hang on a minute

A while back (as referenced here), I began reading the Bible from cover to cover . . . in the longer version . . . because I’m a dofus for not having read the whole thing earlier.  (I’m currently in the book of Numbers, which, in many ways, is more interesting than I imagined).  Each morning, before I get on with my studies, I’ll read through at least three chapters and then meditate on what I’ve seen in the text as well as new things I’ve not encountered before–hence: they’re ‘new’.

The other morning–Tuesday, I think–was a time where I came across something I had not seen before, and I would not have noticed it had I stuck with my original plan.  The original plan was to read through the longer version of the Bible as found in the New Jerusalem Bible.   Here is the verse that I should have read, had I stuck with the NJB:

When camp is broken, Aaron and his sons must come and take down the screening curtain, and cover the ark of the Testimony with it.  Over this, they will put a covering of fine leather, over which they will spread a cloth entirely of violet-purple.  They will then fix the poles to the ark.

–Numbers 4.5-6

Had I read that, I would have just carried on as normal and not bothered to write this post.  (My apologies for not sticking with the original plan).  However, that other morning (still thinking it was Tuesday), without really thinking about it, I grabbed my trusty, duct-taped NASB instead of the NJB and just started reading.  And when I came to the above verse, I found the NASB had this to say:

When the camp sets out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and they shall take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it; and they shall lay a covering of porpoise skin on it, and shall spread over it a cloth of pure blue, and shall insert its poles.

–emphasis added

Really?  Porpoise skin?  I’ll grant that porpoise skin would certainly represent a ‘fine’ material and may even be classified as a ‘fine leather’ (as suggested by the NJB).  What struck me at first was the fact that the Hebrews in the wilderness would have such a material.  (Sure, they could have easily obtained it from an Egyptian trader/merchant prior to departure; but did they have the means to do so is another question).  However, I was struck by something else when I did a further comparison on the wording.  I first grabbed the nearest translation to my desk, which happened to be the Revised English Bible.  Anxiously I flipped to the verse and found this:

over this they are to put a covering of dugong-hide (4.6).

If you have no idea what a ‘dugong’ is, it’s basically a manatee with a forked tail.  So, not really a porpoise but a sea animal nonetheless, and one whose skin is fairly tough and most likely highly prized.  Not being content with this, however, I searched a number of other versions.  For the sake of space and boredom on your part, here are the versions consulted with their respective findings:

NIV: ‘cover this with the hides of sea-cows’ (footnote: ‘dugong’; cf. NIrV; NIVUK)
TNIV: ‘with a durable leather’ (footnote: ‘possibly the hides of dugongs’)
CEV: ‘with a piece of fine leather’ (cf. NJB; NCV; GW)
ASV: ‘a covering of sealskin’
HCSB: ‘a covering made of manatee skin’

I like how the TNIV departs from the NIV by using a vague description in the text (i.e. ‘durable leather’) and then continues the vagueness in the footnote by making the animal in question only a possibility.  The CEV is to be left alone simply because its description is broad enough to include sea animals whose skins were highly prized.  ASV: seriously . . . sealskins??  A: that’s just mean.  B: seals are not even in the same Family and/or genus as ‘dugongs’.  HCSB: I guess you could be excused for seeing ‘manatees’ instead of ‘dugongs’; they are, after all, similar looking although they are different in family and genus, but that’s another matter.

The one constant in these other translations is that the animal in question is smooth-skinned (more or less) and belongs in the water.  So far, in that regard, nothing in these other translations is too distinct from what I found in the NASB.  Oh, how I wish things were that easy; then you’re agony of reading this post would have come to a speedier end; but alas, things are not that easy.  I knew there were other translations to consult before deciding on the matter.  The quick study of these other translations threw a spanner in the works.  Here are the remaining versions consulted with their respective findings, which really boils down to two options:

NLT: ‘with fine goatskin leather’ (cf. ESV: ‘a covering of goatskin’)
KJV: ‘the covering of badger’s skins’ (NKJV; 21KJV; YLT; DARBY; Luther)

Let’s just deal with the obvious: neither goats nor badgers spend much time in the water–certainly not to the extent that manatees or dugongs or seals do or for the same reasons (i.e. they kind of have to).  Maybe if a badger was hanging out in the water, it might be mistaken for a seal from a distance; but the mistake would certainly be rectified the moment a person tried to catch what they thought was a seal.  The same could not be said about a goat in the water.  There’s no confusion there; no one is going to mistake a goat for a manatee or dugong or even a seal.  I’m thinking the horns might be an inital clue.

Moreover, the difference between a goat and a badger is pretty clear–not only in species, but also in the fact that one will eat your garbage and the other will eat you.  Of the two choices in this regard, ‘goatskins’ would be the more likely translation seeing that goats were more commonly found in the Middle East (namely Egypt, Palestine, Syria, etc) whereas badgers were not really indigenous to the Middle East.   They’re mostly found in Wisconsin.

Once again, though, I was met by the fact that none of these other translations offered ‘porpoise’ as a likely reading of the text.  I began to wonder if the NASB was on it’s own in this regard, or if they simply inserted the word to see if anyone was really paying attention.  To deal with this curiosity, I checked with a few other translations and found this:

AMP: ‘the covering of dolphin or porpoise skin’
MSG: ‘cover this with a dolphin skin’ (nb: this MSG is not to be confused with this one, or this one)

I applaud the MSG for making a singular decision on its choice of word, although it does differ slightly from the NASB.  On the other hand, I have to slap the AMP on the wrist for not only neglecting to make a command decision but also for offering the two terms as though they were the referring to the same animal.  Such a faux pas compells me to quote this:

Whew… now I feel better. ‘Course, that might not do any good you see nobody’s missing a porpoise. It’s a dolphin that’s been taken. The common harbor porpoise has an abrupt snout, pointed teeth and a triangular thoracic fin. While the bottlenose dolphin, or Tursiops truncates, has an elongated beak, round cone shaped teeth and a serrated dorsal appendage. But I’m sure you already knew that.

