Gopher Wood: The Mystery of the Ark’s Timber

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When we started building the Ark Encounter, people frequently asked, “Are you building the Ark out of the same thing Noah did?” I would typically respond by saying, “Yes, wood.” They would inevitably follow up with a clarification. “No, I mean, are you building it out of gopher wood?”

Well, that’s a difficult question to answer because it requires us to properly identify gopher wood (or gopherwood in some Bibles).

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. (Genesis 6:14)
“Gopher” is not named for the animal of the same name; it is simply a transcription of the Hebrew word גֹּפֶר.

“Gopher” is not named for the animal of the same name; it is simply a transcription1 of the Hebrew word גֹּפֶר. And since the term is a hapax legomenon, meaning it appears only one time in Scripture, we cannot look at other contexts to help us identify it. Since the Bible does not provide enough information for us to make such a determination, we simply have no way of knowing what gopher wood is today. It is likely safe to assume that gopher wood was identifiable when Moses wrote Genesis; otherwise both he and his audience would not have understood what the term meant. But whether this kind of tree is still around today is unknown.

Do not simply take my word for it. Look at what the leading lexical reference works have to say about this term.

  • The Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT) indicates that the word is only found in Genesis 6:14 and has only this to say about it: “unknown species of tree used for building the ark.”2
  • Cline’s Dictionary of Classical Hebrew states that the term refers to “wood from which Noah’s ark was constructed,” and adds that it was perhaps cypress.3 But this massive eight-volume dictionary provides no support to bolster the supposition that it may have been cypress.
  • The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis describes the term as simply an “unknown wood.”4

The leading commentaries do not help us get any closer to positively identifying gopher wood. For example, Wenham wrote the following in his commentary on Genesis:

“Gopher” (גפר). The word occurs only here in the OT. The identity of this tree is uncertain. Tg. Onq. [Targum Onqelos] understands it to be “cedar,” whereas LXX [the Septuagint] translates it “squared” timber, and Vg [Latin Vulgate], “smoothed” timber. Modern commentators usually suppose some sort of conifer suitable for shipbuilding must be meant.5

Derek Kidner offers the following information in his commentary:

Nothing certain is known about gopher wood, a name found only here: LXX’s ‘square timber’ is a guess; a more plausible conjecture is ‘cypress’ (Moffatt, von Rad, etc.).6

We will consider the Septuagint’s translation in more detail after checking a couple more commentaries. The highly respected twentieth-century Jewish scholar E. A. Speiser had only this to say about gopher wood in his commentary.

The timber in question has not been identified.7

Finally, Andrew Steinmann agrees with the above statements in writing the following:

Gopher wood is mentioned only here in the Old Testament. It probably refers to a type of cedar or pine.8
We cannot assume that since the ark landed on the mountains of Ararat that the trees growing in that region today are the same types that would have been available to Noah before the flood.

Many other commentaries making the same point could be cited. Those that offer cypress, cedar, or some other pine are merely guessing based on what lumber might have been suitable for building a large wooden vessel. In some cases, we need to consider whether these guesses are influenced by the unbiblical assumptions that the flood was merely a regional event and that Noah built the ark in the same region in which it landed. Many Christians do not seem to recognize how such a view is incompatible with Scripture. The Genesis flood covered the entire globe, and the pre-flood world perished (2 Peter 3:6). Thus, we cannot assume that since the ark landed on the mountains of Ararat that the trees growing in that region today are the same types that would have been available to Noah before the flood.

Before giving up on trying to identify this wood, we need to consider two alternative ideas that have been suggested.

Gopher Wood as Squared Timbers?

The Septuagint (LXX) is a Greek translation of the Old Testament begun roughly two-and-a-half centuries before Christ’s earthly ministry, and it was commonly used by Christians and Jews in the first few centuries. Here is how it translates the statement:

ποίησον οὖν σεαυτῷ κιβωτὸν ἐκ ξύλων τετραγώνων.

The translation of this statement is rather straightforward. Keeping the same word order as the Greek, these words can be translated as: make therefore for yourself a box/chest out of wood/timbers squared/rectangular. Or as we might put it in English, “Therefore, make for yourself a chest of squared timbers.”

