Robed in the Sea
“And as he prayed, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his clothing was white and glistening.” (Luke 9:29, King James 2000 Bible)
The Tabernacle was covered in three layers: linen, red-dyed ramskin, and a third layer of tachash. What’s tachash? The word is a mystery, and there have been many suggestions concerning its meaning, from unicorn to dolphin. But perhaps that mystery has now been solved. And the glistening solution is nothing like you’d imagine in a million years.
Here are some fascinating excerpts from a book by Natan Slifkin, popularly known as the “Zoo Rabbi,” entitled Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud and Midrash.
Although the re’em is no unicorn, there is another fascinating potential unicorn mentioned in the Torah. This is the tachash, whose skin was used as a cover for the tabernacle:
And rams’ skins dyed red, and tachash skins, and acacia wood. (Exodus 25:5)
The tachash also appears later as a material used to cover the vessels of the Tabernacle when they were transported from place to place [Numbers 4:6, 8, 10-12, 14]. We also find one other context in Scripture in which the tachash is mentioned, where it is described as something from which shoes were made:
I clothed you also with embroidered cloth, and shod you with tachash, and I girded you with fine linen and covered you with silk. (Ezekiel 16:10)
Opinions differ widely as to the identity of the tachash. In part, this is due to the scarcity of clues given by the Torah. [One opinion, from the Talmud is] that the tachash was a kind of kosher animal. The Talmud proceeds to describe this as a unicorn [Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbos 2:3]… But what was this mysterious unicorn?
One clue given by the Talmud as to the identity of the tachash-unicorn is that it was variegated in its coloration:
“It is translated (in Aramaic) as sasgavna because it glistened (or “rejoiced”) in its many colors (gavnin)… [Talmud, Shabbos 28a]
After a summary of various “unicorns” of history, including the narwhal, and whether this tachash was a kosher animal, Slifkin continues:
A completely different approach began with the Hebrew-English dictionary of Brown, Driver and Briggs, which traced the word tachash to the Arabic tukhush meaning porpoise. Over time, this was change to a seal in many English Bibles, perhaps out of the desire to find a porpoise-like animal that had fur. But Canon Henry Tristram, who traveled throughout Israel in the nineteenth century as part of his efforts to research the natural history of the Bible, pointed out that the Arabic word is actually a generic term that includes not only dolphins and seals, but also the dugong. This large aquatic mammal sometimes swims up the Red Sea. Tristram cites several reports of Bedouin making sandals from the hide of dugongs, and as we saw, this is exactly what the Book of Ezekiel stated tachash-skin was used for. The dugong, sometimes called sea-cow, thus gained great popularity as the bearer of the name tachash. The German naturalist Eduard Rüppell (1794-1884) even gave the dugong the Latin name Halicore tabernaculi – “dugong of the Tabernacle” – and in Modern Hebrew, it bears the same name: tachash ha-Mishkan.
But there is a difficulty with identifying the tachash as the dugong. The account in Ezekiel of tachash hide used in sandals seems to be referring to a decorative upper part of the sandal, as the surrounding context indicates:
I clothed you also with embroidered cloth, and shod you with tachash, and I girded you with fine linen, and I covered you with silk. I also decked you with ornaments, and I put bracelets upon your hands, and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose, and earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown upon your head. Thu were you decked with gold and silver; and your garment was of fine linen, and silk, and embroidered cloth; you ate fine flour, and honey, and oil; and you were very beautiful, and you were fit for royal estate. (Ezekiel 16:10-13)
The hide of dugongs, however, is very coarse and stiff. This makes it ideal for the soles of sandals, but it would hardly be a decorative upper cover to be praised together with embroidered cloth, fine linen and silk. And as a decorative covering for the Tabernacle, it is singularly inappropriate.
There is a recent proposal as to the identity of the tachash that seems the most promising of all. It has been suggested that the word tachash was based on the Akkadian duhsu, which refers to colored beadwork that was often attached to leather.  Not only is there a case to be made for the name being a cognate (as was the basis for identifying the tachash as the badger, swift antelope, porpoise, seal, and dugong), but there are further varied lines of evidence to support this identification. The background to this patterned work was usually deep blue or turquoise, which fits with both the tanyon of Rabbi Yehudah in the Jerusalem Talmud and also the hyacinth-blue of the Septuagint. Duhsu beadwork was also often used in conjunction with red-dyed leather, which is exactly how the tachash hide was used in the Tabernacle. And beautiful sandals that were decorated with duhsu beadwork were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, which supports the description in Ezekiel of beautiful tachash-sandals. As we saw in the Talmud Yerushalmi, there are views that the tachash was not an animal but rather the name of a way of decorating the rams’ hides that covered the Tabernacle.
 Encyclopedia Mikra’it; Stephanie Dalley, “Hebrew Tahas, Akkadian Duhsu, Faience and Beadwork.”
