In one of the Bible’s most well known stories, God saves Noah and his family from a cataclysmic flood by having Noah construct an ark (Genesis 6-8). As the vessel was the first of its kind, God lays out very specific instructions for the ark detailing the building materials, its dimensions and its cargo. Among the ark’s unique features was being constructed from gopher wood (Genesis 6:14).
Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch. (Genesis 6:14 NASB)This is the only time that gopher wood appears in the Bible and no one is quite sure what it is. Its name does not in any way relate to the burrowing North American rodents of the same name but rather is a transliteration of the Hebrew gopher. Some have speculated that gopher is a borrowed word from another language or the work of a careless scribe who meant to write kopher (covering or pitch). The word is literally meaningless today. As it cannot be identified with any certainty many translations simply leave it untranslated (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV, RSV).
Some translations make a guess. “Cypress wood” is the most common (NIV, NLT, NRSV) though the Message supplies “teakwood”. Cypress was often used by ship builders of the time. Cypress trees are large and strong and as such could potentially withstand the beating the ark would inevitably take. This interpretation was espoused by Adam Clarke (1760-1832) who found similarity in the Greek word for cypress, kuparisson, and the Hebrew word gopher. Unfortunately there is a unique Hebrew word for cypress (b@rowsh) that could have just as easily been used.
Though Cypress is the most common guess amongst translators, it is far from the only hypothesis. Other trees and plants suggested include pine (Cassuto), cedar, fir, ebony (Bockart), wicker (Geddes), juniper (Castellus), acacia (Religious Tract Society), boxwood, and slimed bulrushes (Dawson). Others have speculated that gopher wood is it an extinct tree that ironically did not survive the flood.
What is not in doubt is that, unlike modern ships, the ark was constructed of wood. Something (trees) died so that humanity might live.
If you had to construct an edifice to protect you from a flood, what building materials would you use? Why do you think God selected gopher wood? What do you think it was? Does it matter what kind of wood the ark was built with?
It was critical that the ark’s inhabitants survive the flood as the fate of humanity (and much animal life) literally rested in the ark. Consequently, John H. Walton (b. 1952) and Victor H. Matthews (b. 1951) assume “This is an unknown type of material, although it undoubtedly refers to some sort of coniferous tree thought to possess great strength and durability (Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy, 27).”
Others have seen gopher as a quality of timber or design as opposed to a type of wood. Ideally, a wooden ship is not constructed entirely from a single species. This is seen as modern wooden vessels are more likely to employ a variety of materials. The CEV takes this safe route and translates gopher wood simply as “good lumber”.
The ark was nothing less than the barrier between life death and God selected the wood to ensure that the people would live.
What is your barrier between life and death? Can your insulation withstand life’s pressures?