The LXX is often helpful when trying to discover the meaning of Hebrew terms, but in this case, it does not seem to offer much assistance.

The LXX is often helpful when trying to discover the meaning of Hebrew terms, but in this case, it does not seem to offer much assistance. For example, the word translated in English as “ark” is κιβωτὸν, but this same word is used in the Greek New Testament to speak of the “ark of the covenant” (Hebrews 9:4, Revelation 11:19). That may not seem like an important point, but in the Hebrew Scriptures, the ark (tēbâ, pronounced tāy-vah) Noah built is never referred to by the same word used for the ark (’arōn) of the covenant built by Bezalel under Moses. The latter was a small box, while the former was a massive ship. This conflation of terms in both Greek and English may be one of the reasons why people mistakenly claim that the Hebrew word for Noah’s ark must refer to a box-shaped object.

There is no way for us to know at present whether the “timbers squared” of the LXX is an accurate translation of the Hebrew text, which technically refers to “trees of gopher.” The word can also refer to sticks or logs. Perhaps the LXX translators were privy to reliable sources to support this interpretation, but such materials are not available to researchers today.

The LXX translators apparently assumed the word “gopher” referred to lumber that had already been cut and processed, whereas the Hebrew text seems to refer to a certain kind of tree. The word order in Hebrew states that Noah’s ark was to be made from “trees of gopher.” This Hebrew construction, called a construct chain, makes the noun “gopher” function essentially as an adjective. This word order reflects the way the Old Testament frequently refers to trees that were used for construction purposes (note, our English translations usually reverse the order for a more natural reading). Moses was instructed to construct the ark of the covenant from the “trees of acacia” (Exodus 25:10, 13). King Solomon made the doors to the temple’s inner sanctuary and the two large cherubim on the walls therein from “trees of olive” (1 Kings 6:23–31). When simply speaking of the trees themselves rather than the wood from the tree being used for construction, the Old Testament usually just identifies the tree. For example, 1 Kings 10:27 mentions both cedar and sycamore. It does not speak of trees of cedar and trees of sycamore. Thus, it would be consistent to view the “trees of gopher” as a reference to the type of tree being used for the ark’s construction rather than a reference to some sort of process or treatment performed on the lumber.

Gopher Wood: A Connection to Brimstone?

The Hebrew word translated as brimstone is gofrit (גָּפְרִית). The first three consonants of this term (g-p-r) match the Hebrew consonants in gopher. This has led some people to think that gopher is the root of gofrit, implying that the two terms would likely have similar meanings. For example, the Jewish Encyclopedia’s article on gopher wood cites Paul de Lagarde, who proposed that gopher and gofrit are related and connected with sulfur because “of the likeness in appearance which sulfur bears to pine-resin.”9 Regarding this idea and other modern efforts to identify gopher wood, the article states that, as a rule, these claims are arbitrary and unsatisfactory.

Recently, a creationist publication repeated this notion that gopher and gofrit are related. In this case, the authors state, “Gôpher is actually a root of the word גֹפֶרית or gophrîth, which is translated seven times in the Old Testament as ‘brimstone’ in the context of God’s fiery judgment on human wickedness.”10

There are multiple problems with this assertion, and consequently the points the authors derive from it (discussed below) are dubious at best. First, in the Hebrew language, a noun typically does not become the root of another noun. Hebrew nouns are normally built on verbal roots, and as far as we can tell, neither gopher nor gafrit are derived from Hebrew terms. HALOT suggests that gofrit is a loan word from a non-Semitic language or perhaps an Eastern Semitic language like Akkadian. Loan words do not usually have roots in the final language. Second, gopher is a masculine noun. How could it possibly be the root of the feminine noun gofrit? The “-it” ending is not a Hebrew suffix: it is part of the word. This point alone essentially rules out the possibility of gopher being the root of gofrit. Third, although there is no known etymological connection between these terms, it would be possible that they were related conceptually if the known meanings of the terms overlapped. However, as best as we can tell, the semantic ranges of these terms do not overlap at all. Thus, there is no justification for linking these two terms.

