The Ark consists of two main parts. Its lower half was a chest formed from wood and gold which contained the "עֵדֻת" (testimony), while its upper half was a cover of solid gold upon which stood the "כְּרֻבִים" (cherubs). Attached to the chest were a golden crown and gold rings through which were placed gilded wooden poles. Each and every feature of the Ark is the subject of controversy amongst the commentators, and many of these issues will be discussed below.
Shemot 25:10-11 states that the chest of the Ark was made out of wood which was covered on both the inside and outside by gold. Despite the apparent clarity of these verses, there is a major disagreement between exegetes regarding the structure of the Ark and the nature of the gold covering. This dispute also has ramifications for understanding the relationship to the verses of Devarim 10:1-3 which refer to a wooden ark made by Moshe.
The weight of the Ark – Ibn Ezra argues that the Ark could not have contained more than one box, as additional boxes of pure gold would have been both too heavy to carry2 and would have required more gold than the nation collected.
Three Chests – Inner and Outer Chests of Gold and a Middle Chest of Wood
Commentators disagree whether the four rings mentioned in the first half of the verse are the same as the four (two plus two) rings mentioned in the second half of the verse. They also disagree about the placement of the various rings and regarding the meaning of the word "פַּעֲמֹתָיו".
Four Rings and No Legs
The Ark had only four rings attached to its corners, and it rested straight on the ground with no need for any legs.
"אַרְבַּע טַבְּעֹת...וּשְׁתֵּי טַבָּעֹת" – Rashi claims that the "ו" of "וּשְׁתֵּי" is superfluous, and that the second half of the verse is merely a restatement of its first half.
The height of the rings – Rashi maintains that the four rings were placed on the corners near the top of the Ark. Ramban, though, disagrees and says that the four rings were attached lower down, and thus the Ark was more visible when it was carried.
Eight Rings and Four Legs
The Ark had four rings attached to its legs, and an additional two rings on each of two sides.
"פַּעֲמֹתָיו" – Ibn Ezra equates the feminine form found in our verse with the masculine form "פעם" found in several other verses with the meaning of leg.6 He suggests that the Ark must have had legs as it would have been disrespectful to place it directly on the ground.
"אַרְבַּע טַבְּעֹת...וּשְׁתֵּי טַבָּעֹת" – Ibn Ezra proves from the extra "ו" that there were an additional four (two plus two) rings besides the four mentioned in the first half of the verse.
The height of the rings and the poles – Ibn Ezra suggests that the poles to carry the Ark were placed in the four upper rings, and that the four lower rings were purely decorative in nature.7
In both Shemot 25:16 and 25:21, Hashem commands Moshe to put the "עֵדֻת" in the Ark. Commentators disagree as far as the identity of this "עֵדֻת" and the reason for the duplication of the command. A number of additional verses are important for this issue. Devarim 10:1-5 recount how Moshe placed the Tablets in an ark,8Melakhim I 8:9 makes explicit that the Ark contained only the Tablets and nothing else, and Devarim 31:26 appears to indicates that Moshe's copy of the Torah was placed next to the Ark but not inside it. Nevertheless, exegetes debate where Moshe's Torah was housed and what was contained in the Ark.