Monday, January 29, 2007

Covering the Ark

An interesting comment was left a few days ago by Jason from North Carolina, on the 'Day of Atonement' post. Jason pointed out that, in Numbers 4:1-15 the Ark of the Covenant along with the other items of furniture in the Tabernacle were always covered while in transit.

I have drawn the Ark uncovered while in transit at least twice that I can think of! This highlights another problem that Bible illustrators face. We tend to only read the portion of scripture that we're about to illustrate. Numbers 4 is one of those passages that sets a precedent for all the verses that follow concerning the Ark.
Just about every Bible artist I know has missed this one! The fact is, the only time we should show the Ark uncovered, is when it's in the Holy of Holies.

I'm slowly redoing all of our earlier Bible stories in the new (more detailed) style. So, when I redo both the 'Crossing of the Jordan' and 'The walls of Jericho' stories, the ark will be well and truly covered! Thanks Jason.
Another interesting question is, what was the Ark of the Covenant actually covered with?

Badger skins or Dugong hides?
When I was reading the verses above, (in the amplified Bible), I was very surprised to read that the Ark was covered with 'porpoise or dolphin skins'! (not badger skins). On further inspection, I noticed that the amplified Bible also records that the Tabernacle itself was covered with dolphin or porpoise skins! If you're as confused as I was, then you might find the excert below, (from, enlightening.

The word 'Badger' is found in Ex. 25:5; 26:14; 35:7, 23; 36:19; 39:34; Num. 4:6, etc. The tabernacle was covered with badgers' skins; the shoes of women were also made of them (Ezek. 16:10). Our translators seem to have been misled by the similarity in sound of the Hebrew tachash_ and the Latin _taxus, "a badger." The revisers have correctly substituted "seal skins." The Arabs of the Sinaitic peninsula apply the name tucash to the seals and dugongs which are common in the Red Sea, and the skins of which are largely used as leather and for sandals. Though the badger is common in Palestine, and might occur in the wilderness, its small hide would have been useless as a tent covering. The dugong, (pictured above), very plentiful in the shallow waters on the shores of the Red Sea, is a marine animal from 12 to 30 feet long, something between a whale and a seal, never leaving the water, but very easily caught. It grazes on seaweed, and is known by naturalists as Halicore tabernaculi.

I have only ever seen the covering of the Tabernacle depicted in illustrations, (and on models), as consisting of brown fur. If Dugong hides were used, the covering would have been a bluish-grey in color, and almost leather like. If anyone has any other comments on this, we'd like to hear them!
(Dugong image:

Related posts:
The Day of Atonement
The contents of the Ark


The White Man said...

I have considerable problems with all the options mentioned so far. It just doesn't make sense to me that God would prescribe a covering for all his holy articles that was made from an unclean animal.

Obviously, though, what was needed was the skin of a very large animal. For this purpose, and due to research into medieval Jewish manuscripts, I'm most inclined to interpret this animal as "giraffe."

In case you haven't been keeping up with kosher news, giraffes are clean animals. And they are very common in the upper reaches of the Nile.

And their huge ides are just the thing for covering large objects.

Bible artist said...

What is equally puzzling is that the blue dye that was used for dying the tzitzit is also thought to come from a non-kosher mollusk! As you will know this blue dye was also used in the high priests garments and the veil in the tabernacle.

I was looking at giraffe's in the flesh only last week when I took my grandson to visit the zoo. Although the kosher argument is a good point, I'm not convinced that they would have been chosen for the size of their hides. Although giraffes are huge, (in height at least), you wouldn't get much hide from their legs or neck, which only leaves their torso which I would imagine is similar in size to a large cow.

They would have made a very colorful covering though!

The White Man said...

Mollusks were probably listed as unclean because of the way they feed, which would make their meat unsafe to eat.

A dye extract, however, would be a whole different issue; just as many dyes which would be toxic to eat are just fine for coloring clothing.

I disagree that there isn't much hide on a giraffe. The necks would provide long trapezoidal strips that could be sewn together in top-to-bottom formation to form a large tarpaulin.

Bible artist said...

I'm afraid that my knowledge of skinning animals is limited-!! In fact, cutting the bread crumbs off a fish finger is probably the closest I've got! So I'm 'out of my depth' when it comes to discussing the sewing together of trapezoidal strips from the neck of a giraffe-!!

There's been a lot of interest in the Giraffe recently since it was officially announced (only last month) to be kosher! I would be interested to know if the 'giraffe theory' has been around for a while, or has been sparked by the recent wave of interest?
I have read a brief article based on the theory that the Hebrew word Tachash may have referred to the giraffe, (see, which is interesting.

The 'Ask Moses' team state that the ark and Tabernacle were covered with "Goat skins", and also skins from the "Tachash" which in their opinion "is an animal that only existed then" (in Old Testament times). According to Rashi's commentary the Tachash is a "kosher, multi-colored, one horned desert animal which came into existence to be used to build the Tabernacle and ceased to exist afterward".