This article attempted to make a couple of theological points based on the authors’ misunderstanding of these terms. Consequently, these points fall flat, but they are addressed here because they attempt to describe characteristics of gopher wood. The article went on to make the following claim about gopher wood:

For all practical purposes, God is speaking a scientific truth to Noah in telling him to use a form of plant material with sulphur-bearing lignin. Furthermore, since the word “wood” (i.e., “tree” or “timber”) in gopher wood is the plural form of the Hebrew עץ (‘êṣ), this fits well with the fact that wooden ships are typically built of many types of hardwood. Some woods work well for the ship’s hull, while others are used for support structures, deck planking, and other features—yet all would be sulphur-bearing tree kinds.11

As shown above, there is no justification for linking gopher with “brimstone,” and so the entire discussion about its supposed connection with sulfur is unwarranted. Furthermore, we have shown that gopher was very likely a particular kind of tree rather than a class of hardwoods containing “sulphur-bearing lignin.” And the most likely reason that the word is plural is that it was going to take more than one of them to make the ark. That is, Noah was to make it out of “trees of gopher.”

Finally, this article discussed the Hebrew terms translated as the “pitch” that Noah was to use to “cover” the ark (Genesis 6:14) and stated that the words are related to each other. The word for pitch is kopher, and it is a noun based on the verbal root kpr. The word kaphar is the Qal stem of the verb kpr, meaning “to cover.” (In the Piel stem, the verb conveys the meaning “to atone.” Thus, it is used to speak of atoning sacrifices in that they “cover” the sins of people.)

While homonyms are fairly common in English, they are even more prevalent in Hebrew.

The Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon cites the noun kopher as occurring 17 times—10 of the references having something to do with ransom (8) and satisfaction (2). It provides three other definitions as well. However, leading academic lexicons like HALOT and Clines give this word four separate entries, making it clear that this is not one word with four separate meanings. Instead, these are four distinct homonyms, separate words with identical spelling. In English, we use the term bat for a wooden object used to hit a baseball or for a flying mammal of the same name. While homonyms are fairly common in English, they are even more prevalent in Hebrew. These four words are commonly translated as pitch (Genesis 6:14), bribe or ransom (Exodus 21:30), henna blossoms (Song of Solomon 1:14), and open village (1 Samuel 6:18). As mentioned before, Hebrew nouns are usually derived from verbal roots. In this case, nouns based on the verb “to cover” (kaphar) can be formed to refer to anything that covers something else. Thus, connections between the first two words (pitch and bribe/ransom) and kaphar are easy to see. The pitch covered the ark. A bribe or ransom covers a debt.

Any relationship of the latter two nouns (henna blossoms and open village) to kaphar is rather dubious. The henna blossoms might have originally referred to the dye made from this plant that was then used to coat or cover a person’s nails or dye their hair, but this seems to be quite a stretch. It is likely a loan word. The word translated as village (1 Samuel 6:18) is almost certainly a loan word, which would mean that it is unrelated to the Hebrew verb kaphar. This is further borne out by the fact that the word in 1 Samuel 6:18 appears to be an alternate spelling of the term found in Joshua 18:24, 1 Chronicles 27:25, and Song of Solomon 7:12. Even if a connection between these words and kaphar exists, neither of these terms is theologically significant.

Even if some or all of these nouns were derived from the same verb, it would not follow that the meanings of these nouns are connected. Let’s look at an example in English to see why it is a mistake to base theological speculations on purported etymological connections.

Consider the word cross. This term can carry profound spiritual truth, especially when referring to Christ’s atoning work. Although it is taken from the Latin word crux, it has developed into a verb, noun, and adjective in English with several different meanings for each. For example, a cross (angry) person might cross (move from one side to another) a room to hit someone with a right cross (a type of punch). These words have very different meanings, but they were almost certainly derived from the same term.12 Obviously, we should not connect the spiritual significance of the Lord’s atoning work on the cross to every occurrence of cross. The same point can be made even when the word is closely related to the primary meaning. For example, each thief crucified with Jesus had his own cross (John 19:31–32), and Jesus said that each of his followers should “take up his cross daily” (Luke 9:23). The crosses that the thieves were on are identical in meaning to the cross Jesus died on. However, when we speak of the cross of Christ, we are not usually referring to the actual cross itself, but to the completed sacrifice made by the Son of God for our sins. And the cross that Jesus commands each of his followers to take up is not necessarily a physical cross to die on but rather the difficulties and challenges that every believer will face.

