, the young experimenter is ready to collect small charges of bottled lighting.

But the Ark of the Covenant was a much larger condenser….The divine directions called for the creation of two cherubim of pure gold to be placed on a gold slab or “mercy seat” overtop the Ark. These cherubim, Prof. Rogers explained, made up what he believes to have been the positive pole of the circuit.

He explained…that it is known among physicists that a “difference of potential” exists between the earth and the air which may be collected in electrical charges under certain favorable conditions…It was explained that even slight movements of heat rising in smoke—such as from burning sacrifices or even incense—would distribute lesser charges of static electricity….This, Prof. Rogers explained, may have accounted for the collecting of bolts powerful enough to cause death.

Professor Rogers established the fact that the details for the construction of the ark would have likely made it a very powerful electrical condenser,  also called a capacitor. A capacitor is designed to hold electrical energy, and the larger the capacitor the more charge it can hold.  A Leyden jar, or large capacitor can certainly hold enough electrical charge to create a spark large enough to look like lightning, and strong enough to kill.

A giant modern electrical capacitor
Moses and Joshua bowing before the Ark (c. 1900). Gouache on board, 18.7 x 22.5 cm (7 3/8 x 8 13/16 in). Jewish Museum, New York City: a giant ancient capacitor?

If the Ark was indeed a giant capacitor, numerous sections of the Torah make sense from the point of view of electrical safety. Let’s consider the world today where the electrical grid is the world’s largest machine, and we have this powerful force of electricity so controlled as to be literally at our fingertips.

You may occasionally see modern-day installations called electrical substations. They are fenced areas surrounding a lot of scary-looking equipment, and electrical lines coming and out.

Electrical substation in Moore County, North Carolina

Having worked with a supplier of electrical equipment I spent some time inside the fence of electrical substations in and around Tennessee. There’s a reason they are fenced and have large warning signs.

When you go inside the fence, and approach high voltages you can feel the power – there’s a low-frequency hum everywhere, and your body senses the strong electrical field.

For a bunch of wandering ex-slaves wandering in the Sinai peninsula electricity would have only been apparent as lightning where its appearance often signaled a life-threatening thunderstorm. Being able to channel, and be safe from lightning is a power that is referred to in many cultural mythologies – think of Thor and Zeus and their mythic control over lightning.

If we accept the idea that the Ark is a giant capacitor a couple of questions arise in the minds of the curious engineer: What can charge up this capacitor, and how do ensure no one gets electrocuted from it? But the big question is: What do a bunch of desert wanderers need with a giant capacitor?

Layout of the Mishkan. Note the Ark is in line with the Altar

In Leviticus 9:24 at the dedication of the Mishkan, all the Israelites were gathered in front of the altar to witness the glory of God.

And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces.

Looking at the diagram above, it’s plausible that this holy fire emerged from the innermost vault where the ark of the covenant had been storing up electrical energy, and jumped as lightning to the altar, burning the offering to a crisp.

Obedience by Awe

The Hebrew word יראה (Yirah) has two meanings; sometimes it is interpreted as fear, and sometimes as awe. Whenever miracles are presented in the Torah, they invoke both awe and fear, which gets used to keep the unruly Israelites in line to keep the commandments Moses received from God.

The American Heritage dictionary defines a miracle as:

        1. An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.

which also reminds me of the quote from Arthur C. Clarke about miracles:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The thesis of this paper is this: It might be entirely possible that the sequences described in the Torah pertaining the the fire that emerges from the Ark of the Covenant are explainable by the physics of high energy electrical fields, hence while awesome, are not a miracle in the sense of needing divine intervention to work.

But the show is certainly impressive and was probably a key element of keeping a bunch of unruly ex-slaves from constantly questioning why they had to do so many things that didn’t make sense to them.  The Torah is full of wisdom about how to sustainably manage, move, and feed a large population, but then, like now, many people distrust leadership and only want to do what they understand and agree with. Having an image of an all-powerful God was a pretty useful tool for maintaining obedience, for keeping people behaving in a way that was good for long-term societal survival, even if they didn’t always understand why. Having Him perform the occasional miracle helped cement the fear of consequences, and encourage obedience.  As it says in Exodus 24:6

נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע – na’aseh v’nishmah
They said, “All that Adonai has spoken, we will do and we will listen.”

Charging up the Ark: Smoke and Fire

Given there was no electrical grid at the time, the surest way to charge a capacitor is with lightning – nature has used lighting for 3.5 billion years or so and may be the initial spark that created life on Earth.

The wandering Israelites didn’t have to wait for lightning storms to charge up the ark, because a pillar of smoke and fire accompanied the mishkan throughout its journey. Through the pillar of fire, lighting could descend and charge the large capacitor which was the ark of the covenant. The concurrence of lighting inside a column of smoke is well established, and is called pyrocumulonombi – fire clouds.

Tesla coil at the Spark Museum in Bellingham WA

Protecting audience members and staff from is of course an important safety factor, and is accomplished with a device called a Faraday Cage. Developed from the theories of Michael Faraday in the 19th century, a Faraday shield is a metal cage. Faraday discovered that an external electric field could be completely stopped by a surrounding metal shield, and there would be no electrical field inside the cage. Faraday cages are used regularly to create regions free from electrical interference, for testing electrical equipment. Some people even experiment with going inside them to feel what it’s like to be in an environment somewhat free of electromagnetic fields.

A ground connection for a house

For maximum safety, the Faraday Cage should be grounded, i.e. connected directly to the earth with a low-resistance copper cable. You may have seen this same grounding cable in your own home near the electrical box, where a large braided or twisted copper cable connects the electrical ground plugs of all the outlets in your home to the earth. At one time that was done by clamping the copper cable onto a metal water pipe, but now in the age of plastic pipes, you’ll often find the house ground connection attached to a spike just outside the foundation of your house.

The Torah has a lengthy and detailed description of the robes that were to be worn by the High Priest when he approached the innermost section of the Mishkan where the ark of the covenant was stored. It seems very possible that the design was meant to act as a wearable Faraday cage.

The Faraday Cage of the Ephod

The Torah goes into great details as to the proper design and construction of the Ephod, and it includes a lot of gold. Gold is long recognized to be one of the best electrical conductors.

Exodus 28:4 “These are the vestments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and a sash. They shall make those sacral vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons, for priestly service to Me

28:6 “They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, worked into designs.”
So the Ephod is a garment laced with gold thread, the essence of making it a Faraday shield.

Exodus 28:33 “On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around

Various renderings show these bells and pomegranates differently but being at the hem of the ephod, the golden bells will touch the floor, effectively grounding the ephod.

28:55 “Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before יהוה and when he goes out—that he may not die.”

This sounds like a warning of prevention, very much like the High Voltage warning in the sign above.

28:43 “These [garments] must be worn by Aharon and his sons whenever they come into Tent of Meeting, or approach the altar to serve in the Holy [sanctuary], in order that they not bear iniquity and die. This is an everlasting statute for him and his descendants after him.”

For those who thought that it was petty to think that Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Avihu died because they “wore the wrong clothes” I hope this puts that in a new light – the Ark had the potential to hold a massive electrical charge accumulated from lighting and pyrocumulism, and approaching it and its dangerously high electrical fields needed protective clothing, like the Ephod – a highly prescribed precisely constructed, grounded, wearable Faraday shield meant to protect humans from the powerful forces of high voltage electricity.

Nadav and Avihu’s deaths were tragic, and unnecessary, and a harsh reminder that some rules are in place for safety, even if not everyone understands the reason. Na’aseh v’nishmah.



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