There is considerable uncertainty as to the particular kind of skin that was used in making the outer cover of the tabernacle and for wrapping up the furnishings and utensils of the sanctuary for transport. Taʹhhash or tehha·shimʹ (plural) usually appears alongside ʽohr or ʽoh·rohthʹ (“skin,” “skins”). (Ex. 25:5; 26:14; 35:7, 23; 36:19; 39:34; Num. 4:6-14, 25; Ezek. 16:10) The translators of the Septuagint Version seem to have understood the Hebrew word to denote, not an animal, but a color (“blue,” Bagster’s LXX). However, the almost unanimous opinion of Jewish commentators is that taʹhhash refers to an animal. This view was also endorsed by the Hebrew lexicographer Gesenius, who considered the Septuagint reading to be simply conjecture, a rendering having neither the support of etymology nor of related languages. He understood taʹhhash to mean either the seal or the badger, basing his conclusions on the context, the authority of the Talmudists, a comparison of the Hebrew word with similar words in other languages, and on the Hebrew etymology.
Bible translators have variously rendered ʽohr (ʽoh·rohthʹ) taʹhhash (tehha·shimʹ) as “badgers’ skin(s)” (AV), “goatskin(s)” (RS), “porpoise skin(s)” (AT), “sealskin(s)” (AS), “leather” (Mo), “fine leather” (JB), “violet skins” (Dy, from Latin, based on Vg) and “tahash leather.” (NW, footnotes of 1953 edition in most occurrences, but “sealskin(s)” in main text) The rendering “badgers’ skin(s)” is not generally favored by scholars, since it is thought unlikely that the Israelites would have been able to procure enough badger skins, either in Egypt or in the wilderness, for covering the tabernacle. There are also scholars who consider neither “badgers’ skin(s)” nor “sealskin(s)” nor “porpoise skin(s)” to be correct, in view of the fact that badgers, seals, porpoises or dolphins, dugongs, and similar creatures were evidently unclean for food. (Lev. 11:12, 27) They therefore find it hard to conceive that the skin of an “unclean” animal would have been used for something so sacred as the construction of the tabernacle and as a protective covering for the furnishings and utensils of the sanctuary. Those taking this view suggest that taʹhhash may designate the skin of a clean animal, possibly of a kind of antelope, sheep or goat.
USABLE, THOUGH SEAL CLASSED AS UNCLEAN
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” (Lev. 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. (Ezek. 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. (1 Ki. 7:27-29; 1 Chron. 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. (Zech. 9:9; Matt. 21:4, 5) Although John the Baptist 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. (Luke 1:76; Matt. 3:4; Lev. 11:4) All this tends to indicate that the distinction of clean and unclean was simply dietary, though at times also with reference to sacrifice, and did not require that the Israelites regard “unclean” animals with general abhorrence. (Lev. 11:46, 47) Also, these, like the “clean” animals, were created by God and therefore good, not loathsome in themselves.—Gen. 1:21, 25.
HOW OBTAINABLE BY ISRAELITES
If the taʹhhash of the Bible does designate a kind of seal, then a question may arise as to how it was possible for the Israelites to obtain sealskins. While seals are generally associated with Arctic and Antarctic regions, some seals favor warmer climates. Today monk seals still inhabit part of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as other warmer waters. Over the centuries man has greatly reduced the number of seals, and in Bible times these animals may have been abundant in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea. As late as 1832 Calmet’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible (p. 139) observed: “On many of the small islands of the Red sea, around the peninsula of Sinai, are found seals.”
The ancient Egyptians engaged in commerce on the Red Sea and, of course, received goods from many of the Mediterranean regions. So the Egyptians would have had access to sealskins. Hence, when the Israelites left Egypt, they might have taken with them the sealskins they already had, along with others obtained when the Egyptians gave into their hands an abundance of valuable things.—Ex. 12:35, 36.