Even though we might think of conceptual connections between homonyms and other words that look to be related, we must be careful about infusing words with spiritual significance if the text does not warrant it. In the case of the ark’s pitch, the word simply refers to a covering of pitch, bitumen, or similar substance, and it should not be conflated with the covering of sins.

The authors of this article commit the errors mentioned above and then reach a conclusion they believe carries deep spiritual truth. “The very materials used in the construction of the Ark not only convey protection from the judgment of the floodwaters but a deeper layer of meaning in the protection against a sulphurous fiery judgment in the afterlife.” However, since both of these ideas are flawed, we should not endorse such a conclusion. We can certainly view the ark as a picture of salvation in that it shows us God’s protection from judgment—the ark provided temporary protection from physical death while Christ’s cross provides eternal salvation for those who believe in him. But we cannot rightly conclude that the Hebrew terms for gopher wood and pitch imply “a deeper layer of meaning in the protection against a sulphurous fiery judgment in the afterlife.” These layers of meaning are not found in the text but are invented, albeit with good intentions, by those seeking to infuse deeper spiritual truths even though such things are unwarranted and unnecessary.

Conclusion

The truth is, we are not presently capable of identifying gopher wood with any degree of certainty, and there is a possibility that gopher wood referred to a kind of tree that is now extinct.

The truth is, we are not presently capable of identifying gopher wood with any degree of certainty, and there is a possibility that gopher wood referred to a kind of tree that is now extinct. Short of finding the actual ark, which almost certainly does not exist anymore, having been lost to decay over millennia, it may not be possible for us to determine what type of wood Noah used to build it.

Any wood suitable for building a large ship is a plausible candidate for gopher wood. Whatever gopher wood was, we know that Noah used it to construct the ark and that God faithfully protected the ark’s inhabitants. Oh, and getting back to the original question about whether we used gopher wood to build the ark at the Ark Encounter—if Engelmann spruce or Douglas fir happen to be descended from that mysterious lumber, then yes, we built at least some of our ark out of gopher wood.

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Footnotes

  1. Though similar, transcription and transliteration are often confused. Transcription is the process by which a word from one language is brought into another based on phonetics (i.e., how the word sounds). The goal is to make it easy to read in the target language and pronounce it in essentially the same way as spoken in the original language. By contrast, transliteration is generally more technical because each letter or character in the source language is converted to another letter or character in the target language. For example, while gopher is the English transcription of גֹּפֶר, the English transliteration of this word would be gōp̄ěr
  2. Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 200.
  3. David J. A. Clines, ed., The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press; Sheffield Phoenix Press, 1993–2011), 372.
  4. Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 889.
  5. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1987), 172–173. Targum Onqelos is a Jewish writing in Aramaic that is usually dated to the second century AD.
  6. Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 1, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967), 95.
  7. E. A. Speiser, Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 1, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 52.
  8. Andrew E. Steinmann, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, ed. David G. Firth, vol. 1, The Tyndale Commentary Series (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2019), 93.
  9. Emil G. Hirsch and Henry Hyvernat, “Gopher wood” in The Jewish Encyclopedia. Available at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6808-gopher-wood.
  10. Jeffrey P. Tomkins and James J. S. Johnson, “Scientific and Biblical Truth Converge for Gopher Wood,” Acts & Facts. 48, no. 5 (2019), available at https://www.icr.org/article/scientific-biblical-truth-converge-gopher-wood.
  11. Ibid. The article proceeds to build on this mistaken claim to proclaim that God included deep spiritual truths about his judgment and protection in the ark’s building materials of gopher wood and pitch.
  12. The adjectival form in the example (angry) is likely based on being opposed to something, which was taken from the way the two beams of a cross are opposed to one another. Similarly, the verbal form has to do with moving to the opposite side of something. And the noun (punch) is given that name because the dominant hand crosses over the leading hand.

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