The Purpose of the Wilderness Tabernacle: The Covering Materials
On Mount Sinai, Moses received more than just the Ten Commandments. Also included were the detailed instructions for building a meeting place for God and His people. The Tabernacle was a temple of worship that involved specific protocols and procedures. These protocols purposely provided a possible means for God's people to dwell with Him per God's request.
Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.
— Exodus 25:8
From the fall in Genesis up until the Tabernacle construction, the Bible records people occasionally walking and talking with God but not dwelling with Him. As we shall see, it is within the framework of this Old Testament sanctuary that God draws His people closer to Himself through an intricate sacrificial system. This arrangement can speak volumes to us today about the specifics of such a great salvation and indescribable gift.
. . . how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation . . . ?
— Hebrews 2:3
Every detail that Christ accomplished to restore our relationship with God finds its discovery in the particulars of the wilderness tabernacle.
This study will examine the four layers that covered the Tabernacle included on the list of God's requested items for tabernacle construction.
The two inner layers were textiles, one made from linen, a plant product, and the other layer from goat's hair, derived from an animal.
The outer two layers consisted of animal skins, one from dry land and the other, most likely, from the sea.
All of these served both practical purposes, as well as were significant to the particulars of salvation. And taken together exhibit facets of the "temple of creation" narrative.
White Linen: Purity and Righteousness
Linen was a fabric made of white fiber fibers from the flax plant. This fabric concealed and protected the sacred spaces of the Tabernacle. The linen served as material for the priestly garments that covered the Levitical priesthood who served in the Tabernacle.
This particular textile overlaps from the last part, in that, it is also included with the covering over the Tabernacle (Holy Place and Holy of Holies), which is the topic of this installment and carries with it the same symbolism of righteousness and purity.
This fabric is mentioned first and will provide the first layer of four coverings. It also was embroidered with the blue, purple, and scarlet threads, as was also discussed in part five.
The entire courtyard was surrounded by the white linen barrier as well as the first layer of the ceiling. The walls of linen illustrated the boundaries of righteousness. No one could enter God's presence except through the door of the righteous Christ, who became a sacrifice for us.
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
— John 10:1
Man's righteousness is as filthy rags, literally blood-stained rags. Only the righteousness of Christ could cover our stain of sin.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow.
— Isaiah 1:18
The linen is the only one of the four coverings made from plant fiber. The other three came from animals. The linen was considered a part of the Tabernacle, whereas the other three covers referred to the tent.
Goat Hair: Mohair
Goat hair, otherwise known as Mohair, is the second of the four layers mentioned and the first of three animal-based coverings for the Tabernacle. This covering did not include the skin.
Hair is biblically understood to be a covering.
But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for hair is given to her for a covering
— I Corinthians 11:13
The Nazarite vow included not shaving or cutting one's hair. To do so would leave the person who was taking the oath uncovered not only physically but in a spiritual sense because of the broken promise. Samson gives us a great illustration of the connection between a broken vow and the result of being uncovered in both its physical and spiritual context.
“No razor has ever come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If I am shaven, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man.”
— Judges 16:17
The cutting of the hair held no mystical power to take away strength. It was merely illustrating in a tangible way what would occur spiritually.
This scene hints back to a broken vow through disobedience in the very first sanctuary of the Garden of Eden, along with the uncovering and loss that followed.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die...she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.
— Genesis 2;16-17, 3:7
The Perfect Tent Fabric
Mohair was a standard textile used in ancient Bedouin tent making and for some practical reasons. Mohair has antifungal and water-resistant properties that can rival canvas used in modern tent fabrics. It also weaved in such a way that it becomes porous when hot, allowing air to move through the structure freely. When it becomes wet, the hair fibers swell, filling in the gaps allowing the water to run off of it. The video above details this further.
Black Goat Hair
The color of the hair is not mentioned in Scripture, but it is widely understood to be black Mohair. This thought appears to agree with the modern pictures of Bedouin tents, as seen in the above photo.
There is also a brief confirming mention of this idea in the Book of Song of Solomon. The Shulamite compares her color with the tents of Kedar.
I am black, but lovely,
O daughters of Jerusalem,
Like the tents of Kedar,
— Song of Solomon 1:5
The black covering, too, serves a practical purpose. Black goats hair contains a pigment called eumelanin, which serves the purpose of dispelling UV rays, just like melanin that darkens our skin does. In a hot desert wilderness climate, this particular covering would serve well in terms of shading the ancient nomads from the intense ultraviolet rays of the sun.
Just as the Lord is our righteousness in the linen, so is He our shade in the black goat hair covering.
