3.2.10 Porpoise/Dolphin: Concealment
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.10
Okay, let’s see a show of hands. How many knew that porpoises were mentioned in the Bible, much less used as a significant symbol by Yahweh? Anyone? Don’t feel bad. This is one of those hidden scriptural gems that you have to dig deep to find. Our problem stems mostly from the scholars of old trying to translate the Bible into English with inadequate knowledge of the cultural matrix in which the words were spoken. Neither John Wycliffe nor King James’ 1611 translation crew would have known a porpoise from a coelacanth. So it’s not really their fault that something beautiful got lost in translation. (I’m not claiming to be any smarter, more insightful, or more spiritually astute than any of my predecessors, you understand. The only reason I was able to see what William Tyndale could not is that I live in the information age—I have a library full of reference books at my disposal, not to mention the Internet and some really cool software. You can see a long way if you stand on the shoulders of giants.)
We see porpoises in only one context in scripture. Under Torah rules, these sea creatures were not to be used as food (since they had fins but no scales), nor could they be offered as sacrifices. But porpoise hides had been utilized by Middle Eastern peoples—including Egyptians and Israelites—since long before the exodus. The first time we encounter them in the Word, the Israelites had just left Egypt, and were encamped at the foot of Mount Horeb. Moses had gone up to the summit to receive Yahweh’s Instructions. “Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering. And this is the offering which you shall take from them: gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet thread, fine linen, and goats’ hair; ram skins dyed red, badger skins, and acacia wood; oil for the light, and spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense; onyx stones, and stones to be set in the ephod and in the breastplate. And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it.” (Exodus 25:1-9 NKJV)
The reason you couldn’t find “porpoise” on the list of materials needed for the wilderness tabernacle is that it was mistranslated as “badger.” Although one rare variety (the honey badger) can be found in sub-Saharan Africa and the Levant, the animal so familiar to the translators in the British Isles was not the one specified in the text. The word is tahas, denoting a marine mammal indigenous to the Mediterranean and Red Seas—a porpoise, dolphin, dugong, or sea cow. (I have settled on the “porpoise” as a representative of the group, but only for convenience. For the purpose of the symbol, I’m not of a mind to quibble over the species distinction, for reasons that will become self evident.) The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes: “Since the badger is rarely if ever seen in Sinai, and since Arabic tuhþas ‘dolphin,’ seems to be cognate to Hebrew tahas, most recent commentators translate the Hebrew word as ‘dolphin, porpoise, dugong….’ The bottle-nosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) is found in the eastern Mediterranean, while the dugong (Dugong dugong) is plentiful in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba; the skin of the latter is still used by Bedouin to make sandals. If (as seems likely) the tahas was the outermost protective covering of the tabernacle, the skin of a marine animal like the dolphin or dugong would have been eminently suitable, both for its toughness and for its waterproofing properties.” The word is almost always accompanied with the descriptor ‘owr, meaning skin or hide—it’s the leather we’re talking about. Because most English translations owe so much to the venerable (and errant, in this case) 1611 King James/Authorized version, I have opted to quote from the New American Standard Version for this section (which translates tahas as “porpoise.”) My customary ESV translates it “goatskins,” but admits in a margin note (Ryrie) that it probably means dolphin or dugong hides.
Yahweh didn’t ask the Israelites to contribute anything toward the construction of the tabernacle that was unavailable to them. He didn’t ask for sequoia redwood timbers, kangaroo hides, or moon rocks. Almost everything on the list was, in fact, something with which they would have left Egypt. Remember, by the time of their sudden departure, they knew they would never return, so they took everything they owned with them—not just the “parting gifts” of gold and silver their former neighbors had practically thrown at them on their way out of town (Exodus 11:2-3, 12:35-36). The Israelites had been “slaves” in Egypt for the past four hundred years, but that doesn’t mean they all worked 24/7 building the pyramids (like in the movies). They—like us—needed to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves, or they would have died out in their first few years of bondage. The Egyptians’ purpose had been to exploit them as a forced labor resource, not to exterminate them. So although life may have been hard under Egyptian bondage, it was sustainable.