The currently popular "Dugong' theory came about because of the similarity between the word Tachash and the Arabic word Tukhas which means Dugong! It's interesting that, even though the dugong is not kosher, the 'Jewish Publication Society translation' translates Tachash as dolphin or sea cow! (dugong).

The White Man said...

I'm not an expert on semitic languages, so this is a bit tentative, but I am able to read the dictionary both in Arabic and Hebrew. I looked up the alleged Arabic word 'tukhas' and didn't find it listed anywhere(there are at least 4 ways it could be transliterated back into Arabic). I checked the English-Arabic dictionary and found 'sea cow' and 'seal' translated as 'buqrah' and 'fuqmah' respectively. Porpoise was 'khunzir al bahr' or 'sea pig'.

So 'tukhas' must be a colloquial term at best. One thing I've learned about Arabic animal names is that they are seldom of semitic origin.

Bible artist said...

My source for the Arabic word 'tukhas' was Wikipedia which some academics don't always consider reliable!

The White Man said...

I don't doubt that there is a word something like "tukhas" that is used by Gulf Arabs for large sea mammals; however, I have reasons to doubt its Semitic origin or relevance to ancient Hebrew. I would find it a prime candidate for the category of false cognate, as I would the Egyptian word.

I don't know that it means "giraffe" either, but that, in my opinion, is just as viable an option linguistically, plus we have history on our side.

William H said...

Giraffa camelopardalis is not native to Egypt or Israel, as far as we know. It ranges as far north as the southern Sudan/Ethiopia. At least in modern times. (Who knows about the past, though. Western Asia used to have lions and bears and some places, tigers! The Asian leopard is barely holding on.) The hide would have to be some kind of animal they could hunt.
Lev 11:10-11 says to detest sea/stream critters if no fins, no scales. Perhaps the dugong, with it's finlike tail and limbs, is close enough?

The White Man said...

Obviously the giraffe's range was much larger back in antiquity. Pictographs of giraffes can be found throughout the Nile valley in what is now the Sahara desert. It didn't have to be native to Goshen, just close enough to the Nile to allow easy trade with the downstream population centers.

No way dugongs were clean: no scales. But there may be something to the idea that the word had changed meanings between Exodus and Ezekiel, and by his time, the Sahara having cut off knowledge of the giraffe, the name was assigned to sea cows on the basis of their hides, which were reminiscent of the giraffe's in size.

As an example of this happening in modern times, what Americans call a moose is still known as an elk in Europe, but the word 'elk' has been assigned to a different animal altogether in North America. Similar things happened to 'robin', 'polecat', and 'corn'.

LyndsayB said...

I was just reading Exodus today, and came accross the part about covering the Tabernacle with the hide from a "sea cow" or "dugong" neither of which had I ever heard of. So I decided to Google it. I'm glad to have found this blog! Though, now I am slightly more confused than I was previously!! I guess I will need to do some more research, as well as asking God for some guidance on my questions!

LyndsayB said...

I thought I would add an after thought as well.. I know that this post is several years old, but it is new to me!! I decided to look it up in other versions, Some said badger, some said sea cow, some said fine leather, or just leather, or porpoise skin, or goatskin, while another said violet coloured skins.. When I looked it up in the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible) they called it sealskins. Seals are a land creature as well.. Are they then clean? Not trying to rile up a dicussion, but this is very interesting to me!! :D

Bible artist said...

Thanks for that Lyndsay! It is a very interesting subject.
Because I have to draw these items I need to decide which way to go after reading all the information that I can find. It's difficult though when the experts don't agree either! As you've pointed out, this post raises more questions that it answers! If you find out any more info let me know.

I'll pop over to your blog when I get a minute!
Thanks again.

The White Man said...

No, Lyndsay, seals are not clean; they are predators. To be clean, and animal EITHER has to split the hoof and chew cud, OR have fins and scales and swim, OR have six legs and hop around on the ground, except when it's flying.

The White Man said...

Some said badger, some said sea cow, some said fine leather, or just leather, or porpoise skin, or goatskin, while another said violet coloured skins..

These are all different words in known Semitic languages similar to "tachash" that scholars have hypothesized as carrying its true meaning. "Violet" is the reading of the Greek and Latin OT's, and no one has any idea where they got that one from. Apparently they didn't have any better of an idea than we do.

Bible artist said...

Thanks for that White Man!

LyndsayB said...

I can't imagine trying to draw this, not really knowing what exactly it should look like.

As far as the other "stuff" goes.. I have wondered through out this research of my own, if this animal, is not an animal that we have ever seen. It could have been an animal around for just a small amount of time. Or has not roamed this Earth for centuries. Therefore our language would not have a proper translation for it. I know that when I meet Jesus face to face, he can tell me all about it! Whether it is an unknown animal, a badger, a giraffe, leather, or an animal similar to a "dugong." Though, knowing that, doesn't curb my curiosity in the least!