As attractive as the concept of a unicorn is, our analysis reveals that in Jewish tradition it is far from clear if there is any such creature. While there were many Torah scholars who did believe in its existence, earlier sages were not all agreed as to the existence of such a creature. With the tools that we have to understand Scripture, we see that the re’em is the aurochs and/or the oryx. Regarding the tachash, there were opinions amongst the Sages that is was indeed a unicorn (although not necessarily of the mythical type), but others understood that it was a different type of animal, or even not an animal at all. Amidst the great variety of suggestions that have been offered as to the identity of the tachash, including the ermine, narwhal, porpoise, dugong, seal, badger, okapi, zebra, black leather, antelope, and giraffe, a very likely candidate is the far less exciting beadwork. But the truth is not always exciting. (pp. 55-79)
The Rainbow Serpent
Well, I think this “truth” is actually very exciting. If the outer covering was indeed beadwork with a turquoise background over red leather, the three covers relate not only to the threefold ministry of the High Priest, but also to the three domains of the Tabernacle:
Garden / Most Holy : priestly linen
Land / Holy Place : ramskins dyed red
World / Bronze Laver : glistening beadwork
Not only would this decoration correspond with the “sapphire pavement” in the previous chapter (Exodus 24:10), upon which Moses and the elders saw the Lord walking, but it relates the covering of feet. The biblical picture of Man walking on the sea begins in Eden, with Adam’s dominion over the springs, the fountains of the deep (See Walking on Water). Adam could not stand on the holy ground of the Sanctuary because he now had unclean feet, feet of dust, of clay. His failure eventually led to the Great Flood.
Moreover, Adam left the Garden clothed in death instead of glory. Detailed beadwork resembles scales, the skin of the serpents and dragons. Adam’s race was intended not only to subdue Physical the serpents and dragons, drawing them out with hooks, but to become a Social body which had plundered all the attributes of the beasts through the Ethical work of the Spirit. The beadwork shoes in Ezekiel 16 are the feet of Eve, invited to stand on the neck of the enemy. The description of Leviathan in Job 41 is thus an image of the Bride, as “awesome as an army with banners” (Song of Solomon 6:10):
“I will not keep silence concerning his limbs,
or his mighty strength, or his goodly frame.
Who can strip off his outer garment?
Who would come near him with a bridle?
Who can open the doors of his face?
Around his teeth is terror.
His back is made of rows of shields,
shut up closely as with a seal.
One is so near to another
that no air can come between them.
They are joined one to another;
they clasp each other and cannot be separated.”
Based on later patterns, it seems to me that had Adam crushed the serpent, his new robe of office may have resembled the shining, variegated skin of the serpent, instead of the skins of sacrificial Land animals. Indeed, it would also have resembled the rainbow-colored “bridal” robe of Joseph, which was torn and bloodied by his brothers, but eventually led to his rule over his brothers (Land) as well as Egypt and the surrounding nations (Sea).
This means that Adam’s victory over the serpent would have led to dominion over Land and Sea (see Serpents and Dragons). We also have the correspondence between biblical “leprosy” and snakeskin, scaled skin, for those who have become serpentine in a negative way: wise as serpents but not harmless (see Scales of Justice).
Finally, there is the description of Ahasuerus’ “crystal sea” in Esther 1, which, as James Jordan observes, resembles the descriptions of the Tabernacle and Temple. However, this “tent” is not the place of servanthood but of dominion. It has a crystal sea, like the Tabernacle and Temple, but it also has couches…
And when these days were completed, the king gave for all the people present in Susa, the citadel, both great and small, a feast lasting for seven days in the court of the garden of the king’s palace. There were white cotton curtains and violet hangings fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rods and marble pillars, and also couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and precious stones. Drinks were served in golden vessels, vessels of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished according to the bounty of the king. (Esther 1:5-7)
…with Esther (the bride) covering herself in her best robes to approach her king across this pavement to intercede for her people later in the book. Perhaps the significance of the beads is a glorious “bridal” body of all nations, all colors, much like the gemstones on the High Priest’s breastplate, but drawn from the Sea as well as the Land.
The Tabernacle was a house robed in the Sea, a “baptized body.” In Circumcision, God had “shut in the sea with doors” (Job 38:8) to spare the nations from another flood, and keep His “rainbow” Covenant. To enter into it, one had to pass through the bronze laver, a “lake of fire.” By doing so, one “entered into His death.”
“When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.” (John 21:7)
This identification was an act of putting off the flesh, leaving only the bone-white leprous-linen burial clothes, a discarded snakeskin (with its head separated), and reemerging with Dominion over the Land (the Bronze Altar) and the Sea (the Bronze Laver). Once the ministry of Atonement was complete, the High Priest once again donned his robe of glory, which combined and united all of creation (animal, vegetable, mineral).
Like Jonah, the “dove,” Jesus entered right into the mouth of the beast from the Sea for the sake of the Gentiles. The three-level Tabernacle itself was a serpent “lifted up” in the wilderness, that it might draw all men to it, uniting them by the Spirit into a garment without seams.
This would also make sense of the fact that, in Solomon’s Temple, the Laver was no longer “above” the altar but beside it, and both were below the “feet” of the Temple, the priest-king pillars of Jachin (forming) and Boaz (filling). This is the image given in Revelation 10:
and swore by him who lives forever and ever, (Transcendence)
Have you been “robed in the sea” in baptism?
There will be more on this in Bible Matrix IIII: The Crystal Sea (the fourth pillar), a book on the architecture of baptism, in 2014.
Angel Dividing the Waters, by Michael O’Brien
Leviathan and Behemoth by William Blake