My point is that among a nation of half a million families (all of whom owed a quota of labor to Pharaoh), there would have been a fair number of farmers, herdsmen, fishermen, bakers, weavers, tanners, metal smiths, carpenters and cobblers. Why, then, would the departing Israelites have had the skins of aquatic mammals in their possession, as Yahweh had requested? It’s because that’s what the cobblers—the shoemakers—would have used to make sandals for their countrymen. They still do in that part of the world. There were (no doubt) hundreds of them in Israel, each with his own supply of porpoise hides—his stock in trade. We are given a subtle reminder of their craft in the instructions for the Passover feast: “In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is Yahweh’s Passover.” (Exodus 12:11) Those whose business it was to make those sandals would not have left their inventory behind in Egypt; they would have taken it with them when they departed, presuming, logically enough, that their people would still need new shoes in the promised land. But Yahweh requested that any Israelite shoemaker with a willing heart should donate his leather inventory as an offering.
At first, when Moses made known Yahweh’s “wish list,” the people didn’t know precisely how the materials God asked for were going to be used. All they knew was that their God had asked for it for something called a “tent of meeting.” And after all they had witnessed, how could they refuse? “Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel departed from Moses’ presence. Everyone whose heart stirred him and everyone whose spirit moved him came and brought Yahweh’s contribution for the work of the tent of meeting and for all its service and for the holy garments….” At this point, their sandals were still squishy from their little stroll across the bed of the Red Sea. The awesome power Yahweh had brought to bear in their deliverance was still fresh in their minds. It is little wonder that their “hearts stirred them.” What I can’t figure out is, in light of what Yahweh has done for us, why are we, living here in the shadow of Calvary, not similarly stirred.
So Israel responded to God’s request: “Then all whose hearts moved them, both men and women, came and brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and bracelets, all articles of gold; so did every man who presented an offering of gold to Yahweh.” Whether ornaments or investments, folks gladly gave up what they’d thought was valuable in response to God’s call. That same God has subsequently identified what He considers valuable: us. Don’t look now, but we who have a willing heart are still being asked to contribute for God’s glory what is valuable in His sight: ourselves. “Every man, who had in his possession blue and purple and scarlet material and fine linen and goats’ hair and rams’ skins dyed red and porpoise skins, brought them.” As we shall see in a moment, each of these materials was to be used in the covering of the tabernacle. “Everyone who could make a contribution of silver and bronze brought Yahweh’s contribution; and every man who had in his possession acacia wood for any work of the service brought it….” The infrastructure of Yahweh’s sanctuary (the tangible symbol representing His plan for our redemption) was built from what men had gratefully contributed. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
“All the skilled women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue and purple and scarlet material and in fine linen. All the women whose heart stirred with a skill spun the goats’ hair.” Not only what we have, but also what we do, is valuable to our God if offered with a willing spirit, one moved and stirred by our recognition of and thankfulness for Yahweh’s deliverance. “The rulers brought the onyx stones and the stones for setting for the ephod and for the breastpiece; and the spice and the oil for the light and for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense.” The rich and the comparatively poor, the influential gifted elite and the common folk alike were all invited to participate—and those with a grateful heart did so, without regard to their station in life. “The Israelites, all the men and women, whose heart moved them to bring material for all the work, which Yahweh had commanded through Moses to be done, brought a freewill offering to Yahweh.” (Exodus 35:20-29 NASB; see also Exodus 36:19 and 39:34.)