Anonymous said...

Hello. Love the article/ Interesting thing to note however though is that in the Hebrew in the verses mentioned the word used is Tachash (Tet, chet, shin) from right to left. So this might help alleviate some of the confusion. Also while in modern Hebrew this translates as porpoise or dolphin the more accurate biblical translation would be the "dugong" which is a cousin to the manitee.
As far as the kosher issue, please try to remember that Biblically speaking unclean animals is in reference to food and not to use of, (except for pig which we are not even to touch the flesh if it is dead). So as far as using the hides of a sea cow (or badger for that matter also a non-kosher animal) there is no issue.

Bible artist said...

Thanks anonymous! That's a really helpful guide. One of the problems on this blog is that we are often discussing Jewish traditions from a non-jewish perspective which is never easy!

The White Man said...

1. There is no linguistic relationship between the modern Hebrew word 'Tachash' and the ancient one. 'Tachash' was assigned the meaning of 'porpoise or dolphin' in Modern Hebrew because that is what Hebrew linguists thought its meaning was. The original meaning had long since become obscure before the creation of modern Hebrew (which only shares about 5-10% of its vocabulary with ancient Hebrew).

2. You may have a point about the kosher issue. But as ubiquitous as donkeys were, I don't read about any use of donkey hides. Not even firstborn donkeys that were dedicated to the Lord seem to have been put to any holy use--they just had their necks broken.

3. Current Jewish custom is of limited use in determining the Tabernacle cultus, as the latter has been out of use far longer than it was in use. In Jesus' time the tabernacle was already ancient history. At least the Temple was still functioning, but he still berated the Pharisees for all the baggage they had already attached to the Torah.

These are all good ideas, but we will probably have to wait for the definitive answer.

LyndsayB said...

Thank you for that perspective Anonymous! Although I had read this article a couple of months ago, I have still been curious about it.

KitSkene said...

I've been reading through Exodus in the NASB and have been wondering about this. Knowing that seals and sea cows were common in the area it seems logical that something like the skin of a seal would be used as a covering. Because they do not live solely in water but are primarily aquatic their skins would make fairly decent waterproofing for the tabernacle.

The White Man said...

Seals only come out of the water to reproduce. Sea cows don't even come out for that. Another difference is that seals are covered with fur, while sea cows have hairless skin.

However, I don't think their skin would be any more or less waterproof than any other leather.

Anonymous said...

I know this blog is old but I thought I would be able to shed some light on the matter. I grew up learning the talmud, and we were always led to believe the tachash was a kosher, multi-colored, one horned desert animal. Which means it had to chew its cud and have split hooves (like a cow, goat or giraffe), have a singular horn in the middle of his forehead (like a unicorn) and whos skin was an array of colors(like a rainbow-type girrafe). So we were led to understand the tachash was some sort of multi-colored girrafe/unicorn combo. Hope this helps your understanding of the verse! Good luck drawing it!

Bible artist said...

Thanks anonymous - that would tie in with what it says in Rashi's commentary. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

You're saying the hide of a giraffe is the size of a cows? Have you not seen either of these animals before? C'mon man.

The White Man said...

Yes, I have seen both. Look up the average weight of a 3-year old bull giraffe, subtract the neck, and you will be pretty close to the average weight of a 3-year old beef bull.

suppressedbylewis said...

The kosher aspect is largely irrelevant.

The dugong might have been symbolic of the Genesis 1 sea creature, tiamat, which God then places under the feet of His bride in Ezekiel 16.10. Satan's hide becomes her heel leather(!), lest 'she bruise her foot against a stone' (Matthew 4.6, Genesis 3.15). A triumphant image of the crushing defeat of Satan (Romans 16.20). That is probably the symbolic reason for the Ark (God's footstool or heel-rester) requiring this kind of sea-leather protection.

Abe Mathew said...

The kosher aspect is largely irrelevant, I think too. The outer covering, be it of badger skin or otherwise, needed to be stitched together. So was the second covering of goat skin. Both showed the humanity of Christ - the outer, from human perspective, described in Is. 53, where there is no beauty and the inner from divine perspective showing his sinless nature. Regardless of what skin it was, many skins would have to be stitched together to make the outer covering, which would not have been a goodly sight- indeed the savior whose visage was so marred.

Anonymous said...

I also believe the animal to be "unicorn" in nature--mentioned more than once in scripture--possibly created for this singular purpose

Hugo Costa said...

I guys,

Check the dolphins and whales page at
a comprehensive catalogue of marine species to sea lovers.

