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Monday, 7 July 2008

Badgers, porpoises, or sea cows?

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"And thou shalt make a covering for the tent of rams skins dyed red, and a covering above of badgers skins."

Reading verses like Exodus 26:14, one might wonder just what animal is in view, especially when comparing various other translations:

RSV: goatskins (no linguistic or historical grounds whatsoever)
NRSV: fine leather (based on the ancient Egyptian word ths, stretched or woven leather)
NLT: fine goatskin leather (following the RSV even when the NRSV didn't!)
JPS, ASV: sealskin (based on the colloquial Arabic word tuhas)
NIV: sea cow hides (Same as above)
KJVII: dugong (Same as above)
NEB, NASB: porpoise skin (imaginative interpretation of the above)

There seems to be an interesting history behind the KJV reading; it seems to be a translation (from Latin!) of the word Taxus, first used in the Bishop's Bible as a transliteration of the Hebrew word. Earlier versions had "doe skins" or followed the Latin Vulgate, which followed the Septuagint, to read "hyacinth." Obviously this is a word that was already obsolete when the Bible was first translated--and why would this be the case, unless the object itself had also passed from use?

Seals, dugongs, and porpoises may produce durable leather that might be handy for a tent, but would be very expensive for the Israelites to procure, either in Egypt or in the wilderness. Why would God specify such an exotic material for covering the entire tabernacle, as well as many of its furnishings? More to the point, why on earth would God prescribe the hide of an unclean animal to cover the articles most closely associated with his holiness?

Given that it has now been established as a clean animal, it seems most likely that the 'takhas' of Numbers 4 was the giraffe.

Giraffe skins would have been common in Egypt, as giraffes populate the upper Nile in great numbers. They would have been taken from Egypt as part of the booty that the Israelites later donated for the tabernacle (Exodus 25:5), and as being both large in size and derived from clean animals, they were eminently suitable for use in covering both the tabernacle itself, and its holiest furnishings.

After entering Canaan, however, the Israelites were no longer able to procure giraffe hides in numbers sufficient for their sacred use, so both the object, and an understanding of the name for it, fell out of use hundreds of years before the Bible was first translated into another language.

1 comment:

  1. From another blog:
    "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."

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