"Raiders of the Lost Ark," which has grossed $46 million in its first 26 days to pace the movie industry's summer comeback, is a cliffhanging thriller from the people who brought you "Star Wars" and "Jaws."
This time, however, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg have reached not into the ocean depths or the mists of the future for the stuff of adventure -- but back to the thunderstruck era of the Old Testament.
The "Lost Ark" in question is the biblical Ark of the Covenant, the gilded container in which Moses placed the tablet of the Ten Commandments. Not since Charlton Heston parted the Red Sea have such vast audiences wondered where -- if at all -- the line between sacred text and movie script was drawn.
Rabbi Stanley Rabinowtiz, of Adas Israel Congregation, has seen "Raiders" and finds it "gripping." "Of course, beyond the reproduction of the ark itself, it has no basis in fact," he adds.
Suzanne Singer, associate editor of the biblical Archaeology Review, characterizes the film as "nonsense." Singer's mother-in-law found the film somewhat sacrilegious, although her children loved it.
For its part, Paramount Pictures is playing down any presumed biblical or historical or archeological veracity in "Raiders." George Lucas is officially quoted as saying, "The thing to keep in mind about this film is that it is only a movie.It takes all the license of an exotic entertainment that aims to thrill and scare and strike one with a sense of wonder."
Nevertheless, the wonder centers on the Ark of the Convenant, that formidable vessel still familiar to uncounted pupils of Sunday school, Hebrew school and confirmation class. In any depiction of the battles of the Israelites against the Phillistines, it seemed inevitably to crop up -- borne like a shield by the soldiers of the Lord.
In "Raiders," the dashing archeologist Indiana Jones, assisted only by a bullwhip and a hard-drinking, kidnapprone lady swashbuckler, is assigned to find the ark before the bad guys do. Since the movie is set in 1936, the bad guys are none other than Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich, who plan to use the ark's powers to render their army invincible.
The movie ark turns out to be a very theatrical gold-plated strongbox indeed. Unearthed in a dig at Tanis, in Egypt, it proves to have even more shocking powers than the Nazis expected.
Although Hitler was a fan of astrology and the occult, he is not known to have actually sought the sacred ark. But tales of the ark did surface now and again in the gathering storm of the 1930s.
In July of 1936, a news service reported from Paris that a Semitic syndicate had approached French underwriters about the chances of insuring the ark -- reputed by the dispatch to be located in Ethiopia -- against war damage.
The news service explained that "the oblong, coffin-like chest of acacia wood, overlaid with gold within and without, was carried into battle by the Jews in ancient times as a protection against the enemy.
"It was believed that the Ethiopians, with their Semitic tradition and ancestry, might again bring it forth. This time it would be in the midst of tanks, airplanes and machine guns instead of spear-bearing foemen as recorded in the Old Testament."
News of this report gave Rabinowitz pause, since, as he put it, "There has never been any evidence of any kind that the ark exists today.
"But if there was an ark," the Rabbi continued, "we would know right where to look. It would be under the Mosque of Omar, in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. Its location has been pretty well pinpointed by geologists and archeologists. Of course, it would be covered by the debris of centuries."
Asked if anyone had considered digging up the ark, Rabinowitz was patient.
"You see, this is the Holy of Holies," he explained. Then he vividly described the political ramifications of trying to excavate behind the Wailing Wall, dig down through a Moslem shrine and spade through the remains of temples built by Kings David, Solomon and Herod, and thereafter destroyed by the Romans. The rabbi's description of the ramifications was so vivid that he asked it be off the record.
Rabinowitz, however, gave the filmmakers good marks for their rendering of the ark. "It's very specifically described in the Bible. They did a good job of reproducing it."
The instructions the movie prop department followed were those given to Moses at Mount Sinai, and Exodus 25 recounts them in detail:
"Two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof." The ark was to be overlaid with pure gold, and have four rings of gold, and then two staves of wood were to be prepared, and covered in gold.
Exodus 25:14: "And thou shalt put the staves into the rings by the sides of the ark, that the ark may be borne with them."
Copying the ark was easy. But even modern special effects can't compete with the description of the extraordinary powers of the ark, as described in the Book of Samuel. The filmmakers were wise not to even try.
Second Samuel, Chapters 6, 7 and 8 recount that even King David was sorely perplexed by the ark's power. Once, when a fellow named Uzzah merely put his hand on the ark, he was smitten dead. This scared King David so much that he left the ark in somebody else's house for three months.
But he eventually brought it home, and was rewarded with much success in his campaigns against the Philistines. He smote Hadadezer, at the River Euphrates, winning 1,000 chariots and 20,000 footmen. When the Syrians came in support, David slew 22,000 of them. He received many gifts of silver, gold and brass, and had garrisons in Syria thereafter.
The Philistines naturally tried everything to get their hands on the ark, and did, but came to regret it (First Samuel, Chapter 5). They put the ark in the temple of their god, Dagon. The next morning Dagon was found toppled over. So they set Dagon up again, and the morning after that, when they went in, Dagon's head has been cut off -- and so had the palms of his hands.
However, the Philistines kept the ark for seven months, during which they carried it around with them, as King David had done. This was a serious mistake, and resulted in the Lord smiting them with emerods (Chapters 5 and 6).
"And it was so, that, after they had carried it about, the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts."
Chapter 5, Verse 12: "And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven."
There are no emerods (hemorrhoids) in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," just a lot of snakes and poison darts and narrow escapes, and a great deal of swashbuckling archeology.
What bothers Suzanne Singer is that it's bogus archeology.
"Oh, I know some real stories that are better than this," she said. "This is just a mishmash. There's no archeological truth to it. If you enjoy it, you enjoy it for the snakes.
"As for the ark, I don't believe it exists. Certainly, no one has ever found a piece of it. I don't know about any such dig at Tanis, as the movie says.
"But I don't believe it was ever in the Temple of Solomon, either. That temple was destroyed in the 6th century B.C. by the Babylonians. Then, after that, it was rebuilt once. Then King Herod did a really major rebuilding job in the 1st century B.C.
"Herod really went right down to bedrock, and enlarged the whole thing, so I would be extremely surprised if anything at all remained from the original temple. And then, the Romans destroyed everything Herod had built in 70 A.D. They just melted it down.
"I suppose there is a very remote possibility that if archeologists were permitted to dig down below the current Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem -- if you could imagine that, politically, and I certainly can't -- well, maybe. But I really don't believe they'd find anything. I doubt that the ark existed at the time when Herod was building."
Asked then, about the question of whether the ark exists today -- and if it exists, where -- Singer had a quick answer.
"It's a non-problem," she said. "It's not a problem anyone is working on."