There are all kinds of theories about what the ark of the covenant was. Joel Baden in The Historical David admits we do not know very much. His point about David is that he used the ark to make Jerusalem the religious center as much as the political and administrative center of his kingdom.
Functionally, he says that the ark of the covenant served as the Hebrew equivalent of an idol while having a different theological meaning.
Like an idol in a non-Israelite temple, the ark stood in the innermost sanctum, the place where the deity was understood to dwell. Just as copies of ancient Near Eastern treaties were placed in the temples of the respective parties so that the gods could act as witnesses, the ark–at least in Deuteronomy–was the location of the most fundamental covenant between God and Israel. Just as non-Israelites took their idols out to battle with them to guarantee victory, so too the Israelites took the ark with them. Obviously, it was not really an idol–it was not worshiped as if it were God himself. But its function was the symbolic equivalent (p.165).
The ark had been at the northern sanctuary of Shiloh originally. Shiloh may not have been like the other sanctuaries. It was the site of an annual festival. And Baden thinks it probably was a place people came for oracles, an “Israelite Delphi”. And it was the one that laid claim to the ark. (I have often wondered, though, how accurate that memory is. Since Shiloh held an annual festival, is it possible that the ark was brought there from another location for each festival? Shechem is the more natural location.)
Somehow, in the course of the Philistine wars, it ended up in the keeping of the Gibeonites just east (this is what Baden says, but I think it is west) of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem already had religious significance. It’s name is based on Shalem, the old Semitic god of dusk or the evening star. David needed to start anew and make it a religious center for the God of Israel.
So he obtained the ark and brought it to Jerusalem. The story of how this happened in the Bible is mostly an untrustworthy literary construction. Behind the large military contingent mentioned in 2 Samuel 6:1 is probably hidden the fact that David took the ark by force or a show of force.
Certain details about the move of the ark to Jerusalem sound exaggerated. Did they really stop and make sacrifice an ox and a fatling every time the ark had been carried six paces (that is what Baden says 2 Samuel 6:13 means–not that they sacrificed just after the first six paces)? And did David really provide cakes and meat for the “whole multitude of Israel” (2 Samuel 6:19)? Both of these claims are meant to show David’s immense wealth, but they are unlikely to be literally true.
Also the story of the death of Uzzah who accidentally touched the ark sounds like a folk legend.
However, that the ark came to Jerusalem accompanied by music and dancing is very likely something that happened.
David put the ark in a shrine on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24:18). Since Baden thinks David pretty much did away with the Jebusites, he does not trust the story of David buying the place. If Araunah was the Jebusite leader from whom David took Jerusalem, he fell to “David’s hungry sword”. The story in 2 Samuel is like the story of Abraham buying the cave of Machpelah in Genesis 23. It establishes legal ownership for the site of the shrine.
Another apologetic tendency in 2 Samuel is in the reasons given that David let the ark rest in a shrine and did not build a temple. This apology was only needed at a later time. David, in fact, did not build a temple, because he had no need for one.
What David did accomplish was to make Jerusalem the religious center for his whole kingdom. Baden emphasizes that there may have been an economic reason for this alongside the political and religious reasons. Like the placement of relics in Christian cathedrals in Europe, the placement of the ark in Jerusalem became a “draw” for pilgrims and festival-goers and a source of income for Jerusalem and David’s administration. This was one reason Jeroboam’s break-away northern kingdom had to set up new objects as draws at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12:25 ff).
I know that solid evidence for David’s religious sentiments is lacking. Yet, I wonder if playing up the political and economic side doesn’t miss something real. I see good reason to trace Psalm 132 back to the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. It was a part of the liturgy of dedication. Anyway, although the Psalm is not authored by David, it may go back to a time when its author was in a position to know something about David. Here are the sentiments he attributes to David:
…he made a vow to the Lord,
and swore an oath to the powerful ruler of Jacob;
He said, “I will not enter my own home,
or get into my bed.
I will not allow my eyes to sleep,
or my eyelids to slumber,
until I find a place for the Lord,
a fine dwelling place for the powerful ruler of Jacob” (NET Bible).
In verse 8 that Psalm shows an archaic understanding for the ark, calling it God’s resting place and the ark of his might. At the very least, it seems to me, Psalm 132 puts us in touch with a religious understanding about the ark from the united monarchy.