I should reiterate that using “command” and “freewill” in the same sentence does not constitute a contradiction. The “command” was merely that Moses should make the need known. But it was made abundantly clear from the outset that only those with a willing spirit were to bring their offerings. Those without such a spirit of gratitude were perfectly within their rights to keep all of their stuff for themselves. God would not punish them or even speak harshly to them if they didn’t respond. That’s not to say it wasn’t positively poetic that those who wanted to keep their treasures for themselves would be doomed to the self-inflicted punishment of lugging their precious hoard around the desert for the next forty years. There was nothing out there upon which one could spend his gold. And what of those shoemakers (if any) who opted to keep their stash of porpoise hides—figuring that Israel’s journey through the wilderness would create a booming market for their wares? In a classic example of “best laid plans going awry,” we read: “You have seen all that Yahweh did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. But to this day Yahweh has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet. You have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink, that you may know that I am Yahweh your God.” (Deuteronomy 29:2-6) It was an unexpected miracle of preservation: nobody’s sandals wore out during the entire forty year wilderness marathon.
But if not for making shoes, why did Yahweh say He wanted the porpoise skins? Although we’ll have to save for a later volume our discussion of the tabernacle and its appurtenances, suffice it to say that the covering of the tabernacle was to be made of four layers, one laid atop another in succession. The inner layer was of linen (symbolic of imputed righteousness), which was to be embroidered with images of cherubim—angels—wrought in thread dyed with the costliest materials, blue, purple, and scarlet (a subject we’ll also have to save for later). The second layer was to be made of woven goats’ hair cloth, symbolic (if we may take our cue from the two goats of the Yom Kippurim rites) of sin. Because of the linen layer, our sin can’t be seen from inside the tabernacle. But because this goats’ hair layer is covered as well, it can’t be seen from outside the tabernacle, either. In other words, according to the tabernacle’s specifications, neither man nor God has any interest in—or access to—the sins of the redeemed. I don’t know about you, but the very concept gives me goose bumps.
And what is specified to cover the goats’ hair (sin) layer? It is a layer of rams’ skins, dyed red. The ram is a rather obvious reference to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, but in a form that stresses His authority as the “leader of the flock” (as we saw previously). In other words, it represents Yahshua the Messiah, the red color stressing that He has been slain for our transgressions, establishing His right to rule: He has been “dyed red” with His own blood. So we read, “You shall make a covering for the tent of rams’ skins dyed red and a covering of porpoise skins above.” (Exodus 26:14 NASB) We believers revel in the fact that our sins (the goats’ hair layer) have been covered (which is what “atonement” means) by the blood of Christ. The rams’ skins remove something—our sins are no longer in evidence before God, no longer observable, no longer visible. At the same time, something is added: we are simultaneously endowed with imputed righteousness—the linen layer. But this fact is apparent only when viewed from within the tabernacle. That is, it cannot be perceived except by one who has encountered the altar of sacrifice, washed his hands and feet at the laver of cleansing, and has then lawfully entered the tabernacle—the plan of God for our redemption.
So the sins of the redeemed can’t be seen (and more to the point, can’t be used to condemn them) from any vantage point—either from within the plan of God or from outside it, from out in the world. But if that is the case—if the shed blood of the Lamb of God is so efficacious in covering our sins—why doesn’t the world comprehend what has happened to us? Why don’t they see what Yahshua did on our behalf? Why do they remain oblivious to (or antagonistic toward) the good news of Yahweh’s Salvation (i.e., Yahshua) and our subsequent reconciliation? It’s because there’s a fourth and final layer covering the whole symbolic scenario: a layer of porpoise skins, concealing the stunning truth from those who don’t wish to see it—from those who don’t choose to see it.