Nicholas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicholas said...

there is a little confusion surrounding what specific kinds of skins covered the Tabernacle(e.g. was it badger skin, dolphin, seal or goat?), but consider this symbolic association:

both Elijah the prophet and John the baptist wore garments of animal hair, along with leather belts around their waists. but the specific type of animal hair that Elijah wore was not specified—perhaps the source varied, or simply did not matter symbolically.

the Tabernacle did not only represent the body(outer court), soul(holy place) and Spirit(Holy of Holies) of Jesus, but also currently symbolizes the body of every born again believer. if you are born again, you are—in that sense—a tabernacle, or a holy dwelling place of God.

Emilia said...

The fact that seals were evidently unclean for food would not necessarily rule out using their skins as a covering for the tabernacle. For instance, whereas the lion and the eagle were “unclean” (Le 11:13, 27), the heavenly cherubs seen by Ezekiel in vision were depicted with four faces, including that of a lion and of an eagle. (Eze 1:5, 10; 10:14) Also, the copper carriages that Solomon made for temple use were adorned with representations of lions, and this undoubtedly according to the plans given to David by divine inspiration. (1Ki 7:27-29; 1Ch 28:11-19) The Israelites used “unclean” animals, such as asses, for mounts, it even being foretold that the Messiah would ride into Jerusalem upon an ass. (Zec 9:9; Mt 21:4, 5) Although John the Baptizer had a most sacred commission to “go in advance before Jehovah to make his ways ready,” he wore clothing made from the hair of an “unclean” animal. (Lu 1:76; Mt 3:4; Le 11:4) All of this tends to indicate that the distinction between clean and unclean was simply dietary, though at times it was also used with reference to sacrifice, and did not require that the Israelites regard “unclean” animals with general abhorrence. (Le 11:46, 47) Also, these, like the “clean” animals, were created by God and were therefore good, not loathsome in themselves.—Ge 1:21, 25.

Bible artist said...

Thanks Emilia, very good points.

Anonymous said...

Read all the comments above. There is a well-researched article [ here] that should answer almost all questions about the outer covering of the ''Mishkan''.

Anonymous said...

This has been quite enlightening. This is a question that has been on my mind for quite some time. I cannot imagine that God would instruct His temple to be covered by an unclean animal. When studying, we just have to remember that man has had his hand in translations thus leading to errors.

Mike Dumais said...

Manatees were traditionally hunted by indigenous Caribbean people. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the region, hunting was already an established trade, although this is less common today.[36]

The primary hunting method was for the hunter to approach in a dugout canoe, offering bait to attract it close enough to temporarily stun it with a blow near the head from an oar-like pole. Many times the creature would flip over, leaving it vulnerable to further attacks.

From manatee hides, Native Americans made war shields, canoes, and shoes, though manatees were predominantly hunted for their abundant meat.

Bible artist said...

Thanks Mike, Manatees are very similar to Dugongs, for anyone who was wondering!

Brian said...

I would like to thank Mr. Anonymous who linked to this Conservapedia write-up []. It was very fascinating and I am now quite convinced that it was not referring to the skin of an animal such as badgers or sea cows, but to a color such as deep blue or purple.

This makes much more sense to me because reading about all the particulars of the tabernacle service using rams, goats, bulls, etc. for sacrifices, "badgers" or "sea cows" just kind of comes out of nowhere (even if it is only for their skins to cover the tabernacle).

Especially considering Exodus 25:3-7, when God lists the various acceptable offerings from the people to help construct the tabernacle, verse 4 specifically lists blue, purple, and scarlet thread. So it would make more sense when verse 5 says "ram skins dyed red" that the same skins dyed blue or purple would also be accepted. This is even more convincing to me since Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the 70 elders are mentioned as seeing God with a paved work of sapphire stone under His feet in the previous chapter (Exodus 24:9-10). Sapphires are deep blue, with some also being purple (violet).

Everything about the tabernacle involved ceremonially clean things, and badgers and sea cows are both unclean. That Conservapedia write-up goes into more detail about this, but the main point is that just touching the carcass of an unclean animal makes whoever touched it unclean until evening (Leviticus 11). In order to get the skin of a badger or sea cow, you would obviously kill and skin it, making you unclean until evening. This is specifically called a sin in Leviticus 5:1-13, and requires a trespass offering of a female sheep or goat, or if you are poor, two turtledoves or two pigeons (or if you are really poor, one tenth of an ephah of fine flour).

It simply doesn't make sense for God to require His people to sin by skinning badgers or sea cows to construct His own tabernacle that was a place for offering sacrifices to atone for sins. God says to be holy because He is holy (Leviticus 11:44), and skinning badgers or sea cows causes you to be unholy and must be atoned for by a trespass offering. So the only logical conclusion I am able to come to is that "badgers" or "sea cows" are both incorrect, and that one of the tabernacle covering layers consisted of ram skins dyed red and another layer of ram skins dyed blue.