Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
In the desert, the desert-dwelling Israelites were commanded to set up the Tent of Meeting- in the desert. I know I’m being awfully repetitive, but I want you to get your mind out of convenience and put yourself smack dab in the middle of the awful desert with the Israelites. Now Moses had come back from talking with God with instructions for this tent that would house the Ark of the Covenant and be the place of sacrifice. However, when Moses read off the list of supplies to the Levites who would be in charge of all this, there’s a slight oddity: the materials required were not the most readily available to tribes of Israel, who at the time were desert-bound nomads. Here, take a look at Numbers 4:4-6,
This is the work of the Kohathites in the Tent of Meeting: the care of the most holy things. When the camp is to move, Aaron and his sons are to go in and take down the shielding curtain and cover the ark of the Testimony with it. Then they are to cover this with hides of sea cows, spread a cloth of solid blue over that and put the poles in place.
Did you catch that? If not read it again, and remember: desert. God told Moses that the Israelites needed to cover various articles with hides of sea cows while traveling. Again, hides of sea cows- the cousin of the manatee.
Now, to be fair, a lot of Bible’s translate this differently and I’m sure there’s some speculation as to what God is talking about. Honestly I couldn’t believe it myself when I read it (over and over, since God requires many hides of sea cows for his projects). I actually Googled it and nobody seems to really have much to say except that on the whole, most modern translators think that the NIV Bible is accurate. Either way I love this translation because it’s absolutely ridiculous. Not only is it ridiculous, but it’s also very frequently mentioned. I mean, check this out,
Over the table of the Presence they are to spread a blue cloth and put on it the plates, dishes and bowls, and the jars for drink offerings; the bread that is continually there to remain on it. Over these they are to spread a scarlet cloth, cover that with hides of sea cows and put its poles in place (Numbers 4:7-8).
Basically every part of the Tent of Meeting at some point or another gets covered in sea cow skins. Remember for a moment, they weren’t in a big trading area like Egypt; the Israelites were wandering the desert. Not only were they wandering, but they were doing so without any access to food like fish or meat and certainly not to large gray aquatic vacuum cleaners. We know this because Numbers 11:4-6 actually records the people complaining about their lack of tasty food,
The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost- also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”
The folks complaining actually noted the lack of fish, which implies a lack of access to aquatic life. So how in the world were these people supposed to get what would amount to a whole bunch of dead dugongs?
Yet, as you keep reading, God just keeps going. See for yourself,
They are to take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand that is for the light, together with its lamps, its wick trimmers and trays, and all its jars for the oil used to supply it. Then they are to wrap it and all its accessories in a covering of hides of sea cows and put it on a carrying frame (Numbers 4:9-10).
Imagine Moses as he tried to keep up with God while the Lord was giving him instructions. God is going on about the specifics of the Tent of Meeting and the varied tasks of the Levites and yet he keeps mentioning sea cows. And then every time Moses tries to speak up, God cuts him off and keeps talking about sea cows:
God: Over the gold altar they are to spread a blue cloth and cover that with hides of sea cows and put its poles in place (Numbers 4:11).
Moses: Yes God, wait; more sea cows? Hold on, where are we supposed to ge-
God: They are to take all the articles used for the ministering in the sanctuary, wrap them in a blue cloth, cover that with the hides of sea cows and put them on a carrying frame (Numbers 4:12).
Obviously I am putting words in Moses’ mouth, since none of us were there at the time. But I think the way God presents the whole set up to Moses is a little bit playful, knowing how bizarre it all sounds. I mean, the Lord could have just said, “wrap everything in blue cloth, then in the hides of sea cows.” But he plays with it, again and again specifically mentioning the need for dugong skin to Moses (who in turn had to present what God told him to the Israelites).
Ok, so the question is, “Why would God demand something so ludicrous that the Israelites absolutely wouldn’t be able to get it?” I read one Bible commentator try to explain this question away by saying that the material was actually really common and used as shoe leather. However, when the Holy Spirit lit up the verses for me, he was explaining that the Lord gave Moses and the people a seemingly impossible request in order to show his power and to test the Israelites. Moses reminds the people of this in Deuteronomy 8:2 when he says,
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these fort years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.
The Israelites time in the desert was wild. Yes, it was an awful desert, but God showed up all the time to meet their needs in order to gain their trust, even in the harshest conditions. Psalm 78 chronicles some of what they experienced out there with the Lord. Scripture records,
He did miracles in the sight of their fathers
In the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan.
He divided the sea and led them through;
He made the water stand firm like a wall.
He guided them with the cloud by day
And with the light from the fire by night.
He split the rocks in the desert
And gave them water as abundant as the seas;
He brought streams out of a rocky crag
And made water flow down like rivers (Psalms 78:12-16).
Can you imagine that? First God brought awesome and rather showy plagues on Egypt until the native Egyptians were so sick of the Israelites and scared of God that they paid God’s people to leave. Then, when Pharaoh tried to kill them, the Lord split the Red Sea so that the children of Israel could escape. And then, while in the desert, our God provided non-stop navigation services between camping places in the form of an easy to see pillar of cloud by day and a hard to miss pillar of fire by night. But there’s more, since there’s not much water in the desert, the Lord opened up the rocks to reveal hidden springs of water. What about food? God had that taken care of too,
Yet he gave a command to the skies above
And opened the doors of the heavens;
He rained down manna for the people to eat,
He gave them the grain of heaven.
Men ate the bread of angels;
He sent them all the food they could eat (Psalms 78:23-25)
Since the desert had a severe lack of food, God actually rained down food from heaven, some magic bread that was waiting for them every morning (except on the Sabbath). And when the people complained about the manna (as we read earlier), he gave them all the meat they could eat,
He rained meat down on them like dust,
Flying birds like sand on the seashore.
He made them come down inside their camp,
All around their tents.
They ate till they had more than enough,
For he had given them what they craved (Psalms 78:27-29).
Actually, I want to pause for a moment and ask; have you actually read how much bird meat God gave the complaining Israelites? Check this out, it’s wild,
Now a wind went out from the Lord and drove quail in from the sea. It brought them down all around the camp to about three feet above the ground, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than ten homers. Then they spread them out all around the camp (Numbers 11:31-32).
There were so many birds that for as far as anyone could see the Israelites were three feet deep in quail. You could lose a small child in that kind of flock! But the point is that God provided his people with everything they needed on their long journey through the desert on the way to the Promised Land. And even though God made the ridiculous demand of dugongs, he must have provided them; for Exodus 36:19 tells us, “Then they made for the tent a covering of ram skins dyed red, and over that a covering of hides of sea cows.”
And this is his message to us today too. God will provide, no matter what the situation looks like. Every champion of faith has had to learn that we can’t look with our eyes and make a decision based on our rationality. Even Abraham, the father of faith learned this after God almost made him sacrifice his son (who was a gift from God to the extremely old Abraham). Genesis 22:13-14 reads,
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
God will provide everything to those who trust in him to do so. Jesus once said,
So do not worry saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:31-33).
And just how do we seek the Kingdom of Heaven and righteousness? Well, God provided that too, in a way almost as ridiculous as dugongs in the desert. The Lord came down, in the form of Jesus Christ and died a horrific death on a cross in order to be the atoning sacrifice for every one of us, should we believe in and trust in him. Sounds crazy, right? Well, as Paul said, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Telling the Israelites to cover everything in the hides of sea cows sounded nuts when God presented it, but when he provided the materials to do so, it showed his awesome power. So too does it sound weird when a Christian says they’ve been covered by the blood of Jesus- but for those who have been washed clean through Christ’s blood, it is the awesome power of our Lord.
Rock on God!