Those who long for a painless, bloodless, all-inclusive philosophical meeting of the minds between men and God—in a word, religion—tend to see this concealment mechanism as unfair, inconvenient, and downright obstructionistic. Why must God be so exclusive, so secretive? Actually, He’s not. Anyone and everyone is allowed to approach Him. But they must do so as He ordained, for He is holy. There is but one entrance to the sanctuary courtyard, and between that entrance and the sanctuary, the altar of sacrifice, followed by the laver of cleansing, stand as sentinels—they must both be addressed in turn before the tabernacle may be entered. Here again, there is only one way in. Once inside, the supplicant is shown several things. There is a golden menorah or lampstand on his left, with seven oil lamps (read: spiritual enlightenment) illuminating the place of Yahweh’s provision (the bread of the presence), on his right. The “walls” are dazzling—covered with pure gold. If he looks up, he’ll see the inner layer of the tabernacle covering, embroidered linen indicating the imputed righteousness that characterizes the redeemed. Straight ahead stands a small altar—this one used for burning incense, representing prayer. It guards one final portal: the entrance to the “most holy place,” where the glory of God is said to dwell (figuratively, of course) between the two cherubim of the mercy seat, atop the ark of the covenant. The throne of Yahweh is the ultimate destination: reaching Him is the whole point of the process of redemption as ordained and explained in the Torah.
So, if the third layer, the rams’ skins dyed red, had not been concealed from view under the porpoise skin covering layer, God’s ordained sequence of essential spiritual events would have been breached. To approach the true and living God, one must embrace—in order—sacrifice, cleansing, the illumination of the Holy Spirit, Yahweh’s constant provision, and communication with God in prayer. Only then can he stand justified in the presence of Yahweh. Anyone can do it, but it must be done on God’s terms. As Yahweh declared, “Among those who are near Me I must be regarded as holy, and before all the people I must be glorified.” (Leviticus 10:3) Are we really so shocked to discover that Almighty God has standards?
Although it wasn’t exactly a “tent,” the tabernacle wasn’t a “permanent” building, either. It was modular in construction, designed to be broken down into its component parts and moved from time to time, as Yahweh’s Shekinah (manifested in the pillar of cloud and fire) directed, and to be reassembled in a new location. Here again, porpoise or dolphin skins are specified for the purpose of concealment, to separate—i.e., to keep holy—the sacred from the profane.
Jacob’s son Levi had three sons, the patriarchs of the clans of Kohath, Gershon, and Merari. All three clans had specific duties to perform when the Shekinah indicated it was time to move the camp of Israel. Merari carried the “hardware,” that is, the boards, foundation sockets, bars and pillars. The Gershonites were to carry the “software”—the fabric and leather, screens, cords, curtains, and panels, including ceiling components of the tabernacle we’ve just been discussing: “This is the service of the families of the Gershonites, in serving and in carrying: they shall carry the curtains of the tabernacle and the tent of meeting with its covering and the covering of porpoise skin that is on top of it, and the screen for the doorway of the tent of meeting, and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the doorway of the gate of the court which is around the tabernacle and the altar, and their cords and all the equipment for their service; and all that is to be done, they shall perform.” (Numbers 4:24-26 NASB)
That left the Kohathites (the sub-family to which Moses and Aaron belonged) to carry the implements of symbolic worship:“When the camp sets out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and they shall take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it; and they shall lay a covering of porpoise skin on it, and shall spread over it a cloth of pure blue, and shall insert its poles….” Although carrying these items from place to place would be done by the Kohathite Levites in general, the packing and preparation was to be the exclusive duty of the priests. The first thing they were to do was to conceal the ark of the covenant (with its integral mercy seat—where the Shekinah was figuratively said to abide) from public view. The point was to regard Yahweh as holy, even if the mercy seat was only symbolic of His dwelling place. The procedure here proved that there was nothing “magical” or intrinsically hazardous about the ark of the covenant. Normally, Yom Kippurim was the only day of the year the most holy place could be entered (and then only by the High Priest, covered with prayer, and atoned for with the blood of a bull). But although the inevitable result of approaching the ark unworthily would have been instantaneous death, on moving day the priests were to simply take down the veil and cover the ark with it, followed with a porpoise-skin concealment covering and then a costly and symbolically significant blue cloth—which was the only thing the people would see as the ark was being transported from one place to another.
