These instructions are for a tent made of goat hair which would cover the fine linen curtains which made up the inner part of the tabernacle. There would be other layers over this one. One was a covering of ram's skins dyed red, and over that a covering of hides of sea cows.
What, you may ask, is a sea cow? Well, I wondered, too, so I did a bit of research and it seems that it is a popular name for the manatee. You can put 'sea cow' into your favorite search engine and get quite a few pictures, including some amusing ones where the artists depict familiar black and white cows with fins and flippers. The manatees did look surprisingly cow-like, with their elongated snouts -- especially when the pictures showed them chomping away at some type of sea vegetation! They also like to graze in herds, sometimes up to several hundred in number.
I have also seen 'sea cows' translated as 'porpoises' in some versions of the Bible. However, I have also seen the words translated as 'goatskins'. Now I will have to check the Hebrew.
Oh my. No, not 'lions and tigers and bears', but would you believe 'badgers, seals and porpoises'?
The site I checked translated the Hebrew word in that verse as 'porpoise'. Other versions of the Scriptures translated the word in various ways:
- badgers (which is pretty often rejected, especially since the badger was considered an 'unclean' animal for the Israelites.)
If you are wondering where the Israelites would get such skins of sea creatures as they journeyed, remember that God had told them to ask their Egyptian neighbors for various valuable items (clothing, jewelry,etc.) before they were delivered from slavery in Egypt. (Exodus 3:22; 12:35-36) Perhaps some already-tanned porpoise/manatee skins were also selected from these Egyptians, who, after experiencing the ten plagues (especially the final one -- the death of the first born son in each household), were all too willing to hand over whatever they requested so that the Israelites would leave Egypt as quickly as possible.
I suppose there is also the possibility of having encountered traders along the way, or of obtaining and processing the skins themselves, as there were times in their journey back to the promised land when they would remain in one place for awhile until God indicated that they should move on. Not that they would have had time to build a boat and go on extensive sea journeys, but one type of 'sea cow', the dugong, grazed in fairly shallow areas among sea grasses along the coasts. These slow-moving creatures might have become easy prey to an enterprising Hebrew. However, to me that seems like the least likely possibility, especially since it would have taken quite a number of these animals to make up such a covering for the tabernacle.
As far as habitat, the current habitat maps don't show manatees near the Sinai Peninsula, where the Israelites would have been traveling. However, these same maps did show dugongs ranging as far as the Nile River (the animals also inhabited inland waterways at times), which is interesting if you think that the Hebrews might have obtained the skins of these mammals from their Egyptian neighbors before they left Egypt. Altogether, I got the impression as I researched that there is still much to learn about these animals, and that populations of them could have existed in places from which we do not currently have fossil evidence.
If I find out any more I will return and add it to this post. But for now, 'that is all'.