One of the best known Bible stories is that of Noah’s ark (Genesis 6:1-8:19). After informing Noah of the coming apocalypse (Genesis 6:13), God provided him with specific instructions regarding how to construct the ark (Genesis 6:14-16). God actually told Noah about the ark before revealing details that seem more pertinent - that a flood was coming (Genesis 6:17) and that he and his family would be spared, the remnant responsible for repopulating the earth (Genesis 6:18). (No pressure in that assignment...). One of the first instructions Noah received was to coat the massive box he was to build with pitch, inside and out (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)Most modern translations render the Hebrew word kaphar as “pitch” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), though some paraphrases interpret “tar” (CEV, NLT). Pitch is a black glutinous substance that belongs to the same family as asphalt and bitumen. In fact, the Latin Vulgate translates the word bitumine and the Greek Septuagint uses asphaltos, both obvious cognates.
The source of this pitch has sparked debate. Today, pitch is most commonly the residue produced when coal tar is heated or distilled. Proponents of a young earth assert that the pitch was not derived from oil or coal but rather from gum based resins extracted from pine trees. For centuries pitch was manufactured by distilling or heating wood and Noah had access to a lot of lumber in constructing the massive floating box. (It is from this method of making pitch that North Carolina gets its nickname, the “Tar Heel State”.) Opponents counter that bitumen and other petroleum-based byproducts were plentiful in Noah’s region and that bitumen would have been far easier to procure as it has been found in pools and could have been quickly consolidated into a bucket, not to mention easier to apply.
The same method was used to protect another prominent Old Testament figure. R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) reminds, “The Hebrew word for ‘ark’ was used in Genesis to refer to Noah’s ship. The only other place that Hebrew word appears in the Old Testament is in Exodus 2:3, 5 when it is translated ‘basket’ — the basket into which Moses’ mother placed him to drift down the Nile. Just as the great pitch-covered ark/basket preserved Noah and his family from a watery death, so the tiny pitch-covered ark/basket preserved Moses (cf. Genesis 6:14 and Exodus 2:3) (Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (Preaching the Word), 133).”
The pitch coating was just one of eight details the text provides in recounting the remarkably precise design of the ark (Genesis 6:14-16). Claus Westermann (1909-2000) notes, “The eight pieces of information, one of which...is incomprehensible, are not sufficient to permit a detailed reconstruction, which is often attempted; not even the number of rooms is given. However, we have a general idea of the ark: a huge, rectangular box with a roof divided into rooms. Genesis 6:14-16...[is] not based on any systematic plan of construction as has been proposed...any such would be unusable...The details of the commission to build the ark develop out of the unique function it is meant to fulfil; they are to be understood only in this context. Each particular detail serves to emphasize the uniqueness of the construction (Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary, 418).”
Gerhard Von Rad (1901-1971) explains, “Behind the strange precision in the directions for building the ark, and later in the actual Flood account, behind the precise dates and measurements, there is both certainty of the absolute concreteness and reality of God’s activity and an effort to depict God’s activity, his commands, and movements with as much theological objectivity as possible (Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 127).”
Why do you think God told Noah of the ark before mentioning the flood? Why was the double coating of pitch, both inside and out, advised? Have you ever covered anything in pitch? What safety measures have you taken to waterproof your home?
Many have seen the pitch used in the ark as symbolic of a greater protection. Genesis 6:14 marks the first time the word kaphar is used in Scripture. Its simplest meaning is “to cover”. It is used 102 times in the Old Testament yet this passage represents the only time the King James Version (KJV) translates it “pitch”. In 73 of its 102 uses, the KJV renders the word“atonement”.
John MacArthur (b. 1939) expounds:
“That word (kapher) in Hebrew is exactly the same word translated ‘atonement.’ It can be either...In the ark of safety, the pitch kept the waters of judgment out. And the pitch in the life of believers is the blood of Christ, which secures us from any judgment. The pitch in the ark was what kept the water out, and the blood of Christ seals the believer from the flood of God’s judgment.” (MacArthur, The Keys to Spiritual Growth: Unlocking the Riches of God, 58)Our eternal atonement was provided by the blood of Jesus which provided a covering for sin. “Love covers a multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8 NASB).
Have you accepted God’s loving atonement?
“The beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity.” - Lord Byron (1788-1824)