The same reverence was shown in preparing the other tabernacle furnishings for transport: “Over the table of the bread of the Presence they shall also spread a cloth of blue and put on it the dishes and the pans and the sacrificial bowls and the jars for the drink offering, and the continual bread shall be on it.” Note that the showbread was left in place during transport. The lesson: God’s provision for us is constant, even when He’s moving us out of our comfort zone. “They shall spread over them a cloth of scarlet material, and cover the same with a covering of porpoise skin, and they shall insert its poles.” Again, both porpoise skins and symbolically dyed cloth (this time, scarlet) were used to conceal the form of the holy furnishings from public view during the move. The same thing is true of the menorah and the altar of incense. “Then they shall take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand for the light, along with its lamps and its snuffers, and its trays and all its oil vessels, by which they serve it; and they shall put it and all its utensils in a covering of porpoise skin, and shall put it on the carrying bars. Over the golden altar they shall spread a blue cloth and cover it with a covering of porpoise skin, and shall insert its poles; and they shall take all the utensils of service, with which they serve in the sanctuary, and put them in a blue cloth and cover them with a covering of porpoise skin, and put them on the carrying bars….” Another constant is the use of carrying bars or poles to lift and move all of these fixtures. Everything was to be kept literally at arms length out of reverence for Yahweh.
The last item mentioned for covering during transport was the altar of sacrifice. Again, both porpoise skins and dyed cloth were to be used to conceal its form, and again, it was to be carried with poles, not handled manually. “Then they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it. They shall also put on it all its utensils by which they serve in connection with it: the firepans, the forks and shovels and the basins, all the utensils of the altar; and they shall spread a cover of porpoise skin over it and insert its poles. When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they will not touch the holy objects and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry.” (Numbers 4:5-15 NASB) I don’t know how significant it is, but there is one tabernacle appurtenance that was left unmentioned in this passage. Interestingly, this same item was the only one for which no specifics for dimensions, weight, or capacity were given. It’s the bronze laver, in which the priests were to wash their hands and feet every time they entered the tabernacle. I have surmised that no dimensions or capacity were specified because Yahweh wished to convey the idea that there is no limit to the amount of cleansing we may receive, once the sacrifice has been made on the altar atoning for our sins. Could it be that the laver of cleansing was not to be covered during transport? If so, the meaning would parallel my earlier supposition: there is never a time—even when Yahweh is moving in our world, even when things are in complete upheaval—in which the works and walk of the redeemed cannot be cleansed. I realize that this is an argument from silence, but still, it gives me great comfort to know that I won’t have to reach my destination before I can wash my hands again. It’s a dirty world out here.
As we have seen, the porpoise hides used in the service and symbolism of the tabernacle invariably indicated concealment—the idea that because He is holy, Yahweh’s plan will remain opaque to those who choose not to avail themselves of His way, His truth, and His life. And we have also learned what those porpoise hides would have been used for, had they not been retasked—shoes. So perhaps it would be profitable to go back and take a quick look at footwear in the Bible—the common product of porpoise skin that was “sacrificed” by God on the altar of our understanding.
We have already seen what to me is a most remarkable circumstance—that having asked for—and received—the cobblers’ porpoise-leather stocks, Yahweh rewarded their faithfulness and generosity with a miracle of preservation for Israel: “I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet.” (Deuteronomy 29:5) The point is that shoes are expected to wear out. It’s normal and natural, a reflection of everything connected with our own mortality. This reminds me of an interesting story in the book of Joshua in which worn out shoes were used to deceive the Israelites into compromising with the idolatrous world they had been commanded to destroy.
