Of all the detailed instructions given by Yahweh for the building of his Tabernacle, perhaps none is more puzzling than the one found in Exodus 26:14: “And for the tent you will make a cover of rams’ skins dyed red, and over that a cover of ‘oµr tahasï.” The first part of the verse is straightforward enough, as is the Hebrew word ‘oµr, which refers to the skin, or hide, of an animal. But, as even a small sampling of English Bible translations illustrates, the obscure word tahasï is another matter. In the King James Version, for example, the phrase ’oµr tahasï is translated “badgers’ skins”; but the same phrase has been variously rendered as “porpoise skins” (New American Standard Bible), “goatskins” (Revised Standard Version), “fine leather” (New Jerusalem Bible), and “dugong-hides” (Revised English Bible; a dugong is a sea cow). So much for scholarly consensus!

Interpreters of the Hebrew Bible have tended to agree that the word tahasï designates some kind of animal, but they have obviously differed widely with respect to their choice of species. Some, including the renowned second-century C.E. Jewish scholar Rabbi Meir, have even maintained that tahasï refers to a legendary creature with a brightly colored pelt—a tradition that may be reflected in both the Septuagint and the Vulgate, which translate ‘oµr tahasï into the Greek and Latin equivalents of “hyacinth-colored leather.”1

In his 1534 German translation of the Old Testament, Martin Luther offered a less fanciful suggestion. Establishing a tradition that would later be perpetuated in the venerable King James Bible, Luther rendered the words ‘oµr tahasï as “badgers’ skins.” His translation was based on the notion that the German language contained words that were phonetically and/or morphologically related to words in ancient Hebrew. Such words are known as cognates. According to Luther, the German cognate for tahasï was Dachs (badger). Unfortunately, Luther’s basic linguistic assumption was flawed: German is not phonetically derived from Hebrew; therefore, one cannot arrive at the meaning of tahasï by trying to identify a presumed German (or, for that matter, any modern European) cognate. On the other hand, Luther’s method had much to commend it. And modern scholars have followed his lead by attempting to decipher the meaning of tahasï through an analysis of potential cognates from languages that are, in fact, related to ancient Hebrew—that is, languages belonging to the Semitic family.

Probably the most popular of the many proposed cognates is the Arabic word tuhÉas, which, as Frank Moore Cross points out, is “a word applied to small cetaceans, notably the dolphin.”2 And yet, even among translators who prefer this etymology, there seems to be some confusion as to which marine animal the author of Exodus 26 had in mind: Some translate tahasï as “dolphin,” while others prefer “seal” or “porpoise” or even “dugong.”

Of course, many readers find it difficult to imagine why Yahweh’s dwelling place would have been covered with the skins of any kind of sea mammal. But Frank Moore Cross has drawn a thought-provoking connection between Yahweh’s Tabernacle and the abode of the Canaanite god El. Not only was El said to have dwelt in the midst of the sea, but as Cross points out, “the dolphin [was]…a favorite motif in Phoenician art, both on the mainland and in the Punic colonies, where it [was] associated with ’El and Tannit [the Punic goddess identified with Astarte].”3 So perhaps there was a precedent in the ancient Near East for using dolphin skins in a religious context.

Quite recently, however, Stephanie Dalley of Oxford University has challenged the presupposition at the root of almost all these traditional interpretations. Arguing that tahasï is related to the ancient Akkadian word duhsïu, Dalley contends that the Hebrew word has absolutely nothing to do with animals. Rather, she traces the use of the word duhsïu (along with its Hurrian and Sumerian cognates) in various ancient Near Eastern texts and concludes, “It seems very probable that duhsïu is a general word which refers to coloured beads and inlays made of glass and faience.”4 If Dalley’s interpretation of the Akkadian word is correct—and, more important, if she is correct in her belief that tahasï and duhsïu are cognates—then the best translation for ‘oµr tahasï may be “beaded leather.” Dalley also asserts that this translation, which implies a brightly colored outer covering for Yahweh’s Tabernacle, helps explain why the Septuagint and Vulgate both offer the peculiar reading “hyacinth-colored leather” for the final words of Exodus 26:14.

It remains to be seen whether Dalley’s interpretation will carry the day. If history is any indication, scholars aren’t likely to accept the proposal without substantial debate. Meanwhile, there’s much to be said for the wisdom of the New American Bible, which offers the following prudent translation of Exodus 26:14: “Over the tent itself you shall make a covering of rams’ skins dyed red, and above that, a covering of tahash skins.”