82. Sea Cow Skins and the Dwelling

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Why did you translate the Hebrew word “tachash” as “sea cows” in Exodus? I understand that the meaning of the Hebrew word has been lost to time, and the translation in the 1984 NIV was also sea cows, but I’ve never liked this translation. The KJV has the word translated as badger skins, and other translations read dolphin skins or seal skins, but these are all unclean animals that God would not have commanded the Israelites to cover his sacred objects with. The only thing we really know about the word is that it was some type of high-quality skin or leather. Sea cow skins is a very specific translation of a very ambiguous word. Wouldn’t it have been better to keep a more ambiguous translation such as “fine leather”? I feel that using the translation “sea cows” can send the wrong message to some people that God allowed unclean animal skins to come into contact with the sacred objects.

The first question we must address is whether there is any clear biblical command or evidence that Israel could not use products derived from unclean animals without contracting uncleanness. Ivory, purple dye from shellfish, honey, and pearls were among the products from unclean animals that the Israelites seem to have used. Purple dye was even used in materials for the Dwelling. Ivory seems to have been permissible for objects used by priests since there is an ancient ivory pomegranate with the inscription “holy to the priests.” Even if the inscription is a later addition as some suspect, its creators saw no problem with ivory being put to holy use. Israelites used camels, donkeys, and horses, but camel milk is not considered kosher for food. Israelite women could wear shoes made from tachash (Ezekiel 16:10). The biblical ban appears to be on unclean food, not on all other uses of unclean animals.

Is there a biblical command that would forbid Israelites from obtaining and using leather of sea cows? Is there a scriptural statement to that effect, or is this a conclusion drawn from the fact that their corpses were unclean? The corpses of unclean animals were unclean. but that was true of corpses in general. If sea cow leather was unclean for this reason, it would seem that all leather would be unclean. This was clearly not the case.

Or is this opinion that dolphin skin or sea cow skin could not be used based on an assumption that God would not allow materials from unclean animals to be used in the Dwelling? This assumption does not seem to have direct scriptural support.

There are some rabbinical writers that argue that materials from unclean animals could not be used in the Dwelling, but their discussion makes the topic even more murky. Some say that the tachash was a clean animal that no longer exists, such as a special unicorn. Others offer rationalizations about why dyes from unclean shellfish and worms could be used in the Dwelling. There is no clear guidance here. The rabbinic commentary on Exodus in my library uses dolphin and seal skin as the translation, so they do not seem to be troubled by the issue.

There is near universal agreement that this word tachash is the name of an animal. There is no clear linguistic evidence in biblical Hebrew to support the idea that tachash is the name of a color or that it means “fine.” Those translations, followed by some Greek and Latin versions, seem to be guesses based on context. There is support in the cognate language Arabic that the tachash is the name of a marine animal, whether seal, dolphin, or sea cow. Leather of sea cows was in fact used by inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsula. There is no support in cognate Semitic languages for badger or goat. There may be remote support in Akkadian for a type of dye or animal skin.

The use of tachash in shoes and the outer layer of the tent suggests that water resistance and toughness may have been the qualities that were desired, rather than the luxuriousness of the leather. The skin of a marine animal seems to fit this use. The tachash skin did not come in direct contact with the sacred objects of the Dwelling but were separated from them by an intervening layer.

Though tachash is a rare word, the connection with a sea animal fits the context of the Sinai Peninsula and the purpose of the outer layer of the Dwelling. Our EHV Study Bible note at Exodus 25:5 states the uncertainty of the term tachash: “The meaning of tichashim, translated sea cows, is uncertain. Sea cows are similar to the manatees of Florida. The local name of the Red Sea variety is dugong. Alternate translations suggested for tichashim skin are dolphin skin, badger skin, goat skin, and fine leather.” In Ezekiel 16:10 where the emphasis is on the luxury of the shoes, we lead with that idea in the text, and put the animal name in the note.

There is more linguistic evidence for an animal name than for a meaning like fine or luxurious, for which the evidence is largely circumstantial. For a maritime animal, there is some Semitic linguistic evidence. Luxurious leather is as much or more of a conjecture as the maritime animal suggestions. In the absence of biblical evidence ruling out use of such materials in the Dwelling, it seemed wisest to stay with sea cow, the closest thing to a contemporary consensus concerning the name of the animal and to state the uncertainty about the identity of the material in the footnotes. If we agree that tachash is an animal, we should attempt to translate it rather than to cop out with tachash skin as the translation. Many of the animal names in Leviticus 11 are also uncertain, but we attempt to translate them. We have to do the best we can. Perhaps our note should include a stronger reference to why many translations go with the noncommittal fine leather.