First, a bit of background: before Israel had even left Mount Sinai, God had instructed them, “I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against Me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.” (Exodus 23:31-33) As Israel entered the Land, they had every intention of doing as God had instructed them to do, refusing to “bargain” with any of the pagan Canaanite peoples they encountered. They took Jericho, and next Ai (after one false start), and sat down to plan their campaign of conquest. “But when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly….” Gibeon was a Hivite city (thus specifically promised to Israel—see Exodus 23:23) located about fifteen miles west of Jericho. It was not, as they claimed, a “far country.” But their raggedy faux diplomats arrived in Joshua’s camp and extracted a peace treaty out of Israel by claiming to have heard of Yahweh’s greatness among them. They said, “These wineskins were new when we filled them, and behold, they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey.” (Joshua 9:3-5, 13) It took about three days for the truth to come out, but by that time it was too late: Israel had given their word. They would now either have to break Yahweh’s commandment to conquer all of Canaan, or break the Ninth Commandment—the one prohibiting “bearing false witness against their neighbors.” Israel opted to split the difference, keeping their word not to exterminate the Gibeonites, but making them slaves—water carriers and woodcutters—in perpetuity, in exchange for their lives.
Most commentators at this point take Israel to task for failing to consult with Yahweh first when faced with these emissaries “from a far country.” It is usually opined that the Israelites should have determined the true status of their visitors before making any compromises with the “Gibeonite devils,” and then squashed them like bugs. But I can’t help identifying with the hapless Hivites. Yes, until the Jews showed up, they were wrong about nearly everything—their priorities, their pursuits, and their passions—not to mention their gods. But was this not the state in which every believer was mired before the God of Israel made His presence known to them? Before we encountered Yahshua, were we not idolaters, serving false gods of our own imagination? We are no better—and no different—than the men of Gibeon when confronted with the power of Yahweh: hopeless, helpless, and desperate for salvation.
So (at the risk of making our porpoise-skin shoe symbol more real than it really is) the perceptive Gibeonites concealed their true identities by wearing worn-out sandals (and all the rest). Those shabby shoes reflected their mortal state, whether they realized it or not: they were used up, worthless, destined to die. The only way they could hope to survive was to be retasked like the shoe-leather now covering of the tabernacle—to become servants. Their outlook was, “Better a live slave than a dead soldier.” That’s not universally true, of course: it depends on who the Master is. But in this case, it was definitely the right call. Being a live slave to Yahweh is better than, well, anything.
As we know, the tabernacle represents the plan of Yahweh for our redemption—the porpoise-skin roof covering being one of a hundred little details conspiring to tell us what was on Yahweh’s mind. The temple that replaced the tabernacle in Solomon’s day, although based on the same layout and proportions as the original wilderness sanctuary, lost something in the translation. For example, the roof no longer consisted of a four-layered covering, of which the porpoise hides were the outermost stratum. Thus it’s the tabernacle, not the temple, that embodies the most thorough symbolic description of Yahweh’s intentions toward us. The record describes quite a bit about Solomon’s design for the temple, but virtually nothing about Yahweh’s instructions concerning it. As a matter of fact, Yahweh never commanded that the temple be built at all—He merely allowed it because of the overwhelming enthusiasm of His servant David.
So even though Jerusalem—the city of David—was destined to become the spiritual focal point of the whole world, it might be instructive to enquire as to where the tabernacle was stationed before the temple was built. It was at Gibeon (see I Chronicles 16:39-40, etc.) Call me overly excitable, but I find that significant. The town that had been saved through the desperate plea of doomed but repentant men saying, “If you’ll spare our lives, we’ll serve you and your God forever,” became the last functional home of the tabernacle of Yahweh—the unabridged symbolic expression of Yahweh’s mercy and grace. Thank you, men of Gibeon.
Shoes were part of the imagery God had employed when He first introduced Himself to Moses. “And the angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When Yahweh saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ And he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:2-6) Note several things here. First, Yahweh provided a spectacle designed to attract Moses’ attention, but He didn’t force him to turn aside to investigate. It was only after Moses had sought an answer that God called to him out of the bush. Second, Yahweh addressed Moses by name, even though there was nobody else around. Names (including His own) are important to our God: we are known to Him personally, by name, and He would like us to return the favor. We’re not statistics, or worse, subjects. We’re His children. Third, Yahweh instructed Moses to remove his sandals, the reason being that he was standing on “holy ground,” that is, a place set apart from the surrounding area for Yahweh’s honor and glory.