-Ace Ventura, Pet Detective

All of this leads us to rather significant problem.  The translations consulted supply rather diverse options for how this passage can be read.  We have the options of: a porpoise, a dolphin, a dugong, a manatee, a seal, a goat and a badger.  But then again, we are dealing with translations of the original text.  So maybe a better question would be: is there something about the original terminology used in the passage that leads to this confusion, or is the original fairly straightforward?  To the first part of the question, I would say: for the most part, yes.  To the second part, I would say: it depends.

The three key ancient texts are the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Latin Vulgate.  To go at this in reverse order, for Number 4.6 the Latin Vulgate reads:

et operient rursum velamine ianthinarum pellium extendentque desuper pallium totum hyacinthium et inducent vectes.

Because I do not read Latin with any fluency, I can only make tentative guesses based on a quick word search and basic logic.  (If I am wrong in this, you Latin jocks can let me know).  While the ASV uses the Vulgate for its foundation, the Latin terms used for the ASV’s ‘sealskin’ are a bit obscure to be certain.  It would seem better to have it read, ‘a violet blue skin-covering’, which leans more towards a dolphin, porpoise, or even a manatee or dugong.  As far as I am aware, sealskin does not have a violet-blue tint to it; it tends to be dark brown, silver(ish), black, white or spotted.  This would also suggest that goats and badgers are not in view–partly because I don’t know of any violet blue goats or badgers.

The next text to consider is the Septuagint (LXX), which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew.  (If you picked up on the fact that the LXX is a translation of the Hebrew, bravo to you.  The same goes for the Latin Vulgate above; it too is a translation of the Greek and Hebrew).  For the verse in question the LXX reads:

και ε͗πιθησουσιν ε͗π  ͗αυ͗το κατακαλυμμα δερμα υ͑ακινθινον και ε͗πιβαλουσιν ε͗π  ͗αυ͗την ι͑ματιον ο͑λον υ͑ακινθινον α͗νωθεν και διεμβαλουσιν τους α͗ναφορεις

As could be expected, the LXX, like the Vulgate, is a bit obscure in what it says, although one could easily posit the reading of ‘a violet blue skin-covering’.  In view of our translation options, ‘a violet blue skin-covering’ would seem to favour the aquatic options rather than the four-legged ones.  Even you do not read Greek, it should be obvious from the passage above that ‘violet blue’ as a description is employed twice in this one verse; once in the first clause and again in the second, and we know without a doubt that the second is meant to be read as ‘violet blue’.  So, at the very least, both the Vulgate and the LXX point towards something with a blue tint, and the aquatic things mentioned best fit this depiction.  That just leaves one ancient text.

The Hebrew reads:

ונתנו עליו כסוי עור תחש ופרשו בגד־כליל תכלת מלמעלה ושמו בדיו

Admittedly, my Hebrew is just slightly better than my Latin at the moment, so I am open to correction or chastisement.  The key phrase in the text is, עור תחש, which basically means ‘skin of תחש’.  One key difference is the lack of a colour reference, which was implied in the key terms in the LXX and Vulgate editions.  (In the second clause, a reference to colour is made about the cloth that is to cover leather covering that is to cover the ark of testimony.  Did I cover everything?).  This means that we have to proceed by exploring the single term, תחש and see if it might be the cause for all the trouble.  The short answer is, pretty much.

According to some Jewish Targums, תחש does point to badger skins as being used for the tabernacle equipment–i.e. the stuff mentioned in Numbers 4.  However, we are once again confronted with the problem of scarcity of indigenous badgers, which would enable the Hebrews to have enough product to make such coverings–let alone the number of coverings needed.  Let’s not also forget the logistical problems of rounding up that many badgers; they don’t play well with others.  There are some who have suggested that תחש is related to an Assyrian term which refers to something like coarse leather, which could either be goats (most likely) or badgers (less likely).  On the other hand, there are some who say תחש can be compared with specific Arabic and Egyptian terms that make the connection with ‘dolphin’ or ‘porpoise’ quite possible.  However, on the assumption that such skins were highly prized in the ancient world, we once again have the question of ability or means of acquisition.

So, where does this leave us?  To be honest, I’m not quite sure.  (I must also admit that this post was really designed to be me thinking out loud–i.e. meditating on things I found in the text).  I could see the translation as going either way, given the vagueness of the terminology.  While it would be understandable to read ‘porpoise’ or ‘dolphin’ in view of the connection of ideas–i.e. skins and violet-blue; it would seem to be more plausible (and certainly more feasible) that it refers to finely-made cloths of goat skins that have been dyed violet-blue.  Any one else have any suggestions?  OT nerds?



  1. I think you might be interested in this article:

    Journal of Semitic Studies XLV71 Spring 2000

    Dalley writes:

    In conclusion I suggest that Hebrew tahas is cognate with Hurrian /Akkadian / Sumerian duhsu. It denotes beading and attaching pendants, and inlaying in stone, metal, faience and glass, and is usually made on leather but sometimes also wool or linen, or as cloisonne in precious metals, timber, etc…

    …The background to such patterned work was traditionally deep blue or turquoise. Both the colour and the surface effect of beading are taken up in the Greek translation of the Hebrew as huakinthinos.

    1. I appreciate the heads-up on this article. I’ll definitely see if our library has a copy of it; or I might just see of ATLA has it. Either way, thanks again.

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