God’s Word for You
Numbers 4:12-15 The holy things
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, June 10, 2021
12 They are to take all the utensils which they use in the sanctuary and put them in a blue cloth, cover them with a covering made from the hides of sea cows, and put them on a carrying frame.
This verse seems like a catch-all for the other things that would be used in the sanctuary. In Numbers 3:31 they were called “the sanctuary utensils with which they serve,” but they are not described with much more detail than that. These things are differentiated from the items used at the altar (verse 14 below), so they may have included things like knives and other things for flaying and butchering.
Since this is one of the last times that the term “sea cows” will appear (see 4:14 and 4:25), it’s worth noting that for many centuries, the identity of these creatures was unknown to many translators. In the earliest translation (Greek, 2nd century BC) it was thought to be a color and not an animal at all (hyacinth). The King James Version tried out “badger-skins” as a possibility (the European badger’s range extends throughout Europe and as far south as Lebanon), but the similarity between the Hebrew tahash and the Arabic tuhash “dolphin” makes a marine animal more likely. Sea Cows are common in the Red Sea and their enormous hides and habit of frolicking close to shore to the Sinai make them the likeliest translation.
The failure of the Greek Jews to be able to translate certain words like tahash is further proof of the date of Moses’ writings. Surely if the books of Moses had been written, as some critics claim, between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC, then a Jewish translator would have done a better job in the same time frame. So our understanding of “sea cows” as animals and not a color is another proof that Moses wrote in the 15th Century, as we have always believed to be the case.
13 They are to remove the fat-soaked ashes from the altar and spread a purple cloth over it. 14 They are to put on it all the utensils which they use around the altar: the fire pans, the meat hooks, the shovels, and the basins—the utensils of the altar. They will spread a covering made of the hides of sea cows over the altar and insert its poles.
Because of the general sootiness of the altar, no special cloth was used as a covering. It was simply covered with the weatherproof hide with all the articles used around the altar accounted for and laid inside for carrying. It’s not of interest to this text, but the phrase “fat-soaked ashes” in verse 13 is two-thirds of the ancient recipe for making soap. All that is missing is rainwater, and wood ash soaked in animal fat from a fire would produce one of the best examples of ancient soap. This was not of concern when they were wrapping up the bronze altar of sacrifice, of course, but it’s likely that the wise mothers of Israel would have known the recipe and made soap at the little campfires in front of their tents up and down the paths and avenues of the tent-city of Israel all around the Tabernacle.
15 After Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the items of the sanctuary, when the camp sets out, the descendants of Kohath will come to carry them. But they are not to touch the sanctuary or they will die. The descendants of Kohath are to carry these things associated with the Tent of Meeting.
Once again we are reminded that the priests did the actual packing up of the materials for the tabernacle. The Levites were permitted to carry the packed items, with each family assigned to different articles. But the priests took down the Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, and the utensils and furniture of worship.
One example of this in the present day, without the restrictions of threats and punishments, is that there are times when the pastor needs to make the final decision about where certain items are placed for worship. Our church has a free-standing altar, which can be rolled and moved. This allows the altar to be used close to the congregation for most worship occasions, but it can be removed, for example, for the children’s Christmas Eve service when we have rows and rows of benches for our school children to sit facing the worshipers (our school will have about 300 students this fall). When the altar is returned to its place, there is one custodian who knows its correct location, but only he and the pastors really understand where it needs to be. Part of the issue is that the lights for the chancel (where the ministers stand) are fixed in place, and if the altar is not in the right place, the minister’s face will be in a shadow. In addition, there are times when flowers are placed with great enthusiasm and liberality for certain occasions. But the pastor still needs to be able to get physically into the pulpit. And too many lilies dropping their pollen down into the pulpit may close up a preacher’s throat after four or five hours of worship on Easter Sunday.
Another more common example is the communion ware. Many volunteers help get things ready for the Lord’s Supper, but finally the minister knows how the things are best laid out on the tables. Perhaps there are further examples, but these will do for now.
In the end, the care of God’s people is the most important task of God’s workers, but this is also a covering like the weatherproof hide of the sea cows over any position of responsibility: Parents, spouses, adult children who watch over aging loving ones, nurses, bosses, co-workers, neighbors, teachers, and finally each of us a good Samaritan, looking after all of God’s children. As John urges us in his letters (1 John 3:11; 2 John 1:5), I ask that we love one another.
Pastor Timothy Smith