As usual, I asked myself why. What is it about removing one’s sandals on holy ground that could possibly be construed as being more respectful than leaving them on? It’s not as if God had installed white carpet and He wanted to keep it clean, or anything like that. So, why? We could just “cop out” and say, “God’s world, God’s rules.” That’s true, of course: Yahweh has every right to tell us what to do. But perhaps there’s more to it than this. If we follow the symbolic trail—that porpoise skins (or the shoes made from them) signify concealment—we realize that by asking Moses to take off his sandals, God was asking him to remove whatever it was that stood between them, concealing them from each other, keeping them apart, insulating them from one another. Yahweh wanted to get close to Moses, to get “inside his head,” to communicate with Him on a visceral level. So He asked the shepherd to remove his sandals. Subsequent history tells us that it apparently worked just as God had intended.
There may be more to this than mere symbology, by the way. My wife’s doctor has lately been telling her of the benefits of standing barefoot on the ground outdoors. This isn’t some silly new age feng shui sort of thing—the doc is a Christian who makes it a point to stay attuned to what Yahweh has revealed about our health. Apparently, there are health benefits to be gained through being directly connected to the earth’s magnetic field by merely standing uninsulated upon the ground. Studies have linked such “grounding” to improvement in inflammation-related disorders, chronic pain, sleep disorders, low energy levels, high stress, muscle tension, headache relief, hormonal issues, and menstrual problems. Like deriving the benefits of Vitamin D from sunshine (instead of pills), the medical establishment can’t really see it. But the results speak for themselves.
When we’re talking about concealment, the question should always be raised, “Concealed from what?” Being hidden or insulated from God is a bad thing, but we see hints in scripture that His care for us includes concealing or protecting us from the world—not the “holy ground” of the burning bush, but the destructive influence of man’s idolatries and apostasies—through our footwear. Within a lengthy figurative description of how Yahweh called Israel and blessed her richly, only to see her grow proud and utterly betray Him, He says, “I also clothed you with embroidered cloth and put sandals of porpoise skin on your feet; and I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk. I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck. I also put a ring in your nostril, earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your dress was of fine linen, silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you,” declares the Lord Yahweh.” (Ezekiel 16:10-14 NASB) Israel didn’t have to get her feet dirty as she pranced through her life. She had been given porpoise-skin sandals to cover her feet, protecting them from the falsehood of the world. In her closet was the white linen garment of imputed righteousness, and in her jewelry box was the gold of God’s immutable purity, and silver: the price of her redemption. All she had to do is put it on. In her kitchen was the fine flour of Yahweh’s constant provision, the honey of the good life He had made possible, and the oil of the Holy Spirit. All she had to do was partake. But she would not.
In the parable of the prodigal son, Yahshua explains the difference between Israel—that is, the privileged firstborn son in the story—and the profligate younger son, symbolic of the largely gentile church. Upon reaching the end of his rope and returning in shame and remorse to his home, the prodigal threw himself on the mercy of his father, begging him (like the Gibeonites of old) to spare him from the death he had earned in the world and instead make him a bondslave in his father’s house. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” Well, that was true enough. Amazingly, however, the father didn’t exactly see it that way. “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:21-24) The father (that is, The Father, Yahweh) may have been thinking, “There will be plenty of time for service, My son. Right now, we have more important things to do—celebrating your return from death and preparing you for your coming role as My restored son.” He needed to be nourished (and remember, the calf or ox symbolizes service, and you are what you eat). He needed to be dressed properly in the robe of God’s imputed righteousness, and authorized to represent his Father in the world (which is the significance of the ring). And he needed to be shod with something that would protect his feet as he walked the earth. As Paul would put it, “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day…. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” (Ephesians 6:13-15) The restored son’s new shoes were intended (as had been Israel’s, as we saw above) to cover and conceal his feet, defending them from the world’s temptations and pitfalls. There had already been quite enough of that as the prodigal son had stumbled barefoot through his disastrous life. It was time for a change, and both Father and son knew it.