The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
— Psalm 121:5-6
Mohair is also the textile thought to have been used for the grieving garment known as sackcloth in the Bible. The term sackcloth comes from the idea that the garment was made from a humble grain sack made from this material. Its color is connected with mourning when God expresses His grief over His faithless people in the book of Isaiah.
I clothe the heavens with blackness,
And I make sackcloth their covering
— Isaiah 50:3
The New Testament also confirms and connects a similar theme. The following verse records a universal expression of the grief of sin in connection with this garment and its source.
I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood.
— Revelation 6:12
The Covering of Atonement
Most commentaries also relate this particular covering with the Day of Atonement, modernly referred to as Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur means "day of covering." This observance was associated with mourning and grief over one's sins.
“This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls . . . For on that day the priest shall make atonement (covering/kaphar כָּפַר) for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.
— Leviticus 16:29
The Hebrew word for atonement is kaphar כָּפַר, and it means to cover or spread over. Its very first mention in Scripture offers us a unique illustration of covering as it concerns the ark that Noah constructed.
Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch (kaphar/cover) it within and without with pitch (kaphar/covering).
— Genesis 6:14
Pitch was a black glue-like substance that covered the ark. Recall that this event was about God's grief over the sin of humankind.
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.
— Genesis 6:5-8
The Day of Atonement was the one day of the year that the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies on behalf of the people to make atonement for their sins.
The Two Goats of Atonement
The association with the Day of Atonement and this particular covering is that part of the ceremony involved two goats.
He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness . . .“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness . . . “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.
— Leviticus 16:7-22
This event demonstrated two things that would occur in procuring our salvation. The first goat served as a "sin offering," symbolizing Christ's death for the sins of humankind.
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation (covering atonement) by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed
The New Testament word equivalent to the Old Testament word "atonement" is "propitiation" as is used in the above verse. It was His shed blood that covered the cost of our sins.
The second goat shows us how once the cost was covered, the sin was borne and carried away to an irretrievable place and remembered no more.
As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
— Psalm 103:12
Contrast Between Light and Dark
From a visual perspective, the dark mohair makes an interesting contrast with the bright white linen of the first layer, between light and darkness. Together the mohair and linen tell a familiar story of an earlier distinguishing between these two elements. It is in the Genesis creation account that we first see this pattern established.
The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness . . .
— Genesis 1:2-5
The Fabric of the Cosmos
Cosmic space is black. It is the middle space that separates the third heaven, which is God's abode, and the earth.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
— I Corinthians 12:2-4
Science is now theorizing that what appears to be black empty nothingness has substance and is referred to as dark matter. It has been suggested, based on Einsteins calculations, that this dark matter is much like a three-dimensional fabric, which also may explain how gravitation works. The above PBS video offers us a demonstration of how this might look.
The book of Isaiah amazingly is in agreement with this theory.
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle (sphere) of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
— Isaiah 40:21-22
It is possible that the grid-like weave of the dark goat hair covering was illustrating this very idea.
The Exodus Illustration
This contrast and parallel appear in the Exodus account of God's presence. His newly created nation, much like in the beginning, also included a division between light and dark.
And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night.
— Exodus 14:19-20
Darkness and Deception
From a metaphoric perspective, darkness is associated with deception, as Paul denotes in his description of false teachers who lure people away from God's truth for their benefit.
They are spots and blemishes, carousing in their own deceptions . . . These are wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.
— II Peter 2:13,17
This relationship between deception and darkness is expressed in terms of blindness in Paul's letter to the Ephesians.
This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
The goat also can be associated with this theme. Ervin Hershberger offers some examples of this in his book "Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle."
"Rebekah used kid skins to deceive Isaac into mistaking Jacob for Esau (Genesis 27:11,16). David's wife Michal used a goats' hair pillow to deceive Saul's messengers (I Samuel 19:12-17)."
It was sin and deception that separated us from God, and it was the goat that was offered as a sin offering for the people. Both apply to Christ's work on the cross and the contrasting expressions of these coverings.
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us (goat hair covering), that we might become the righteousness of God (Linen) in Him.
— II Corinthians 5:21
Ram's Skin Dyed Red
The ram's skin covering is the first of two skin coverings. The first time we see skins in Scripture occurs in the book of Genesis, and it is used in the context of a cover for the nakedness of man.
“I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself . . . ”for Adam and his wife the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them
— Genesis 3:21
The goat offering was the atonement offering that covered the sins of the people. The offering of the ram connects with the requirement for the atonement and consecration of a priest. Both speak of Christ in that He became a man on our behalf and our high priest.
the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance . . . But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.
— Hebrews 9:7,11-12
The red dye is significant.
