God wants Dolphin skins. Yes, dolphin skins!

Updated: Jul 29

Exodus 26 (ISV) The Tent “You are to make the tent with ten curtains of fine woven linen and with blue, purple, and scarlet material. You are to make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them. The length of each curtain is to be 28 cubits, the width of each curtain four cubits, and all the curtains are to have the same measurements. “Five of the curtains are to be joined together, and the other five curtains are to be joined together. You are to make loops of blue material along the edge of the outermost curtain in the first set, and likewise you are to make loops along the edge of the outermost curtain in the second set. You are to make 50 loops in the one curtain, and you are to make 50 loops along the edge of the curtain that is in the second set, with the loops opposite each other. Then you are to make 50 gold clasps, and join the curtains to each other with the clasps so that the tent will be one piece. “You are to make curtains of goat hair for a tent over the tent. You are to make eleven curtains. The length of each curtain is to be 30 cubits, and the width of each curtain two cubits; the measurements of each of the eleven curtains is to be the same. You are to join five curtains by themselves, and six curtains by themselves, and you are to double over the sixth curtain at the front of the tent. You are to make 50 loops along the edge of the outermost curtain in the first set, and 50 loops along the edge of the curtain of the other set. You are to make 50 bronze clasps, put the clasps into the loops, and join the tent together so that it will be one piece. As for the excess that remains of the curtains of the tent—the half curtain that remains—is to hang over the back of the tent. The half cubit that remain on either end of the length of the curtains of the tent is to hang over each side of the tent to cover it. “You are to make a cover for the tent of ram skins dyed red and a covering of dolphin skins above that.

I read this today (in the “Message” version) and it said pretty much the same thing.  God wants DOLPHIN SKINS!!  How on earth did God expect a wandering group in the Sinai desert to get hold of dolphin skins? I am a big fan of Grand Designs.  Well – to be fair – I am a big fan of yelling at the pretentiousness of so many of the participants of Grand Designs!  Kevin McCloud has seen his fair share of weird stuff in the building of houses…  but…. It won’t surprise you to know that the rabbis have argued about this.  The word that sometimes leads to the dolphin skin translation is “Tachash” – which is a unique word in the Torah without any definitive translation – and so very difficult to deal with.  Obscure words can often be guessed at by references to other places that they are used.  But that’s not possible here. According to “Ask the Rabbi”:


Rabbi Yehudah understands the Tachash as referring to a blue or violet coloring of goatskin, whereas Rabbi Nechemya argues that the Tachash is the Galaksinon (a type of weasel, probably the ermine). A third opinion is found in Midrash Koheles Rabbah (1:28), as well as in the above mentioned Talmud, that quotes the teaching of Rabbi Avin who says that the Tachash is the Keresh (It has been suggested that this refers to the giraffe). As for an explanation of the Torah’s choice for using Tachash skins for the covering of the Tabernacle, the commentary of Rashi (Shemos 25:5), notes that the Tachash skins were aesthetically pleasing with their multi-colored skin. Such skins would add great beauty to the Tabernacle’s appearance.

Ask the Rabbi

Wait…  God wants Giraffe Skins?? All of which is in itself very puzzling.  But I am more puzzled by the sheer detail that God goes into.  If you read the surrounding chapters, God is detailed to the minutest degree about EXACTLY how his tent is to be made – and it appears to involve a whole lot of gold and gold-smelting (which again can’t have been THAT easy to achieve for a nomadic people just getting used to the nomadic life, in the desert and on the run! It is obvious to all but the least attentive reader that this material is a real hotch-potch of different kinds of material edited together (some might say, not very well!) to tell a story for which the various pieces were not all designed.  To put it crudely, it’s a bit like doing a jigsaw of a lighthouse – but some of the pieces come from a jigsaw of a zoo and other pieces come from a jigsaw of a British seaside comedy postcard and yet other pieces come from one of those impossible baked-bean puzzles. At first sight, this might seem like a problem – it might seem dishonest, even.  Much virtual internet ink – and many, many pages of real ink have been spilled by people who have made it their life’s mission to harmonise and explain this disparate collection of material and present it as if it was always a single, unified, coherent whole. But as Walter Brueggeman and other excellent scholars remind us, we need not be too worried.  An ancient people have harvested stories and accounts and bits of poetry, creation myths, deluge accounts and lists of heroic characters and genealogies and tales of battles – and woven them together to tell the story of how they traveled with God.  The individual bits and their origins are not really THAT important – other stories have been told!  The story we are interested in – and the story we are now a part of is THIS one.

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