If the prodigal son had been of a mind to serve, he had come to the right place. In the Father’s (i.e., Yahweh’s) house, serving one another is the order of the day. One of the most menial tasks a servant could be assigned, I suppose, would have been washing the feet of others. But John the Baptist—a charismatic and influential person in his own right—felt himself utterly unworthy of even this lowly task when confronted with Yahweh’s Messiah: “And [John] preached, saying, ‘After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” (Mark 1:7-8) Christ’s prophesied baptism of His followers with the Holy Spirit—something that was so significant it was marked by the fourth (and central) holy convocation in Yahweh’s annual cycle, the Feast of Weeks, a.k.a. Shavuot or Pentecost—was, in John’s estimation, something that would elevate Yahshua to unprecedented heights of honor and glory. Washing His feet might perhaps be a proper job for kings or emperors (John may have thought), not for lowly locust-munching prophets. What a shock it must have been, then, for Yahshua’s disciples (several of whom had previously followed John) to be a party to this scene: “Jesus…rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around His waist. Then He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around Him.” (John 13:4-5) Not only was this a stunning practical demonstration of how we are all to serve one another in utter humility, it was one more example of the necessary removal of that which “conceals” our walk in the presence of Almighty God—symbolized by porpoise-leather sandals.
The shoe was on the other foot, so to speak, when Peter found himself in prison for having had the temerity of telling the truth in the face of powerful liars. When the world gains the upper hand, we need to have something substantial on our feet. “Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, ‘Dress yourself and put on your sandals.’ And he did so. And he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’” (Acts 12:6-8) Peter was dreaming happily about being rescued, though any normal man would have been sleepless and terrified. It’s kind of funny if you think about it. The angel had to give him a sharp whack in the ribs to shake him out of his serene reverie. The peace of God can be like that: it mattered not at all to Peter that he was probably going to be crucified the next day. His conscience was clear. But God had other ideas—ideas that included the apostle’s having to wade through the world’s filth a bit longer. He’d need to put on his shoes for the job at hand.
One more “shoe anecdote” bears mention. Yahshua sent His disciples out to minister to the lost sheep of Israel, giving them instructions that I believe will be even more directly applicable to the 144,000 Tribulation witnesses of Revelation 7 and 14. He told them, “Proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals [extra sandals, is the implication—just whatever you’ve got on your feet right now] nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.” (Matthew 10:7-10) Yahshua says (in so many words), “Don’t bother going the missions board and raising support. Don’t prepare. Don’t even pack. Just get out there and tell folks that the kingdom of heaven is upon them. Right now! I know who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it—and I will provide whatever you need, when you need it. As with the Israelites in the wilderness, you won’t have to worry about what you’re going to eat, how you’re going to protect yourself, or even about your shoes wearing out as you walk through the world on my behalf. My grace and provision are sufficient for the task I’ve assigned for you to do.”
The picture that’s emerging, then, is that when we’re in the presence of God, the shoes need to come off, but when we’re treading through the world, we’d best keep ’em on. At the moment, our God is keeping His distance (much to my chagrin). His point in doing this, of course, is to allow mankind maximum latitude in making their own decisions about whom to serve—of exercising their free will unhindered by His unavoidably intimidating personal presence. There’s plenty of evidence of His love and provision, if only we’ll open our eyes. And we also have His written word—now translated into virtually every language on the face of the globe—to inform us of those elements of God’s message that are, shall we say, less than specific in nature. But the time is coming, and soon, unless I miss my guess, when God’s personal presence—in the form of the glorious reigning Yahshua—will render shoes obsolete, figuratively anyway. Our world will be more like Eden than it’s been in an age—a place and time when shoes were neither worn nor needed. Perhaps Tolkien’s innocent shoeless Hobbits will serve as role models. Mordor won’t stand forever; of that I am certain.
(First published 2014)