"Ramskins denote Christ, our Suffering High Priest, 'consecrated for ever more.' . . . rams' skins undyed were not sufficient. They had to be dyed red, obviously symbolizing the blood of Christ, without which 'there is no remission'"
— Erivin N. Hershberger
The first occurrence of the ram in Scripture shows us the substitutionary aspect of this layer when Abraham offers up his only promised son as a sacrifice, but God provides a ram substitute.
And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
— Genesis 22:13
This entire event looked forward to another only promised son who would be the substitute on our behalf.
The ram was a higher elevation animal considering that the event took place on a mountain, symbolizing the heavenly transaction that took place.
For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another— He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
— Hebrews 9:23-28
Badger, Dolphin, or Porpoise Skin
This fourth and final covering is difficult to pin down. The translation "badger's skin" is widely debated. Most scholars agree that it was most likely not badger's skins. The alternative suggestions are dolphin or porpoise skin, which both native to the Red Sea and or the Mediterranean. The dolphin is the more common of the two.
This leather served as coverings for transporting the main furnishings and accessories. It is mentioned seven times in Numbers chapter four, which includes the instructions for dismantling the structure and its contents.
Another mention of this particular skin occurs in the book of Ezekiel. The material He describes is more in keeping with the dolphin or porpoise because shoes were made from it. The Jewish Publication Society interprets the following verse as such.
I clothed you with embroidered garments, and gave you sandals of dolphin leather. (JPS English-Hebrew Tanakh)
— Ezekiel 16:10
It is a compelling consideration that dolphin or porpoise shoes were made and worn by ancient Bedouins.
Dolphin or porpoise leather was considered a trouble proof and versatile material that was water and saltwater protective. It also could easily withstand heat. The ad in the image above was published in a catalog in 1914 and boasted of its durable qualities.
In 1892 a newspaper called the "Daily Telegraph" printed an advertisement that also confirms this type of use.
PORPOISE HIDE FOR SHOE LEATHER.
Wellington, This day. Some hides of porpoises obtained on the West Coast, after being steeped in brine for four months, have been tanned at the local feilmongery, the result being the production of excellent leather, as light and as pliable as kid. A boot manufacturer has offered the tanners a high price for a ton of the leather, and is awaiting their estimate to determine whether he will go extensive!* , . into the trade. J1
The Porpoise and dolphin are water mammals reminding us, once again, of the creation narrative as it concerns water.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters...And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
— Genesis 1:2,6-7
Above and Below
The concepts of "above and below" are connected with this element. They beautifully cap off the entire purpose of the Tabernacle. In Paul's epistle to the Ephesians, he speaks of the heights and depths of God's love as expressed through Christ's work on the cross as well as in His resurrection.
To me . . . this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
— Ephesians 3:17-20
The dolphin and porpoise are notable creatures that can leap to incredible heights and can dive, also, to great depths. Paul, in His letter to the Romans, gives us the New Testament application of faith in what Christ has done for us. He uses the terms height and depth to express above and below.
. . . the righteousness which is of faith speaks on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:)
Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)
But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach;
That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
— Romans 10:6-9
God Does Not Look at the Outward Appearance and Neither Should We
John Ritchie, in His book "Tabernacle of the Wilderness," observes that this protective layer was not aesthetically pleasing to behold. He connects how this relates to our Savior in the following respect.
He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
— Isaiah 53:2
To an outsider, this structure may have appeared to be of little interest. But to the attending priesthood, which had interior access, it was an entirely different experience.
"The Tabernacle was all glorious within, with boards overlaid with gold and curtains of needle-work, but these were only seen by God's anointed priest who stood within the Holy Place."
— John Ritchie"
It is like that many times with the things of God. When His truth is viewed from a distance, and the height and depth of it are not considered, it appears to be a dull, drab irrelevant investment. But when we take the time and effort to draw near and seek Him with our whole heart in faith, He shows us His most beautiful treasures.
One thing I have desired of the Lord,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord,
And to inquire in His temple.
— Psalm 27:4
We will end this section with an eye towards God's desire to dwell with us.
We began with the first cover of linen that was considered a part of the Tabernacle itself. The three animal-based coverings referred to the tent. When The word Tabernacle is used concerning this structure, it is referring to God's dwelling place. When it is called the "tent," it concerns God's dealings with man. Covering is the key to God's dealing with and having a relationship with humankind.
Each covering illustrated the problems and solutions from creation to Christ to present application.
The division of light and dark was exhibited in the Goatskin and linen. The division of waters above and below were illustrated in the dolphin skin covering. At the center of these was the ram's skin dyed red, the Savior and Substitute for the payment of our sins. The High priest Jesus is the center of it all.
Sources and Credits
"Tabernacle in the Wilderness" by John Ritchie Kregel publications 1992
"Seeing Christ in the Tabernacle" by Ervin N. Hershberger 1995 Vision Publishers 2007
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